The idea had been clear enough: write an article describing, in some loosely defined way, the impact of four albums produced by Dave Fridmann between 1999 and 2002. It would be a way in to examining the impact of those pivotal albums on the music of the 21st Century; a neat little historical packaging, all tidied up and bubble-wrapped. Maybe – my vague, project-starting brain told me – some wider social commentary would emerge.
And then I went off and listened again, back to back, to those albums: Deserter’s Songs, The Soft Bulletin, It’s A Wonderful Life, Hate. I listened, I read through the lyrics, I found all the reviews and interviews I could find, and my super-simple essay concept began to fall apart.
Something had changed. These weren’t the albums I first heard twenty years ago. The more I listened, the more I began to question whether I’d ever actually listened to them. I tried listening on different equipment, in different locations, in different moods. Still the nagging doubt persisted, indeed grew. As I unpicked the listening experience, the fault – if fault it were – began to clarify. The noise in the system lay, not in the albums themselves, nor in my slightly dodgy old ears, but in the ensuing years. Something hadn’t changed: everything had.
There could be no going back.
It sounds from the above as if there were some smooth process of realisation involved. That’s not how it happened. It came in a eureka moment. No: eureka is wrong. It sounds joyous. This epiphany manifest in tears (fought back: I was in company). You’ve got to realise, even now this is complicated and confusing. Isn’t that the way with things? You start with a simple idea, and before you know it, you are beneath a twenty year waterfall of words, trying to catch the right ones as they cascade around you. Well, here goes. Without some constraints this could stretch on into infinity. Four songs should do it. Let’s keep it brief: there’s only one lifetime.
Song 1: 1999
From the album Deserter’s Songs
Single Released summer 1999
Album released autumn 1998
Produced by Dave Fridmann, Aaron Hurwitz, Jonathan Donahue
one wants to say
like, what’s the day
like, out there –
who am I
You wander through the streets of central London, and name them into your memory: Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Old Compton Street, Greek Street, Soho Square, Frith Street, Dean Street, Cambridge Circus. Through tiny plastic headphones, an album you have just bought transports you to New York. Not the movie New York of Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens, though. This is the New York which starts at Irving Washington and keeps on moving upstate. You hear loons on the Finger Lakes, the roar of distant Niagara. You see the bridges around Buffalo, a roadside café just off Interstate 87. You can smell the humid forests of the Adirondaks and then the same forests of the Catskills. All the while you try to block out the traffic, narrowly avoiding being run over of Shaftesbury Avenue, by the Curzon Cinema. The music builds and memories of places you have never visited flood back.
This is the start of it all: the first song on the first album. The things you thought were certain will slip away, even memory, even forgetting. All of it is fickle. Nothing will remain, not even regret. “How does that old song go?”
Would it be easier to give up, to stop striving after success and fame and to just be? It would be like sitting back on your sofa and staring off into space, not focussing on anything. There’d be a haze for a while, nothing would make sense anymore. All those old certainties would start to tumble, one after the next. Pretty soon, there’d be nothing left: just a fuzzy, peripheral vision – almost blank. There would be nowhere else to go. You wouldn’t know it at the time, but that’s the state you needed to get to. Take it all back to an empty page, and just let whatever is out there start writing for you.
This music emerged. The bewildering simplicity – the same four chords; the startled, starchild voice; the children’s storybook-tinged lyrics; instruments introduced, one by one – overwhelm you, in a way no music had before. They had magic, and deep magic at that. By the time you reached the British Museum, the horn solo sends you scurrying off in search of a past which could never have been yours. It’s not nostalgia, but the idea of nostalgia. It is the grip of loss and of wistfulness. It is a tree felled in a distant forest, to which, somehow, you were attached. You didn’t know it at the time, but things had changed.
Song 2: 1999
Waitin’ For A Superman (Is It Gettin’ Heavy??)
The Flaming Lips
From the album The Soft Bulletin
Released summer 1999
Album recorded between 1997 and 1999
Produced by Dave Fridmann, Scott Booker and The Flaming Lips
(additional remix by Peter Mokran)
Released as a single October 1999
Let’s get the descriptions out of the way. Even those are going to be tough.
It’s in a major key, although it sounds anything but. There are modal elements at work here, even the rising cadences play against the prevailing mood. The drums, far more than the melodic or harmonic components, set the tone. This is a funeral march, a hymn to grief, complete with military snare and booming, reverberating bass drum. Steven Drozd is a singularly expressive drummer (as he is on pretty much anything musical he touches). In his hands, this march scatters and shatters without ever losing impetus. I can think of few other songs in which the drums sound so aching, so beautiful.
For a producer known for his epic, multi-layered soundscapes (and The Soft Bulletin is up there with the most epic and most multi-layered of his career), Superman is Fridmann in paired back mode here. Beyond the drums, the track is mainly piano driven, all block chords and sparse melodic lines, which provides a bedrock for the vocals. Each section is introduced by a subtle tubular bell sound, which further adds to the hymn-like feeling. Background vocals and string/horn synth sounds are heavily echoed and placed far back in the mix, serving to lift the track to its conclusion with churchlike solemnity.
Over it all, Wayne Coyne provides one of the vocal performances of his career. Let’s get this straight: Coyne is not a (conventionally) great singer. His voice has a reedy, Neil Young-ish quality which – especially when trying to be ‘powerful’ – can struggle. On Superman, however, those qualities find their song. He sounds fragile to the point of fractured, all too mortal, but without ever becoming mawkish or miserable. A ‘better’ singer would have smoothed the edges, and this is a rare occasion where the edges are the point. These lyrics demand this voice.
The lyrics. Yep: here’s the drop, and it’s a big one. For a band with eight albums behind them, they had never knowingly taken the direct path, lyrically. There had been moments of levity, for sure. Indeed, in a twisted, surreal way, most of their tracks have an underlying pathos, but the emphasis is firmly on the wordplay, the humour and the disconcerting quirks. The profundity dribbles out the side. Superman is different. Superman packs a punch.
And we’re back. This is where time juts in. This is where the weight of those twenty years crushes down, creating something new from that raw matter of sound and voice. Back in 1999, the world had not experienced 9/11, the war on terror, the great crash. Back in 1999, my parents were still alive. Back in 1999, I could listen to Coyne’s lyrics and could nod along, knowing – in the abstract – what he was driving at, but not really understanding. Not really.
It’s impossible now for me to listen to Waitin’ For A Superman, without having to suppress the tears. The intervening years have brought me a great many things. I am a wiser person, simply by dint of a greater experience. One thing I couldn’t possibly have known back then is how much easier it would have been never to have to understand what this extraordinary, simple, profound song was really about. I do now. I had no choice in the matter. Losing loved ones is an inevitability. It’s a difficult, bordering on the impossible, journey. Having songs to point the way forward, songs written from experience, which don’t gloss but also don’t wallow, makes that road navigable. For a band known for “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Christmas at the Zoo” to write such a song just makes it all the more remarkable.
Song 3: 2001
It’s A Wonderful Life
From the album It’s A Wonderful Life
Released summer 2001
Album recorded between 2000 and 2001
Produced by Dave Fridmann, John Parish and Mark Linkous
It’s 2020 when I’m writing this. We’re past all of that now. Nothing is popular anymore, and music is no exception. Don’t misinterpret this: more people are consuming more things than ever before. None of it, though, is popular. None of it is Pop.
For those of us raised before the great divide, this can be a hard world to navigate. Our reference points have vanished. There’s a personal age element to it, of course, and I have no problem with that. I’d expect and hope for nothing more. But something else is at play, too. The rate of change has sped up, leaving everyone in its wake – and not just individuals. It’s hard to listen to music released even a week ago. We’re just not quick enough anymore.
Like when one of those Facebook posts happens – you know the ones – where someone mourns the loss of someone who died years previous, as if it had just happened, you can sit there wondering if anything had happened for real. The photo album of your life just vanishes. Certainty has gone, truth has gone: no wonder it’s hard to navigate.
There’s an irony then, when I listen to It’s A Wonderful Life, I find an anchor. There’s no nostalgia, no hankering to reclaim a lost world, no settling for a simpler past to be found there. Put as simply as I can: it exists out of time. Mark Linkous – Sparklehorse – always had been one of those rare spirits who never quite seemed to belong. That sounds like I’m shoving him in the box labelled ‘outsider’ and ramming the lid shut. You can forget that nonsense. That presupposes there’s some great ‘inside’, and frankly, who in their right mind would choose a prison like that? The irony, of course, is the creator of this anchor passed in 2010. I listened to it on loop on that March evening ten years ago. It dug itself in deeper each loop.
It’s in triple time and by rights should sound ponderous, a steady ‘one 2 – 3’ chord accompaniment being its most obvious feature. Indeed, as is often the case with Sparklehorse’s output, it ‘should’ sound different. It shouldn’t work as it does. Rather than a lugubrious plod, it floats. Or rather, somehow, it manages to pull of the feat of being both heavy and light simultaneously. It’s a contradiction. This is partly achieved through musical mis-en-scene (crackly ‘dust’ track, tinkling sci-fi synth tweets way back in the mix), partly through the lo-fi broken microphone recording on the voice, and partly through the delivery and musicianship. It’s a heavy track, played lightly. The intimated shift to the relative minor key during the ‘lift’ of the chorus further augments this contradictory mood.
In similar vein, the lyrics should, by rights, make little sense. On the surface they present a disconnected string of animal related analogies and descriptors, applied to the narrator: “I am the only one can ride that horse,” “I’m a bog of poisoned frogs”, etc. As a chorus and for the play-out the title line is repeated. For all the superficial surrealism, the effect is to hover between emotions. It can depend on how you listen, on what you bring to the listening. A detached melancholy one day, a gentle resignation the next, an optimism hidden in there might surface from time to time. On the day his death was announced, the song communicated unequivocal heartbreak.
As I say, nothing these days is Pop.
Song 4: 2002
Coming In From The Cold
From the album Hate
Released September 30th 2002
Album recorded 2000 – 2002
Album released October 2002
Produced by Dave Fridmann, Tony Doogan, The Delgados
A curious thing. You can remember listening to the lead single off The Delgados’ 2002 album ‘Hate’ for the first time. It’s eighteen years ago now, but you remember it clearly. The curious downward sliding guitar melody, followed immediately by Emma Pollock’s request to “Step inside”, and you found yourself transported back. The sound of the song – indeed the album, released a couple of weeks later – had a familiar quality. Four years on from the release of Deserter’s Songs, two years since The Delgados’ own, Mercury Prize nominated, The Great Eastern, and those first few bars returned you, you thought, to similar territory. A new release by one of Scotland’s most important bands also plunged you back a few years further to your time living there. You layered your own nostalgia on that record so thick you hardly heard it at all.
And so, you missed the point.
The curious thing is, you went and followed the song’s advice. You “found a seat and settled in for the ride”. You moved away from London, back off to the country. You settled down. You found a dream job. You found a place to roam. You tried for the right kind of life. You carried the song with you, slipping it on playlists – burnt on to CD, then cued it up on MySpace, and finally on to Spotify. You even dug out a vinyl record player to play the old disc on. The song travelled with you. It haunted you. All the while – humming along, mouthing the words – you missed the point. You never really listened.
For sure, it’s not entirely your fault. Coming in from the Cold is quicksilver. A superficial first listen could leave you with an impression of a somewhat simple production. Certainly, in the context of the album it is seems paired back: primarily vocal led, with a back up of acoustic-ish guitar, drums way back in the mix. But dig further, go back and listen again, and again. Listen with headphones on. The layers, the subtleties, will build on each listen.
You’ll notice the beautifully layered backing vocals, the high sustained keyboard notes, the drum programming, the layers of guitars, the stereo space afforded each component, the way the song plays with the relative major and minor keys. It’s a banger of a single, that’s for sure. The melodic hooks pile one on another, from the curious, sliding guitar picking intro, through to the emphatic phrasing of the chorus. It’s the subtlety, though, which will grab you in the end. They’ll suck you in, dragging you to a world of complexity. You’ll wonder how you missed it all the first time.
If the production weren’t tricksy enough, lyrics too, are hard to definitively pin down. Who is addressing who? The use of second person voice is at the root of the slipperyness. Is this an interior monologue? Is the person addressing them self? It seems not, for the first half, but gradually slides into a more reflective voice, before shifting again into more general statements, with inclusive plural pronouns.
But then, years later, you sift through your old CD collection, looking for potential money spinners, and there it is. It’s been a while since you played it. You listen to those first lines, and you realise, after all these years, how generous the song is. It’s a song about recognising loneliness, and stuck-ness. It doesn’t matter who is being addressed. At some point or other, everyone is lonely, everyone finds them self on the wrong track. You missed all that, being wrapped up in yourself, being stuck in your own rut.
You didn’t know it at the time, but you really should have listened. Curious, that.