Before we move on to today’s member, Andy Kerr, there’s an album that’s most closely associated with bassist/vocal Rob Wright which I felt we had to discuss: One.
One is Nomeansno’s least accessible album. Released in 2000, it is the most purely Rob Wright album and the one that inspires, at best, an ambivalent reaction in most fans. One is also the closest Nomeansno have come to producing a concept album. All the songs on One revolve around depression and the many different effects it can have. Few albums deal with depression as frankly as One does and it’s been unfairly pilloried by Nomeansno listeners for it’s dirge-like qualities.
There is something cold and mechanical about the songs on One. Although the rest of Nomeansno’s albums can be at turns chaotic, sad or funky, One is permeated by a sense of remoteness. A somber atmosphere surrounds all of the songs on One. It’s an album where Nomeansno’s mechanical qualities are bought to the fore and any humour is stripped away from their music. Instead this album presents a very deliberate grind, a pointed use of repetition and a rare extended trip into hopeless grief.
Graveyard Shift is a fantastic opening track, an almost symphonic intro crunches into the one of Nomeansno’s heaviest ever songs. The key to the lyrics is the simplicity. Absent is Rob’s usual use of baroque language and heady representations of evil. Graveyard shift is a straight forward first-person account of a man dwelling on the painful, inevitable end to his last relationship and the solace he finds in his work.
His revelation about the reality of the situation over the course of the three choruses:
“I will never be the same, I will never change”
“You will never be the same you will never change”
“It will never be the same, it will never change “
are all followed with the bitter ” it will be a long time”. A man coming to terms with his lasting sadness. The matter-of-fact description of his job in the last verse is also telling. The job is something reliable, something easy to control and something that lends itself perfectly to his embrace of solitude and darkness:
“I like the graveyard shift It’s quiet, I can read all night I don’t mind wearing a uniform I don’t mind walking in the dark You make your rounds, you check all the locks And when the sun rises, when everyone is getting up You punch out and go home “
Then comes Under The Sea, a song that recalls the jolt of waves with crunching guitar and rushing water with a swirling, churning bass line. A town is washed away in Under The Sea. All through the song the town’s inhabitants repeat their dedication to “hard work and honesty” and their belief that “the righteous will abide”. Under The Sea is about the dangers of faith and how the honourable are punished just a often as anyone else. The Sea is a consistent presence in the music of Nomeansno. All members past and present grew up in Victoria on Vancouver island, a place where you’re probably never more than 3km from the water and which was known, for a long time, as the the End of The World. We will investigate Nomeansno’s relationship with the sea on Friday, hopefully. It should be noted that Under The Sea also contains one of the most beautiful lyrics in rock music:
“Comrade, are those tears I see
Like stars above the Zuider Zee?”
Our Town is about alienation. The lyrics are a description of a place, alternating between its good and bad aspects. This description keeps the same tone throughout though, no special joy is given to the good, no stinging condemnation is reserved for the bad. Everything is recounted with the same, bitter accusatory sneer.
Everything good is an much of an indictment as everything bad. Nothing is innocent. Here we see some sense of Rob’s love of the arcane creeping into One. The town described sounds modern and then suddenly he lets slip “In our town, martyrs, hang in the gallows yard “.
The unreliable narrator is used to great effect here to show how alienation and depression can warp someones world view. At first his disgust seems based in reality but as the song continues we see him grasping for straws, “While Christians smoke their cigarettes “. Depression can turn you into a monster or it can turn you into someone who sees monsters everywhere. Sadly, there is not much difference.
A Little Too High is carefully written to mirror an unpleasant but not entirely nightmarish drug experience. The same nagging two-bar bass line inhabits 95% of the song, the guitar grinds like teeth and the lyrics cover physical discomfort, confidence, fake laughter,aggression an empty, confused orgy. The song makes several moves to peter out but never really ends when you want it to or hope it will. This also seems deliberate.
The stand-out lyrics come early on though, with the familiar image of one person with emotional problems preying on another under the guise of understanding and honesty: “But when we kiss, please don’t look me in the eye When our tongues are twisted, just close them tight Don’t you prefer a bitter taste to a bitter sight? I do”
On first listen, Hello/ Goodbye sounds completely out of place on One. A rapturous, joyous song with soaring, three-part vocals and moment of euphoria. However moment of clarity, of a gloom lifting will be a familiar feeling to those with depression. The feeling that today is the days things will change and the huge over-compensation that can often accompany that. This is the only song on One where we hear the voices of John and Tom clearly, the only song where John’s bass isn’t always so prominent, the only song where other people are viewed in a positive way. Suddenly there’s huge impetus to get involved with other people, contrasted with the isolation and alienation of the rest of the album so far.
Days like this, full of action and realisation of possibility, are often as over-cooked as they appear in the song. Full of aggressively-naive language like “a work of fiction or of fantasy” and heartfelt attempts to include others (“What shall we sing?”), these days are attempts to clean the slate to start again. A conscious effort to notice new things is made (here represented by the keyboard), no matter how odd it may seem. The repeated refrain of “You shall not follow me” is wistful and wishful message to misery and self-indulgence, one increasingly tainted with regret.
There is also forced revelations about one’s past: “a shepherd without sheep,Wait a minute, I see, I see” that one wants to believe will change things while really having been aware of all along. The embrace of a new faith that the occult imagery also suggests is another common method used in attempts to “make things right”.
And then, right back down to craven desperation with The Phone Call. The Phone Call is a weeping song from the psychopaths point of view. His plaintive, consuming apologies are roared into the night . Once you hear”Play along now, keep him on now”, what’s happening is obvious. Someone is keeping a stalker on the line so a call can be traced. The Phone Call casts these policemen as evil hunters, threats to a well-meaning soul. However, there are snatches of pure aggression, threatening to rip his heart out, that lead to his eventual collapse.
Bitch’s Brew is a Miles Davis cover by a punk band. Far from the disaster that implies though, Nomeansno manage to deliver a deft cover of the original while also adding lyrics, which makes the cover sound, tellingly, quite close to something they would write themselves. There’s the same sinister edge, the unstoppable locomotion and building sense of foreboding. The lyrics portrayed a confusion of bar nights, fighting, dominance and the grim declaration that “this has nothing to do with sex”. All characters within, and there are several, repeat that nothing matters but their personal poison, whatever that may be. The highlight is a throwaway piece of bitterness that characterises the boredom and bitterness much of the album conveys so well:
“From the slime, my brain is fine
my brain,my brain, my brain is fine
How’s that for a goddammed coupled rhyme?”
At then, to finish, the album ends with a stoner rock version of Beat On The Brat, which most Nomeansno fans think of as their worst song. Now, it can’t be that Nomeansno don’t understand the Ramones. In the shape of the Hanson Brothers they have come up with the best tribute possible to the Ramones and have been doing it excellently for two decades.
Instead of destroying the song, I prefer to think of this as One’s final exploration of another aspect of depression: all of your favourite music sounding terrible. While a lot of people do claim music cheers them up or creates a feeling of catharsis,`many with depression find that on particularly bad days their favourite music just sounds wrong.
This what One’s version of Beat on The Brat does. It flattens all of the zip and verve of the original, removing any energy from the song and slowing it to a slow plod. All the familiar elements are there but are warped, robbed of life. Even the “oh yeahs” and various non-verbal vocal exclamations, often used by Nomeansno to fantastic effect in their own music, are delivered with a sense of bitter duty, just another brown texture in the mire of this song.
We know Nomeansno, as a group, love and were inspired by the Ramones. We know they understood the Ramones music so innately they incorporated their greatest traits into their own music seamlessly and still had to form a second band to fully express their affection for them.
It’s not hard to give them the benifit of the doubt when it comes to Beat On The Brat. That, instead of being a failed experiment, it is meant to represent how depression can make it impossible to enjoy your favourite things and, even worse, actually make the charm that made you love said things impossible to see. This is fits in logically with Rob Wright’s previously discussed method of writing songs from the point of view of the abyss.
It’s a stark and brutal end to a stark and brutal album, my favourite album of all time.