The Heart in You Can't Throw the Fight
165 · 26 March 98
The Posies: Success
There once was a time, and nostalgia is as accelerated on the web as everything else, when the web was small enough that new pieces of it were news. There were a couple key pages that kept track of new sites, and announcing an addition to the web (a comprehensive poultry-science reference site, an online card-catalog for a Nairobi library, a complete H.L. Mencken bibliography) was just a matter of dropping the maintainers of your favorite Hotlist an email. And although I'm pretty sure that in retrospect we'll still refer to the web, circa 1998, as being in its infancy, it long ago metamorphosed from a playground for technophiles to a mass medium. Talking about new sites on the web is now, like talking about new places you can telephone, or new things you can reach via the highway system, an inane pursuit left to small-market local-TV news features and in-flight airline magazines. This transformation was mostly inevitable, I think, but there are aspects of the early days (months, at most) that I'll miss. Near the top of this list is Worst of the Web, the anti-Hotlist site that my friend Mirsky ran for a while, when there was little enough laughable crap on the web that it felt like ridicule might be powerful enough to drive it out. If we were to go back through the Worst of the Web archives, today, I suspect most of the sites Mirsky excoriated wouldn't be nearly as funny any more. When the first indulgent fool put up a personal home page full of unsolicited minutiae nobody in creation had a use for, it was hilarious. Now that you and I and two-thirds of the people we know have these pages, we're slower to laugh. The jokes about bits of technology when they're new rarely age well. I remember, some time in college, around 1987 or 1988, writing a joke in a piece for the Harvard Lampoon about "Books on CD", which reduced me to fits of helpless giggling every time I tried to tell it to somebody. A decade later, it's hard to even mentally reconstruct the context in which this idea seemed inherently absurd, as opposed to just logistically misguided.
The Lampoon, an intricate social pathology masquerading as a sporadic humor magazine, is where I met Mirsky. He and I both joined the organization as freshmen, he from the class after mine, so we both suffer the after-effects of spending three-and-a-half years hanging around in the Lampoon's much-abused mock-Flemish castle, where the members of the staff, except for occasional intermissions spent scrabbling together an issue of the magazine, playing extremely violent variations on billiards, or incurring the university's disciplinary wrath, spent their time almost exclusively attempting to convince each other that they were the funniest people they had ever met. And while I wouldn't trade this period of my life for anything, as a character-building pursuit I only recommend it if none of the more peaceful ones, like malnutrition or getting mauled by a bear in a National Park, are available to you. On the other hand, Mirsky really is the funniest person I've ever met. If you can imagine Robin Williams' hyperactive personality-switching turned inside out, so the chaos takes place only inside his head, manifest outside it solely in a seemingly effortless (perhaps involuntary) string of surreal, deadpan, self-deprecating asides, this is something like the effect Mirsky has on me. The defining example of Mirsky's genius, for me, was a short article he wrote for one of the Lampoon's periodic parodies of The Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper, headlined "Roving Goat Melts", which reported, in spare journalistic fashion, that the wandering goat, made of ice, which had been loitering around the campus for several weeks, had finally succumbed to the warming spring weather. The article made no attempt to explain the goat, it simply announced its demise, and the idea that such a magical creature could reach such a banal, unavoidable end struck me as heart-rending, and the idea, in turn, that I could get choked up about it struck me as inexpressibly hysterical. Without knowing Mirsky, you probably won't see what's so exquisitely funny about this to me. As I was reminded over the weekend, during parts of Mrs. Dalloway, when I began to hyperventilate from laughing too much and thus, for a moment, could hear that nobody else was really laughing at all, humor can be hopelessly subjective. Nevertheless, I loved Worst of the Web dearly, not for the pathetic web pages Mirsky turned up, which devolved into a single repeated meta-joke after the first dozen or so, but for the tiny fragments of Mirsky's personality that filtered through into his terse annotations. Sadly, I think this only worked if you knew Mirsky first, and then read his comments, not the other way around.
I bring up Mirsky, this week, because one of the things he used to insist (and listening to Mirsky insist things was funny enough in itself) was that his idea of the perfect humor piece was a very long, completely serious, basically boring story, which ended with a single perfect joke. I was never sure what he envisioned, when he said "very long" and "completely serious", but I always imagined something on the scale of Dr. Zhivago, recast as a trilogy, which managed to culminate, after generations of cryptic nicknames and plot twists, in one of the series' most seemingly peripheral characters getting a warm, fluffy lemon meringue pie in the face. The closest approximation of this ideal I've ever come across is Franz Kafka's The Castle, and it's possible that Kafka's evasion, never ending his story, and thus never being forced to actually deliver the punch line, is the only way to keep the equation from collapsing; no real joke would be funny enough to make the point correctly. The moral I take from this lesson, though, is that it's sometimes impossible to evaluate things sensibly until you find out what they lead to. The parts of a story you don't like are often necessary for the parts you do like, later, to exist. This is why the precipitous decline of the public attention span is tragic: only the smallest truths can be constructed in thirty seconds. (As Neil Postman argues, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television, by restricting public discourse to disconnected sound-bites, has eliminated the element of discourse from it entirely, reducing the essential thesis-antithesis-synthesis framework of rational progression to an endless series of independent assertions out of which there is no longer the time, or the inclination, to construct syllogisms.)
Which is why it means more and more to me, every year, when some bit of determined patience ends up paying off. I almost gave up on the Posies twice, over the course of their five albums. Failure, their first, recorded simultaneously in their living room and in a melodic dreamworld inside their own heads, is in my opinion the most charming album in the history of pop, a dizzy, glorious record suspended in midair by its own unselfconscious naïveté, like a cartoon villain run off a cliff, able to walk on empty air as long he doesn't look down and realize what he's doing. The swirling, textural second album, Dear 23, to me is what happens when he looks down; the band suddenly realized that you can't make giddy, timeless pop masterpieces in your living room, and decamped to a studio full of gadgets equal to the task, which proceeded to rain on their fragile songs like a squall of Acme anvils. Frosting on the Beater, the Posies' third album, was their attempt to reposition themselves as a grunge-derived rock band, and while this sounds even more disastrous than Dear 23 in theory, in practice I found that I rather liked it, perhaps because the band was paying so much attention to the roaring guitars that their melodic instincts were otherwise allowed to develop naturally again. That infusion of renewed enthusiasm, however, was not nearly enough to get me through Amazing Disgrace, the band's fourth album, unscathed. I liked Frosting on the Beater, I discovered in retrospect, because the marriage of styles seemed intriguingly inconclusive. On Amazing Disgrace the band got their harder-rock experiment right, and I found that the things they'd succeeded in hammering out of their music turned out to be the ones I liked best. This is their prerogative, of course, but so too is it my prerogative to stop buying their records.
But like my right to bear arms, my right to stop buying records by bands I once loved is a clause I keep on the books more out of senses of paranoia and entitlement than any coherent plan to ever take advantage of it. And so it is that I reach the fifth and final chapter of the Posies' story, after all. And discover that they planned the entire arc of my personal experience from the beginning. They must have. The symmetry of it is simply too perfect to support any other explanation. They began with Failure, on a tiny Seattle label called PopLlama; Dear 23, their first major-label album, ostensibly the upward curve of their limitless potential beginning to be realized, turns out to be, to me, their premature artistic free-fall; Frosting on the Beater is the pivot point of both the official and subjective curves, the moment when they come to rest in the middle of their trajectory; and Amazing Disgrace, their last chance on Geffen, is the nose-dive back towards ignominy. But ignominy, when they reach it, turns out to suit them just as well the second time as it did the first. The poignancy of bookending a magnificently awkward debut album called Failure with a serenely self-assured farewell album called Success, back on PopLlama where they began, is so breathtaking that the three Geffen albums in between become, for me, the long, serious story required to make the joke work.
The end of this tale, like the ends of all great tales, is half a return to the beginning and half a ride into the sunset. Sonically, Success is the closest thing to Failure they've done since. The three albums in between tried various production schemes to make something imposing out of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow's fundamentally humble pop songs; Success either gives up, or decides this is a mistake. The rough, trebly timbre of Failure was a function of limited resources, and the clean, unhurried chirp of Success is a product of conscious restraint, but the effects are much the same. The guitars, instead of attempting to puppet an ominous shadow-play silhouette, are content to jangle, and the music, to me, flows through them, where on the loud albums they fought with it, trying to bend it against its grain. Part of Failure's charm, for me, was the awesome artlessness of the drumming, which seemed to cling to the meter of the songs by its last knuckles, and the playing on Success lacks that endearing coltish splay, but it is crisp and buoyant, and feels to me like an expression of the will of the songs, instead of, as the steroid pounding on the middle albums now seems to me to have been, a strident gracelessness better suited to piglet racing, where you try to steer a petrified animal toward the finish line by yelling at it as loudly as you can. And Ken and Jon's airy, timeless harmonies, often lost in reverb on the other records, are finally left to their own devices again, which always seemed to me like the best thing to do with them.
For the story to be truly meaningful, though, its characters have to learn something, not just its readers. And for all the similarities in composition between Failure and Success, the atmospheres of the two records are little alike. Failure was an album of the kind of goofily earnest love songs you can only write when you're still too new at it to recognize how preposterous you sound, full of metaphors wielded like whiffle-ball bats, and clichés that escape banality only because it's so apparent that this is the first time the speaker has thought of them. That the album makes any progress at all is due to its uncanny ability to convert its falls, or at least enough of them, into luckily directed somersaults at the last moment. It's easy to be impatient with the spectacle, I suppose, but what youth is complete without a wondering rediscovery of exactly the same things everybody else who ever lived found out for themselves? Watching somebody else go through these thrills is not education, it's voyeurism, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Success, on the other hand, is all grown up, precisely the combination of weariness and wisdom that we usually mean when we refer, with mixed feelings, to maturity. Jon and Ken haven't outgrown their fondness for extended analogic jumbles, but where their early songs tended to berate each simile to the point of nervous exhaustion, almost all of these seem to me to spin out of their metaphors gracefully, back into an awareness that even the most apt analogy is a form of disdain for its analog. Failure, despite the title, had only the vaguest concept of the nature or significance of failure, and so ended up being a profession of hope predicated as heavily on ignorance as determination. Success, completing the inversion, has learned that outcomes only receive values by assignment, and that a happy ending is as much a matter of knowing when (and how) to end as anything else.
And finally, Success wouldn't do justice to Failure, no matter how meticulously the two albums' oppositions were fashioned, if it didn't have its share of irresistible pop songs. Irresistibility is an individual metric, of course, but there's not much from the middle three albums that has lodged in my mind the way half-a-dozen of the songs on Failure have. Nine years later, I can still sing swaths of "Blind Eyes Open", "I May Hate You Sometimes", "Ironing Tuesdays", "Believe in Something Other (Than Yourself)", "Uncombined" and "What Little Remains" without a pause for consideration. And "Solar Sister" and "Flavor of the Month", from Frosting on the Beater, maybe, and a shard or two of "Grant Hart", from Amazing Disgrace, but that's it. This would only be a fair test if we came back and did it in 2007, but there are parts of at least six songs on Success that feel like they're sinking into my permanent memory already: the lilting descending lines of the verses of "Somehow Everything"; the breathy Simon and Garfunkel-like opening phrases of "You're the Beautiful Ones" and gentle, pulsing choruses, with their deft percussion stutters and slow flange orbits; the feedback howl that ushers in the buzzing, soaring chorus mantras of "Placebo" (a word I persist in mis-hearing as "Ro Sham Bo", the title of the Grays album the song reminds me of); the white-funk mannerisms of the clicking, New-Wave-ish "Start a Life"; the tense, spare, Verbow-esque guitar-and-voice song "Every Bitter Drop"; and, most decisively, the jerky, sparkling "Farewell Typewriter", whose ebullient verses could fit in almost anywhere on Failure, but whose rolling choruses exhibit a composure they hadn't learned yet.
I am sad, naturally, that this is the last Posies album, just when they've rekindled my affection for them, but that always happens. I want the movie to last another hour, the book to have a sequel, there to be a third half to the sandwich. But the spell a completed work of art casts isn't encapsulated in a cross-section, and you can't make it a minute better just by making it go on a minute longer. If the work doesn't end, it can't have a meaning. Music careers rarely acknowledge this dilemma, and most bands let their stories end when they run out of time, like a writer pounding at his keyboard until the publisher rips the last page out of his printer and carts it off to the bindery, or a movie that only ends when the last foot of film stock flaps onto the take-up reel. It's nice, for once, to see someone step away from a career like it's a piece they've finished, and they're ready to start a new one.
Hunters and Collectors: Juggernaut
Hunters and Collectors are another of my favorite serials coming to a graceful end, as this 1997 album is apparently their final one, as well. This tale lasted a bit longer than the Posies', played out over the course of about seventeen years, nine studio albums, a few EPs, and a handful of live albums and compilations, but Hunters and Collectors' commercial fortunes, at least from an American vantage point, describe the same familiar parabola: the first three albums, despite the edgy minor hit "Talking to a Stranger", are footnotes; the middle ones (Human Frailty and Fate on IRS in 1987 and 1988, Ghost Nation on Atlantic in 1989) were their opportunity for stardom, the plaintive love song "Throw Your Arms Around Me" perhaps both their finest moment and best chance. After fame didn't happen, the final trilogy, Cut, Demon Flower and Juggernaut, only erratically available here, are the band's resilient response.
Unlike the Posies', though, Hunters and Collectors' journey never seemed to me like it had a master plan behind it. Their style evolved, as the records went by, but they never seemed to get out of the shadow of Midnight Oil, just like the Alarm never managed to escape the gravity of U2. The parallels are almost indistinguishable, actually. All four bands traded on anthemic grandeur and fierce resolve, but U2 and Midnight Oil found causes to which to dedicate their anthems, and thus ended up representing bigger things than themselves. The Alarm and Hunters and Collectors' anthems, though, with only occasional exceptions, were generic, recursive exhortations to stand up for your right to stand up for your right to stand up for your right. They're hardly alone (Madonna got plenty of mileage out of the content-less battle cry "Express yourself!", which spins through exactly the same loop), plenty of rock bands (most, even) have secured places in history without ever making a political point, and it's hardly fair to use U2 and Midnight Oil as standards to which all other bands must be compared, but in both cases I think the juxtapositions were simply too suggestive. It was too easy, for too long, to think that the Alarm and Hunters and Collectors were doing the same things U2 and Midnight Oil were, only not as well.
Now, of course, when most people have stopped caring, it's possible to tease apart the four strands without much difficulty. When we go back and watch Bono, in his sleeveless shirt at Red Rocks, holding up his flag, the image is now the beginning of a montage whose subsequent frames find him in increasingly egotistical and iconic poses, passion giving way, year by year, to a sort of cultural distemper, as if collective adulation has warped a leader into an obscene caricature of the led. In the old pictures of the Alarm, on the other hand, they are scrawny cautionary poster-children for the dangers of hair-spray abuse, and with no subsequent contradictions to interfere (as long as you forget, like most people have, the glossy synthesizers of Eye of the Hurricane, and the entirety of Raw, the ghastly final album they should have broken up before recording) their battered acoustic guitars remain emblematic of the defiant spirit of punk, a DIY aesthetic of even more homely origins than the original electric one. Midnight Oil, on the strength of the aborigine-rights epic Diesel and Dust, has ended up assuming the mantle of political advocacy that U2 discarded. Hunters and Collectors, who never found a cause of comparable stature, continued to write songs about smaller battles, the struggles of daily lives. This is no less noble an occupation, I contend, but it doesn't lend itself as well to grand gestures. Whose headquarters will you play on a flatbed in front of to dramatize the difficult lives of prison guards, or the way magnificent quests can abandon their crusaders?
Juggernaut, in the end, is a fitting self-description. Hunters and Collectors were nothing if not a force, an eight-piece band in an era of trios and quartets, a collective in an era of revolving casts (seven of the eight members on Juggernaut played on every album, and the newcomer, Barry Palmer, joined them in 1989), unpretentious in an era of experimentation and affect. If, as with the Alarm, and, for that matter, The Castle, every chapter of the Hunters and Collectors story carried basically the same message ("We understand what you fight, and we will fight beside you"), it was a message I didn't mind hearing again every year or two. Hunters and Collectors didn't inhabit an isolated story of their own, to me, they supplied a thread of the much larger story rock music told together. They spoke about courage and loyalty, old fashioned values that go in and out of fashion without becoming any more or less important. It was a small part in the overall drama, but the small parts matter, and sometimes the selflessness required to play them properly is a more elusive discipline than the charisma called for by the leads.
And so the wistfulness evident in Hunters and Collectors' farewell, at the end of their longer, straighter journey, is of a different sort than the Posies'. Where the Posies were writing a conclusion that also functioned as a plot twist in its own right, Juggernaut is more like an epilogue. Cut and Demon Flower didn't leave many loose ends that needed tidying, and the 1995 double-live album, Living...In Large Rooms and Lounges, already took care of reminiscence. Juggernaut feels, to me, more like they just wanted to pull the bus to a slow halt, instead of jumping off it while it was still in motion. The songs are smaller, muted and slower, built out of sustainable emotions, instead of catharses, closer for once to Crowded House than Midnight Oil. I keep thinking "She Is Not Fooling Around", in particular, is going to slide into "Not the Girl You Think You Are", and "Good Man Down" into "Weather With You". "True Believers" turns on a simmering keyboard wash and mournful, legato trumpets. "Higher Plane" flits from dust-bowl blues stomp to a "Dancing in the Dark"-like hum. "When You Fall" is a hushed sequel to "Throw Your Arms Around Me" and "Say Goodbye". "Suit Your Style" runs through the circling, dance-y canter introduced on Cut once more. "Human Kind" is like the slow song to end a party Oingo Boingo performed at. "Those Days Are Gone", at the junctures when, on previous albums, the band would probably have slammed into the next gear, here instead retreats into acoustic guitar and pensive organ. And "Long Way to the Water", the final song, is a drifting ballad to sing us to sleep (with a quiet reprise of "True Believers" to make us think we dreamed it all). "We can't go back, and we can't stand still", Seymour sings, "so we're leaving this world behind". It is exit music; Hunters and Collectors are playing themselves out. There is a reason that it's sunsets the heroes always ride off into, that songs end with fade-outs, that we say goodbye to people as they leave us; all these things are tactics to support the fiction that our experience of the world is consequential, that things really do end when they pass out of our sight. I start to cry out, to stop them, to see if they'll come back one more time, because I can tell, even before they've vanished, that I'm going to miss them. But then, they'll probably miss me, too. And we both have lives we should be getting on with.