Tonight We'll Draw Blood
288 · 3 August 00
Black Box Recorder: The Facts of Life
I'm pretty sure the first record I ever bought by a band with a woman in it was Pleasure Victim, by Berlin. I bought it for "The Metro" and "Masquerade", two beepy synth-pop masterpieces that sound just as definitive to me today. I bought it in spite of "Sex (I'm a...)", which even in my hormone-addled post-puberty-onset/pre-virginity-loss state I realized was lyrically odious and musically drippy. My stereo "system", circa 1982, was a large, overcomplicated boombox, which meant that my music-acquisition routine consisted of buying an LP (pre-recorded cassettes were plainly beneath contempt), bringing it home, dragging the box down to our living room, patching it into my parents' antiquated (but turntable-equipped) system, and making a tape of the record so I could then listen to it in the privacy of my room. My parents were hardly censorious, but how I got "Sex (I'm a...)" past them, it's hard to imagine. Headphones would have been the obvious expedient, but I must not have been using them, because I remember my father wandering in, at some point during the taping of Pleasure Victim, to observe tersely that this wasn't the sort of music I usually liked (i.e., at the time, Black Sabbath and Rush). I'm certain I kept the packaging out of view. The inner sleeve had a picture of the three of them, John Crawford, David Diamond and Terri Nunn, the same picture that appears on page four of the lyric booklet in the version of the CD I have. Crawford and Diamond are in tuxedos, looking disreputable. Nunn is naked, or nearly so, her body facing towards them and away from us, peering back over her shoulder, a fur wrap of some sort narrowly obscuring her ass. She is made up to look like a doll, which must be very appealing if you are sexually attracted to dolls. In the credits, which appeared below the photograph, and which are reproduced on the facing booklet page in the CD reissue without apparent irony, she is listed as providing "Vocals, BJs". I expended a fair amount of contemplation, at the time, on this line. I was fairly sure I knew what "BJ" stood for, but its significance depended on knowing who wrote it there, and why. Crawford and Diamond did look like they would be willing to rent Terri out, and she looked like she'd go, but I knew these insinuations weren't directed at me, which was a relief since I wouldn't have had the slightest idea what to do with them.
Black Box Recorder is a trio in the same configuration, the two musicians Luke Haines (who is also in the Auteurs) and John Moore, the singer Sarah Nixey. In the band photo for the tray of The Facts of Life, their second album, Moore and Haines look disreputable, but the harmless disrepute of underground playwrights, not the inept sleaziness of PG-13 pornographers. Nixey does not look amenable to being rented out, or posed. The album's actual front cover features a heavily made-up young girl, looking more than a little like Adrienne Shelly in The Unbelievable Truth, standing in front of a rack of mid-butchery cow carcasses, but for British sale, at least, they opted to cover this with a plain white slipcase with pictures of the three of them looking tailored and civilized. The slipcase is more indicative of the musical style, and more in keeping with the stylistic sense of Nude, their new label, but the girl in the meat factory is closer to the point. The Facts of Life is, as I wanted the Air-soundtracked movie version of The Virgin Suicides to try harder to be, a satiric chiaroscuro portrait of adolescent sexual confusion as romantic enigma, a meta-examination of the slick, cynical tradition of omnipresent sexual innuendo and the near-total lack of rational reflection that Berlin were quite content to participate in. "The Art of Driving" is a hilariously slinky extended seduction/driving metaphor. "Weekend" is the kind of faintly homo-erotic scene the boys in The Virgin Suicides would have poured over meticulously, mystified and mesmerized. "The English Motorway System" returns to the driving metaphor for a reverent epic that amounts to a sort of reverse satire of "I'm So Worried", Monty Python's maudlin mock-dirge about the Heathrow baggage-retrieval system. The pastoral "May Queen" is a girl's ponderously solemn invitation, and I assume for some reason that the "May" in the title implies a May-December age-difference, although there's little else in the song that supports this suggestion, and if I had to guess I'd say that the female narrator is actually the older one. "Sex Life" is all about random sexual fantasies, but the drowsy, congested way Nixey pronounces "dreams" (more like "dreeps") is one of the most cartoonishly sensual things I've ever heard, and I suspect would have been at the center of a lot more confused speculation, if I'd heard it when I was fifteen, than Terri Nunn's back ever figured into. "Straight Life" is a venomously veiled study of repressed domesticity. "I just want to be loved", Nixey pleads in "Gift Horse", amidst an oblique, and presumably symbolic, narrative about digging up corpses in her back garden. "The Deverell Twins" is a horror-movie seduction made all the more grotesque by the fact that it ends, Blair Witch-style, at exactly the moment when the narrator, if what you think happened actually happened, would have stopped being able to narrate. "Goodnight Kiss" is an ode to the vain search for transcendence and emotional resonance in superficial revelry, in a way an extrapolation of Shampoo's "Shiny Black Taxi Cab" and Kenickie's "Nightlife" into dawning adult realization.
Musically, the two-guys-in-a-studio aesthetic has come a long way since Pleasure Victim, and most of these songs are immersed in the same Euro-sophisticate, neo-post-Disco aura cultivated by Air, diluted with just enough EBTG-esque English bedsit-pop reticence to keep the proceedings from edging too far into kitsch. "The Art of Driving", "The English Motorway System" and the sardonically overt Air pastiche "French Rock'N'Roll" are all becalmed and echoey, soundtrack mood pieces instead of pop songs per se. "May Queen", "Gift Horse" and "The Deverell Twins" are baroque and reserved, textural and folk-derived, more like early Kate Bush than the Pet Shop Boys. "Weekend" is infectious and uncluttered pop, bouncy, sparkling and insistent, and "Straight Life", after its "California Dreaming"-ish intro, amounts to a Casio spaghetti-western propelled by obsessively circumspect guitar hooks. "Sex Life", fittingly, is the closest thing here to old New Wave, a lumbering synth-pop bass line and whirring keyboard bleeps only barely disarmed by blocky quasi-harpsichord runs.
But the centerpiece of the album, the song that explains its premise most explicitly, and the one that it seems to me ought to be the kind of intractable worldwide novelty hit whose omnipresence we either rail against or surrender to, depending on whether we prefer to be tortured by ourselves or by others, is "The Facts of Life" itself. Over a glum, orchestral skeleton, like Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" retranslated into suburban diffidence, Nixey intones a half-sultry, half-didactic filmstrip lecture about the trials of growing up as a boy, which the group periodically interrupts for an exquisite, swooning chorus designed to elicit exactly the helpless confusion for which the verses are consolation. "It's just the facts of life, / There's no master plan. / Walk me home from school, / I'll let you hold my hand. // You're getting ideas, / And when you sleep at night / They develop into sweet dreams." For a moment, I can take this romanticism at face value. Yearning is a precious emotion, and I don't think anybody benefits from our making childhood more clinical and accelerated than it already is (both this song and abundant social research suggest that my fifteen is more like today's kids' eleven, a four-year contraction of childhood that I doubt the relative slowness of my development, even by early Eighties standards, accounts for more than a year or so of). But wonder is supposed to give way to wisdom, not a guppy-like defenseless ignorance. Romance is conflated with sex, and both are diligently obfuscated, in order to preserve their iconographic efficacy. The tension between sexual exploitation and sexual taboo is probably our culture's defining idiocy, without which the commercial sector, at least, would be unable to function. There's nothing particularly sinister about the boys' plaintive idolatry, in The Virgin Suicides, nor the fact that they're baffled by the girls' suicides. But the adult narrator, who still doesn't have any theories, who seems to have made no progress, despite decades of experience, towards discovering that women are people, not mythological monsters, and that if evolution means anything it ought to be that sex is now a means to intimacy, not the goal of it, is symptomatic of a debilitating cultural incapacity. The garish, grimacing face on the cover of this album is what ninety percent of our advertising, and thus about eighty percent of our semantic environment, would look like if we could see it clearly, if there weren't so much money riding on our ability to treat each other like animals that we comply, politely, not wanting to inconvenience the butchers. And so assembly lines that could be making food, or medicine, or the occasional album like this one that knows better, instead produce an endless, useless, inhumane, spiritually mutilated parade of Terri Nunn's backs.
Belle & Sebastian: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
If the VW-commercial-fueled Nick Drake revival teaches us anything, it's that commercialization can be imposed, regardless of how much or little the subject cooperates, but in a better universe in which intent weren't so trivially overruled, Belle & Sebastian would be incorruptible. Their reclusive antipathy to marketing is part of it, but even more importantly, their music itself is obdurately introverted, and even though they have come to be the object of cult-like fan devotion, and the focal point of a sprawling pop sub-genre, their standing seems to me like a tenuous mirage of coincidence, which the next song could dispel without a beat of warning. Indeed "Legal Man", the single that preceded this album (but doesn't appear on it), was a rattling Doors-by-way-of-Merseyside strut, splattering bongo drums, child-choir verses and twanging Eastern guitar flourishes bearing little relation to Belle & Sebastian's usual confessional restraint. The twittering instrumental-collage b-side "Judy Is a Dick Slap" came no closer, and only the soothing "Winter Wooskie", the third track, offered reason to think that the upcoming album would be recognizable. And some of it, in fact, isn't. The liturgical "Beyond the Sunrise" sounds to me like Stephin Merritt singing over an unfinished Donovan arrangement. The expansive "Waiting for the Moon to Rise" edges towards "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" "The Wrong Girl" is a relaxed love-in sing-along. "Family Tree" is breathy and wide-eyed, like the Softies playing at girl-group coyness after watching Grace of My Heart a couple times too many. Pre-album press reported that the band were trying for broader songwriting involvement this time, and the easiest explanation for how the album turned out is that they got it, and weren't at all fazed by the fact that the members who hadn't written songs for their previous albums arrived at compositions that didn't sound like those albums. I approve of this attitude in theory, and only have reservations in practice because I can tell how much I would have enjoyed an album that was entirely composed of the kind of song I expected.
But take away the four songs that sound like something else, to me, and there are still seven left that are resolutely why I finally became a Belle & Sebastian convert. "I Fought in a War" opens with Stuart Murdoch's haunted voice over spare acoustic-guitar, and then unfolds into a soldier's letter home from war that could be the complement to Bob Dylan's "Masters of War", except of course Murdoch gives it a romantic's twist that Dylan's protest song didn't have, the soldier musing "I bet you're making shells back home for a steady boy to wear / Round his neck, well it won't hurt to think of you as if you're waiting for / This letter to arrive because I'll be here quite a while". Striding piano and fluttering strings propel the chorus-less "The Model", a meandering and allusive monologue in the tradition of "The State I Am In", and Murdoch's inspired synthesis of childhood naïveté and adult clarity may have never been as concisely summarized as when he ends "I'm not too proud to say that I'm okay with / The girl next door who's famous for showing her" with "chest", instead of, as the printed lyrics read, "breasts". Breasts are individual objects, touchable and known; a chest is an idea, singular and abstract in its inaccessibility.
The music to the break-up song "Don't Leave the Light On Baby" is somewhat generic orchestral pop, but Murdoch's unsteady voice gives it purpose, and to me the out-of-range falsetto he reaches in the last syllable of "I know you will forgive me for my honesty" belongs in the same roll call of Brit-pop's most memorable single notes as the high one Morrissey hits in "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out". "Nice Day for a Sulk", similarly, rides on sunny kids'-song piano, muted acoustic bass and shreds of organ filigree, but the watery vocal production reminds me where the Clientele probably got the idea, and "The girl smells of milk, / Her horsey teeth explode around us" reminds me of the Smiths' buck-toothed Luxembourgian, placing Belle & Sebastian neatly on my continuum. "There's Too Much Love" is grander, less apologetic about its feelings, and it provides the album's concluding thought, "I'm honest, brutal and afraid of you", Murdoch's defiant fragility lingering in the air.
But if I had to, if I thought reduction was the objective of history instead of its chief impediment, I could reduce this album to two songs. "Women's Realm" is the one that stands for Belle & Sebastian's talent for buoyant pop, for reaching back past the Field Mice and the Smiths to reconnect indie pop with some of the things that pop might have become if the Beatles hadn't superseded every competing impulse and thus interrupted every line of development but one for a decade or three. To the characters that tell and populate these stories, the characters in the Beatles' songs are bullies and simpletons, holding hands and trading endearments without knowing why they're important, gliding through untroubled lives by virtue of an obliviousness they mistake for resilience, and a myopia they call loyalty. I don't blame Belle & Sebastian for not wanting to talk about their music. Any reasonable analysis quickly concludes that much of it constitutes a scathing critique of what usually passes for "uplifting", in pop, and thus in turn a difficult question about what it means to employ melody responsibly. Buoyancy is only an accomplishment if you have something to lift. "2 Becomes 1" and "I Want It That Way" are songs for people who don't need help, or worse, who do but don't care, songs for biding time until you die. Belle & Sebastian know that the hardest thing about feeling better is reaching the bottom of what you need to feel better than, so you can have any hope of knowing when you've conquered it.
And worst of all, this process is iterative. What you learn about joy informs your understanding of pain, so true progress involves constantly returning to hell. This is why thoughtful people become more serene, but don't seem to get happier: they know that the only meaningful triumphs are quiet, narrow, partial victories over worthy enemies, and that wild ecstasy is contrived and inconsequential. And so "The Chalet Lines" takes the girl on the bus from "Lazy Line-Painter Jane", meeting a boy in an ill-advised attempt to compensate for a lack of initiative by affecting a lack of discretion, and turns her into another girl, riding a bus in no particular direction, trying to escape what just happened to her. A piano tolls slowly, and after a while a single cello joins in. Neither of them make the story any more palatable or redemptive. This is "Me and a Gun" without the gun, before the healing process begins, if it ever will. Rape songs are too easy, you might say, harrowing by their nature, regardless of whether they contain any new truths. But so are songs about war, and losing a child, and broken hearts, and transportation disasters. Neither "Me and a Gun" nor "The Chalet Lines" are about rape as an action, they're about how people react to being hurt, and the decisions to have the injury be rape, instead of stepping on a landmine and getting a leg blown off, is as much political as literary. Rape is the elemental crime of a culture based on commoditized sexuality as a replacement for emotional completion. It is a taught form of violence, and a taught form of shame; the culture shares the blame not only for the rape, but for the intensity of the victim's feeling of violation. Both are waste products of an industry that depends on repression and ignorance. "Full of woe and further to go", one voice sings; "she caught the bus", the other one answers. The woman in "Me and a Gun" had a car and a home, this one has bus fare and a friend in London who she hopes will take her in. But the bus is something. If it can't take her where she hasn't decided to go, at least it can carry her away. As a machine for salvation, it's a poor design, but so is a gun, and tonight the bus is all she has. If these busses and songs can't solve anything, at least they can keep our celebrations in perspective. An odd role for pop songs, perhaps, drawing boundaries for joy. But so much energy goes into things that ultimately hurt us, and not enough into understanding the parameters of loss, so much effort into sustaining shallow wonder, where mundane comprehension would be preferable, and not enough into the search for genuine awe, into making maps that take you to the moments when you finally do know what something means, and can start to find out how that knowledge has changed you.