375 · 4 April 02
The Reputation: The Reputation
How much of this do you believe? I know I should keep a level of distance between the girl in these songs and the girl who gets up on stage at the Middle East a couple times a year, but I can't do it. There is too much of you in these stories. Or else there is a girl in these stories, and I spend a lot more time with her than I do with you, but I've come to think that you spend a lot more time with this girl than you do with you, too. You are mistreating her. It has become hard for me to watch you play, to watch these two characters battle behind your eyes. Have you ever seen a video of one of your own shows? Probably not one that could capture what I see. I'm not even sure "seeing" is the right word. I sense the struggle, I don't know how. By inventing my impressions? Yes, perhaps. Perhaps these are my conflicts, and I'm projecting them onto you, however unlikely a screen you make. But I don't think so. I don't think this is my pain, I think it's yours. I think this is a real battle you do not deserve to lose. And at least a dozen times, over the course a concert set, you don't. At the beginnings of songs, and the points where soft turns into loud, you are momentarily the rock star all these people have come to be inspired by. You are the name that will be attached to all descriptions of your bands, whatever evasive thing you call them, until you finally give up and start crediting them to yourself. You are one of my two favorite rock guitarists, and if Gibson had any sense you would be set for life. You are an important musician who probably hasn't even really begun to make her important music. These are hard things to believe, I agree, but as you bear down on a chord or a line, you are distracted from second-guessing yourself, and for a moment I see that the muscles in your face, at least, understand. On the downstrokes, you are invincible.
And then you start singing, and suddenly we are concentric hollownesses, the room and you and us. You take this catalog of roaring anthems, and for each one you write a story nobody should ever celebrate, a bitter tragedy that ought to have been refuted internally before it was spoken aloud. And yes, there's a long and honorable tradition of brutal clarity in art, and you're free to say you're working within it, but you don't sing these things like you are observing a character who believes them, you sing them like you believe them. How often is that true? "Sometimes", I'm guessing you'll say. But they are wrong. They are deeply, comprehensively wrong, and of course it's condescending of me to claim to know better, but it's my record now, too, not just yours, and you can't expect to introduce so much harrowing self-destruction into my life without me trying to talk you out of it. Actually, I can only think of two reasons for you to tell these stories, and one of them is too bleak to bear, so the other must be true, at least for me: these stories are your advertisements for counterarguments. That may not be what you think you mean, but that's what these stories say you mean, and you bear the responsibility for their pleas, whether you admit to hearing them or not.
In track order, then. "Friends" always leave. Or enough of them have left, that you assume this is a property of friends. It is not. I suspect three things are true. One, you are misidentifying your friends. Most of the ones that left were not them, and the ones that have stayed are the ones that can avoid flinching when you imply that you don't realize they exist. They absorb this nihilism like a rehab counselor accepts relapses, as temporary setbacks that are an inevitable component of eventual progress. We, not just they. You underestimate your listeners, and your ability to reach us. Two, more often than not the one leaving is you. You drive them off, and then think it proves your point. Or worse, you stipulate that you are unbearable, which means anybody who claims to tolerate you is necessarily untrustworthy, and you're left with people who either want something or notice nothing. And of course they leave. But three, and most importantly, I suspect that you're misunderstanding the purpose of friends. You are treating them as demands, and then trying to streamline them out of your life because you're already too busy. But your life would be easier to lead if you let people participate in it, not harder. I don't mean logistically, I mean artistically and morally and philosophically and existentially and every other way that you actually would care about if you weren't dazzled by your own cynicism. This isn't about economies of scale (two people do have fewer errands per person than one, but not by much), it's about shared volition. Friends sustain and support each other. Friends won't keep you from missing deadlines, but they'll keep your missed deadlines from killing you. And here's the most counterintellectual part (I was going to say counterintuitive, but intuition grasps this, it's only by thinking that you can miss it): getting involved in other people's lives will simplify your life even more than them getting involved in yours. You need some friends whose projects you can allow to diffuse and then renew your obsessive focus on your own. You need some challenges that require you to do nearly-impossible things in service of somebody else's decisions, and then every time you return to the things you must decide, you'll have a different idea of your constraints.
Bars are the grownup world. They are not. We do not all want it like that. Even you don't want it like that. Those scenes are profoundly not "dues" to pay, they are continuing, procrastinating denial of the lessons we both know you've learned. This one is way too easy, and way beneath you. "Amateur hour", you call it, in the chorus of a manifestly professional rock song. But you aren't helpless or incapable, you're self-indulgent and scared. Growing up is a little bit hard, and far, far easier than your protests. It takes exactly one step: your resolve to start doing all the things you know perfectly well you ought to do. You could list them, right now. You're listing them in your head, as you read this. And you're scared, justifiably, because taking yourself seriously risks failure. A night out in the city's drunken clamor will always be successful. Noise is infinitely accepting. Silence is much more judgmental; a night at home you could fail. Some nights at home you will fail. But not many, and even fewer in the long run. I heard your demos for some of these songs, and there was precious little life in them. But listen to them now. Do you realize what you've done? These songs are incredible. Six of these nine are magnificent from start to finish, and I think I could make good partial-credit cases for the other three. Were you afraid that Sarge would turn out to be an accident of youth? I suspect I would have been, in your place, but these songs prove it wasn't. How many bands as significant in their naïveté as Sarge ever subsequently managed to obviate their own pasts this thoroughly? We could hand people this record and not even tell them Sarge existed. Can you imagine doing that with the Style Council, or Sting, or modulate. or England, Half English? This music is brilliant, and the price you pay for brilliance is that your cowardice and equivocating will be ten times as pathetic as anyone else's. I won't pretend that doesn't suck, on some level, but if you couldn't take it, you'd be Salingering yourself away, and instead here's this record people can just walk into a store a thousand miles away from you and buy.
It's your fault, or, passive-aggressively, It's my fault. I'd admire this song for the vivid realism of your sketch of what the tantrum is like two hours before you calm down and start admitting the truths about the situation, but four circuits through this album and it is two hours later, and you're still repeating this same abject nonsense. There's not a sentiment in this song you should be proud of, not an accusation you level that doesn't suggest a line of return questioning you won't enjoy. Without his side of the story I can't assess the balance of blame, but there's more than enough here for the problem to have been you. More likely, your instinct to blame (and I'd guess he had the same instinct, and that it was part of his appeal) meant the affair never had a chance. You wrote this breakup song first, you or both of you, and then engineered the relationship to elicit it. Write a love song. Write one fucking love song. Write one song in which one person rises above the worst we could have expected from them.
You cheated. This, too, could be a masterpiece if there was any sign that you realize how pathological it is. Quotation marks around the lyrics (printed run-on like you don't want people to read them, but if you really didn't you'd have left them out) could have been enough. Two keystrokes and this would have been one of the best character-studies of deranged jealousy in rock-lyric history. But without them, I'm as horrified as I would have been awed. I don't seriously believe you don't notice how badly all this vitriol is searing you, but there you are with it running down your arms, still acting like it's an offensive weapon, so I have to do something. Here's what his version of the story could be: "God, I should never have gone out with her. Morbid train-wreck fascination, that's what it was far more than rational attraction. I can see her window from mine. I think knowing how horrible the aftermath would be, and how inevitable, was the largest part of the magnetism. Masochism, or flirting with it at least. And of course, it was exactly the disaster I knew it would be. Or worse. I deserved the meltdown, and probably earned it, but I didn't anticipate how far she would take it. I knew she'd try to hurt me, after it was over, but it didn't occur to me how badly she would try to hurt herself. It probably should have. I think it took me two and half months to get her to understand that it was over. Finally I just stopped hiding the thing with Stephanie. I couldn't think of any way to defuse her, so I decided to let her blow up. Even then, she spent weeks pretending she didn't know it was happening. She stopped seeing the friends that wouldn't play along, it was ghastly. And then, when she couldn't deny it any more, she came totally apart. I don't think she's ready for relationships. 'Doesn't play well with others.'" Or hers: "What a nightmare. I would have loved to be friends with her, everybody knows what people see in her. But she has the worst persecution complex I've ever seen. She's never comfortable unless she's besieged by enemies, so she makes them out of friends. It's pitiful, literally. Pitiable. She's not even that good at it. We'd run into her, later, and you could tell she desperately wanted to make a scene, to have us somehow be about her. But instead she'd just glaze over. After like an hour and a half she'd suddenly correct some grammar thing I said an hour ago, and then she'd shut up for the rest of the night. What do you do with that?" And then here's yours: "I caught the tail end of her ass slipping up your stairs. My eyes never left your window (until that whiskey had fucked with my head). Call out your minions, 'cause you lost your chance." Now I'm asking you again: which of these characters are you going to be?
I don't belong in this town and Everyone else makes it look so easy. These may be the most harmless of the album's sophistries, but they're the ones I'm most surprised by, because for once you've let yourself over-sentimentalize instead of the usual opposite. "Town"? It's Chicago. Three million people live there, and the component of regional uniqueness in your personal environment is almost certainly minimal. "The Only Living Boy in New York" was lame, and that was New York, which is awful in a pervasive-enough way to justify it. You can't belong or not belong in Chicago, it doesn't make any sense. It's implicitly-self-aggrandizing tripe of exactly the same form as "I wasn't made for these times". What, concretely, are "times"? And what is the "it" that looks easy when everybody else does it? Possessing senses of self-worth and purpose? Those aren't spectator sports. Driving around in their cars? Grocery shopping? They make those look easy because they are easy, and pretending that domestic minutiae are beyond you, if that's all you're doing, is tired reverse-elitism. It's just a city, and they're just people. Some of them are having exactly as much trouble as you are, and most of the other ones have cheated by giving up. Why aren't you happy, you wonder? Well, who said you were supposed to be happy? It's a shithole of a planet, peopled by troglodytes. Only idiots aren't fundamental repulsed. But entropy is the behavior of a whole system, trivially reversed in countless particulars. You can belong as much as you want to. Pick a favorite pizza place, find a bridge from which you can watch something slow, walk around looking for where you'd open a little guitar store if you were going to. If you have generic errands to run, find some route that gives you a chance to yield to Ethiopian drivers'-ed students. Carry a map with you, make lots of eye-contact with strangers, and see how often you can get them to ask you for directions. Find the offices of four absurdly hyper-specialized magazines and two fronts for dubious religions. Learn to cook. Take pictures. Care.
I am best at saying goodbye. OK, I'm best at buying records. Your turn again. Natural talents are not moral imperatives. Also, I told you "You think you're too old for this shit" was a bad line, and I stand by that. It's a banal gloss over a truth you're easily smart enough to reveal. Plus the "you" is you, and I'm 35 tonight, and that's not old enough to claim very many wisdoms, but one of them is that that's not the shit you're too old for, anyway.
Effort is pointless. For a single heart-stopping moment in this one, I think you're going to crack. "Every time we lied / I kept my legend by my side"; this is two thirds of a syllogism, but where the synthesis should be, you just listlessly echo "by my side" again, and the piano limps away into the fog.
You will let me go. No. How has this fallen to me? I don't know, but I won't do it.
These broken pieces are the best I can hope for. No. Listen to yourself. I don't believe you, and you don't believe you. Even the people you've found to say they believe you don't believe you, we just disagree about tactics. We think you can be convinced. We think you are smarter than you are misanthropic, and we think we are, in aggregate if not one by one, stronger than your doubts. We are hanging on as best we can, trying to outlast your attempt to make your point. So are you. If you take grim satisfaction in alienating people, be warned that you will discover, one person too late, that the last person you alienate is yourself.
And if none of that alarms you, maybe this will: your lyrics on this album bother me so much that half of the time I ignore them. I sing along, either substituting nonsense-syllables or saying the real ones but pretending they're not parts of words. Whatever you mean to express, half the time I am ignoring it completely. For those half-hours, all this is is music. "Either Coast" is just guitar snarl and hi-hat twitch, and your just-too-young voice sighing gracefully, and the chorus is something about rolling the coast down and letting the windows drink the road. "The Stars of Amateur Hour" is just snare splatter and anxiously chiming guitars, and the chorus is a letdown, but when Braid get back together and cover it "Just a little skin" will turn out to be the greatest emo line ever. "Misery by Design" is just galloping and cathartic. "She Turned Your Head..." only sounds like a cross between Thin Lizzy and Blondie, and the piano doesn't add much but the horns are genius. "This Town" is just elegant and wistful. The trumpets on "Alaskan" are even better, and this might be the kind of song I believed Sleeper would one day learn to write, but they didn't make it. The murky piano on "The Uselessness of Friends..." reminds me of "Nadia's Theme", but that was the year you were born, and now I feel old. "The Truth" just has a masterfully insistent bass/kick/snare opening and gnashing guitars that could be nobody but you. "For the Win" is only valedictory and lost. I hit Stop about ten minutes before the end, because the four-minute fade-out on "For the Win" is your third-worst musical idea here, the three-minute gap is your second, and the dreary cover of "Almost Blue" is your first. These other nine are merely brash rock songs as good as anything Chrissie Hynde or Justin Sullivan or Thomas Dolby ever wrote. If I ignore the words, they're nothing more. I may not know you at all, but I know you well enough to know that that's the worst of your possible worlds. Driving people away is acceptable; having them stick around and patronize you is not. So if those are the only options, this litany of exhortations and censure, or else cheerful inattention, then I know I am fighting to do what you need me to.
But will any of this reach you? Are these arguments in anything like the right form? I regret that I am guessing not, and I'm not sure what I make of my having picked an approach that can hardly have maximized their chances. I'm sure I fall into half the traps I'm pointing out to you, that's how I know what they are. I hope you believe I mean well, but I don't know if I could convince a jury. It is the best gift I can think to give you, but that doesn't mean it's very good. It's a lecture on how to live, and what are my credentials? Nothing. If I'm right, for you, it's less because I have different knowledge than it is because you have poured enough of yourself into these songs that I can hardly do anything, listening, except hand you back a few more truths that are inherent in them. This probably reads like how I think you should live, but what it's supposed to be is my attempt to help you disentangle how you think you should live. The rules are in here, however you've concealed them. This is an obliquely hopeful record you've made, to me, precisely because your resignations are so plainly untenable. You cannot go on like this, therefore I'm confident that you won't. I wish there was more I could do to advance the day when you stop trying, but the feedback cycle has its structure. You write these songs, I listen. I sit here, listening again, listening for the whateverth time. It has been my birthday for a few hours now, and I've spent them playing your record. I've spent them alone, immersed in your dissatisfaction, and thus in mine. And where does that leave us? Nowhere. It leaves us where we are. Like everything except our own courage, and each other's, it leaves us exactly where we are.