Hi everyone! I just wanted to let you know that my amazing fellow witchsong writer Aly and I are going to be writing about one of our favorite bands, The Mountain Goats, over at One Week One Band this coming week! OWOB is one of our favorite music blogs ever and we’ve both written there before, but we’re so excited to be talking about the Mountain Goats and super thrilled to be collaborating. We’ve written about the Mountain Goats before on witchsong, but this will really be a chance to dive into the depths of this discography and explore it. We would love it if you would read along, if that sounds like your cup of tea! Find all of our posts collected in chronological order here.
Selena Gomez has not released a song in six months. The last time she did it was “The Heart Wants What it Wants,” which many people do not like but I find strangely, deeply upsetting in a way that connects, like something tunneling inside of me. This song doesn’t really tunnel, though. It’s all about surface. I wanna look good for you. Wear that dress you like. But surfaces are confusing, surfaces are inherently complicated here. Selena Gomez matches delineations of surface with assertions of an inner self: I’m in my 14 carats, I’m 14 carat / Doin’ it up like Midas. I am wearing this, I am this. I’m in my Marquise diamonds, I’m a marquise diamond. I am very tempted at this moment to embed pictures of some diamonds, just for the full effect. What a way to start a song. I’m in my 14 carats. I’m 14 carat. A song about pleasing someone that begins first and foremost with this: I’m 14 carat. I’m expensive. This song is all about the organic fighting with the inorganic, about what a treacherous thing it is to undress a girl covered in expensive jewels and find that she’s just as crystalline underneath. I’m in my Marquise diamonds, I’m a marquise diamond.
Selena Gomez is very good at breathing. That sounds strange to say but she has made an art of this, the syncopation of faux breaths in the background, the purposeful reflection of that breathing in her lyrics: “gonna […] syncopate my skin to your heart beating” and then later “gonna […] syncopate my skin to how you’re breathing.” The pulsing of surface, of skin, stretched very very thin over the vaguely inhuman, luminous core at the center of this song.
This syncopated breathing reminds me aggressively of “Slow Down,” the second single from her second-to-last album, Stars Dance: “you know I’m good with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / Breathe me in, breathe me out.” Breathe me in, breathe me out is barely anything more than an inhale-exhale. Syncopation becomes the close affinity between song and body, I just wanna feel your body right next to mine / all night long, baby slow down the song. Despite the fact that “Slow Down” is populated with breathy gasps it sounds nothing like a body, like a human being. Electronica is supposed to be made of breath and body but instead the cool light of it turns back, reflexively; the organic and synthetic get confused here, get mixed up. A girl dressed in diamonds is not a diamond, but not not a diamond herself.
I love this song. I love the fact that this strange machine humming is supposed to be breath. The ghost in the machine of this song isn’t Selena but it is someone else’s heart beating. Skin can’t be syncopated in anything but the most physical or the most abstract sense – syncopated while you’re touching them or syncopated while you’re thinking so hard about touching them that it might as well be the same thing. Honestly, the A$AP Rocky verse in this song is entirely superfluous. I am waiting for the inevitable tumblr supercut where those 40 seconds are gone. This song would be a perfect three minutes long: sharp, a little scary, precise.
It is a different kind of thing, being a girl in love with a girl. I have been very in love with girls and I have been very in love with boys and it is different. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that but it is. I used to make a lot of tragic mixtapes for the girls I was in love with and now I make them a lot of tragic Spotify playlists instead because it’s 2k15 and that is how I roll now. Sometimes you find songs that are perfect in the strangest places and it evokes in me a constant sense of wonder, a constant sense of strange, loving bemusement, the way that songs by men about loving women can speak directly to my over-emotional gay little heart.
People talk a lot about the “do her or be her” dilemma, that thing where you’re incapable of separating attraction from admiration, being into girls from being into the way girls perform their girlhood. It is a very true and very real paradigm and I am fascinated by it. The first time I heard 5 Seconds of Summer’s “She Looks So Perfect” I thought, instantaneously, THIS IS MY LESBIAN ANTHEM. And I mean, “She Looks So Perfect” is, like, perfect. Right? We all love this song. “She Looks So Perfect” is a beautiful pop-punk anthem reincarnation that miraculously, somehow, entered the world in the year of our lord 2014. “She Looks So Perfect” is a lyrical masterpiece: your lipstick stain is a work of art / I got your name tattooed in an arrow heart […] made a mixtape straight out of ’94 / got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor.
I am obsessed with this line about the lipstick, I think about it to a probably unnecessary extent. When I notice girls I usually notice their clothes first, their lipstick: the deeply intertwined acts of noticing a girl and noticing how she is engaging with being a girl. You do that with a guy and there isn’t usually the same mutuality in it. “She has such a good aesthetic” is a statement of admiration but also a statement of fascination: how does she do it? What does she think about? Can we talk about it? “She Looks So Perfect” has “your lipstick stain is a work of art” and what it means from 5 Seconds of Summer is a kind of boy-awe at the wearing of lipstick but in my head it turns into something different. Your lipstick stain is a work of art, kiss me with your stupid lipstick smile, let me put that lipstick on tomorrow.
There are a lot of good girl covers of this song but so many of them do elaborate contortions with the pronouns, changing the perspective entirely, framing themselves as the girl with the lipstick stain like a work of art. There is something magical in that, too, in taking a song called “She Looks So Perfect” and making it explicitly about the self, taking ownership. Still, there is this version, by the stunning Lauren Bonnell, who has a beautiful throaty hiccup-voice and who sings your lipstick stain is a work of art / I got your name tattooed in an arrow heart very beautifully.
What “She Looks So Perfect” does well is not just girlhood but a weird, giddy devotion: you look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear, which is also a line that is very different when sung by a girl, in a way that I can’t articulate except to gesture towards the lending of clothes and the mutuality of the space of girlness and the absolute unimportance of American Apparel in brief moment of hyper-mutuality that gives way to adoration.
I look for this devotion everywhere, am a little bit fiendish about it. I have listened to Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High” so many times and that is an awful song about a strange kind of adulation and the beginning of it is really gross (“no tucks or silicone”? Really, Tal?) but if I selfishly decide that this song is actually from my perspective I am capable of ignoring that. She’s so high above me / like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite. Same. Same. There are beautiful covers of this, too. When I was younger, especially, I also really loved Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” in a way that seemed right and whole and true. It’s not that good a song but it does know a little bit about devotion: She acts like summer and walks like rain. Just, that: she acts like summer. I do not like this band but I love that. It’s absurd and it means nothing and the girls I have been in love with are made of summer in the way that no boy can ever ever ever be to me. This song is new-age nonsense but in some ways it is perfect. When I was in junior high my best friend had chocolate colored hair that she liked to dip-dye purple with Kool-aid packets and so she smelled like Kool-aid all the time, this thick layer of juicyfruit sugar on her skin. We were dumb sweaty teenagers and she was my best friend and I wanted to kiss her very much, thought of her in terms this immense, this ridiculous: Since her return from her stay on the moon / she listens like spring and she talks like June. I wrote her poetry! She wrote me poetry too, and I think about it sometimes, the awful childish ridiculousness of it. A real excerpt: If you were bread, I’d be honey. If I were smoke, you’d be the rain to put me out. We haven’t really spoken in more than a year but I think about her sometimes, this keeper of my summer heart.
I am not suggesting that queer girls have a monopoly on metaphor, but I recognize this particular devotion and I am claiming it as mine. It belongs to me now. I don’t ever care about songs sung by men about women but I decided long ago that this was mine. Taylor Swift covered “Drops of Jupiter” in concert and she changed the pronouns from “she” to “he” and it is a crying shame. Despite the pronoun change, though, we have this video:
All of that light catching on Taylor Swift’s eyelashes back when her hair was still long. This era of Taylor Swift is not the Life Aesthetic but it is the Romance Aesthetic, maybe – the light catching on her eyelashes, the red of her mouth, the gold of her hair, the deep fervent devotion I feel when I look at her face. That helps. This is maybe not a girl singing “she acts like summer and walks like rain” but it is a girl singing about five hour phone conversations all the same, her eyes very very soft. In my head I am synthesizing this and the Train version, I am making a perfect version of it where it is sung by a girl about a girl and it is finally correct. There is something about finding a truth about yourself in unexpected places, y’know? Spaces that are not for you and not about you but you stretch the tips of your fingers into them anyway. It is a silly thing to feel so many things about a song by Train, but I do.
Anyway what I am saying is this: I used to listen to “Riptide”, that Vance Joy song, the single Vance Joy song I’ve ever heard: I was scared of dentists and the dark. I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations. This is a line which makes me fall apart. I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations. I used to listen to this song but now I just listen to the Taylor Swift cover which has seven million views on Youtube and keeps that line entirely intact, right at the beginning of the song: I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations. Lady, running down to the riptide, taken away to the dark side, I wanna be your left hand man. The first time I heard Taylor Swift sing this I started to cry and even listening to it now to write about it is almost too much, the truth of it. I swear she’s destined for the screen, closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you’ve ever seen. Sometimes you have to find truths for yourself in places where they don’t belong and sometimes they are given to you, like lipstick stains: accidentally and incidentally perfect.
Listen, I bought tickets off Craiglist for this show. This sounds like such a silly way to quantify it but I did, I bought tickets off Craigslist and met a sketchy guy and paid him forty-five American dollars in crumpled bills that smelled like cough-drops, at a bar a block away from the Vic. I just turned eighteen and now I can get into the venue, just barely, still seems like it’s a trick. It felt like such a frivolous, self-indulgent way to spend a Saturday. Still does, really, when I can get any distance away from the fact that I don’t know what the shape of my life is without this show in it. It felt like such a self-indulgent way to spend a Saturday and also, essential for my survival, two things which are not actually contradictory instincts. It was funny – the girl I went with, both of us fleeing campus, apologized for not having bought tickets before the show sold out. “I was doing fine a month ago,” she said. “I wasn’t falling apart. I didn’t think I’d need to see the Mountain Goats.” This is coy but it is the truth, I swear: it is possible that if you do not need to be told to survive that you will not start crying in the middle of “Heel Turn 2,” a refrain of I don’t wanna die in here!!! It is possible that if you are not deeply unhappy that it will not do as much for you, this show, this ugly unabashed complicated affirmation of how very much alive you are.
This is the theme, then, overwhelming in its exuberance, too much for me now more than 24 hours ago, sticking in my throat like when you need to get your tonsils taken out: I don’t want to die in here.
The Mountain Goats are touring to promote their new album Beat the Champ, which is both nominally and actually about professional wrestling. Functionally, because I know nothing about professional wrestling and refuse to apologize for it, this is an album about the extravagant, technicolor power of having heroes, an album about what it means to feel protected, an album about violence. “To survive is to leave a legacy of hope,” John Darnielle wrote on his blog one time, and God, what a silly thing to say in a live review of a band, but I can’t help it. I won’t talk about Beat the Champ too much because Aly has already said better things about it than I can but it is a revelation live: at turns devastatingly melancholy (“Southwestern Territory”) or deliciously ravenous (“Foreign Object”) or so much and so brave that my chest feels like its going to crack open, ooze with my insides (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”). It is filled with spite and hope and with heroes, larger than life, their knuckles covered in blood.
I am not going to say that watching John Darnielle makes him seem like the subjects of his new album, those larger-than-life wrestlers, but what I will say is this: this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Mountain Goats live, and I am shocked at the measure of devotion which they inspire, which John Darnielle inspires – in me, in the people standing around me, in all of us. I am religiously moved by this 48 year old with a guitar and a strange fashion sense. We sing along (fairly softly, fairly in tune) to the chorus of one of the new songs, adoring, transfixed: Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever. He beams at us. “When you guys did that, that was the sweetest thing!” God, I mean – I didn’t think it was this important to me for John Darnielle to think we’re a good audience, but it is.
He tells a couple stories explaining the wrestling lingo on his album (bemusedly but only semi-apologetically) and makes a few snarky comments at the people yelling out for songs. Mostly he thanks us profusely and often. Every time there is this little cheer-giggle that goes through the crowd, ecstatic. Doesn’t he know that we’re so grateful he’s here? Almost every time he says anything its met by an ecstatic cheer. We want to be a good crowd.
Still. This is not entirely a show about raucous screaming, about happiness.
They play “Get Lonely” barely above a whisper, a song that goes
And I will go downtown
Stand in the shadows of the buildings
And button up my coat
Trying to stay strong, spirit willing
And I will come back home
Maybe call some friends
Maybe paint some pictures
It all depends
Chicago is cold and awful in the winter, I was cold and awful in the winter. Sometimes I still imagine the rot spiraling out from my ribcage, killing everything, Nothing ever grows. John Darnielle talks about “Get Lonely” and tells us all that those shadows are the shadows of Chicago downtown, says something about how finding yourself in the darkness underneath them sometimes takes away that last little degree of light that apparently was keeping you together. The crowd cheers, I cheer, we all scream at how purely true this is, what a gift we’ve been given. Sometimes I go downtown trying to escape from the sadness that coats the back of my throat when I’m on my college campus and it works but also, it doesn’t really work. I am a very small girl, skin and bones assembled out of paper-mache and Elmer’s glue, probably. “Get Lonely” is all I am when I am the worst of myself: “I will get lonely,” a very small voice, not loud enough to even break. I want you to know that during this song I started to cry very loudly and I couldn’t stop, was petrified someone was going to ask me I was alright. I will get lonely and gasp for air, and look up at high windows and see your face there. I know exactly whose face I was thinking of – that is the strange thing about the Mountain Goats, this ability to make it seem like liminal personal truth and universal truth are the same thing.
I am trying to explain what happened and I am falling very short. Other people have talked about this, this inexplicable honesty, something magic and alchemical constructed out of strange lyrics and quiet music and an instrumental bit of interior self-loathing on the listener’s part. Stir, add a room full of people and sweat dripping down my back and a need, a need to be told I am allowed to be a person sometimes. To say that’s all it takes would be an insult, to the musicianship at work here, to the work put into this album – it’s a very good album. I’m not, though, in the kind of place where I can pretend that I wasn’t shaking to pieces during this show, that I was paying objective attention, that I was thinking of things that this piece was going to talk about.
The band leaves and it’s just John Darnielle on the stage with a keyboard and a piano and everything is very very still. JD starts a song, pauses, says he doesn’t play it live much. Tells us he wants us to put our phone cameras away, because it’s kinda intimate, y’know? I love him, I love the Mountain Goats. I feel suddenly like I will tear out the throat of anyone who is rude and horrible at this show. He has very kind eyes and I have an immense amount of faith in him, would probably ride behind him into a strange kind of holy war, if he were the kind of man who wanted to fight a holy war with anybody. This is not a thing he seems to want to elicit and I’m not proud of it, not proud of the way that I can’t entirely untangle my fierce fibrous love for the music and for the person who writes it. I think some of that is implicit in trusting the Mountain Goats. You have to trust them and you have to trust John Darnielle. I don’t think anybody took video of that song and I hope nobody took video of that song, only half out of selfishness. I mean, he asked us not to.
If this solo portion at the center of the set is its quiet heart, the rest of the show goes about dismantling me from the inside out. All I do is scream along. I’m a compulsive overthinker; everything gets processed, everything is aesthetic. Sometimes I go to shows and I can’t stop thinking about whether or not I am dancing correctly long enough to dance at all, and then “Up the Wolves” happens and I am thinking about nothing but the spite inside of me, how I would like to spit it out at the whole world.
I’m going to get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage
I’m going to bribe the officials, I’m going to kill all the judges
IT’S GOING TO TAKE YOU PEOPLE YEARS TO RECOVER FROM ALL OF THE DAMAGE
This is not a wholly sad show but it is all emotion, all catharsis, like coughing up blood in public, like freeing up the inside of your guts. “Foreign Object,” from the new Beat the Champ album, is an indescribable delight live – all brass and drums and a thousand people raucously screeching out “I PERSONALLY WILL STAB YOU IN THE EYE WITH A FOREIGN OBJECT”. You’re allowed to be mean, you are. It feels totally fair. You are allowed to want to hurt the people who hurt you (From the song a lot of people were hoping to hear that he didn’t sing in Chicago: I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night). “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1” forgives you for so many thing instantaneously:
Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat’s unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light
And stay alive
God, what kind of permission that is, what a thing. Stay there if you have to. Don’t hurt anybody but stay there if you have to. Do whatever it is you need to do. There is something very self-indulgently cathartic about a Mountain Goats show. Song after song and you start to think (inevitably, if you’re like me) that your life cannot possibly be this important. You cannot possibly be told that you are alive, that you are supposed to stay alive, so many times in one night. I don’t deserve it. I am not supposed to have this. I would say that I’ve never felt as powerful as when I was snarling out it’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage with a thousand other people but that would be lying, would be wiping away a thousand other things this show gave to me, so many other songs: speed up to the precipice / then slam on the brakes (“Cry For Judas”, raucous, joyful); the dull pain that you live with isn’t getting any duller (“The Young Thousands”, matter-of-fact); I don’t wanna die in here (“Heel Turn 2”, ecstatic.) It should feel trite but instead it doesn’t, just feels instinctive. What a thing, right, to make wanting to live instinctive. There is this howling thing inside of my chest that wants to be happy and even then it only sometimes wants to live. But if you say something over and over long enough it is instinctive, sinks down into your bones like it got carved there, a talisman. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me. Stay alive. Land mines on the battlefield, find one safe way and stay alive. I don’t wanna die in here. That, then, the key line of two separate songs: I don’t wanna die in here. I feel like I’m crawling out of some damp cocoon of foggy loneliness and it’s awful and it hurts and it would be so much easier to go back to sleeping but probably I would eventually suffocate.
They played all the famous stuff and I wanted that, I’ll admit it. I’m such a baby fan (barely allowed into the venue), I wanted to hear “No Children,” I wanted to hear “This Year,” I wanted to hear “Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I was right to want those things, and I think I did want them for the right reasons; a thousand people singing “I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE,” a thousand people singing “I AM GONNA MAKE IT THROUGH THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME,” a thousand people singing “HAIL SATAN.” JD kinda laughed about it, said there were two songs everyone wanted to hear when they came to these shows and he was going to play both of them, because we deserved it. This is the best way I know how to explain: every single second of this show felt like a gift, an earned gift, a gift given to me because I deserve it. I don’t think I deserve to be told over and over again to claw my way past the sludge filling up my insides towards some sort of light but I guess I do, apparently I do. He kept saying ‘thank you’ and I still haven’t figured out how to parse it, how to synthesize my immense gratefulness with being thanked. I want to see them again. I want to see them every weekend for a million years, probably, in exactly this way: barely get into the venue, sneak a beer, cry my eyes out. This seems, now, like the way of things.
They played all the famous stuff but what I remember best, I think, is still one of those new songs: “Animal Mask”. I am humming it now still but what’s darting around in my head is the muscle memory of singing along to it very softly, the way it felt like I was capable of anything, worth everything, glowing.
Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever.
Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan
Cry for Judas
The Young Thousands
Heel Turn 2
Song for My Stepfather (unreleased)
Heel Turn 1 (unreleased)
Never Quite Free
Slow West Vultures
Up the Wolves
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1
The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton
Spent Gladiator 2
The thing about The Family Jewels is that nothing is subtle, nothing is hidden. Every one of its themes is displayed like a chip on its shoulder. Family Jewels is muscular, guttural, too much organic pushing through the plastic surface. That is the beauty of this album, honestly, the thing that makes it kind of enthralling and incandescent. The thing about The Family Jewels is it opens with a thesis song, a song that is so overtly a thesis that it seems almost laughable, ought to loop back around on itself and be reflexively unimportant. That is something to be considered about this album, the brash overtness of it, the way it seems to spit all of your own worst fears back at you.
Family Jewels opens with “Are You Satisfied?” which I almost can’t listen to anymore. It’s too much, this rapid-fire litany of the things I used to be and still am afraid of. They say I’m a control freak, driven by a need to succeed. I mean, as a lyric it’s almost laughable, right? Who even rhymes “need” with “succeed”? People read this as smugness a lot, as some sort of tongue-in-cheek reversible truth-telling, but I don’t know. There is something fundamentally true here, about the conversation between “I’m a control freak” and “They say I’m a control freak”, not mutually exclusive but words and worlds apart. “Are You Satisfied?” is like that, too much for me then and still too much for me now. It’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die. I used to be infinitely more lonely and suicidal than I am now and there is something about this, implacably clear about its intention, that comforts me. There is something in that plainness, god, it’s like being punched in the gut. I have no friends and feel I want to die. The chorus of this song is like being endlessly goaded. Are you satisfied with an average life? Do I need to lie to make my way in life? Are you, are you, are you? Better not say yes. Better not ever be satisfied. It drags you along, doesn’t pretend not to.
It is hard to explain how I used to hold this song particularly close. It was on my “getting into college” mix, would you believe that, sixteen year old me bullying herself into wanting things properly, correctly, with the right amount of desperation. (I have never needed encouragement to want things desperately.) It is so easy to breeze right through the pronoun switch here, from “you” to “I” without a second thought. There is a beautiful, horrifying elasticity to this, either someone goading you and then suddenly turning thoughtful or you yourself becoming the vocalizer of all these doubts. There’s truth in that, too, the voice coming from inside: “it’s my problem that I never am happy”, too self-aware, too much.
“Oh No!” is, probably, the album’s clearest pair with “Are You Satisfied?”, equally interested in the shiny skin that ambition drags over all of our insides. “Oh No!” is such a good pop song, is the thing. It is so aggressively punchy, nearly comical in how exaggerated the beat is, how much she twists her voice so that it becomes percussive and throaty. Don’t do love, don’t do friends, I’m only after success. Don’t need a re-llllay-shun-ship, I’ll never soften my grip. It’s a litany, a thing repeated enough times to make it true.
One track mind, one track heart
If I fail, I’ll fall apart
Maybe it is all a test
Cause I feel like I’m the worst
So I always act like I’m the best
Listen, it’s very easy to know things about myself if they’re always couched in metaphor. It’s comfortable that way, personality test results, you know. Nice things, only vaguely tangible, applicable if I tilt my head and squint. I’ve taken so many personality tests in my life and then there is this. ONE TRACK MIND, ONE TRACK HEART. IF I FAIL, I’LL FALL APART. There is no room to hide here. I feel like I’m the worst / So I always act like I’m the best: the way that this album talks about performativity is strange to me, so purposefully unperformative, the clearest conceit of sincerity I’ve ever seen. That sincerity, in and of itself, is a challenge.
It is strangely affirmative, to sing along with this song. I feel like I’m the worst so I always act like I’m the best!!!! at the top of my lungs. Isn’t it embarrassing, to be told these things about someone else, without even a little sense that it’s all an ironic joke? I feel like I’m the worst. The album seems to grin, seems to dare you to be embarassed. These songs are produced to an ultra-shine gloss and there is still something naked about them. “Oh No!” has the words I just want a change / I just wanna change over and over again. It’s not clear which it is, if you’re the one that’s changing or just the stuff around you. It doesn’t matter. I just want a change drags the importance of change, any kind of change, throughout the entire album. This album hurls the worst things about yourself back at you, reflexively hyper-honest in its performativity, the sincerity that could seem ironic reflected back as not ironic at all. That’s good, though. It reminds you to be a person. It reminds you that things can still hurt you.
If “Are You Satisfied?” is this album’s initial thesis, then “I Am Not A Robot” is the clearest resolution of that thesis. Listen: when I was thirteen and fourteen and fifteen, I liked to pretend I was a robot, just a cool gaze and a bundle of wires where my guts ought to be. A terrifying apparition, this dimpled frizzy-haired scion-minded child, her eyes set only upwards and forwards. I pictured myself: my skin enameled, the inside of me cool and gleaming. I was a frantic mess and being human was very complicated and so at some point I just decided not, not to be, not to feel anything. I was good at it, for a while: I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy (oh no!) But people aren’t meant to do that for too long. You’re vulnerable, so vulnerable, you are not a robot. I am not a robot and “Are You Satisfied?” doesn’t become reflexively unimportant, exactly, just reflexively kind. It is not particularly tender but its brutality transforms into a kind of triage. Its ruthless dissection of my flaws is the logical extension of “you’re vulnerable” – here, look, she’ll prove it.
Without “I Am Not A Robot” this might just be an album full of things I am still trying to unlearn, figuring out how to accept being a person, being both soft and made of brambles. With this song, though, every other self-fulfilled prophecy becomes a kindness, a reminder. “I Am Not A Robot” opens “you’ve been acting awful tough lately” and is so laughably warm and fond, ought to be patronizing but isn’t. Once you listen to “I Am Not A Robot”, “it’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die”, is, at the very least, a confession of vulnerability. I used to believe very secretly but very firmly that if you cut me open all that ought to come out would be wires, every failure a simply malfunction, the only necessary remedy a simple rewiring. (Thinking of my insides as flowers instead of circuitry is not more true but it is better, I think.) If I fail I’ll fall apart directly refutes that, is so desperately uncomfortable because it forces the idea of vulnerability. Vulnerability is not inherently a good thing but it is a true thing, a human thing. Robots do not fall apart. Robots are rebooted, robots are rewired. You are not a robot, I am not a robot.
The chorus of “Oh No!” comes back again, still far too close:
I know exactly what I want and who I want to be
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine
I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine, not as a machine. This is the album’s triumphant proposal: you know you’re a person because you try so hard not to be. I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine. God, it is so human to pretend you’re not a person. It’s such a silly, person-thing to do. The “I know exactly” falls away in the face of “I Am Not A Robot”‘s you’ve been acting awful tough lately, but what remains is the desperation. The Family Jewels throws your own vulnerability back into your face and it also grants you this: I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy. This line still scares me, this song still scares me. It doesn’t seem like a kindness at first, but it is. The empathy of process: you’re becoming. It doesn’t matter what, not really; what matters is the becoming itself. I just want a change, I just want to change. You are allowed to be desperate and amorphous, always just short of that gleaming iconography. You are meant to fail. We are all becoming. We are all terrified.
The Family Jewels ends on “Numb”: The lower I get the higher I’ll climb / And I will wonder why I got dark only to shine.
I loved the first Purity Ring album very much. I loved the first Purity Ring album very much and this is a different beast. Sophomore albums are hard—there’s always the sophomore slump but even perfectly good bands who don’t suffer from that can seem to stagnate, get caught in one of the jerky uncomfortable phases of a growth spurt. another eternity (out 3/3 on 4AD) is not an album where that happens. another eternity is very different from Purity Ring’s debut and it knows it, embraces it. Listening to Shrines felt kind of like listening to maggots crawl into your bone marrow. another eternity, on the other hand, is invested in unsettling you through terrifying openness, rather than through claustrophobia—it’s filled with glittery synths and syncopated, airy choruses and it doesn’t sound quite so much like it’s trying to crush itself down around your ribcage. Instead, it sometimes feels like the album is invested in peeling back your skin, making you vulnerable. There are moments on another eternity of purposeful ugliness, but its ugliness spews out into the luminous openness of the album itself. another eternity is only ten songs long, most of which barely top out over three minutes long; it feels short, feels concise. It’s beautifully composed that way, cohesive. Half the time it feels like one really long song.
The album opens with “heartsigh”, which has a beginning that sounds like Christmas and is, generally, the sonic equivalent of a beautiful bubbly glass of champagne. It sounds so overwhelmingly happy that you have to search for the strangeness for a moment. It’s there, underneath all that gauze, and it’s important that you have to look for it. “Whisk away your heart-sigh and bury it in mine” says Megan James in her baby-voice and it’s an invitation, a lamentation. Brush away the things that you are scared of. Let her swallow them up. Everything sounds more terrifying in her doll-voice, somehow, earnest and coy all at once. “heartsigh”, in all its champagne-bubble glory, fizzles away eventually, and it is “bodyache”, the album’s second song, that really launches it.
“bodyache” is the third single off the album, and it is a beautiful breathy thing, another eternity stretching its muscles for the first time. Purity Ring used the adjective “muscular” to describe this album and “bodyache” is the first time that really comes through, the synths throwing their weight around. The heart of the song is a chorus in stuttered gasps: “I-I-I lied now I’m lying awake / I-I-I cried til my body ache”, repeated over and over. The bridge declares “I wanna know: what’s your quietest feeling?” The song is filled with twinkling flourishes and chimes, sounds almost like a strange winter wonderland if taken out of context. It’s also filled with the impossibility of emotion, the stark overwhelming nature of internalized and externalized feeling. Shrines was claustrophobic but this is almost horrifyingly, awe-inspiringly open: “I cried til my body—” And then nothing.
The first time I heard this I flinched. The first time I heard this it was so pretty and yet my instinct was still to back away, to turn around. “What’s your quietest feeling?” asks Megan James and it is as much something that crawls up inside of you and turns the lights on as my favorite line from Shrines: “Get a little closer, let fold / cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you.” “What’s your quietest feeling?” so that it can be cloaked., like all things should, in this strange swirl of pop before it is birthed into the world.
The front half of the album is entirely glittery, luminous pop songs, galactic; the back half is populated by songs that sound, at the very least, much more like Purity Ring’s first album. The instrumentation is less filmy, the structures less open. Despite that, these songs are still essentially an excavation rather than simply a burrowing. They drag you out into the light.
“flood on the floor” is one of my favorite songs from this album, mostly because it is horrifyingly incoherent. The lines leading up to the chorus are specific: “I miss keepin you / I hope you’re sleeping too” but the chorus is not. “I hope you’re—“ and then a crescendo of beat, a wordless reply. “I hope you’re—SCREACH” and then nothing, nothing specific, an infinitely ugly amount of hope. I’LL TAKE YOU OUT AND UP IN LIGHT / I’LL BURY YOU GOOD AND STRAIGHT AND RIGHT says the bridge and I should feel threatened but mostly I feel comforted. What I am drawn to in this song is what I am drawn to in this album: the strange duality between what is predatory and what is just knowing, comforting. “I can taste your vulnerable parts” sings Megan James on “sea castle”, which is a song that sounds approximately like its sung by an imaginary band composed purely of broken china-dolls. “I can taste your vulnerable parts” isn’t vicious, doesn’t relish in its knowledge, is strangely tender with you. “I can taste your vulnerable parts” is not not the same as I’ll eat you up, I love you so. “I can taste your vulnerable parts” because she knows you have them, because it is impossible to deny.
The album closes with “stillness in woe”, possibly the most melodramatic title in the world. I didn’t buy this song the first time out, alright, I didn’t. Not even “don’t be afraid if it’s a little bit close”, a repetition of sentiment that I am now enamored by, convinced me. But you make it to the end of the song and you have
I’ll pry the door from its bolts
I’ve been hiding out for days and nothing’s growing
There’s a breath left in there, all I would say
Wait for the storm, take it away, I’m seeing double
The first time I heard this song I moved the track back five seconds and played this verse over and over again, probably a dozen times. I’ve been hiding out for days and nothing’s growing is sometimes all that I can conceive of myself as; I am someone who hides and I am someone who kills every plant she touches, sucks the life right out of it. It’s cold in Chicago right now and the sun refuses to shine and it keeps snowing and today I sat in a tiny deserted building trying not to cry for a long, long while. What’s your quietest feeling? It’s a very quiet feeling, this acknowledgement of rot inside of yourself. I’ll pry the door from its bolts, I’ve been hiding out for days and nothing’s growing. You are allowed to be emotional about things that are trite if they are in pop songs, I think, is the thing.
I am grateful for this the same way I was once grateful for “there’s a cult inside of me”. I am scared of it, just a little bit, but I used to be a scared 15-year-old who wanted to disappear into something—the last thing I wanted was openness. another eternity would have terrified me, the gaping strangeness of it laying you bare, even through all the glitter and gauze. “I can taste your vulnerable parts,” part and parcel of an album that starts with “whisk away your heart-sigh, bury it in mine”. There are no crannies to crawl into here. All of them have been purposefully exhumed, the light shone in.
I love Sufjan Stevens immensely, with my whole heart. I will admit that and I will admit that with no caveats, no messy embarrassing notes. I love Sufjan Stevens with my whole heart and his affinity for singing about immensely strange things very quietly wormed its way into my ribcage when I was young and brought along with it some kind of fondness for his sense of truth, too. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is the first single from his new album, Carrie & Lowell (out 3/31 on Asthmatic Kitty). He released an album trailer in January and it is a minute long and I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times. It’s been so long, it’s been five years since the All Delighted People EP. Five years ago I was twelve years old (yes, it’s true, I’m the youngest here) and mostly listened to Sufjan Stevens on long road-trips, trying to eat my gas-station potato chips more quietly so that I could hear “Chicago” in my tinny headphones over the rush of the highway around me (all things go, all things go). I spent most of that year pretending I was a robot but listening to Sufjan Stevens has always made me feel like I am the most vulnerable, overwrought parts of myself. This is why I mean it when I say that even though Carrie & Lowell is heralded nominally as a return to his folk roots, I don’t really care about that. I just care a lot about this song, about this music.
“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is not a long song, doesn’t even scrape the 3 minute mark. There’s not a lot to it. Sufjan’s voice is not spectacular, even layered on top of itself five times, and there is just a tiny finger-picked guitar in the background and nothing about this song punches; it just aches. “Now that I fell into your arms” is held so long on such a sparse breath that it feels like he’s going to suffocate. Half of this song is a whisper, tremulous, barely present. There seems to be an enormous strain in singing so quietly.
The best Sufjan songs form symbiotic relationships with the insides of you and I am sitting here, looking at the snow on the rooftops of my university and it is very difficult to breathe. Sometimes your hurt needs to be affirmed loudly and sometimes it doesn’t. “I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart / lonely vampire inhaling its fire” is, god, such a silly lyric, and I haven’t even talked about the part of the song with dragons. It’s so dumb, but don’t you feel it? There is this hopeful lilt at the end of “through the center of my heart,” like even the ugliest things can be made beautiful.
There’s blood on that blade
Fuck me, I’m falling apart
My assassin, like Casper the ghost
There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross
This is the silliest lyric. When I use the word “silly,” I mean it very tenderly, both tender in respects to Sufjan and tender in respects to myself. Tender towards Sufjan for this metaphor, “my assassin like Casper the ghost” and tender towards the stringy guts inside of myself that feel it anyway. This is a Sufjan Stevens song and that means it is possibly about God or possibly about love and comprised of harmonies and sighing. “I take one more hit when you depart,” and there it is. This is good music to listen to while crying, I’m serious, because you start laughing and you wipe your mascara off on the back of your hand and “Casper the ghost,” seriously?
This song feels like it ought to be twice as long, feels like it ends in the middle of a sentence. It feels like part of a story unspoken and it’s still more than a month until the album comes out and I am trembling on the edge of excited. It’s such a done thing, to care about Sufjan Stevens, but this is music constructed to excavate the parts of me that are still twelve years old – I can’t help it.
Purity Ring’s music is really strange and I love them. “There’s a cult / there’s a cult inside of me / form a salt / sprinkle it around me” is the first line of my favorite song from 2012 debut Shrines. Purity Ring is an electronic music duo from Edmonton, formed in the depths of 2010; consisting of vocalist Megan James and instrumentalist Corrin Roddick. When they debuted they billed themselves as “future-pop”, which doesn’t mean anything but is kind of feckless and charming, nonetheless. They’ve recently released two songs in anticipation of their upcoming second full-length, Another Eternity (out on 3/3!) via 4AD.
Shrines was terrifying in its physicality, this strange warped electronica on top of Megan James’ sugar-coated, childlike voice. Megan writes lyrics that crawl up inside of you: “get a little closer, let fold / cut open my sternum, and pull / my little ribs around you / the lungs of me be crowns over you” (“Fineshrine”, 2012.) They wormed their way into the bones of me, reflexively. Their new music does the same thing. The press release for Another Eternity says “Purity Ring trade the gorgeously claustrophobic atmospheres of Shrines for wide-open, muscular vistas of sound and luminous, up-front vocals” and luminous is a good adjective for the first songs we’ve heard from Another Eternity.
Purity Ring are obsessed with spaces, with spaces internal and external, with rooms inside of bodies and the rooms taken up by bodies. “There’s a cult inside of me” from “Saltkin” but also “you make a fine shrine in me” from the closest thing Shrines had to a title track, “Fineshrines.” “push pull” opens “you were young and you’d stare / with a reverence unimpaired” and is, ultimately, about reverence and irreverence. Knowing a person is about taking up their space and allowing them to take up your space, both inside and outside of you. It’s a process that demands both reverence and irreverence. “push pull” is a song about occupying space inside of someone, about occupying space inside of your own self. “You push and you pull / but you’d never know / I crept up in you / and I would never let go.” There’s barely instrumentation here, mostly glittering-bright synths. The word muscular comes to mind again, not in the sense of force but simply in the sense of tactile. Listening to Purity Ring is like feeling your muscles stretch, like chewing on bubble-gum long after it’s lost all its taste, inherently textural. That’s why I call them “creepy” so often, a creepy I mean in a specific way: this is text-as-texture, “I crept up in you” both as lyric and as physical sensation.
“begin again” is the most recent of the two new released songs, and is a strange twinkling electro-pop confection filled with celestial metaphors and Megan James’ voice, alternately high and crystalline and low and murmuring. There is something inevitable about it. The drums beat out a military time. Endless echos of the title roll through the song, like an order. Megan James says “you’ll be the moon, I’ll be the earth / and when we burst / start over, oh darling / begin again” and then, over and over, “begin again”, “begin again”, “begin again” and you are given permission (incentive) to listen and re-listen. When I first listened to Shrines I scrawled “there’s a cult inside of me” up the inside of my leg and felt strange and holy for a good week until it washed off, there’s a cult there’s a cult inside of me.
The beauty was in the act of enfolding, enclosing. Listening to “begin again,” I feel like the opposite happens: the inside of me opens up, bare to the whole world. Celestial immensity paired with the implicit difficulty of holding your own skin together in the face of that celestial immensity: “you’ll be the moon, I’ll be the earth / and when we burst / start over.” Nothing is static, nothing remains. This is beautiful music and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. This is beautiful music and Megan James has a beautiful baby-doll voice that is merciless in the way it slips underneath your skin, luminous.
It stresses me out when people ask me what kind of music I listen to. If it’s a guy I always want them to leave me alone and if it’s a woman I always feel this strange need to justify myself, to say “pop music” and then quantify that “pop music” with a million descriptors. No, you don’t understand, I care about this. Listen, pop is something that it’s weird to try and define. So much of the way we think of it is inextricably linked not just with the way pop sounds, with the things pop talks about, but with the people who make it—Pop Stars, right? To figure out what elementary particles are made of physicists hurl them at each other at astronomically high speeds until they break apart, and that seems inelegant to me. Sometimes to define something you have to make your way around the edges of it. It means something when artists aspire to pop stardom without the audience that is necessary to be a Pop Star. They’re important of themselves but they help us find the edges of this thing, this pop thing, mythology and ravenous intimacy colliding in the shining intersection point between closeness and farness.
There is a kind of mythic scale that comes with all good pop music, right, the knowledge that even tiny things can seem important and therefore be important. Lana Del Rey is good at this, at the casual mythologization of experience: “now my life is sweet like cinnamon / like a fucking dream I’m living in / baby love me cause I’m singing on the radio” (“Radio”, 2012). Life sweet like cinnamon, intimacy almost embarrassing, but then immediately turned outward again. All good Lana songs are like that: you can’t tell where she ends and the iconography begins. That’s kind of the point.
Zella Day is also like that. Zella Day has blonde mermaid hair and a crooning honey-lark voice and songs that are almost laughable in their metaphors and then, suddenly, not. She has seven whole songs and all of them are devastating to me, honestly, truly, I am overwhelmed by her. She sounds either like she’s dying or praying half the time and it is so beautiful. She released a six-song EP just called Zella Day in 2014 and isn’t that how all good pop stars begin and end, with their names? There is an aspect of introduction but the naming of self is also inherently definitional: you should know who Zella Day is and she’s going to assume you do until you actually do—the act of Being Pop Star before it’s a safe bet, before there’s any scope to it. The best song on Zella Day is called “East of Eden,” and it is entirely made of myth, it makes no sense, it’s about aesthetic and scale and the immensity of a near-divine landscape mixed with the microscopic texture of a life.
The title invokes the Bible and the chorus invokes the Bible too but there is intimacy pushed right up against this myth like you push a voice to breaking—the verse “pink toes pressed against the carpet / show your face, finish what you started” against the chorus “keep me from the cages under the control / running in the dark to find East of Eden.” Like, that doesn’t even mean anything. The verse is unremarkable without the chorus and the chorus is nonsensical without the verse but in the mixing of them, like the dissonance between two unsuited notes, there is some kind of truth. What is “running through the cages” without “the record spins down the alley late night”? I think a lot about the immensity of very small things, of knowing the feel of someone’s carpet better than you know the feel of your own, of laughing with someone in the street at night, of the things that drive people to write stories about cages and tigers and gardens. This is the thing about pop, right, that pop is a place where these two things coexist. In this song they barely brush against each other, the distinction is clear; nearness opens up into legend and stays that way. This is the difference, ultimately, between the myth of Zella Day and the myth of Lana Del Rey, between almost pop star and Pop Star. For Lana, the dissonance between scope and microcosm narrows and narrows until its one and the same thing, reflexively. The audience is listening to an epic, the audience is an interloper into an intimate moment, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter. Baby love me ’cause I’m singing on the radio. Maybe that’s what it means, to be a Pop Star, that the stuff you show and the stuff you hide are the same thing. My other favorite Zella Day song is called “1965” and my favorite line is “You had me spinnin’ in the midnight summer grass / I never had nobody touch me like I’m glass.” Her voice feels like it’s going to snap in half and so do I.
We in the nuclear seasons, summer lovin’ in the backseat gone
Now I’m facing this on my own ’cause you tasted the blast
and it shook your bones
I’m a warrior all alone, in the field of lies, I won’t go home
–”Nuclear Seasons“, Charli XCX
We found love in a hopeless place
We found love in a hopeless place
Shine a light through an open door
– “We Found Love”, Rihanna
The flip-side of myth is viscera, and with viscera comes hunger: let’s talk about Allie X.
I love Allie X a lot. I’m going to come right out and say it—I wouldn’t be talking about these songs if I didn’t sing them in the shower, hum them obsessively, chew on them almost violently. She has three songs and all of them are good, and Katy Perry called “Catch” a “spring jam” which is true but is, frankly, a dismissal of its overwhelming knife-edged keenness. Allie X makes nasty hungry pop music reminiscent of early Charli XCX, only meaner, which is frankly a miracle. “Prime” is my favorite, an almost eerily optimistic beat and her voice bubblegum-textured stretching over top.
Why not give it a try? Be a beautiful monstrosity
When you’re just getting by / and happily terminal
Yeah, breathe it in ‘til we’re high / Healthy isn’t fun or amusing
Forget what I need / Give me what I want
And I should be fine
Look, what I am trying to say is this: “Healthy isn’t fun or amusing” is not the same thing as “I don’t want to be healthy,” is in fact the clearest crystallization of an inability to find yourself healthy, and happy. “Healthy isn’t fun or amusing” is hunger and then swallowing whole of that hunger, devouring/being devoured as the ultimate precursor to what being a Pop Star means: seeing and being seen. In a kind of reverse-viscera, the Allie-articulated hunger of “Prime” becomes a kind of precursor for the audience’s involuntary hunger in Pop, capital P. In 2009 Lady Gaga released The Fame Monster and there is a song on The Fame Monster called “Teeth” and the chorus is all hunger, turned outward at the audience: “Don’t be scared / I’ve done this before / show me your teeth” and then “take a bite of my bad girl meat.” That hunger is externalized, pushed onto the sung-about and not the singer. You are hungry, take a bite of me. The hunger of Lady Gaga herself seems reflexive, even though the song comes from her: anyone who is that obsessed with teeth must be starving. The hunger is all in the frame of the vocal, in the staccato gasps backing it.
“Forget what I need / Give me what I want” is not the same as “SHOW ME YOUR TEETH” but they are both ravenous, ravenous, ravenous. Before you can veil yourself in being-seen the hunger has to be there and again we find the edges of something. Before you build your fame from hunger you have to create that hunger, need to create the meat. “Bad girl meat” is just the bad girl, made of badness and made of teeth. Why not give it a try: be a beautiful monstrosity. FORGET WHAT I NEED GIVE ME WHAT I WANT AND I SHOULD BE FINE. There is a nakedness in existing in a space before fame but there is also an urge to carve the shape of yourself out of a void, I suppose. Ke$ha wrote “Cannibal” but even there, god, even in a song literally about eating someone there is a man’s voice in the background saying “I’ll eat you up” as she screams “I am CANNIBAL!” , the boundaries of devourer and devoured melding with the boundaries between watcher and watched.
Feels like the crowd is saying
Gimme gimme more
– “Gimme More“, Britney Spears
I’m all strung out, my heart is fried
I just can’t get you off my mind!
Because your love, your love, your love is my drug
– “Your Love Is My Drug“, Ke$ha
Trying to define the boundaries, those edges, of pop music is boring and futile but maybe we can walk along its bones for a little while, the ribs of it before it gets wrapped in the implicit understanding between very large audience and very, very famous artist. Zella Day and Allie X make good music and interesting music and also its good, I think, to try and figure out what it means to be a pop musician without being a pop star, even an aspirational one. Those are the bones of externalization that is actually internalization, of saying something that’s yours without giving part of it over to the audience. Britney says GIMME GIMME MORE and it’s an amorphous statement, audience and speaker as one. Lana says “tell me I’m your national anthem” and it means both “I am as huge as the sky” and “make me as huge as the sky.” Zella Day and Allie X don’t exist inside of that paradigm yet but they still have plenty of things to say, music that burrows inside of you. Listen to it, listen to it, listen to it. Be a beautiful monstrosity.
Island Records; 2015.
It’s pretty impossible to talk about one Fall Out Boy album without talking about every Fall Out Boy album, at least a little bit. That’s most true for their post-hiatus material, which has appeared more prolifically and more quickly than I think any of us could have expected. If you’d asked me in 2008 what another Fall Out Boy album would sound like I would probably have just said “perfect,” fresh off the high of Folie à Deux. If you’d asked me after Save Rock and Roll I would have had no idea. American Beauty/American Psycho is not a perfect album. Save Rock and Roll almost was. AB/AP feels, in some ways, to be the spiritual cousin not to any of Fall Out Boy’s past albums, but to the space between them, to a fundamental acknowledgement that the band is older now, that its member are older now. It’s filled with regret, with waiting, with the past, with Pete Wentz’s undeniable Peter Pan complex. That being said, this is a deeply dynamic album. Every song is catchy, every song is produced to a shine—“Irresistible” opens with a trumpet, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” with a catchy whistle. The first half of the album, up to “Uma Thurman,” is almost entirely up-tempo, and feels shorter than it actually is. “Uma Thurman” is probably the standout non-single on AB/AP. We get some of the record’s ugliest, growliest vocals, and those vocals lead nicely into the later mid-tempo songs. It’s a good song on a good album, and it really is a good album. Still, at times it seems to be missing something.
There is loss, here – loss of sense of place, so integral to Fall Out Boy’s earlier material. Not a mention of Chicago, but plenty of mentions of Seattle and Los Angeles, even France (there’s a surprising amount of French scattered throughout the album, as if in quiet homage to their 2008 album Folie à Deux, not widely loved but probably a quiet masterpiece in and of itself.) Their production is slicker than it’s been before, it opens up more space – the songs feel bigger, less intimate, more anthemic. Part of the appeal of early Fall Out Boy was the unpolished ugliness, the sense that you were almost too close to Patrick Stump’s voice. They gave you emotional truth via claustrophobia. There’s not a lot of that on this album. Lyrics have been pared down even more from Save Rock and Roll, especially the choruses—you still have to work to parse Pete Wentz’s intricate, rapid-fire metaphors on first listen, but they’re more sparsely spread. Much of the melodic heart of this album rests on oooh-ooooh-ooohs, on repetition, on chanted choruses that are going to sound great in stadiums. That’s not a bad thing—Patrick Stump has only become a better singer as he’s gotten older, and there’s something about his voice, repeating the same thing over and over and over that makes it feel almost like a ritualistic experience, listening to these songs. Your headspace changes when you’re trying to hear yourself into all that emptiness.
This is an older Fall Out Boy, a more mature, restrained Fall Out Boy. Save Rock and Roll was powered by fury, by rage, burning hot: put on your war paint. AB/AP is less visionary than Save Rock and Roll, less precocious and political than Folie à Deux, less overwhelmingly lovable than Infinity On High, less hungry than From Under the Corktree. It is precise, though. It is vicious. It’s Fall Out Boy that remembers exactly what it means to be Fall Out Boy, fascinated by their own legacy. “Centuries” was the first released song from that album and that’s important, has always been important: “We’ll go down in history / remember me for centuries.” This is a band that has always been obsessed with being remembered, with us as listener looking in and them as watcher looking out at us looking in. “Centuries” recalls so much of their early lyrical content, obsessed with dying out and fading away. They’ve proved that they can withstand the passage of time, and they’ve done that sounding drastically different than ever before. “Immortals,” too, picks up this theme at the tail-end of the album: “I am the sand in the bottom half of the hour glass / I try to picture me without you but I can’t / We could be immortals / Just not for long, for long.” This is the natural thematic evolution of all the material that’s come before it even if sometimes the music feels a little hollow. And it does—sometimes Fall Out Boy seems to lose themselves underneath all that production, underneath the echo chamber. None of these songs feel intimate, not in the same way that even “Save Rock and Roll”, their last album’s title track, did.
Still, I’m sitting here and listening to “The Kids Aren’t Alright” and genuinely crying a little bit. In 2007 this band sang “we do it in the dark / with smiles on our faces” and they were talking about making an album but I always held that close to my heart like a token. “I’d do it all again / I think you’re my best friend” makes me feel the same way—protected, heard. An invitation: “empty your sadness / like you’re dumping your purse on my bedroom floor.” That idea, then, overwhelmingly domestic: come into my house and I will keep you safe. Come into my house and lay down your burden, make things easier on yourself, dump your sadness out with used tissues and candy bar wrappers, with old lipsticks and empty Tylenol bottles. This is not music meant to make you happy, not really, but it does succeed in making me feel like I can come home after a long day and put this album on and sink down into it, submerge myself, never come up again. The kids aren’t alright but they don’t have to be.
Listen: Fall Out Boy have always been in the business of taking care of us. Not in an evangelizing way, not in a patronizing way, just: Pete Wentz said on his blog in 2008 that you should “never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you” and this is still, years and years later, Fall Out Boy bleeding for you. It sounds different, and I miss parts of that sound—the claustrophobic guitars, baby Patrick Stump’s bellowing and still somehow little voice, the sense that you were right there in the room with them, “landing on a runway in Chicago.” But, in the midst of this album about navigating fame and the idea of your own legacy, in the midst of all this beautiful slick production something emerges: never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you. “In the end I’d do it all again / I think you’re my best friend. / Don’t you know that the kids aren’t alright?” Fall Out Boy has always been good at writing love songs that aren’t love songs at all, and this is one of them. Another is “Favorite Record”, which barely made it onto the album but was included because Pete Wentz thought the fans would like it: “do, do you, do you remember…./ you were the song stuck in my head, every song I’ve ever loved.” This is so close to things they’ve written about before that despite my fervent belief in self-reference as artistic process, I’m almost bemused: “We’re the therapists pumping through your speakers” (From Under the Cork Tree, 2005); “we only want to sing you to sleep” (Infinity on High, 2007); “I will save the songs that we can’t stop singing” (Save Rock and Roll, 2013). Fall Out Boy believes they are helping you because they believe that music can help you and so do I, and that is why I love this album even though it’s not my favorite (or the best, but what does that matter) album Fall Out Boy has ever made. I love this album because of “you were the song stuck in my head” sung not just to anyone but to me, to us, so that when we get this song stuck in our heads it’s like a strange reverse-affirmation. You are valuable because the music thinks you’re valuable, because you’re worth taking care of.
Never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you, and this is still a band that wants to. American Beauty/American Psycho doesn’t always sound like a Fall Out Boy album but it feels like one. There is loss, but there is gain as well. 3/5 incomprehensible choruses.