You Could Change Your Reputation
321 · 22 March 01
The Blake Babies: God Bless the Blake Babies
I am not famous for doing this. The heights of celebrity to which a music critic can reasonably aspire aren't especially lofty to begin with, and I'm unlikely to reach even those as long as I keep up my uncooperative insistence on writing solely in my own tiny, private, unadvertised forum. And without my running a more-prominent picture or securing a recurring-pundit role on Behind the Music, neither of which do I intend, there's little chance of my developing a public image in the usual, nonverbal, media sense. These are not complaints. Getting recognized by strangers seems like it would be fairly disturbing. I saw Doug Flutie eating lunch at a Boston Market in a dilapidated shopping mall recently, and although everybody was very polite to him, they were polite to him, and here I am mentioning it, and I'm pretty sure it would not constitute an improvement in my life if anybody felt obliged to write about where I've eaten lunch. Nonetheless, there are strangers who know what I do, so I belong in the taxonomy of popular culture somewhere. I spend a lot of time in record stores, and I go to shows, both of which activities involve presenting identification, so there could be people who know who I am when they see me around.
I bring this up not because anybody asked, but because as I stood at the foot of the stage watching the Blake Babies play, the weekend before last, the experience was part of a story to me, and maybe not to anyone else, but I wonder. It's not an especially grand or stirring story: boy writes girl public love letter, girl doesn't respond, boy writes about writing girl public love letter, girl still doesn't respond, nobody ever finds out whether girl even read it. I have not been approached about the movie rights. It is, however, a kind of story I have a personal weakness for, even when I'm not myself a character (and it's debatable whether I'm really a character in this one). It is a sad but obscurely courageous inverse-allegory (the specific as proxy for the universal) about attempting to bridge interpersonal distance, maybe, or a fractional tragedy of romantic idealism, or part of a complicated parable of self-destruction. Or perhaps it's creepy, although I've tried to avoid that. At any rate, it's a story, and for me, knowing it, standing there, watching, there was another level to what would otherwise have been a very normal Friday-night concert. Was anybody else there aware of it. Would any of them have wanted to know? I think I would want to know. How many stories like this do I walk past, in a day? That man in the suit with the tear in the back of the left shoulder, holding a briefcase with papers bulging out, held closed by only one latch, standing in front of a furniture store: is he tired, or lost, or is that furniture store an immovable presence in his subjective world, to which he is as doomed to return as Cerebus to the Regency? The tiny woman to my right, at the show, peering around my elbow at Freda's knees: how far has she come to be here, and why, and what will she return to, afterwards? We spend our lives awash in yearnings and disillusionments and stubborn imagination, and for all they touch us, they might as well be cell-phone pings. Actually, the cell-phone pings touch us enough to make us worry about brain tumors. The waves that transmit anonymous crushes don't even merit alarmist asides on third-tier local news programs. Hundreds of people file into a nightclub recently rescued from bankruptcy, and watch a band they grew up with, who haven't played together for a decade. Or maybe you don't know that much. Hundreds of people file into a nightclub and watch a band. That's accurate, but hardly true. It doesn't explain why we care, about this or anything.
Even in popular music, where the formal separation between author and art is routinely glossed over, it is of course possible for there to be self-contained stories, stories that don't require the incursion of the singer or the listener to complete emotional syllogisms in the plot. Richard Shindell and Kate Bush are my two favorite writers of this sort, storytellers from whom I feel like I'm learning about life and people without necessarily learning about me or them. But Richard and Kate are exceptional. Authorial autonomy is hard enough in written literature, halfway to impossible when a human voice is attached to the words, and tantamount to untenable in the para-naturalistic idiom in which most popular music is currently sung. Most listeners, statistically, don't so much as consider it. I'm an over-analytical Ivy League graduate with a dangerous concept of intellectual noblesse oblige, and I still interpolate real people into made-up songs as my default method of understanding them. There are theoretical rationalizations, if we want them, involving the brevity of pop songs, the lack of context, and the natures of both the performer and the audience as characters in an implicit frame tale, but these would be cheats, if we were still in school, and they're woefully pre-post-modern at best. The real reason is that we have two radically different ways of experiencing art, and the way we were taught to read A Tale of Two Cities may be the one that best lends itself to codification and meta-analysis, but it's also the tame one, the one for which we've reduced the number of variables to the point where calculations are both possible and meaningless. The art with real power is the messy, flawed, incomplete kind that conscripts us to correct and complete it. You don't need technology to accomplish this (the central fallacy of "interactive fiction" is that if the source material doesn't envelop the audience, additional artifice won't help, and if it does it's unnecessary), and the artwork's milieu doesn't have to be the audience's present-day (arguably the consummate achievement of art is to transport an audience into an alien mindset), but guitars help, as do hearing the reservations in somebody's voice, and singing along, and finding things to fall in and out of love with.
But all that said, I didn't expect much from a new Blake Babies record. I was only a half-hearted Blake Babies supporter the first time around, I've never felt much resonance with any of John Strohm or Freda Love's other projects, and one way of looking at my feelings about Juliana Hatfield's solo records is that I started liking them as she left the vestiges of her old band behind. The primary charm of the two Blake Babies songs I care about most, in my opinion, is the harrowing frailty of Juliana's singing, and she got past that long ago (and I neither wanted nor expected her to try to simulate it again now). But I've written her into my life, and that's probably enough reason to buy every record she'll ever make, if for no other reason than to commemorate a foolish gesture I'm proud I made. Maybe I'll think of new chapters of my insular little story to attach to her future solo albums, and maybe not, but to the extent that band projects don't devolve into solo albums with other backing musicians (and I give her enough credit to assume they won't), they ought to be largely tangential. A new Blake Babies record is certainly worth $12.88 to me, and an hour and a half for listening to it twice. But half-serious marriage proposals notwithstanding, listening twice is due respect, and anything beyond that must have its own logic. The concert was fine; the record would have to be amazing.
The record is amazing. My highest level of obsessive devotion, listening to a single album to the exclusion of other new music for an entire week or more, exists mostly as a rhetorical device. The closest I've come to that level, in my post-collegiate life, was Tori Amos' from the choirgirl hotel, which made me reluctant to listen to anything else, but I still did. God Bless the Blake Babies hasn't gripped me quite that strongly, but it's reached the next highest level, and the highest practical one, which is that I take a whole stack of CDs with me to work and still end up playing this one twice in a row before touching anything else, and then I come home and look at a pile of CDs I'm dying to hear and decide that I can live with playing this one one more time first. It is an understated and unassuming album, and I'm not going to claim it exhibits unprecedented mastery of anything, but I adore the sensation of listening to it. I am enchanted, transfixed, exhilarated, elated. Giddiness isn't my only intense emotional response to music, nor necessarily my highest, but I usually get this particular kind of uncluttered, extravagant ebullience from music with a much higher sugar content, like Roxette or the Corrs, so I'm at an initial loss to explain how music with this many more self-imposed constraints can make me feel the same way.
My first theory is that I just like Juliana's songs, and most of these are really hers, whoever is playing them. This isn't a very clever theory, since most of these don't sound like Juliana Hatfield songs, and this isn't the reaction I had to the solo albums I like best, anyway, but I have to start somewhere. A credits check routs this idea in short order. There are only three solo Juliana compositions among these dozen songs (the languid "Waiting for Heaven", the legato "What Did I Do" and the muted "Civil War"), and I like them, but they're more interstitial than structural. Three more (the pealing "Disappear", the plaintive "Until I Almost Died" and the squalling "On") are Strohm/Hatfield collaborations, which would support the next-most-obvious theory, that I'm reacting to something they bring out in each other, but the three are rather plainly dissimilar, and "Until I Almost Died" and "On" may be the two songs here that most closely resemble Juliana solo aesthetics (early jangle in the former case, recent cacophony in the latter). Strohm's "Picture Perfect" sounds a lot like Polara, but I don't react to Polara this way, and his other one, "Invisible World", is twangy Americana I wouldn't have expected from either of them. Freda gets her second and third Blake Babies song-writing credits, but the snappy "Nothing Ever Happens" sounds something like a cross between Polara and a drum-machine-led dB's, and the becalmed "When I See His Face", co-written with bassist husband Jake Smith (and sung by Freda on the album, although she sounds a whole lot like Juliana even before Juliana joins in on backing vocals), verges on the liturgical. The Madder Rose b-side "Baby Gets High" is stately, but I wouldn't have known it was a cover without checking. And Evan Dando and Ben Lee's "Brain Damage", bolstered by Juliana's clangy piano and a Doe/Cervenka-ish duet with Dando, overcomes my reflexive Dando aversion, but isn't any better at explaining my overall reaction in miniature.
I make a little more progress when I start paying attention to the lyrics. The complications in the relationship song "Disappear" are subtle and convincing, especially "He's been talking to my friends. / I hope they don't invite him in again.", a too-rare acknowledgement that break-ups often involve more than two people. "What I wouldn't do / Go back to '92 / And erase the moment I met you", Juliana sings at the end, and I automatically interpolate a "to" between the first and second lines while listening, but in the printed lyrics there's a colon, which completely reverses the meaning, and I'm left thinking the song implies finality and hope at once. There's not much plot development in "Nothing Ever Happens" (Freda's lyric-writing seems to be lagging behind her music-writing), but the portrait of a girl waiting for a boy to sneak into her room (I'm interpreting liberally) might not be appreciably improved by additional exposition. "Baby Gets High" is a drug song, clearly, but the title is so much more blunt than the verses that I start thinking it's a red herring, but then I fail to think of an alternate purpose it would be distracting me from, and so lapse back into thinking it's a drug song. "Waiting for Heaven" is definitely a drug song ("The only thing I've ever wanted is to lose myself, / So I take a little poison because I need a little help"), but then it ends with "Heaven, / Where are you? / I've been waiting patiently, / Will you ever show your face to me, / Or is nothing true?", which is a strange question to ask if you know you're deceiving yourself, so maybe the character in the middle verse is an evangelist, not a pusher, and it's all about religion, but then the title is way too obvious, so maybe it's about drugs after all. "Until I Almost Died" seems to be about returning from a near-overdose, but "I never thought I had a pretty voice / Until I almost died" doesn't make any literal sense (presumably she's not doing much pretty singing while on the verge of death), so maybe it's just about self-respect, only that would make "high" a metaphor for "low", which doesn't seem like Juliana or John's kind of trick. The first two stanzas of "What Did I Do" are completely generic, looking for causes after a break-up, but then Juliana inserts this searingly mundane bridge: "I found your voice on a tape, / The only letter that I saved, / And a polaroid of you, / And a drawing that you made. / You left it in my car. / I never knew I had it." "Civil War" and "On" both affect coy song-about-a-song triviality, but some bitterness splashes out of "Civil War" in "There's only five emotions and they all can kill you", and the clunky rhymes of "On" give way to "Call the nurse, / She can stick it in you", which I probably would have taken as co-dependency exasperation even if it didn't parallel Alanis Morissette's "Call the Doctor" so closely. But these are all bad reasons for what I'm feeling, too. I'm no more fond of drug stories as metaphors than I am of drug stories as drug stories, and attraction to self-destructive personalities (of whatever sort) is one of the running themes in Juliana's work that militates most violently against the fantasy in which she and I have anything to offer each other. Compared to the seething dissatisfaction on Bed, the overall gestalt here is largely retrograde. The character I was drawn to, before, was trying to transcend her history, and seemed to be reaching out for a kind of support she had never experienced, but whose existence she had somehow deduced. The corresponding character here seems to have lost sight of her goal and gone back to barely treading water. Maybe I was drawn to a moment of unsustainable strength. I want to think that I could have helped sustain it, of course, but it's just as plausible to imagine I would have been hauled down as well. Except there's no way I would have become a drug addict, and I can't think what other addiction I could have developed instead. So maybe Bed was denial, and this is what strength actually sounds like, embracing the kinds of problems you naturally attract, instead of dwelling on some fantasy in which everything changes.
And then, weighing these two simplistic theories against each other, wishing they weren't both so doltish and self-serving, it finally occurs to me what I find so magnetic about this album, and it's as debilitating a reversion to my crush as I could possibly have feared. It's also such a natural function of the premise of the record that I immediately conclude I've known it subconsciously from the beginning, and been valiantly trying to suppress it to avoid precisely this relapse. The thing that's been wrong with this story I've imagined for Juliana and my characters isn't that her character is attracted to self-destructive addicts, because my character isn't one, so if the characters get together, that problem is solved. The one that isn't solved is the very problem that her failure to respond (the real person, now, not the character) restates, the problem that is implicit in all the songs about addict boyfriends and explicit in "You Are the Camera" and the photos on Beautiful Creature and the blaring aggression of Total System Failure. Her character (and it's my story, but they're her songs, so I guess we have to share the blame) won't allow herself to be helped. The relationship in the story might be exactly what she needs, but it's couched in terms she would never accept. It's the same self-defeating delusion from Kathleen Yearwood's Dog Logic, last week, just in a less eldritch idiom, a sense of self so self-critical that it precludes contact by stipulating that contact would do no good. You can become so obsessed by how you've been hurt that you turn defenses into attacks, and so invert your instincts and flee from your best hope. Total System Failure, in particular, amounts to almost a parody of communication and intimacy, a pick-up line too loud to shout over, which thus mandates its own rejection. The horrible flaw in the story I was trying to write was taking the superficial extroversion and apparent self-awareness of Bed and Beautiful Creature as openness and longing, when in fact they were a setup, and while the setup does conceal openness and longing, somewhere behind, it was a moot secret because nobody was ever going to get past the trap.
But here, without her name on the cover, without the pressure to be what she's known for, maybe thinking she's safe enough, she dismantles the setup. The Blake Babies were never very successful, so there's nothing for this album to prove, not even much it's positioned to strive for. "I'd really love to turn it off," she says in "Civil War", "but they all know my name." This is true, and retreating behind the flimsy screen of a band name isn't likely to alter her social dynamics much. The lyrics fight the same battles, not yet aware what's happened. But from the first line of "Disappear" Juliana sings, everything in her voice has changed. She is not constructing an argument, she's just singing. She has managed, whether she realizes it or not, to forget about the terrifying exposure she subjects herself to by performing, just long enough to be, while she sings these songs, an older (or younger) character, herself from back when she was the only person who expected anything from her, and even she didn't know quite what. Her graceful, unforced singing here shares little technique with Earwig's reticence, but all of its half-naïve emotional courage. After ten years of asserting her independence and invincibility, she allows herself to make a record that isn't supposed to be about her, and in doing so reveals the thing the other records worked so hard to deny: not pain, anger and self-doubt, but the far more frightening prospect of hope. The character that sang those old songs, and is back to sing these new ones, hasn't given up. She hasn't compiled the catalog of refutations yet, hasn't learned to silence conversations in the course of initiating them. She hasn't taught herself that eye-contact should provoke fight-or-flight, or that the act of a woman playing a guitar is part of a gender war, or part of a backlash against the idea that a woman playing a guitar is part of a gender war. She hasn't learned to only let people into her life if she can tell in advance how they're going to hurt her, and thus why she will be able to walk away. The voice I hear in these songs, character or person or combination of the two, hasn't turned loneliness into a life-style, and as I sing along, blissfully, over and over, I hear the same voice in myself. And so I pose one set of questions for these two characters, or two people, or whatever we are: How do we disentangle experience and resignation? How do we divine our natures without simply stipulating them? How do we take these elaborate stories we've gotten so good at telling that we mesmerize ourselves as much as anybody else, and stop writing them? Where is the door we're not opening, where can we move these virtuoso preconceptions so they're no longer blocking it, and who will we meet, or become, when we step through?