I Point at the Things That I Wish to Command
59 · 14 March 96
Too Much Joy: ...Finally
The list of people whom I will make newly rich when I take over the universe is, as you will probably have deduced if you read this column regularly, long, but there aren't many on it ahead of Too Much Joy. I'm lining up the honors of state, too, for my regime, and one of them is that Too Much Joy will get to write the new National Anthem. I have full confidence that no confirmation hearing will interfere with this appointment. The main reason for this, of course, is that I will be doing away with confirmation hearings in the interest of dictatorial efficiency, but even if I weren't, I think I can explain the rationale for this assignment well enough that I'd have no trouble finding half a dozen or so intelligent humans (and I'm not intimating that any people of this type are currently in government) who would ratify my choice. There is simply no band in the world today with a better grasp of anthem.
Anthems are harder than they might appear, and easier, and more dangerous. The easiest part of an anthem is the music. The point of an anthem is for people to sing it and draw sustenance from the act. For this to work, the anthem has to be easy enough to sing that even people without much singing talent can enjoy the experience instead of concentrating on their vocal inadequacies. The current US anthem is, on this count, a dismal failure, as with the exception of the concluding bit about the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's unnecessarily and unsatisfyingly difficult to perform. If you pick a random person out of a football crowd and shove a microphone in their face, they ought to be able to lead the stadium in a rousing rendition of the national anthem, I believe, or else what's the point of having one? I mean, look how easy it is to fire up a boisterous round of "Happy Birthday"; anybody can sing it, or close enough, and if you look at a crowd of people right when they finish it, they're smiling. The recipient isn't frowning at inaccurate pitches, and the singers aren't wishing they'd rehearsed more beforehand. You can sing it in a monotone and, if you at least catch onto the basic cadences, not ruin the chorus. You can sing it drunk. You can sing it into answering machines. It is durable and forgiving. "The Star-Spangled Banner", by contrast, is best left to trained specialists, and when's the last time you saw anybody smiling during it?
Writing lyrics for anthems is either as easy as the music, or substantially harder, depending on how much sophistication and moral depth you wish to imbue them with. Formally, all you need is something that people will sing spiritedly; "We Will Rock You" / "We Are the Champions" is perhaps the archetypical double-A sided single of the simple approach to anthem librettos. If you're going for something slightly more involved than generic positivism, though (and both Queen songs are the anthem equivalents of those "You've tried the rest, now try the best!" boxes every small-time pizza restaurant has), you've got to find some words that capture something unique about the spirit of whomever it is you're writing the anthem for. On this count "The Star-Spangled Banner" fared much better at the time of its writing, though now that the US is a superpower, not a struggling rebel alliance, most of it is pretty inapplicable and irrelevant.
The really difficult part about writing an anthem with moral and artistic worth (not that many actually try to, mind you) has to do with the very separation between an anthem's music and its lyrics. That is, a musically successful anthem will be rousing almost no matter what its lyrics are (as the chorus of "No Sleep Till Brooklyn", to pick a random example, bears witness), and to the moral anthem writer, this power carries with it the responsibility to apply it truthfully. An anthem that lets immoral people ignore their failings is an artistic and moral offense. An anthem that hides from people the tensions and ambivalences of their situation may well be doing them a disservice. The best anthems, to me, are accurate expressions of shared identity, giving voice to a people's dreams, their history, their vulnerabilities, their caution and their self-awareness. They are communal self-knowledge, not jingoism.
Too Much Joy understand all these things. The easiest part, the music, they ace. They began life as a slightly incompetent novelty act, but they were already moving out of that stage by the time their opening slot on the first Go-Go's reunion tour introduced them to me. Over the course of their three previous major-label albums (1988's Son of Sam I Am, 1991's Cereal Killers and 1992's Mutiny) they've grown into one of the world's most energetic power-pop bands, reeling off infectiously melodic songs thick with Jay Blumenfield's blaring guitar and engaging vocal harmonies behind lead singer Tim Quirk's goofy suburban whine. Simultaneously overeducated and underachieving, with punk's irreverence and immediacy but none of its nihilism or tolerance for sloppiness, they end up something like the Loud Family without so much Joyce and Chilton, an impish Goo Goo Dolls minus the Replacements, the Ramones restaffed with either the cast of Reality Bites or possibly John Stewart and some of his close friends, or maybe a Buzzcocks/They Might Be Giants supergroup. Their shameless puppy-dog charm is rivaled only, in my collection, by the first Posies album, and how anybody could listen to a whole Too Much Joy album and not want to invite them over for a big meal and a long night of inane board games mystifies me.
Lyrically it may initially be tempting to dismiss them as hapless victims of the dreaded band-eating Whale of Excessive Irony. But even songs as obtrusively sophomoric as "Making Fun of Bums" (from Son of Sam I Am), "Long Haired Guys From England" (Cereal Killers) or "Donna Everywhere" (Mutiny) have hints of appealing human vulnerability and sincerity hiding in them, and every once in a while the band even takes a subject seriously, as in the adolescent cruelty of "Pride of Frankenstein", the dispossessed Indian in "Gramatan" (both Cereal Killers), the destruction of history in "What It Is" (Mutiny) or the fine line between loneliness and self-sufficiency in "Stay at Home". And they have what I consider to be one of the greatest pop love songs of all time ("Crush Story", from Cereal Killers, whose tag line "Everything you've ever said is brilliant" captures the mood to which overeducated romantics aspire as well as anything I can think of), and the best party-rock stutter since BTO ("Stay at Home", from Mutiny).
The four-year delay leading to ...Finally (and explaining the title) was due to label difficulties, but listening to the album it would be easy to believe that the band took the time off intentionally in order to spend it in self-improvement. They did lose bassist Sandy Smallens in the interim, but in an excellent example of what I mean about their puppy-dog charm, Mutiny producer William Wittman broke down and joined the band to replace him, which also gives them another good background singer, provided that you agree with me that sounding like a wavery Robyn Hitchcock constitutes "good". Wittman's experience with high-gloss pop production (he worked on a couple of Cyndi Lauper records and Patty Smyth's first solo album) is applied judiciously to TMJ's rather rawer arrangements, and keeps them from sounding anything like Green Day without burying them in overdubs. Musically, I thought Cereal Killers was a big improvement on Son of Sam I Am, and that Mutiny was a smaller improvement on Cereal Killers, and ...Finally strikes me as another big jump. Blumenfield's penchant for arena-rock flair is never fully indulged in, but it pushes at the edges of the band's succinct pop songs restlessly, and helps to keep Wittman and drummer Tommy Vinton in the flat-out sprint necessary to prevent him from getting away from them. Quirk is still, objectively speaking, a pretty limited vocalist, but he's getting better, and there's certainly no denying his enthusiasm (and personally I have a high tolerance for whiny singing, anyway). Ideas of what perfect power-pop is like vary widely, but this is very close to mine. The only thing that has kept me from spending all my waking hours these last couple of weeks humming all thirteen of these songs to myself at once is the fact that, well, how would you do that?
The most startling improvement, though, and the thing that to me clearly elevates this album over some of my other Platonic power-pop Forms, like A Boy Named Goo, Serious Fun, Stolen Wishes or Talk Show, is that here I feel no need to apologize for the lyrics. There are surprisingly thoughtful songs on each of the earlier records, but Mutiny to me had more than it's share of throwaway vagueness, and I'd hoped it wouldn't be the start of a trend. No chance; ...Finally is easily the band's most consistently intelligent album. "The Kids Don't Understand" is a heartfelt revision of the standard slacker portrait, showing both how freakish the zeal of their elders seems to the young, and yet how they see, even if only reluctantly, the sympathetic frailties behind it. "Different Galaxies" is a bubblegum explication of interpersonal difficulties in terms of cosmology. "I'm Your Wallet" is bizarrely literal (and insanely catchy). "Skyline" is a clattering and confused paean to urban impersonality.
"You Will" will never become AT&T's corporate theme song, especially given how "Down and out in limousines" pushes on recent PR wounds about the coexistence of exorbitant executive salaries and massive worker-ant layoffs, but it says much more about the tension between technical innovation ("Invisible ray in the palm of my hand") and victory through market domination ("And if we say you will, you will.") than anything Whitney Houston will ever sing. "How you been faxed at the beach?" they ask. "Have you ever wanted this?" The irony about dehumanization, 1984 notwithstanding, is how readily people either adapt to change, or conveniently forget how things used to be, and the tagline "You will, and you will not be scared" summarizes this pretty concisely.
The strange non sequiturs about draining Lagunita and a pond called Lake Lake would keep "You Will" from being a truly great AT&T anthem, even in an honest world, but there are four songs here that are almost perfect embodiments of the virtues in my conception of an anthem. The most obvious of these is "I Believe in Something", which sounds explicitly generic, but is actually very specific, as the vagueness is not in the song, but in the mind of the narrator. He wants to believe, he has the impulse to faith, but nothing worthy presents itself. "If I was God, no one would doubt it / We wouldn't need church to get / The mystery". The persistent fear that there is no force for good is balanced perfectly against the stubborn insistence that there must be, and frustration that it is so little in evidence, making an anthem simultaneously of moral relativism and against it (which is, to me, the only sensible non-position to take on the issue).
Almost as obvious an anthem is "Underneath a Jersey Sky", the album's conclusion (and heir to a TMJ record's end tradition begun with Cereal Killers' "Theme Song"), which I recommend that the state of New Jersey adopt immediately. Instead of trying to somehow idealize New Jersey, the song revels in details of comforting inconsequence, which makes the fierce pride into which the song resolves all the more uplifting. "How to Be Happy", the third of the four, is to me the most pessimistic of the anthems, revolving as it does around the couplet "Learning how to be happy / And learning not to care", as if compassion and happiness are irreconcilable.
This sentiment is echoed in the album's one cover, Billy Bragg's "A New England", itself already an anthemic paragon in my book. With its rallying cry of "I don't want to change the world, / I'm not looking for a new England, / I'm just looking for another girl", the song begs to be adopted as a personal theme by the lonely and the compromising, and I cherish it because no matter how many times I try to sing it like I believe it, I just can't. It is an honest anthem, which refuses to sound true until it is. My problem (though as a reader of this column you may have other theories) is precisely that I do want to change the world. Finding "another girl", either literally or metaphorically, doesn't in itself do anything for my obsession with the idea that somehow, somewhere, there is something useful I could do (even more useful, if you can imagine, than writing music reviews). I assume this idealism won't last. I assume, because it seems to happen to everybody else I know, that some day I will break down, move to the suburbs, have kids, buy a minivan to take them to soccer practice in, and all the rest of the mundane, not-changing-the-world things that people fill their adult lives with in order to finally stop thinking about what a mess humanity has become. Idealism will come to seem insupportably pompous (as opposed to supportably pompous, which is how it seems now), and self-preservation will be all I'm left with. This slow transition is underway already, I suspect. For example, my car got broken into last week, and I'm upset enough to mention it, but not much beyond that. I'm insured, they didn't take much, and I knew the statistics when I decided to buy one. A few more times, though, and annoyance will probably evolve into outrage. Our cities are profoundly unlivable, and though I live in one because I believe they don't have to be, I may just be wrong. And so, probably, the day will come when I'll give up, when I won't care any more, when I'll sing "I don't want to change the world" to myself and realize that, at long last, I've come to believe it. And so I hold "A New England" close to me, as a litmus test, to keep track of the state of my conviction. I may be projecting (at least, I'm sure trying to project, so I hope it's working), but Too Much Joy seem to sing it the same way I do, and in this and in "How to Be Happy" I hear the painful sounds of a band trying to convince themselves that their disillusionment is more advanced than they know it really is, followed by the exhilarating reverberations of that effort failing. "Written and recorded in manic bursts of passion followed by long periods of watching tv and trying to figure out what the fuck else we might be able to do with our lives.", reads the first line of the album's credits. It would be so much easier to quit than to go on. But there is nothing else. As soul-consuming as constantly-frustrated aspirations are, there are no better options, and painful awareness of that is exactly what I want in a new national anthem. I don't want us to ever forget either how great a country this is, or how terrible. Our anthem should flaunt both our triumphs and our dissatisfactions. I'm quite sure TMJ will do a good job.
In the meantime, please go buy their record. Even if all this politico-aesthetic theory bores you, the album is giddy, eager and delightful, and sounds fantastic when played really really loud. They need both the money and the support. My coup may take me a little while to mount, and when I'm finally ready for their services I don't want to find that they've all sold their instruments and become management consultants.
As a postscript, not really on the subject of Too Much Joy at all, their Billy Bragg cover comes at an oddly appropriate moment, as walking home from the CD store after buying this album I discovered that one of Harvard Square's oldest record stores, Discount Records, has finally gone under. It was easily the worst record store in the Square, but it was also the only one whose sign you could see from the subway station, which is what I presume kept it alive. By the end, at least, it was really just a Sam Goody's front, but its name had an appealing ring, and so it was the first record store I walked into, my first day in Cambridge, over a decade ago. My suspicion that I'd come to the right city was immediately validated by the fact that there in its bins I found a record that I'd been unsuccessfully trying to find in Dallas for the preceding two years. The record, of course (or else this anecdote is more pointless than even I would tolerate), was Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy. I never spent another dollar in Discount Records, so I can hardly muster an indignant sniffle at its demise, but it still seems like there's something wrong with a world in which the scenes of significant moments in our lives are routinely disassembled for reasons so tangential to our memories and our joys. We cannibalize our past, restlessly, tearing apart sources of strength and sources of pain with no awareness of the difference, unable to discern between what is rotten behind its gaudy facade, and what, though tawdry, we have built associations and structures of experience around. Sure, it was the worst record store in the Square, but that's no excuse for shutting it down. It provided a baseline, a reminder of the vapid mega-mall standard of quality that made it easier to appreciate how much better the other stores were. It blithely stocked Milli Vanilli records long after everybody else had melted them down in disgust. It kept impatient tourists from cluttering the good stores. And now that it's gone, some hapless conglomerate will open a new store just as bad, because in their myopic way they will perceive a void. How can we learn from the mistakes we make if they don't stay made? I think this, too, should go into our new anthem.