484 · 6 May 04
The Reputation: To Force a Fate
You come and go, and I'm left with these songs. This is how it works. You live with them for months, giving them shapes over shapes, and then you paralyze them and load them in cars and awaken them here as best you can. And then you are off to Providence or Philadelphia, and I am here in Boston with your pictures of what these songs once felt like to you, and my stories of what these frozen versions of them come to mean to me. You take your songs away with you, and these ones you leave behind are mine.
And I've waited two years for more chapters of this, whether your story or mine or both of ours, and it takes me days to get over the disappointment of realizing there are only ten. And then weeks to accept that I don't even like listening to that many. Years of your work and my waiting, and I am here deleting songs from your already-too-brief album trying to make it feel right. By the time I get there, there are only four songs left. Two years and thousands of miles for four songs. "Let This Rest" ticks and peals and crashes and soars, maybe the most rousing beginning of an album you've devised. "Face It" simmers and cracks and sighs, a remedial lesson to every snarly punk-pop formulist. "The Lasting Effects" glides and idles, quiet in its distance. "Some Senseless Day" gathers and hesitates and then hurtles itself into desperate air. Fast, fast, slow, fast; and then I'm sitting here holding the case, listening to the rain.
I fear I'm listening to this music at such cross-purposes to how you're making it that our stories of how it sounds hardly intersect. Every time your band has gotten better, I've cared about it less, and I presume and hope you've cared about it more. Standing there at the Middle East, hearing these songs for the first time through opening-act-mix murk, I felt battered and drained. I brought Belle to hear you, too, and listening through her ears I could discern even less of what I care about than through my own. It's useless trying to explain that you're one of my favorite rhythm guitarists when you're being drowned out by the other guitar and then switching to piano, useless to talk about the way your thin voice cuts across noise when noise is swallowing it completely, useless to talk about whether your characters like themselves when all there is to go on is how many times you say "fuck" in between each pair of songs, useless to try to explain "Dear Josie, Love Robyn" and "Half As Far" and "Fast Girls" when you're pretending they never happened. Your old music wasn't anywhere near as good as this, but it was worse in charming, brilliant ways. When did you last go back and play all five of your records in a row? Sarge expressed more of you than you could alone, or at least that's what it felt like to me. The Reputation are ten times as competent and twenty times as anonymous, and they're diligently crushing the charm and individuality out of your music until it's no longer yours. After the show Belle spent an hour playing me old Scarce records trying to explain how much better your band would be with a charismatically scraggly male co-leader, and I couldn't even justify being offended for you, because she's probably right. You have built a band that doesn't rely entirely on you, but in doing so you have built a band that isn't designed to amplify you. You are what I want to hear. You have built a solid rock band that I wish you would leave.
But you drive away, and take the band with you, and in these evenings alone with the record it shouldn't matter to me as much. And yes, I know before I've read a word of these lyrics that I've fought against your songs in the past, and that's a terrible grounding. What could I want from new ones? Not more resignations I'd feel obliged to try to dissuade you from. I can't wish you more pain just because you contort well, or finite revelations numbered in running orders just to be present at your answers.
But I want something. You have written mesmerizing dysfunction by saying wrong things in words that convinced me you should know better, so I want new clarity. I want more-thoughtfully misguided solutions to more-obliquely essential problems. I want to find out how you've spent these two years, to hear in your own words how you think you've spent them. I don't need to approve, I just want to know that you have not given up.
And the painful irony is that the concert din probably told me more than the actual stories this time, after all. The band roar is a denial and reduction, a replacement of complicated conflicts of principle with simple conflicts of will, of introspective self-doubt with headlong insistence, of a storyteller's seduction with a rhetorician's focus. Instead of songs I want to smash and put back together and mail back to you to show you how they could hurt you less, you've written song after song of exhausted frustration I just want to bury. I hated your splattering anger, but it was more alive than these weary jabs. Let it go, get it over with, follow-through now or let it be, face it, it's over now, they always happen this way, burnt out and worn down, not what you need, a better way of giving in. I could defend almost any of these in isolation, but not in such inexorable mass. You could claim that your revelation was release, and these are all modern ways of letting go, but I don't believe you believe that, either. I don't believe you've swallowed all that anger, any more than I believed you felt soberly justified in it before. There has to be something in between.
No, that's wrong, there doesn't have to be anything in between. There's no earthly reason why release shouldn't be your revelation. Two years is plenty of time to outgrow indignant rage as your stock response to interpersonal stress, and all of these answers could be exactly correct. You're right that fighting perpetuates itself and one way or the other you just have to stop, and I love that you play the together ("Let It Rest") and apart ("Bottle Rocket Battles") versions of the same understanding back-to-back. "Follow-Through Time" careens toward betrayal, but I think your point is that betrayal is constructed, and he's the one playing for it. So did the invitation ruin it for him? "Face It" mixes "Let This Rest" and "Follow-Through Time", and "I want to get there with you" is exactly the groundless faith I wish for everyone.
And if I thought the hurt girl in the last set of songs was you, I should believe that the healing one here is you, too. But there's less of you here, less of her. "The Lasting Effects" backs off halfway into third person. In "March" you're hiding behind a turn of expectations, calling loneliness her level and letting her wonder if she deserves it. "Cartography" is a perfect title setup, but look how few real places the songs are grounded in this time. What happened to Madison and Dallas, to alleys and courtyards? Have you forgotten the stories, or just how to tell them? "Some Senseless Day" conflates need with craving, but doesn't even sound that hungry. "The Ugliness Kicking Around" feints towards confronting something vital and internal, but then cowers behind a character the story didn't require. "You're as black and blue as if you'd opened your mouth" is a great line about not drinking, if only it were a line about drinking.
So these could be your answers, and that could be your defense, and I don't believe it. I don't believe it, in the end, for three reasons, and one is insanely infinitesimal, a single skronk of guitar-noise 2:23 into "Face It", botching what should have been a perfect moment of a cappella free-fall. Maybe you love this, and took twenty punch-ins to get it right, but I've unkindly opted to think you just didn't take the time to edit it out, and so I hate it as an emblem of what inattention destroys. I hate it as a cipher for how I hate the turgid grind and tuneless duet vocals of "Bottle Rocket Battles", for how stiltedly the piano clangs through "Follow-Through Time", for how you can't bring yourself to tell Sean that he sings without personality, and can't stay in tune in concert. I hate it for "March"'s sleepy whir and "Cartography"'s ponderous groan and "The Ugliness Kicking Around"'s methodical sway, songs that could be anybody's and I hated it when you even played Elvis Costello.
The second reason I don't believe in this record, yet still believe whole-heartedly in you, is "Bone-Tired". The music is throwaway, a limp Fleetwood Mac pastiche, but then the story starts, and you're in it again. I assume I know who it's about, and you let me, and after an album of beaten compromises and myopic inertia here's one lone chapter in which everything is coherent and real: you, him, the cities, your demons and defenses, your half-chosen courses, the energy between you, the history between you, the lies you tell each other in the faint chance that they can make themselves true. One word here flips the perspective of "March", earlier, and releases her. You end with a tiny hope, formed in telling terms, but I guess I'd still rather hear you be wrong in your own words. Do you see how this song is different from the other nine here? Maybe it isn't, maybe it's me, but if my belief is worth anything, I don't believe so. There are stories that only you are capable of transcribing, and they are thus not only what you would owe me if you owed me anything, but also what you owe yourself. If you don't write them, it is a loss for us both.
But the record is done, so we have our distances and losses to live with for now. The third reason I don't believe this and can't just play my four great songs and be happy is only that I don't want to, which is at least as indefensible as anything I'm complaining about. I have this dream that you will wake up and realize that you are becoming truer to something that isn't you, and isn't as interesting as you. In this dream you come back alone, to play smaller stages with just one guitar and your merciless and curious self-awareness, and I can show Belle why it matters, or you can. This is my dream, obviously, and not exactly your fault. Maybe you don't need me. But then, neither did I invent these ways of hearing you entirely on my own. I have your old records here beside me, and they say that you used to be willing to sacrifice power for insight, and volume for expression, and safety for specificity. I have your old records, and maybe you want me to forget them, but if I forget them, I don't know why I care about the new ones. But maybe that's fine. Maybe we each have enough. I have your old records, and you have your new rock band and a tour full of people cheering you away. I have The Glass Intact and the ways it always used to break, and you have Detroit Rock City getting ahead. I get to keep the things I thought you once believed, and you get to be someone else.