Another Set of Keys
128 · 10 July 97
Del Amitri: Some Other Sucker's Parade
I can tell you the exact moment when the reality of my impending home purchase and move finally sank in. Last night, after consuming a small dinner with no appreciable nutritional flaws, but which I found aesthetically unsatisfying, I suddenly remembered that I had some plantains, and decided that they would be the detail that rescued the evening. Nothing like a plate full of hot, tasty plantains to remind me of the great abundance of gifts our fragile planet can still offer us. Nothing like plantains, crackling faintly (if plantains crackle, otherwise not), simmering in the pan (or pot?), basking in the sweet aroma of the -- well, of the what? What do plantains bask in? How would I know? I never prepared a plantain in my life. They're like big, dour bananas. What would elevate their spirits? Some sort of soaking, sugaring, pre-stressing procedure, I'd imagine. Four minutes in the plantain flexor, or half a dozen rapid transfers from a bowl of ice water to a small centrifuge? Well, why speculate when you can just grab The New Basics off the shelf and find out? Smiling faintly to myself, as I always do when I realize that a genuine life dilemma can be resolved with the help of something from my extensive collection of reference books (most of which linger in anticipation of contingencies that stubbornly fail to arise, such as a small fortune suddenly resting on my ability to list all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa in descending order of per capita GNP, as of 1974), I waltzed out of the kitchen (never mind why I was waltzing; it has nothing to do with this story, and now I'm sorry I mentioned it) reached into the liquor cabinet (which I use for cookbooks, since I own no liquor), and extracted the relevant tome.
Or I would have, except I already packed all my cookbooks. All my books, in fact. Twenty-nine boxes of them, filled with a meticulous geometric regularity that would either sicken or thrill you, have taken up residence in my living room, where they stay up until all hours pretending to smoke candy cigarettes and playing Connect Four. They are the expeditionary force in the slow mobilization toward my move. I packed them first partly for logistical reasons, but partly, too, because I figured that I could survive for a few weeks without them, which I'd have a harder time doing without, for example, my big Calphalon skillet, or my LaserJet 5L, or my copy of Strange Man, Changed Man, by Bram Tchaikovsky. And so there, standing in front of the empty closet, I had my first out-of-apartment experience. My consciousness drifted free of my body, passed through the tilting slabs of the spiky, leak-stained ceiling, projected itself across Cambridge to my new home, and began wondering where I will put cookbooks when I get there. And in that moment, for some reason, as I hadn't at any of the obvious real-estate-transaction junctures, I grasped that this event is real, and that my plan to do something adult-like with my thirtieth year has actually gotten underway. I can put the cookbooks anywhere I want. If I want to, I can glue the back covers of each of them to a wall, so that one end of my living room becomes an enormous gustatory advent calendar. In my new home, a closet filled with cookbooks would not be a liquor cabinet I'm using for some other purpose, it will be a cookbook closet. My space will be my own to command! This moment of clarity, however, didn't directly alleviate my plantain predicament. At a loss for other ideas, I cut them into long, thin slices, sprinkled them with a little brown sugar, and fried them. This particular process does render plantains edible, but only just.
So you're on your own for plantains, at least until I get unpacked again, but I can offer some small bits of advice on the subject of packing large collections of books. I'm sure you could figure all this out for yourself, but then you could also listen to all these records I write about yourself, and make up your own mind whether they're any good. So. Get lots of boxes. Removing a mass of books from a shelf causes it to quadruple in volume, and you will thus require many more boxes than you'd ever guess. Get real book boxes, which are small, because books also quadruple in weight as soon as they are deprived of sunlight and ample supplies of free-floating dust. Buy the boxes new. This may smack of a paid promotional message from the moving-box industry, and some among you are bound to snort, derisively, "Yeah, you don't want to miss out on the great technological advances in cardboard boxes they've come up with recently." But actually, they have come up with a great advance recently, or at least this batch of boxes has a clever (and, in great American style, single-use) feature that the boxes I had for my last move, six years ago, did not: a cardboard tab connects each of the top side flaps to one of the other ones, so that the top of the assembled box cannot be shut until the tabs are sliced through. This lets you fill the boxes without having to try to hold the flaps out of the way with your elbows or your chin. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but by about box five of twenty-nine its inventor will be your own personal hero.
The actual filling of the boxes with books is almost self-regulating. Large trade paperbacks and full-size hardbacks, such as Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies or anything by Peter Hoeg, go face up in the bottom left corner of the box (as you peer down into it). Smaller trade paperbacks and midget hardbacks, like my ex-girlfriend's book A Coed's Companion or anything with "Dave Barry" in the title, go to the right of the hardbacks, also face up. A stack of normal paperbacks, such as the Elric of Melnibone series or the original Star Trek books, will then fit perfectly in the remaining space in the bottom right corner. Fill all three stacks to exactly the top of the box, exchanging the last few books in each for ones of differing thickness until the fit is exact, since it is this that gives the filled box its essential structural integrity. The remaining gaps in the box should be stuffed with excess paperbacks, books of renegade proportions (Cerebus, Rules of the Game, that sort of thing), small board games and wadded up old New Wave concert t-shirts. If the balance of books in all these form factors in your collection is not such that the boxes come out about even, I suggest that you should think of it as a personality flaw.
The most important thing, though, by far, is to select some good packing music. Packing is arduous and time-consuming, but it only occupies your hands, some badly atrophied muscles in your back, and a small quadrant of your brain dedicated to gross pattern matching. This leaves your mouth free for singing along to something catchy and uplifting, your hips free to measure its pace, and your sense of pervasive personal tragedy free to search for telltale seams in the lyrics. Your stereo system and music, of course, get packed last, preferably only hours before the movers arrive, so you should have plenty to choose from. You'll want something with a square rhythm, something that will reinforce your movements, rather than war with them. Something not too shrill, since dismantling a wall of bookshelves will change the acoustic characteristics of your living room. If you have chosen to assign symbolic significance to your move (which I recommend), you'll want something memorable, which you can associate forever with this crucial turning point in your life.
And if, giddy from packing-tape fumes, you wish to reinforce this optimism with the goofy belief that buying a house by yourself will function as cosmic reverse-psychology and lead to you finding a life partner, then shiny, chiming pop love songs are ideal. My first phase of packing, then, was primarily conducted to the strains of Some Other Sucker's Parade, the fifth album by Del Amitri. As of their second and third albums, Waking Hours and Change Everything, Del Amitri's version of airy pop was heavily shrouded in mist, and songwriter Justin Currie's idea of a good love story was one in which the actual love involved all took place during the prequel. With their fourth album, though, Twisted, and the rather uncharacteristic single "Roll to Me", which was to Del Amitri, I thought, what "Runaway Train" was to Soul Asylum, Currie and the band took a sharp turn towards accessibility. Against the backdrop of the older albums' bitingly understated still-lifes of emotional exhaustion, "Roll to Me"'s simple, cocky smirk was certainly striking, infectious at least in the way that you laugh reflexively at competent sitcoms, whether you think they're especially funny or not. But it worried me for the same reason that "Runaway Train" worried Soul Asylum fans, not so much because I resented the song itself, but because I hated to think that people would come to know the band through it, and I feared that its popularity would encourage them to try to make many more like it, turning their backs on all the things they did so much better.
The first time through Some Other Sucker's Parade, it was tempting to think that this was precisely what had happened. "Not Where It's At", the first song and the first single, is a blissfully uncomplicated pop gem that falls somewhere between XTC at their most concise and the Odds at their least ironic. Big guitar chords purr warmly, lead arpeggios sparkle, the drums snap and Justin's clear voice sings "Some girls...!" with boundless wide-eyed wonder. I like the song, personally, but even more than that I'm convinced that, light enough to sound familiar enough the very first time you hear it, but sturdy enough to stand high rotation, it's a nearly flawless encapsulation of the virtues middle-of-the-road American radio looks for in a pop song. "Roll to Me" is quirky and abstruse by comparison. Heck, "Hole-Hearted", "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "Hey, Jealousy" and "Semi-Charmed Life" are all bristly and experimental by comparison. If this song fails to monopolize air-play for the rest of the calendar year, I'll consider it a colossal marketing dereliction.
"Not Where It's At" is clearly the lead single, but if it's effective there are several others waiting to back it up. "Won't Make It Better" is a little slower, but sighs with thick harmony and sparks with guitar figures just bluesy enough to have character, but not so much that they drag down the song's ebullience. Blistering harmonica, slithering shakers, stop-start guitar and a dead-easy sing-along chorus drive "Medicine". "Cruel Light of Day" has enough vocal distortion, organ flair and jagged drum breaks to make commuters think they're at least vaguely in touch with current styles. "Funny Way to Win" is a little like Lynyrd Skynyrd rebuilt around an Alanis Morissette song frame. The jangly "Life Is Full", with its uncluttered kick-snare drum line, seems tailor-made to be played outside of record stores, or in Midwest city parks, its sunny bounce irresistible enough that even Austrian tourists can forget for three minutes how nothing in this country ever costs what it says, and there's so much trash everywhere. And for the inevitable slow single, once the others have earned it, there are several choices, perhaps the most obvious of which is "What I Think She Sees", a quiet, percolating song whose stylistic lineage can be traced back to John Waite's "Missing You" without much difficulty. There are some other songs on the album, of course, but MOR radio doesn't care about that. Even Alanis didn't get more than half a dozen singles out of Jagged Little Pill. The rest are just there so that when you pick the CD out of the rack at K-Mart and flip it over, it looks like there's about $15.99's worth of song titles on the back.
The problem with all this simplistic myopia, however, is that once radio religion has convinced you to buy the album, which is still the goal of the exercise, the strategists lose their ability to control the context in which you hear it. When "Roll to Me" got played in between Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand", the three songs (or any other three similarly used) informed and affected each other, so that the aggregate mood of the set overrode whatever personality the individual songs would have had in isolation. The entire MOR playlist, in a way, becomes a single soothing, encouraging meta-album, a coherent aesthetic program that acts a lot like social Prozac. But when you get any one artist's album home, it rarely functions that way. Of the ones that aren't too boring to stick with, too many turn out to have a "Pensacola" to break "One of Us"'s spell. And then, freed from the trance, you start listening to the other songs. Later, you start hearing even the singles.
And then things can get very dangerous, because you never know what could be lurking under a shiny surface. In Del Amitri's case, though, the first guess is automatic. Currie, in his past life, was a master of romantic disillusion and disarray, and if a band can make an album called Change Everything, on which they change nothing, then the chances are good that they didn't quite change everything on this one, either. So the second time through, I try to pay more attention. The album's sunny disguise, I quickly realize, is only convincing when it whirls by in the crowd. Look straight at it, for even a moment, and it's hard to understand how you were ever fooled. Some Other Sucker's Parade's genius, in fact, I think, is that it manages to conceal its true emotional bleakness in such plain sight. The litany of female tolerances in "Not Where It's At" are catchy and uncluttered, and "I don't have my finger on the pulse of my generation" seems like a bit of calculated self-reference, but the song really is about an unreturned love, and maybe I take these things too seriously, but realizing this completely recasts the song's apparent good cheer for me, and I can no longer sing along without trying to weave understanding into my harmonies somehow. "Won't Make It Better" is a catalog of decisive emotional steps you can't actually take. "What I Think She Sees" is a song of a one-sided relationship that will, before long, have a use for one of Justin's old breakup songs ("Kiss This Thing Goodbye" being perhaps the definitive one). "Medicine"'s list of the changes you attempt is withering in its banality ("Add another letter to your name, / Burn everything you ever used to wear"), and the song links sadness inextricably with our efforts to transcend it. "High Times"' goofily intoned chorus ("High times, dig the new domain. / Living through high times, just don't crash my spiritual plane.") comes amidst starkly hopeless verses ("She's got a right to be lazy, flat out of reasons to breathe"; "At the end of the rainbow she was mind blown / To be staring at a crock of shit"; "Ten ways to relax on a cruise ship, one way to cover the rent"). "Funny Way to Win" is another of Currie's unflinching relationship-triangle narratives (in the tradition of "Empty" and "Tell Her This") in which nobody ever seems to win. "Life Is Full" rings with the non-compliment "You do all the things that anybody does to show they are alive", which reminds me of the dB's "She's got soul, but I don't know: / Every girl I know has got some soul." "Lucky Guy", another triangle piece, is a bitter compendium of all the reasons the narrator would (but wouldn't really) be happy to change places with his rival. And "Through All That Nothing" is actually a love song, but even it somehow manages to dwell on the emptiness that love replaced.
My favorite song, however, and the one that disturbs me the most (which is why), is "No Family Man", one of the album's quietest, buried in the middle of it. Musically it's just humming bass and some spare keyboards and guitar, maybe half American Music Club and half Bruce Springsteen's "Philadelphia", no harmonies to distract from Currie's frank self-assessment. The lyrics are simple, and accurately represented by the title; "In the race to life, I am an also-ran, / But I've run enough to know /I'm no family man." Currie has written many sentiments this depressing, but none this final and resigned. His constant return to failed-relationship themes, in fact, taken as a whole, is as optimistic as any individual song is dark. Autopsies of dead affairs are conducted in the explicit hope that we'll learn something from them, which implies that there's a future worth preparing for. "No Family Man" just gives up. If Del Amitri's songs, taken all together, are an epic melancholy powered by a tiny, but brilliant, fire of hope, this song is the one that threatens to extinguish the fire altogether, undermining everything every other song has accomplished. If they'd ended the album with it, I'm not sure what I would have done. As it is, at least, both proceeded and followed by songs that can muster the will to persevere, I can treat it like a thought experiment, a sketch of what the feeling of total defeat might be like, but not actually an admission of it. I clutch it to me, playing it again and again, singing the defeated words a different way each time, because if hope survives even after this, then there is hope in it, and so there must be a way to sing it so that you can hear courage over the surrender, after all.
As Dent Ios puts it, though, in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness (one of the few books I didn't pack), as he tries to explain to Johannes, the Master of the Orchestra, what the point is of writing about music, there are things we know discursively, by explaining them, and there are things we know directly, by experiencing them. So there are things I can explain about why I love a song, or a band, and there are things I cannot. The two sets usually run in rough parallel for me; I presume this is as much a function of my personality as anything else, and not at all necessary, but if you're reading music reviews, you probably have a similar balance. My feelings about Del Amitri songs, though, have a particularly large component that I can do nothing but testify to. In the end, no matter how many MOR characteristics I can objectively identify in their style that other bands for whom I have no sympathy share, and how many lyrical twists I identify and admire, it is a separate truth that Justin Currie has written an amazing number of songs where simply the sound of one starting makes me feel profoundly fortunate that I'm alive to hear it again. This sounds dumb, but it feels ecstatic, and I'll make that trade every time. It also makes them a perfect soundtrack for what I wish to be the end of an era. Every sad, beautiful song nurtures the idea that things could be different next time. I sing them as I pack for a new life because that hope, no matter how many times it hasn't worked before, is why we keep moving, or buying albums, or doing any of this.