Songs of Love and Hate

Showing 38 posts tagged Songs of Love and Hate

The Complete Songs of Love and Hate

Alright, and that’s it! (Finally, huh?)

The link above has all theme week entries in chronological order. Many thanks to everybody who’s contributed, read, liked, and re-blogged! You are special.

Incidentally, this has also been week #100. What better way to celebrate than posting lots of diverse, vibrant music writing by some very cool and talented people!?

We’ll now take the next week off and return to our regular, single-focus ways on January 14th.

Till then…

Hendrik

Track

Lovesong

Artist

The Cure

Album

Disintegration

The Cure - Lovesong

Once a song ingrains itself in the historical record of Pop—once it becomes part of the landscape of Pop, helping define and expand its boundaries—we are often incapable of ever listening to it again without at once recognizing it as a milestone, memory, or at base, a “classic.” You’re all but guaranteed to hear “classics” in the course of your life, whether you want to or not. Most songwriters will never pen a classic. Memorable acts—the ones critics and attuned fans invoke whenever they’re asked about a particular style or sound—will write two or three. A select set of masters have individually concocted dozens of timeless tunes. 

Robert Smith never cracked that canon, but owing to endurance, the Cure is more than simply memorable. The Cult is memorable. Love and Rockets are memorable. The Cure posted two Top 10 hits in America, despite wearing a great deal of makeup and Smith’s quizzical and on occasion even feminine affability. “Lovesong” and “Friday I’m in Love” have established themselves as FM-stroke-licensing standards in America, but the latter is a day-of-week novelty romp, and has endured more as a giddy drive-time bit of sunshine. 

Owing to recent covers by Adele and Blake Lewis, “Lovesong” has enjoyed a substantial resurgence, and we are far enough away from the Cure’s heyday that it no longer plays (as I once put it) as one of those “great grey Anglican classics,” like “Pretty in Pink,” “I’ll Melt With You” and “The Killing Moon.” For Smith, “Lovesong” was the most personal and honest composition in a then ten-year discography of self-loathing, antisocial dejection, and see-saw silliness. It was written for and very publicly dedicated to his wife, Mary Poole, who has been by his side since they were fifteen years old.

One test of whether a song has really achieved classic status is whether or not it can be ruined. Hundreds of artists have probably covered “Lovesong” in concert—as a singer-songwriter standard, as emo treacle, as a pop-punk gag—but it wasn’t until 311’s infamous tiki torch rendition of 2004 (from the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore vehicle 50 First Dates) that “Lovesong” demonstrated its impervious eternality. It worked as dorm-room reggae. The identical-twin pro-lesbian hip-hop duo Nina Sky fashioned a sort of Rihanna redux of “Lovesong” during a fallow period spent battling their record label, and even that worked quite well.

“Lovesong” has all the elements of a classic single: a smooth, memorable guitar lick, a haunting, yet hummable verse melody, and even a fairly ripping solo. Oddly—and this is the case with nearly all of the Cure’s upbeat singles—it was never very good live. “Charlotte Sometimes” was probably the closest thing to a single that the Cure made better in concert. As with “Close to Me” and “The Walk”, “Lovesong” always suffered for the grating, untreated synthesizers that failed to recreate the finessed studio ambience, and sunk the whole piece.

Despite Smith’s assertion that “Lovesong” was an anniversary present to his wife, it plays for the rest of us like a letter to the one that got away, to that dream girl or boy we gave ourselves to, whether in the boundless naivety of young love, or as part of a commitment we hoped would last a lifetime, but somehow disintegrated.

Chris Ott

Chris previously appeared on OWOB also writing about The Cure. His Shallow Rewards video series is essential watching.

Neil Young - Bandit (solo acoustic) 

I woke up on the New Year with this song — particularly the chorus, “someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for” — stuck in my head. It wasn’t because I’m “lost” or that I haven’t found what I’m “looking for” (although I guess there’s some of that, as I am a human being and unrest is my natural state) but because the message itself is one that’s important for a new year. Although you should practice appreciation for what you have, there’s something hopeful in believing that this is the year in which you’ll find what makes you happiest and most content in the world; that you’ll find and hold on to what you love.

Neil sings the song with his customary world-weary empathy, like he’s gotten old and still hasn’t found that heart of gold, but he’s not done looking — and neither should you. He tuned his guitar in an unusual way, with the top string completely slack and coarsely vibrating throughout the track. This strange technique reinforces the song’s message about feeling out of tune and not belonging; the string is not quite in harmony with anything else, just like the song’s protagonist. Neil also sings — talks, really — in a watery whisper that lets his mouth go as slack as the guitar string. It’s only when he’s emboldened in the chorus that he takes his voice up to the firm, familiar register.

Neil gets a fair amount of gentle grief for his lyrics. In reviews for his latest album, Psychedelic Pill, most everyone mentioned the line “gonna get me a hip-hop haircut.” Fair enough; it’s a memorable line. Even though we enjoy how little of a shit Neil sometimes gives — he’s everyone’s occasionally eccentric uncle, and that’s why we love him — we also overlook some of the poetry in his lyrics in favor of the more “Neil being Neil” lines. There are plenty of poignant touches in “Bandit,” as he sketches this portrait of a man who’s lived from one scam to the next and is reaching the end of the line. Neil’s very familiar with these guys, and depicts this one’s life with lines like “Wrappin’ up dope in a paper bag, talkin’ to yourself, takin’ a drag,” while addressing him directly with concerns such as, “What are you workin’ for? One more big score? What are you tryin’ to prove?” I particularly like the subtle playfulness and the distinctly Californian details of the passage, “You didn’t bet on the Dodgers / To beat the Giants/ Then David came up.”

“Bandit” was on Neil’s 2003 album, Greendale, which pointedly came out at the height of paranoia during the Bush Jr. presidency. With this project, Neil invented an entire town (called Greendale) to host some of his favorite overarching themes — environmentalism, tradition versus change, the dreams of the 1960s, the complex and combative relationship between people, corporations, government, and media — and then told a story set in that town using an interactive website, a (surprisingly good) movie, an album with Crazy Horse, and a live show with sets and actors that played more like a Broadway musical than a rock concert. I caught this tour in upstate New York and found it to be one of the most engaging live performances I’ve ever seen. It was impressively realized and scrappily executed, but the most powerful moment was when he stripped away all the pageantry and played “Bandit” on an acoustic guitar.

This past year, I found myself wondering if Mitt Romney won the presidency, whether or not we’d hear music like Greendale — or, to be more specific, return to the familiar dread of the climate that spawned Greendale. The Bush administration didn’t spark as much protest music as one would think, given the anger and hopelessness that a lot of people felt and the fact that so many musicians are liberal, but it clearly inspired Neil to create some of his most ambitious work. To hear this album in 2012 or 2013 is to remember the way many of us felt then, and to reflect on how close we came to the country turning the clock back to that exact same place. But then, things aren’t great right now. I don’t need to run down the list of reasons why. But songs like “Bandit,” and the comforting presence of Neil Young, help give hope that we’ll find at least some of the things we’re looking for. 

— Robert Ker

Track

Long Distance Call

Artist

Phoenix

Album

It's Never Been Like That

Phoenix - Long Distance Call

Anaïs:

I can tell you that the main reason I didn’t like Phoenix or rather, didn’t allow myself to like Phoenix, is because I didn’t really let myself enjoy much about music in general when I was younger. I had very strict ideas about what was “good” music or “important” music and Phoenix didn’t really fit into my narrow definition. What I’m trying to tell you is that I was like most twenty-year-olds in that I was entirely insufferable and took everything, especially myself, way too seriously. I didn’t even like pop music! At least not around my friends.

I heard “Long Distance Call” on a mix while in my then-boyfriend’s apartment in New York City. He was at work and I was listening to music without paying much attention to the artists, the tracks having been relabelled for the mix. I hit repeat on one track, “Long Distance Call,” and listened to it on loop for about two hours, pulled in quickly, even dancing at one point. I hadn’t had that much fun since I was a kid and insisted on being Ginger Spice every time my friends played Spice Girls dress up. My then-boyfriend soon came home and wrinkled his nose at my laptop.

“Phoenix? Ugh.”

I shut my laptop and quickly made the excuses you make when you still care about what people think of your taste, when you base entire relationships and friendships around someone’s taste, when you still think what people like is more important than what they are like. It would be another four years until I let myself sit down on a Sunday afternoon and listen to this song and every other song Phoenix has recorded. I liked a lot of them while others left me cold but I let myself love what I did because, well, it was as simple as that. Sometimes it takes a while to get to a place where you don’t instantly hate something because it’s not what you usually like or what you think is cool. There isn’t always a concrete reason why you love or hate a song, there isn’t always an exact moment when you change your mind about a song but at some point, you changed and it’s enough to open you up to the possibility and really, isn’t that what counts?

Ian:

I’m older than my wife and I first heard “Long Distance Call” in a quasi-professional context; the Singles Jukebox, then still part of Stylus. 2006 was a year where I didn’t find many straightforward rock albums that I liked, and it was also a year with some personal turmoil; seeing as how this kind of thing was (one kind of) musical comfort food to me, I latched on to It’s Never Been Like That.

Thinking that an album is a great work because it Means Something to you is a young person’s error, and even then I wasn’t quite that young. I figured that the album was a good but minor work that happened to resonate with me; but it wasn’t anything I felt the need to proselytize about or particularly defend. But if you look the blurb from Edward Oculicz (a friend, a writer whom I massively respect, and one of the people most responsible for keeping the Jukebox going) in that old column, you can see the sort of thing I started hearing a lot from friends; not just that the new Phoenix album wasn’t good, but that it was a massive disappointment. Many were less charitable about it than Ed was.

None of this was going to change my opinion of my friends, or of the new Phoenix album I already liked, but few things are as likely to irrationally turn me against an artist’s earlier work as people slagging off the stuff I already like in favour of it. It didn’t help that I hadn’t get that much out of the older singles I’d heard. By now, the end of 2012, I’ve found older material I liked, like “Summer Days” (which, okay, would fit in just fine on It’s Never Been Like That), but at the time all I could think when I’d listen to them next to “Long Distance Call” is “the other stuff isn’t better than these songs that Mean Something to me!” And these days, with my wife and I living in different countries until she’s done school and can move up here, “Long Distance Call” still Means Something to me, but something entirely new and wonderful.

— Anaïs and Ian Mathers

Anaïs will feature on OWOB shortly; Ian wrote for us about Underworld.

Track

I Want You

Artist

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Album

Blood & Chocolate

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - I Want You

I know I’m going to feel this way until you kill it (or yet another Costellian enumeration)

1. This song is about when love, triggered by an affair, turns to hate and desire remains.

2. It is so gentle. Slow-dance gentle. A hand on the small of the back, a whispered promise of fidelity and forever. Hair tucked, brushed aside with tender fingers so you can hear the words better. But then the grip start to tighten. 

3. It terrifies. I first heard ”I Want You” shortly after buying Girls! Girls! Girls! on cassette. I wasn’t too familiar with Elvis Costello & The Attractions but “Mystery Dance” used to play on WDRE and I liked that one in a casual singalong way. Well, more than that since I actually went out and spent my hard earned teen babysitting cash on it. 

The memory of that first listen is clear because it was more than sound. I’d warmed a Chilean chocolate bar in the toaster oven, slowly eating the soft almondy mess while drinking some Ceylon which I’d just brewed. The tangy smell filled the apartment and I was alone. I popped the tape into the boombox that teetered on the dead heater by my bedroom window and sat down to read. 

I wasn’t paying that much attention to the background music but towards the end of side one, tape two I’d forgotten my YA book about people trapped in their home by an avalanche. I was suddenly anxious, hyper-alert, head tilted, poised, waiting. 

I. Want. You. 

In constant repetition, at the end of every phrase, mauled and pawed, grimy from overuse. Why won’t he stop saying it? Why is it so ugly? Why won’t he go away? What the ever loving fuck? Of course, I kept hitting the rewind button. Hearing the whirr, then the click stop, then the quiet part. I want you. I want you. I want you. The person putting it out there was revealing something ugly about themselves and the display was distasteful as it was compelling. Maybe that was the point. Look at me, drunk and in my bathrobe, wanting you. I love you. I hate you. But mostly I want you. I want you. It was too unpleasant to not be real. 

4. Later, I came to understand it and understand it too well. I knew it when I met him. I responded to small things about his appearance. My gaze would zoom into each detail, the slight up-turn of his mouth, the way he would look at me from the tops of his eyes as if we were in immediate confidence, coquettish, flirtatious. The small scar on his face. He kept stepping closer to me as he talked so I told him to step back, keep his hands to himself and he did, clasping them tightly behind his back for the rest of the night. He had no way of knowing that that was exactly the right thing to do. Eventually, I slipped my fingers under his sweater; his skin, cool and smooth.

The things I remember most about our time together was the way he touched me, how I couldn’t break away. Our love affair lasted way too long. I took a photo of us on one of the many nights we decided to call it off and he asked why. So I can remember, because I’ll forget. I always did. I wanted him. That trumped my own self-interest. I was a smart girl but a stupid woman.

I still have that photo. I’m smiling in it. I do this even when I’m miserable. He has his arms around my waist. I’m sure he spent the night. I know he did. He’d say I want you and I’d respond. 

5. Re: “I Want You”

The sound of this track was always going to be the aural equivalent of a blurred polaroid, so no apologies for the lack of fidelity. None are needed, it’s just a pornographic snapshot; lots of broken glass, a squashed box of chocolates and a little blood on the wall. - Elvis Costello

6. For many years, the fan chatter on this one is that it was written about Bebe Buell, model, sometime Playmate, lover of rockstars, mother of Liv Tyler. Costello denies this, saying in no uncertain terms that their relationship was barely that. Just a girl on a doorstep with too many suitcases who quickly overstayed her welcome, laying claim to songs that had already been written. Which is too bad because it would be an easy narrative: surly singer/songwriter in love with a model who can’t commit, realizes that he has to demonize her in order to leave her. So he does, talking smack from here to eternity while saying that he wants her THIRTY-THREE times just in case she missed it.

7. I’m not repeating this because I think it’s true. I’m repeating it because fake gossip serves a purpose. The falsehood turns the song into Tiger Beat theatre and makes it more palatable. Boy writes a mean song about Girl. Curtain. They were actors all along? Phew!

8. (When he debuted, Costello epitomized a very specific white, male nerd rage. It’s a role he performs brilliantly. His mature albums are missing that persona. By now he’s the fun loving dilettante enthusiast; the uncle you want at the party piano. But, like any excellent performance, you can’t quite remove it from your mind even when the actor is doing something else, even when he’s moved on. This was the last encore.)

9. While it would be easy to hear the song as a misogynistic piece of entitlement theater and nothing else, it plays just as well when reversed. Fiona Apple performed an on point cover in 2006.  It sounds like her words, her pain and her experience. She switches the pronouns and for once, that doesn’t bother me, it is legitimate. Her passionate performance is pitched beautifully between shame and exultation. She turns that song inside out and makes it specific to anyone who has ever felt wildly, crazy, over the top fucked up about anyone.

10. Back to the repetition - it could be that it is there to provide rationale for behavior. The feelings are overwhelmingly negative but no one is leaving. I’d forgotten how important that is. (How could I forget?)

11. Or perhaps hypnosis is what it’s closer to? When Costello says “I Want You”, he is not convincing you, he is provoking you. There is a clear attempt to make you pay attention, to fight or flee or just go nuts. Those three words dig themselves into your head and regardless of whether or not the song has any personal meaning to you, it triggers mania. It is meant to displace, unnerve and knock you off your axis. Much like desire itself. If the actual story gets through to you, you’ll question its intentions. Being wanted does not imply that it’s mutual. Nor does it imply that it’s healthy. Those three words are a threat and a warning. You’ll always remember it. No one who wants you could want you more.

12. I want you.

13. I want you.

14. I

15. Want you.

* * *

— Daniella Joseph didn’t want to count to thirty-three. You can find her at Soft Communication and writing about Radiohead for OWOB.

Kendrick Lamar - Swimming Pools (Drank)

The theme of this essay, “Songs Of Love And Hate”, suggest an idea that seems pretty obvious: that it’s pretty reasonable to assume that thinking about the world in terms of concepts composed of equal-and-opposite propositions. The whole “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” thing that underlies our assumption that the world is made up of a closed system, an equation where, when everything is reckoned, adds up to zero. For a long time I thought that assumption made sense, especially on a conceptual level, which being honest was the only level I understood a lot of things being inexperienced with most things.

So, for example, I had a lot of stupid thoughts premised on this sort of dialectic assumption. One was that from the ages of fourteen to like twenty-three I was convinced I would try heroin. I was never in the same room as someone using heroin, and I’ve only met a handful of people who’ve used heroin - and I wouldn’t even in the deepest naive throws of drug romanticism trust any of them even to watch my dog for the weekend. But I still thought, you know, sort of hoped, that I would try it at some point, find it utterly captivating, and then be able to talk about it — if only just to myself — as one of those character-defining experiences that one receives and then uses (like the index to a particularly thorny book, say) to make sense of his messy life.

This foolishness arose because of two somewhat related and unequal forces: my own young foolishness and the movie Trainspotting.

Young people have all sorts of bad ideas, and they seem to predominate from music or TV. I mean, I think the whole reason why philosophy has had any cachet at all with the young and counter-cultural is that the wisest and (sometimes) most experienced thinkers have the facility to write relatively deep thoughts relatively clearly, such that naifs and boors can take the shine off what they meant and apply some hard-earned truth to their event-deficient lives.

Not that Irving Welsh or Lou Reed are necessarily, like, philosophers. Philosophers of the body, maybe. Sensual gourmands who write with the right mix of specificity and broadness, such that a teenager in upstate New York could fancy himself a would-be Renton, ready to sink into the floor of any Edinburgh flat at all. Such that he would (don’t tell my mother) even try smoking crack in London and have basically never turned down any illicit substance ever offered.

I don’t know. I think young people (and middle aged people and old people, but it’s less sexy and therefore less lucrative to talk about in a cultural context, I guess) really like using drugs because life usually sucks, and drugs are the easiest leverage, even easier than cheap credit and interest-only mortgages, to lift you up out of your doldrums for a little while. Whenever it was that I saw Trainspotting, that was when I got really obsessed with this idea, that drugs cheer you up, and it probably occurred to me before I had even experienced some real Grade A problems. It’s sort of sad that I don’t even remember when it was, but I do know that it was sometime around ninth grade, and then I’d watch it once, twice, three times, and then about five times a week for like years. I’d usually zone out or fast-forward after the three buckets part, definitely past the baby on the ceiling part. But I’d make sure I got to see that one scene where Renton pays a final visit to Mother Superior. You know, he ends up OD’ing and sinking into an increasingly coffin-like occlusion in the floor. Face slapped by the man with the habit, dragged downstairs, to a taxi, left outside a hospital, brought back to life by the UK’s crackerjack healthcare. And throughout Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays, and it’s like a giant flashing red arrow pointing at the dictionary definition of “irony”, but those giant flashing red arrows play well when you’re a teenager. It was this movie, and this scene really, that got me into The Velvet Underground really years before I’d be in a position to make that an actionable endeavor (ie, go to college and have people/websites tell me that the VU were like the greatest rock band in history). By the time I was in college and sort of got into the Velvet Underground, I had sped quickly past Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, which in my mind still had a bit of subtlety as to what I thought it was about (that irony, after all), directly to “Heroin”. I listened to that seven-minute song about seven-hundred times, it feels like. It didn’t hurt that, as a dilettante guitarist, it was comprised of only like two chords and a lot of squall and squank, which both sounded impressive to me and was surprisingly easy to replicate using a 10-watt amp and an Epiphone SG.

(This is like an absurd amount of table setting, I easily admit.)

In any case, I’ve sort of run through one of my first and longest-lasting song-loves about a drug to illustrate a second, briefer affair of much greater depth.

I mean, I’m not saying that it’s hard to become a drug addict or anything, but it’s sort of prohibitive from a safety/cost/social acceptance. What drug isn’t prohibitive in these ways, in the more or less most important ways, is alcohol.

And I hope it’s clear, but I’m sure it’s not, so I’ll just say that the subtext to all of this somewhat prefatory material is that the things ostensibly against something — drugs, crime, war — almost inevitably make that thing seem appealing. Unless they’re like genius works of art, every thug crime movie makes thug crime look sort of sexy. Same with drug things or war movies. On the one hand, the best war movies make war seem horrific, but on the other hand, I’ve still never seen the second half of Full Metal Jacket, so whatever. (Is Thin Red Line a great war movie? That just made war seem boring to me…) But this antipathy-inducing subjectifying of great art is a notable feature of culture: as soon as, say, a pop song tells you that something is sort of bad, it almost always makes it seem sort of awesome.

So this is a pretty easy ‘get’. Kendrick Lamar’s star turn LP produced a few year-end-type songs. Pitchfork (sort of quixotically) placed “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” toward the top of its singles list, and “Backstreet Freestyle” saw some (deserved) attention. I think good kid’s “Drank” deserves better treatment, if only because most rap blog types probably wish that other ponderous and moral song were the album’s centerpiece single. (“Cartoons and Cereal, if you’re too focused/lazy to click-thru.) (I don’t, fwiw.)

I think “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is the best song Kendrick’s ever done. Maybe, since I’m not a twenty-something black kid from Compton, it’s the most relatable for me. I think it’s probably partially because of that, but also that it’s his most generally relatable song that’s also very good. I think it also plays strongly against type, i.e., like Pitchfork’s starry-eyed treatment of “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is the odd rap song about drinking that’s also against drinking. (I know there are a lot of rap songs against drinking, sort of, but this song is special because, see below.)

Very generally, it’s a song about the everyday drudgery of arriving at a party and being offered lots of alcohol. It’s a circumstance that’s repeated across homes, frats, happy hours, parties, apartments, underbridges, etc. etc. across the world.

Last year Kendrick was sort of dogged by the “conscious rapper” tag, and this year it helped make his major label debut slightly more weighty (read: Instant Classic). Still, whenever you’re telling people what to do (unless it has to do with partying, as it were), you’ll always come off as a conscious rapper. But the reason why getting slapped with that tag is sort of bad is that conscious rappers aren’t rockstars, because rockstars act like asses, therefore are not ‘conscious’. The great thing about “Swimming Pools (Drank), then, is that it’s the conscious song about getting unconscious. Literally: faded, passed out, faded. But what does that mean? Why does that make it great?

At the top of this essay (can you even remember such a time?), I mentioned how I used to think that the dialectical model of understanding (reality being constituted by equal and opposite propositions) made sense - the implication being that that makes sense to me no longer. Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a good datum for why it no longer makes sense.

On the surface, it’s a song about drinking being ‘bad’. Just look at the first verse:

Now I done grew up around some people living their lives in bottles.
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago.
Some people like the way it feels. Some people wanna kill their sorrows.
Some people wanna fit in with the popular. That was my problem.
I was in the dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon:
That I’m going get fucked up, filling up my cup. I see the crowd’s mood.
Changing by the minute and the record on repeat.
Took a sip then another sip then somebody said to me…

The song is about, again, a pretty common scenario: being in a big social scenario, everyone drinking. And here’s Kendrick Lamar, feeling the pressure and the urge, ready to get drunk. (And more, how girls just want guys’s to give them drinks, and the implication.) But the song’s really about how that’s a bad thing. Little Kendrick saw his folks, his family, his friends, all get subsumed — drowned — by drink. So the whole spiel — Pull up, drank. Headshot, drank. Sit down, drank. Stand up, drank. Pass out, drank. Wake up, drank. Faded, drank. Faded, drank. — is definitely a Bad Thing.

Thing is, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” makes a great drinking song. The part where, in the sort of second verse, where Kendrick double-time raps,

The freedom is granted as soon as the damage of vodka arrived.
This how you capitalize. This is parental advice.
Then apparently I’m over-influenced by what you are doing.

really perfectly captures the whole antipathetic nature of the song. Really, more than that. There’re several valences of prohibition and social signal involved. Your body, for one, tells you that you’re not feeling so well. (It also, before that, tells you you’re feeling great.) Your mom tells you not to get drunk and fuck with those girls anymore, but she and your dad are also getting bombed out every night after work. You see this and feel that bad feeling inside yourself, but drinking makes that feeling go away. There’s like two or three causal nexuses in play here making you want to drink, drink, hate to drink, stop drinking, and drink so much you pass out.

This, to my full experience, is like the most true thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

(Granted, the “this” was just something I just wrote. And I’ve, properly speaking, not ‘heard’ it. Moving on.)

In any case, there is an obvious dialectical tension in “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. It fits in neatly with Kendrick’s other masterpiece songs, “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and “Cartoons and Cereal”. That’s the rushed inhale head rush of an almost-theory. Black experience and post-racial America; tigers and lambs; latchkey kids and the left-behind preterite millennials. But Kendrick Lamar’s songs go further than just positing binary oppositions that seem to hold up our society like two-legged stools leaned against a dry rot wall. Because after all, there’s a remainder to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” that goes further than, exhausts, its present meaning. It’s that there’s this joy to the act, the sad act, that actually makes it something of a great drinking song.

It’s funny that at some point most people start to disdain the ‘drinking game’ as a crass and unnecessary — juvenile — means to getting drunk. Because what’s easier than drinking something? We don’t need no stinking games. The drinking song endures no such ignominy. From what I can tell, people all over the world love drinking songs. It’s also my understanding that Genghis Khan’s notoriously alcoholic son, Ögedei Khan, went on improbably to expand his father’s terrific empire. This does not mean that the social forces are good that lead one to drink.

The thing that I’m trying to get at is that, I think pretty clearly from a demographic perspective, it’s pretty unlikely that there are many people driven to try heroin from watching Trainspotting or listening to Lou Reed. And there’s not exactly a causal connection between listening to any number of drinking songs and drinking. But there is a curious lack of social taboo around drinking whereas there is one around doing hard drugs but it’s more formal or perfunctory than necessary because how many parents have even a locked-up heroin cabinet at home from which you can pilfer a little hit and then refresh it with, what, some dirt or something that looks sort of like heroin so that they won’t notice? Listening to “Heroin” a dozen times a day does not constitute a song of love and hate. I’d say it’s more like a song of love and love, where you love the song and love the idea behind the song. It’s a song of innocence, even if its subject matter is ostensibly quite dirty.

I find “Swimming Pools (Drank)” maddening and vexing because it makes a reasonable critique, yet lodged within its critique are the conditions to drink. The velocity of the song that carries us to euphoric chorus, th shoot-and-slam-on-bar cadence. The come down, mini-Kendrick voice. It’s a song of love and hate. A song that makes you feel that over-used shot of the heroin syringe, arm-stuck, plunger sucks in a bit of blood, then woosh. The image that suggests a feeling is one-up’d by the song that creates a feeling. I mean, if you ask me.

Or to put it better, a feeling and also an experience because “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a song of experience. Because, speaking very broadly here, I know there are many exceptions, a lot of us have drinking problems. Whether it’s the one night a month where you wish you hadn’t said that thing, or the time you lost your wallet because you blacked out and probably left it at the bar or dropped it paying for a cab (which you took because you were too drunk to ride the subway). Or the time you became that person. Especially that time. You might not be an alcoholic because you don’t have that disease, but you’re on its radar. There is a spectrum - I find it funny that all this spectrum stuff w/r/t autism is occurring now, as if in every other facet of life and mental life things are black and white, cut and dry.

The song does more than pose the listener a choice: drink or don’t drink. It makes drinking the precondition to even understanding the song. It makes the more misery you’ve had with it all the more poignant because otherwise it would be a slightly misdirected radio single that precisely glorifies drinking. I’m saying that in a social setting, like, the meaning of the song gets sort of divorced from its sonic gestalt. (Like that blue jean commercial that uses “Fortunate Son” as pro-American PR pabulum.) “Swimming Pools (Drank)” goes beyond a simple dialectic to me, creating something more like a shitstorm of trouble.

Every time I listen to “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, I’m filled with almost unsurmountable dread because it just does all this stuff inside of me, the stuff I’m talking about above. I hate that feeling, of being out of control, bending to society, bending even further to my own chemical psychology. But I love that feeling. The first drink. The second drink. The third drink. Faded.

B Michael Payne

Brian previously appeared on OWOB writing about Kayne West. He’ll make another showing later this year.

Beyoncé - Radio

If you graphed the engagements of my friends and acquaintances over the past three years, you would find yourself facing a positive, exponential function.

Welcome to my life.

In an era of changed Facebook statuses or celebratory listserv emails, I tend to view this trend at a distance. Even when I ran into one of my former high school classmates and her husband, I was not all that phased. Maybe it was because she was a girl and girls in my community get married left and right as soon as they graduate high school. Maybe it was because she had moved overseas and I had mostly lost touch with her. Mostly, though, it was and is because I, along with many of my fellow single friends, have concluded that for now, a single life is a life of freedom.

But then, the other day, I saw this guy from my high school class at his grandfather’s funeral. His fiancee was there with him. I saw how she gently squeezed him after he delivered a eulogy. And for the first time, I felt this immediacy, this weird tug. The pull of time. A visual cue that I was, in fact, approaching a certain stage of life.

It’s refreshing, then, to hear Beyonce expound on the metaphor of radio as significant other. I don’t say this because I view “Radio” as a buttress to my staying single argument. Rather, I say this as someone who considers “Radio” as resonant with the here and now. Right now, I am OK with the thrill of letting “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” rattle the seats of my car to the point where I get “butterflies” in my stomach. Right now, I am OK with my friends and I, after three rounds of beer pong and vodka shots, working ourselves into a sweaty frenzy to “Lose Yourself.” Right now, I am OK with smoking cigars “under the moonlight” to the tinny sounds of “Some Nights” playing on my friend’s iPhone speaker. Right now, I am OK with losing my shit to the dubsteppy breakdown of “I Knew You Were Trouble” while I am studying in the library.

What makes this song particularly on point is the way it refers to the exact opposite of mopey, tub-of-ice-cream music as the salve for any internal emptiness that exists. For me, speakers going “boom” and getting “in the zone” provides one of the best musical forms of therapy I can imagine. It radiates this “fuck it all” attitude that sometimes works really well after your close friend tells you that he will propose to his girlfriend in a couple months. This is why, when Beyonce sings about phone dates with her local DJ or getting heavy with the sounds of the stereo in her bedroom, I know she is not joking. Already deeply involved with Jay-Z at this point - the track is off I Am…Sasha Fierce - Beyonce still acknowledges the ongoing, and probably eternal, importance of music as an emotional outlet in her life. That she infuses these lyrics with the same passion and fury that she would, say, “Lose My Breath,” further evinces this.

It is a sentiment I fully co-sign.

I look forward to finding a significant other and, hopefully, sharing the rest of my life with that person. But I also look ahead to the many years I will spend with slow jams and guitar-driven jaunts and country summer-love songs and Dirty South rap. Because music will “never let me down.” Sure, I would like to know that one day I can rely on another person to help me through exhausting work or bad fights or to join with me in rejoicing at birthday parties or holidays. All I know right now, though, is the constant of music. And, right now, I am OK with that. 

Wilco - I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

Although I’ve heard it described as Wilco’s “epic” before – its seven minute running time may commend this distinction – I’ve always felt that this track lacks a certain confidence that would warrant such a title. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is the intense, honest and intimate story of one man’s experience with heartbreak. It doesn’t provide a universally relatable message or a transcendental musical experience. Instead, frontman Jeff Tweedy explores the dark underbelly of an essential human experience that is far too often chalked up to just roses and romance. This may be a song about love, but it is decidedly not a love song.

The story is built around a noisy backdrop that is as fragile as the protagonist whom it is supporting. Gentle layers of organ and guitar hide behind a piano part that plinks its way throughout the song, sometimes shy and others bright. The instrumentation grows more amelodic with each verse, matching the lyrical progression. Glenn Kotche’s drumming is artful, restrained and powerful. Meanwhile, Tweedy paints a poignant portrait of a man pushed to his limits by desire, turning in some of the most emotionally potent lyrics of his career:

“I’d always thought that if I held you tightly / You’d always love me like you did back then / Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking / What was I thinking when I let you back in? / I am trying to break your heart”

Just as he sings the aching titular refrain, surrounded by dissonant, scraping guitar, a gorgeous and full-bodied chord pulls the song out of its own sadness and drives it towards a more melodic place. This, however, is just a temporary respite; soon enough the band dives back into dissonance, spinning a tasteful and sharp web of sound around distantly shouted lyrics. Pushed to his breaking point by the necessity of intimacy, Tweedy eventually collapses in a mess of noise and feeling. “I’m the man who loves you” he sings, his voice tinged with hints of desperation and loneliness.

I’ve always been fascinated by this song’s opening status on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Originally, I had thought that it would be the perfect way to close an album: a falling apart of sorts, slow and painful.  However, I have since realised that there is also something admirable to be found in its current placement. The song is about an ending, but it is also a beginning. On its own, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is a tragic and shocking rumination on the destructive powers of love. At the top of an album, however, it is a welcome reminder that every ending, no matter how disastrous, will always be followed by something new.

— Brennan McCracken