You'd Think You Couldn't Breathe Without That Sound
138 · 18 September 97
Jesus Jones: Already
I haven't quite worked out the exact algebra for how they interact, but after a few years of working I feel like I at least understand what most of the major factors that determine, for me, a job's survivability, are. First, it must not involve wearing a suit. Suits are the uniform for telling lies in, so any occupation that involves wearing them is petty at best, and soul-crushing at worst. Second, it must be okay to leave at five. Life is too short, and joys too various, to spend more than forty hours a week doing any one thing. Actually, life is probably too short to spend more than about twenty hours a week, really, doing one thing, but it's also expensive, and there's a tradeoff there I'm still pondering. Third, I must believe, in some way, however subtle or roundabout, that I'm improving the world. If I'm not, I'm wasting just as much oxygen on this planet as the grim old woman I watched sitting in her Buick in the grocery-store parking lot last Saturday afternoon, methodically scratching the silver masking-gook off of her lottery cards and then dropping them out the car window onto the ground. (I considered walking over to her car, bending down with a kindly expression on my face, and saying, as earnestly as I could manage, "You know, if you dropped dollar bills directly on the ground you could waste your money and litter in one movement, without all this tedious scratching.") Fourth, there must be something unique and distinguished about the work, and particularly my part of it. There's plenty of money to be made just ripping off other people's well-worn ideas, but I don't want to be the one making it. Fifth, it has to be a job that primarily just involves thinking clearly. I subject myself to far too much sleep deprivation for anything relying on steady hands or stamina to be wise, and spin through far too many moods for a job that revolves around any particular one, but I don't recall ever being too tired or grumpy to form an opinion. And finally, it must be something where I can play records while I do it. I assume this last rule requires no explanation.
These six criteria let us quickly eliminate a number of otherwise plausible occupations. I would be an unhappy surgeon, for example: scrubs aren't morally offensive, and the working hours are only odious for the first few years, but I'd want to triage patients according to the lives they lead instead of the contours of their injuries, the persistent blind spots I get when I'm attempting to struggle through a Thursday on two hours of sleep might occlude important organs, and the machine that goes "ping" is not what I call rock and roll. I suspect I wouldn't last long as a local news-anchor: suit-wearing, disassociative medium contributes to social incapacity for cogent public discourse, reading from a teleprompter not one of the things I do better than most people, periodic bouts of virulent nihilistic gloom frowned upon, no blasting Slayer while on-air. On the other hand, if I could rig up some walkman headphones concealed in the flaps of my judicial wig, and learn to switch CDs under my robes without telltale rustling, I could probably enjoy being a Supreme Court Justice.
The career in which I find myself, designing computer software, gets through these tests reasonably well. There's no lying; they dislike my leaving at five, but not enough to fire me for it; I've always fought hard to make things that are pleasant interludes in people's lives, not necessary, resentment-engendering evils; nobody even hires designers for crappy knock-off projects; and the computer doesn't care whether you're chipper or borderline suicidal. My very first computer job was answering the technical-support line for seven solid hours every day, and the lack of music was a problem, but I quickly advanced to the level of occupational prestige where you get an office, luckily without falling into the management trap in which you never get to enjoy it because somebody is always coming in to complain about something. Offices get bigger and nicer, the more reorganizations and pogroms you survive, so by the time I left my last job I had an office with two large windows I could open (when I wanted to listen to the relatives of defendants bickering over parking spaces outside the courthouse next door), a whiteboard large enough for the Millennium Falcon to cling to, two fast computers, an Internet connection the size of a sewer conduit, yearly trips to anywhere I could find a conference taking place, and pretty much nothing to do with it all except sit around playing Sparkle and Fade over and over. The job I was supposed to be using the nice office for, however, had deteriorated to the point where one of the company's VPs, in the course of what was intended to be a pep-rally, actually used the phrase "low-hanging fruit" to describe the level of ambition he wanted to see in our projects, and layoffs and endless musical-chairs org-chart shuffling had produced a corporate culture in which even the smallest, simplest task was the joint property of an interdisciplinary team of eleven, so that no work ever got done outside of meetings, and no work ever got done inside of meetings, either.
The caveat that goes with the rule about improving offices, though, a trend that, unchecked, would have me working in the middle of a fully-outfitted recording studio by now, is that you must never take a job at a startup company. As employee number five of the company I now work for, I reported for my first day in the basement of the Chief Technology Officer's house, or, more accurately, in the half of the basement of the Chief Technology Officer's house that wasn't cordoned off as the playroom for the Chief Technology Officer's Son. We did eventually get some office space (I'm dramatizing; my second day we had an office, and by the fourth day we even had some chairs), and for the first few months I had an office to myself, but every VP we hired bumped another hapless worker ant out of an office into a cubicle, and eventually one of these was me. I didn't stop playing music, but my play-list did change noticeably, shifting toward things that, at least when heard peripherally, weren't blatantly threatening. I started leaving the Aube and Thought Industry albums at home, and bringing Patty Larkin and a-ha to work. Before too long we outgrew our first offices entirely, and had to move to a larger space on a different floor of the building. Where the old space was mostly a ring of small offices around a large open area filled with cubes, the new one has very little cube space and the offices are large enough that we have to put two people in each of them, so most of the company has now aligned into pairs. This, too, has affected what I bring to work to listen to. I have headphones, so I don't have to censor myself, but the two largest parts of my job are 1) getting interrupted and 2) interrupting other people after overhearing something that sounded interesting, and both of these work more smoothly if I'm not constantly putting headphones on and taking them off again. Fortunately, my friend David, with whom I now share an office, is a paragon of tolerance, so I usually don't have to. "What is this we're listening to?", he does occasionally inquire, in a tone of voice that perhaps implies an "...and why?" at the end, and I dutifully make a mental note to take the Linoleum album back home with me, but it's more fun to bring in things I suspect he'll enjoy, too, anyway. My nostalgic tour through the Rush remasters was especially well-received, and I should probably just leave my copy of Yes' 90125 at work for the duration.
The disc we've had on highest rotation, though, is Already, the fourth album by Jesus Jones (the domestic release of which has been delayed by the collapse of EMI, but I got impatient and bought an import). It is a tense period, at work, as we're in the final few weeks before our product ships, madly trying to tie up all the loose ends so that the thing is gleaming and spotless when we ask the first erstwhile customer to read us their credit card number, but the moment "The Next Big Thing" begins you can sense the atmosphere change in the room. In the silences when no music is playing, the sounds that frame us are the whir of computer fans, our spasmodic machine-gun typing, the impatient banging of recalcitrant mice on mouse pads, the voluble VP of sales in the office next door checking his voice-mail on speaker-phone, the air-conditioning and the heating cutting on and off (controlled, we've discovered, by a thermostat in the physical therapist's office at the other end of the hall, which I'm beginning to think a recovering patient is whacking back and forth with his elbow at random intervals), and the irrelevant ringing of the company doorbell, the -bell part of which is mounted right outside our office, nowhere near the door- part to which it connects. Just about any music, of course, can drown out some of these noises, but most albums don't change the character of the environment. They turn a high-tech office into a high-tech office with music playing, but that's all. Already, somehow, goes a step further than this. Something about its buoyant, expansive good cheer even changes the way the office looks, like the sound in the air has polarized the light. Perhaps it's that the spirit of the music makes you notice different things. When the soundtrack is our typing, your attention is drawn to the computer monitors, slides off to the telephones, skims over piles of esoteric protocol specifications and ends up wondering why we have a magnetic level affixed to the underside of our door frame. Put Jesus Jones on, though, and suddenly the shelves full of loaded Nerf projectile weapons, styrofoam broadswords, juggling pigs and Koosh-ball cohorts feel like the defining features of the room. The rigorous solemnity of our programming tasks, not the irrepressible music, becomes the anomaly. I don't know whether we do better work while this album is playing, but we certainly enjoy it more.
Jesus Jones are the perfect band to cheer me as I work, because they're one of the few bands that remind me that technology is good for something, after all. The one of my six criteria that I still have lingering doubts about, in my current job, is whether we're really improving the world. We're trying to make people's business lives a little easier, and their electronic collaboration go a little more smoothly, but I'm basically anti-business, so I'm not sure I think that business lives should be easier, and I'm not sure whether electronic collaboration is a thing that should be facilitated. Do networks bring people together or push them apart? It's very hard to tell, because the social problems are complicated to begin with, and the "solutions" we're providing are to third- and fourth-order logistical difficulties. If you make it easier for people to hold conversations online, with the participants spread out in time and in space, have you given them more opportunity for genuine human interaction, by removing physical reality's barriers, or are you just encouraging them to retreat behind their computers, firing position papers back and forth, and never really working with each other the way they'd have to if you locked them in a room together? Chronic bouts of profound technological ambivalence plague me; perhaps everything since the grain thresher has been a huge mistake, and I'm one of the misguided sword-wielding zealots exhorting everyone to run faster toward the precipice. "Technology bad", I mumble to myself, in the fog these interludes of doubt produce. "Progress is illusion. Old ways are good ways. Cthulhu, Cthulhu, Cthulhu." This theory put forth, I instinctively test it against music, as I do all important theories. And sure enough, technology hasn't altered music much; people are still playing guitars, the design of which hasn't changed drastically since they were electrified. Much of what music technology has done, particularly the imitative developments like samplers and most synthesizers since the D-50, is to change not the nature of music but the method of making it, and much of what it's been used for, not surprisingly, has been expedience, not experimentation. You could rip off a David Bowie or Police riff by playing the same notes on the same instruments; samplers just make it more convenient. You could learn to play the flute, the oboe and the kalimba, and then see which one your hook sounds better on, or you could just page through every esoteric patch on your cheap keyboard in factory order until you get one that sounds cool. All this technology may have made it easier to become a musician, but it's made it no easier to become a good musician. Sampling whole phrases of somebody else's song to make yours is "songwriting" in the same way that the recipes on the side of Hamburger Helper boxes that specify which brand of each ingredient you're supposed to buy are "cooking". But this observation is not responsive. The question isn't whether the new technology is inherently virtuous, it's whether it makes new means of expression possible or not. The substrate of sampler chatter that underlies nearly every Jesus Jones song is not mimicry of any real-world instrument or other composition; the pieces of the original have been chopped so finely that they have become something fundamentally different than their source (note that this doesn't work with Hamburger Helper). You could redo these songs a hundred ways, on lute and omnichord if you wanted, but without the machines you could never make a Jesus Jones song sound like Jesus Jones. So maybe the point is that technology lets you do things you wouldn't have done at all without it, and the online discussions aren't pale replacements for the experience of being locked in a room with somebody, they're rooms you would never actually have been locked in any other way.
But there's more to it than that, because the arrangements on Already aren't drastically different from the ones on Liquidizer, Doubt or Perverse. The problem with all three of those prior albums, to me, was that they mixed scattered moments of genius in among songs that I considered ill-advised triumphs of craftsmanship over design, like meticulous portraits of poorly posed models. 1989's Liquidizer had the seething, noisy "Move Mountains" and "Never Enough", which sounded a bit like an accelerated synth-punk Joy Division, and the slower, more anthemic "All the Answers", but most of the rest of the songs had at least one thing that made me wince, and songwriter Mike Edwards' mathematical compositional style was such that just about anything that appeared in a song once would appear in it five or six more times. 1991's Doubt, of course, had "Right Here, Right Now", which to me is one of the most perfect songs ever written, and the one that comes the closest to capturing not just my own sense of an era, but what seems to me to have been the mood of the entire world at a certain moment in time. Wide-eyed wonder is a rare quality in songs, these days, and it seems to me that it has never been much more simply or clearly depicted than in Edwards' voice as he wakes up to a world of crumbling walls and sudden freedoms. If Doubt had done for forty minutes what "Right Here, Right Now" did for three, it might today hold the place that Runrig's Amazing Things does on my DID list, as an example of music so firm in its faith in humanity that any discovery, no matter how trivial, can be revelatory. The rest of the album, though, aside from a few "Jesus Jones" samples that made me smile, paled abjectly in comparison, and like They Might Be Giants' "Ana Ng" turned me against the rest of Lincoln, "Right Here, Right Now" wrecked everything else on Doubt for me. Perverse, in 1993, seemed like a big overall improvement, in that far fewer of the songs annoyed me, and the album seemed to make more sense as a whole, but nothing on it inspired me the way "Right Here, Right Now" did, and so that album, too, slipped into the song's shadow.
Already escapes precedent by doing three things none of the other albums could manage. First, it finds ways to fit the noisy, propulsive parts, powered by such thundering bass lines that I turn them up loud only apprehensively, into other solidly melodic songs, instead of leaving them to try to support songs on their own. Second, the level of melodic extravagance here is an order of magnitude beyond anything the band has attempted before, to the extent that parts of this album verge on resembling a less goofy Roxette, a less shrill Erasure, Haddaway backed up by EMF, or perhaps a version of Savage Garden that knows their Comsat Angels records better. And third, this time the sense of wonder that pervades "Right Here, Right Now" suffuses the whole album. It swirls in the eddies of the airy "The Next Big Thing", flashes complicated curtseys in the sampler backing-vocal filigrees of the charging "Run on Empty", sighs through the deferred-surrender ballad "Top of the World", twines in the sitar-like borders of "On Rails" and the sinuous vocal asides of "Wishing It Away", soars through the Beach Boys harmonies and guitar churn of the adrenalin paean "Chemical #1", trails the sonar pings in "Motion", manages to make the Heaven's Gate-like protagonist of "They're Out There" seem sympathetic, envelopes the cinematic love-song "For a Moment" and adds enough reverent falsetto to the mournful "February" to remind me simultaneously of Garbage, Marillion, the Europeans' "Kingdom Come" and the soundtrack to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. There's nothing with the political relevance of "Right Here, Right Now", this time, and enough has changed in six years that this wouldn't be the world's mood even if there were a song about Mother Teresa. But the mood of the world is pretty grim, and if all this album can change is our office, then maybe the hope and wonder will end up in the software we write, and from there make its way out into the world, where a million magics wait patiently to become real.