I Promised Myself I Wouldn't Think of You Today
254 · 9 December 99
Savage Garden: Affirmation
At work, where I have to play things at a lower volume than physiology dictates, and where my listening environment is cluttered by the asthmatic breathing of the servers in the network lab across the hall (our mail server shuts down with such afternoon regularity that we've taken to tossing a sombrero over the monitor and then trying to revive it with the smell of refried beans), Affirmation begins with ten seconds of silence. I've listened at home, too, so I realize that there are noises in those ten seconds, little burbly sounds, but at work I can't hear them, and those ten seconds are torture. Once I hit Play, I have committed myself, emotionally, to the idea that I'm about to hear "Affirmation", and when it doesn't immediately begin it takes all the faith in technology I can muster to stave off panic. What if the song never materializes? It has all the other times, but what if the CD player has finally died, or something important in the amp just fused, or I've actually managed to wear this CD out? If I spent a moment in sober reflection I'd remember that Kozmo could bring me a new copy in an hour, and my office contains seven other devices capable of playing it, but standing there, in between the stereo and my desk, pretending that I'm about to diagram some important design element on the whiteboard but really just not wanting to be seated when the song starts, sober reflection and I are very nearly as far apart as we ever get. I await this album in whatever you call the converse of Zen serenity (Zen hysteria?), a state of profoundly unphilosophical receptivity, all systems responsible for maintaining a sense of self temporarily disengaged.
And then, after an excruciating eternity, the rhythm track surfaces. After a few more seconds the phalanx of guitars and the other four-dozen synthesizers make their entrances, and somewhere around a minute Darren Hayes begins singing. By a minute and a half we're into the first chorus, and the only way this song could more effectively banish dark thoughts from my mind is if it contained a couplet explicitly exonerating us from moral responsibility for the Mars Polar Lander's silence. It's shameless end-of-the-century dance-pop, two-thirds Roxette and a third the Backstreet Boys, overproduced and overarranged to oblivion, its boy-group swoon even more plainly computer-generated than usual, and like everything Savage Garden does it has the approximate aesthetic discipline of a nine-story plexiglas Allosaurus filled with florescent jellybeans, so you may well hate it the way I hate "Livin' la Vida Loca" and "Spice Up Your Life", but to me "Affirmation" is essentially perfect, irresistibly gleeful and one crucial step short of generic anonymity. Every line of the lyrics begins with "I believe", a poetic form that Alanis Morissette didn't invent but who remembers what life was like before Alanis anymore?, and they read like Darren and partner Daniel Jones thought Alanis' "Thank You" wasn't quite positive enough. The difference between cloying and sincere is subtle and subjective, but for me the total absence of irony rescues the song in general, and a few of the specific juxtapositions elevate it from inoffensive to genuinely touching. "I believe that junk food tastes so good because it's bad for you", Darren observes, mundanely, but then in exactly the same effusive yelp he adds "I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do", and I suddenly feel like a complete asshole for picking on him. He's hardly the first to observe that beauty magazines poison self-esteem, but he follows that condemnation with "I believe I'm loved when I'm completely by myself alone", which might be an antidote. "I believe that wedded bliss negates the need to be undressed", he says later, and although I can think of a few other suggestions from pop history that relationships don't have to be based on sex, I can't think of anyone else who purports to believe that it's not even necessary for a marriage. "I believe that God does not endorse TV evangelists" is hardly trenchant, but it's the third line in an AAAA stanza, where the rhyme schemes of all the verses before it have been AABB, and by the time the fourth line enthuses "I believe in love surviving death into eternity", and somehow makes "eternity" rhyme with "unhappiness", "undressed" and "evangelists", I not only believe that love can survive, but that anything else worth saying could be made to fit the same meter.
Like just about every other group treading this musical territory, Savage Garden alternates their upbeat pop songs with sugary, melodramatic ballads. I don't know whether they do this out of a mistaken sense of social responsibility, or because galloping anthems of self-actualization are hard to devise, no matter how unsophisticated they sound (at some point I should try to write one myself, and see), or whether somebody drummed the notion of dynamic variation into their heads at an impressionable age, and they think, insanely, that if they made a whole relentless album at speed we'd complain. Whatever the reason, my appreciation for bands like this is a straightforward arithmetic function of how much I like their executions of the two forms. In the cases of the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, I find the fast songs palatable at best, and the slow songs nauseating, which doesn't add up to much. I like a few of the fast B*Witched songs a lot, but I hate their slow songs so much that I refuse to risk hearing them by putting the albums on. Roxette has mastered both extremes, in my opinion, and although my Roxette top-ten would probably be predominantly fast, Tourism's half-live, half-studio version of "It Must Have Been Love" would certainly be in it, and if "Listen to Your Heart" and "Wish I Could Fly" missed the cutoff, it wouldn't be by much. I don't trust Hayes and Jones implicitly, the way I do Per and Marie, but I love all their fast songs, and the slow songs, even though they can get pretty treacly, bother me far less than the fast ones thrill me. The balance between them seemed almost even, holistically, and it's pretty even when I go through and count, as well. The fast ones are "Affirmation; the pulsing "The Best Thing", with churning guitar on the verses and quivery falsetto in the choruses; the atmospheric "Crash and Burn", as beholden to U2's "With or Without You" as to Roxette's "I Love the Sound of Crashing Guitars"; the old-fashioned disco stomp of "Chained to You", which I keep expecting to break into either "Knock on Wood" or "Relax"; and the sunny hedonism of "The Animal Song". The slower ones are the vividly Backstreet-esque "Hold Me"; the drippy MOR of "I Knew I Loved You" (which has what might be the single most egregious cheesy-electric-piano key-modulation ever); the distinctly John Waite-like "The Lover After Me"; the equally Beth Nielsen Chapman-ish "Two Beds and a Coffee Machine"; the Titanic-grade falsetto reveries of the mixed-intensity "You Can Still Be Free"; the haunted hesitancy of "Gunning Down Romance", whose pace reminds me of Madonna's "Live to Tell"; and the classic serenade "I Don't Know You Anymore", uncharacteristically spare, Darren singing without massed harmonies for once and producer Walter Afanasieff following quietly along on piano. I miss Roxette's duets, of course, but I don't miss the tedium of waiting for all the members of an interchangeable quintet to take their turns. However overproduced these songs are, they also sound to me like they were all made by the same people, not a revolving cast of session musicians, a humane notion that the credits support.
And although paying too much attention to the words in dance-pop songs is usually unrewarding (Backstreet Boys lyrics, in particular, are more or less subliterate), "Affirmation" isn't the only song in which I find something worth a moment's contemplation. "Hey / If we can't find a way out of these problems / Then maybe we don't need this", begins "Hold Me", on the way to an encouragingly vulnerable admission that the narrator needs help to make the relationship work. "I Knew I Loved You" is drab, but I like the insight "You're the center of adrenaline / And I'm beginning to understand / You could be the best thing about me", in "The Best Thing". "Crash and Burn" doesn't try very hard to redeem its tired title, but I smile at the manic edge in Darren's voice as he sings the mantra "I think about it all the time", in "Chained to You". "The Animal Song" is pretty banal as written, but I've yet to exhaust the sing-along amusement value of replacing "animals", everywhere it appears, with "cannibals" (the earnest repetitions of "take my hand" are especially apropos). "The Lover After Me", although it's not Del Amitri, has one stray petulant admission in the middle, "Without you I'm always twenty minutes late", that catches at my heart the way the more ambitious (but less coherent) "Everywhere I go all the buildings know your name / Like photographs and memories of love" does not. "Two Beds and a Coffee Machine" might easily have been Savage Garden's compulsory ode to a survivor of abuse, except the woman cleans up the broken glass in frightened middle-of-the-night silence before she leaves with the kids, and later, on the road, admits that "she knows she'll have to go home", and for me these two details turn an archetype into a person, and a shadow box into a drama. "Love and other moments are just chemical reactions in your brain / And feelings of aggression are the absence of the love drug in your veins" is a pretty weighty idea for a song whose refrain ("I'm gunning down romance") seems to have been picked solely for its visceral lilt. And "I Don't Know You Anymore" is a noble attempt, I think, to write a love song for the gray period between when reconciliation becomes necessary and when it becomes impossible, a market not traditionally well-served by Hallmark.
But in the end, although all these observations matter to me, I don't assess this album's place in my life by totaling up its qualities and flaws. I go back to the beginning, and play "Affirmation" again. It's still frothy and overblown, and Savage Garden still play it like beliefs have never been anything they struggle with, which to me kind of misses the point of having them. If pop songs required the consumption of unrenewable resources, I might opt to spend these on a-ha's "The Sun Always Shines on TV" rather than anything Savage Garden has yet done. But pop songs obey entirely different thermodynamic laws than fossil fuel. The more of them we have, and the more of our joy we manage to allow them to express, the more boundless our joy becomes.
Orange Cake Mix: Dream Window
The definition of "pop song" can be stretched to encompass both Savage Garden and Orange Cake Mix, but only barely, and not without strain. Although nominally Savage Garden has just the two members, most of the songs on Affirmation involve six or seven musicians, and as many as a dozen engineers. Orange Cake Mix is a guy from Bristol, Connecticut, named Jim Rao. He plays the instruments, he sings, he operates the tape-recorder. If it's my strong inclination to let a single song stand as synecdoche for an entire Savage Garden album, Orange Cake Mix records work exactly the opposite way, for me: I like Rao's music much better in large doses than in small. I can't hum any of the twenty songs on this record. Since sending off for most of Rao's discography two or three months back, I have well over a hundred and fifty of his songs, spread across twenty disks of various sorts (more than half of them released in 1997, and only one before 1996), and I can't hum any of them. But I don't want to. Orange Cake Mix music isn't a song style, to me, it's a substance. The OCM records I like best are the blurriest ones, where it's difficult to make out any details even if you want to. Casio drum-beats and analog synthesizers twitter indistinctly, buffeted by tape hiss. Guitars are fuzzed and echoed into a soothing balm. Rao's multi-track vocal parts all sound like an artless extrapolation of Simon & Garfunkel's breathy harmonies on "April Come She Will" or "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright", and like he's reluctant to raise his voice above a whisper while recording them. The gentler songs are like being cradled in fog, the noisier ones like being caressed by a sandstorm, and at least half of both types sound to me like they could be algorithmic permutations of the swirly opening measures of the old Dream Academy song "Life in a Northern Town". Shards of identifiable musical traditions drift through, pieces of folk or jazz or synth-pop or bossa nova, but they're gone before they really register. If Savage Garden hold up one end of the high-/low-fi continuum, getting to Orange Cake Mix involves sliding down it past the Magnetic Fields, and then past East River Pipe, and not slowing for a while afterwards. Silver Lining Underwater, which Rao did for Darla Records' Bliss Out series, is the most avowedly ambient of the albums, but I've been approaching them all the same way, and it hasn't produced any cognitive dissonance. Dream Window coalesces and disperses in a comfortable oscillation, the coherent songs like the bloopy, undulating "Void If Otherwise Unknown", the jangly "Revelation at 3:33 A.M.", the pastoral "Sugar Maple", the pealing, New-Order-ish "Radio Magic Static", the GbV-on-codeine hum of "Long Lost", the frayed, strutting "Joy of Painting" and the towering Phil-Spector/Three-O'Clock hybrid "Plastic Fish" alternating with the watery guitar of "When Summer Returns", the distorted waves of "Maybe It's All a Dream", the pounding "Dream Wave Tapestry (of Stars)", the echo-dense guitar instrumental "Poem for Walrus", the fitful pizzicato of "Dreaming of You", the musical-saw-like whir of "Versus", the found-dialogue pastiche "Sonic Surfer 2009", the circling loops of "Silver Lining Under Water" (reprised from an old cassette, not the album of the same name), the reticent "She Needs Space (and Time)", which sounds like an Adrian Borland intro that never reaches the song proper, and the moody synth interlude "Song About Floating Down the River". In a few cases, I suspect Rao of having made things up as he went, the four-track rolling, pausing only to affix a title to a snippet before moving on, but as insane and irresponsible as that would seem to Savage Garden, it's exactly what I want from Rao. I'm sure he's not the only musician who dreams four new songs each night, but he's the only one whose records sound to me like a transcript of those dreams, not a waking recreation.
Aquadays: Electric Songs
If there's a truce to be struck between Savage Garden and Orange Cake Mix, between Hayes and Jones' focused pop ambition and Rao's billowy insularity, it might sound something like the trio Aquadays, whose debut album, Electric Songs, came out recently on the German pop label Apricot. Aquadays are apparently Swedish, but they sing in English, and to me they sound a lot like I imagine the Field Mice would have if they'd insisted on using a Farfisa organ on everything. Unapologetic drum-machine loops and muted Roland Juno-60 synth-bass underpin these songs, with Martin Aamot's sketchy guitar figures and Lisa Aamot's sighing Farfisa filling in the spaces, and Klara Albinsson's clear voice floating atop it all. I might not be able to hum any specific one of these accurately, from memory, but I'm sure I could improve a medley that leaps from one to the other at random. Parts of "Senseless" remind me of the Rose Chronicles, parts of "Daydreamer" of Suzanne Vega. "Casablanca" has a "Heart of Glass"-like drum-machine loop, but Albinsson's languid melody has none of Debbie Harry's urgency or sexuality. "June" is a shimmery trance, "Spacious" a fretful lullaby. "Sunshine Girl", the high point of the album for me, lets the synth parts indulge themselves in bouncy OMD-esque sequencer runs, striking a tempo contrast with the gliding Farfisa. A throbbing bass-line propels "Mother of Pearl", maybe the closest thing to the Field Mice in their electronic mode. "Gem" could be a double-speed Sundays, "Lustre" a quadruple-speed Low. "Autumn Swirl" reminds me of both Grace Pool and Holiday Flyer, as if it's unsure how much guitar noise decorum permits. If you don't like Farfisa, I doubt you'll be able to stand this album, since the organ only lets up for a few seconds here and there, but I wouldn't have described myself as a Farfisa aficionado, and it's grown on me. Unlike on Dream Window, each of these ten songs are clearly self-contained pop compositions, but because they're so similar to each other, the album as a whole feels to me like an extended fugue, like a meticulous exploration of the perimeters of a style, and an object lesson in the power of subtle asymmetry. In my hierarchy of captivation, Orange Cake Mix is hypnotic, Savage Garden is ecstatic, and Aquadays are somewhere in between the two, a finite and manageable fascination, Electric Songs a concise thesis of constrained possibilities that leaves me, for once, neither scrambling to find a dozen and a half like it, nor obsessively repeating the one I have. Too often, I fear, I tear myself away from records only reluctantly, and partially. How I've managed to get work done with Savage Garden playing, I don't know. Maybe I haven't. When Electric Songs ends, though, I feel recentered, not abandoned. We work so hard to reach each other, but sometimes the best thing we do for one another, when we finally make contact, is to touch once, lightly, celebrating our triumph over space, and then let go. Some of these pop songs have to release us to our lives, otherwise where will we get the momentum, the next time one beckons with open arms, to crash into its embrace?