And so one sequel begets another… If you haven’t read the essay “What Killed Eminem?: An Autopsy Report,” I highly suggest doing so before reading this. Also, note that all songs mentioned in this post are from The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (MMLP2) unless otherwise specified.
“In this gourd there’s a Ford engine, door hinge, syringe, an orange, an extension cord, and a ninja sword,
not to mention four linchpins an astringent stored ironing board, a bench, a wrench, an ORU winch, an attention whore––”
Well, well, well… A man after my own heart. Yes, Eminem can still rhyme the hell out of the allegedly unrhymable word “orange.” The lyrics above from “Brainless” certainly prove that. But I won’t bury the lead. Do I think MMLP2 is a good album? The short answer is: No. Does it still have some compelling songs and ideas? Indeed it does. I’ll start with “Bad Guy.”
The song’s first section reintroduces Matthew Mitchell––the younger brother of the titular character in The Marshall Mathers LP’s (MMLP) “Stan”––and details his murder of Marshall Mathers and suicide. Matthew’s murder-suicide is reminiscent of Stan’s, just as “Bad Guy” is structurally similar to “Stan.” Each song has four total verses. The first three are from the perspective of a Mitchell brother; the final one is from that of Mathers (explicitly on “Stan,” less explicitly on “Bad Guy”). The level of self-reflexive metatextuality on display is dizzying. Matthew’s actions against Mathers and himself are a misguided homage to Stan, whose own actions against his girlfriend and self were a misguided homage to Mathers’ character Slim Shady, whose actions in one of the songs Stan cited as inspiration––The Slim Shady LP’s “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde”––were a misguided homage to the non-fictional violent criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. This hall of mirrors into the past lays bare Mathers’ karmic debt by implicating him in a cycle of violence and implying that his success is built on exploitations of that cycle. It also creates a passage for Matthew to creep out of into the present. (…And future: He calls out Eminem on pandering to nostalgic impulses for sales by releasing a sequel to MMLP––a sequel it wouldn’t seem possible for him to know about unless he’s some sort of temporal interloper in a Ghost Of Christmas Past/Future sense.)
Matthew drags Mathers out of his bedroom (which he gains access to with ease, as if Mathers subconsciously feels he deserves something like this) and throws him in the trunk of his car and drives over a bridge. This is an intriguing sequence for two main reasons.
1.) Mathers is placed in a car’s trunk, a space that, prior to this in his music, has been occupied exclusively by victimized women (Kim’s body on “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Kim,” Stan’s pregnant girlfriend on “Stan,” and probably a bunch of Relapse crap I’m forgetting and refuse to look up). Some annotators on the RapGenius.com page for “Bad Guy” even make a fairly convincing case that, until about halfway through the third verse, Mathers invites listeners to think the song is just another murder-fantasy about Kim from his perspective, which would make the events of the rest of the song even more subversive.
2.) Matthew, if he’s not homosexual himself, is unquestionably profoundly hurt by homophobia. This could be in part due to his brother’s possible homosexuality. (“Stan” hints at it with its “we should be together” lyric motif.) He claims his actions are for both his brother and Frank Ocean (one the first members of the mainstream hip-hop community to not be, let’s say, flamboyantly straight––certainly the first to be openly gay). Before careening over the bridge, he dares Eminem to “say [he] hates homos again.” (Side note: I still love that the musical bridge on “Stan” is the sound of a car driving off an architectural bridge.)
The implications of the scene are sobering, even (and especially) for a now-famously-sober Mathers. He seems genuinely concerned for his soul. If the song ended there, it would be a surprisingly subtle (by Eminem standards) allegory of guilt, exploitation, and justice. Of course, the song is far from over––for better and worse. Musically, the martial beat of the song’s second section is indeed rousing––cathartic in a way his songs haven’t been in quite some time. It’s actually rather Recovery-esque. He’s yelling about his legacy––this time mostly in the second-person––but it works sonically because he slowly builds up to it with five restrained minutes of gradually increasing intensity. Lyrically, however, Mathers––understandably thrilled that he’s remembered what a metaphor is––relentlessly wrings all subtext from the story of the first section with a bombastic analysis of it in the second. He asserts what the preceding verses “represent” on two separate occasions and uses the words “karma” and “symbolic” (not to mention Matthew’s uses of “poetic justice” and “irony”). He starts saying those things before the car even hits the water. Far be it from me to tell Eminem how to use words, but this is a violation of basic “show, don’t tell” storytelling guidelines. Mathers’ detailed memory of “Stan” amazingly allows Matthew to say “Eminem killed by ‘M & M’” without it sounding completely ridiculous, but he throws it all away, explicitly stating that Matthew is just part of his own conscious and psyche. But even that isn’t enough, as Matthew is eventually saddled with representing “everything [Mathers takes] for granted,” which saps much of the significance he and his actions gained from their specificity.
Assuming part of what Mathers is trying to do with the song is own up to past sins and give a voice to those he’s insulted and shouted down over the years, it’s also problematic that the whole story is explicitly acknowledged as metaphoric in light of the lack of such an acknowledgement for “Stan,” “Kim,” “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde,” and many other songs featuring depictions of violence directed at women and homosexuals. It’s as if, within the world of Eminem’s music, those he persecutes get the “real” violence, but his own trauma must be purely self-created, psychological, and/or metaphoric. By recasting “their” revenge as a mere byproduct of his own guilt (rather than their outrage), he robs those he has offended of agency equivalent to his, a parity the rest of the song seems to be working very hard to achieve.
Despite the intriguing setup, in the end, Mathers resorts to using the expectations inherent to sequels to “[stack] up all them odds” against himself once again. In addition to being predictable, that further blunts the impact of Matthew’s actions by subsuming them into another challenge for Mathers to overcome by being Eminem, rather than by being deeply reflective and remorseful. Ultimately, the second section’s lyrics feel weirdly narcissistic, which clashes with the thrust of the rest of the song. Perhaps the section’s sonic resonance could’ve been preserved by replacing the exegesis with something in the spirit of Kanye West’s wordless wailing at the end of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s thematically-similar “Runaway.”
Regardless of its faults (it also regrettably indulges in a number of Recovery-level “punchlines”––see: the lyrics about reaping what you “sew,” clogged toilets, windows and full-potential, and lungs and axes), “Bad Guy” is a bold way to start the album. Though I don’t think it’s as good as its prequel, it’s by far the most fascinating song he’s put out since Encore and undoubtedly the most structurally complex since “Stan.”
Equally ambitious but located at the polar opposite end of Eminem’s artistic spectrum, “Rap God” is the drip painting to the pointillism of “Bad Guy.” It’s overstuffed, incoherent, and manically hyperactive––a smorgasbord blended into a psychedelic smoothie stuffed with a bouquet of crazy straws, each one being furiously slurped on by a facet of Mathers’ persona(s) (rabble-rouser, comic book fan, homophobe, formerly poor white person, student and fan of hip-hop history, highly technical rapper, etc.). As a song, it’s an unstructured anti-masterpiece. As a freestyle, it has few peers. The lyrics? Nonsensical. The flow-juggling? Masterful. The beat, while not particularly distinctive, is dynamic and flexible enough to keep up, which is about all a beat can hope to do when underpinning such a performance.
The sibilant, serpentine snap of the looped sample “Six minutes, Slim Shady––you’re on…” The way he rockets out of the intro into the “laptop in my back pocket” section… The way the “J.J. Fad” part goes on longer than it seems it should… The amusing point about censorship… The multisyllabic rhyming of “Dale Earnhardt” with “trailer park…” These are a few of my favorite moments, but the song’s appeal lies more in the way it’s individual bits blur together into a thrilling phonetic momentum. It’s a blast to get swept up in, even if it doesn’t stimulate anything other than one’s adrenal glands. It’s like a mad king tossing jewels, expensive furs, half-written edicts scrawled on torn pieces of parchment, used tissues, currency, the contents of chamber pots, and court jester hats along a rambling parade route to the drunken, cheering citizens. If you just let it flow over you from a distance, it’s absurd theater. If you wade into the thick of it, it falls apart. But it’s so confident and gleeful and technically virtuosic (how in the hell does pack so many syllables into the “break a motherfuckin’ table” section?) that I don’t mind.
In contrast to “Bad Guy” and “Rap God,” “Brainless” lacks any ambition. Lyrically, it’s the same old stuff about his past and rise to fame. As a holistic piece of music, however, it’s the closest the album comes to a flawless song. Eminem is embedded in the beat throughout––his delivery well-balanced, his rhyming relentlessly multisyllabic and internal with only a few overreaches. Despite being sung by him in falsetto, the swooping chorus works. The beat’s snare hits pack a wallop each time. My only nitpick is that the bridge doesn’t add much. Eminem has too many iterations of this type of song, but “Brainless” is one of the keepers.
Through its first two-thirds or so, “Legacy” is the first slow-paced ballad Eminem has released that I like. It’s sympathetic treatment of social anxiety, loneliness, and mental health issues are admirable. (I realize it’s pretty much pointless to bring this up at this stage in his career, but: The presence of such compassionate lyrics on “Legacy” makes the continued use of misogynistic and homophobic ones all the more infuriating. MMLP had the fig leaf of exploring the nature of controversy in a modern mass media landscape. This album has no such fig leaf, as is made clear with the revisitation of the line about The Columbine Shooting from MMLP’s “I’m Back” on “Rap God.”) The way he delivers the line “Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired ‘s awesome” with an unironic zeal is one of his finest moments as a vocalist. Shortly thereafter, however, the pyrotechnics are set off, searing the eyes of those peering with interest at the formerly sparse stage. As his voice crescendos in conjunction with his millionth victory lap, its thunderous power shakes down an avalanche of you-cannot-be-serious NFL references and awkwardly self-aggrandizing Legacy detritus (see: “The day you beat me pigs’ll fly out my ass in a flying saucer full of Italian sausage” and “I’m The Fire ‘Marshall'”). A messiah complex (see: “I’ll be your savior … Please have faith in my words”) overpowers that which was genuinely relatable and quietly humanistic. It carpet bombs it into the oblivion of ubiquitous legend and idiosyncratic superhumanity. I suppose one could say there needs to be a triumphant ending in order for the song to be more than a bleak portrait of loneliness brought on by being different, but why not let the triumph be a small moment of self-actualization? I like the idea of the song ending as a young Mathers begins putting together his first raps, embracing the positive aspects of his unique mind. Surely listeners could fill in the rest of the story from there. As with “Bad Guy,” I appreciate that he builds up to the cathartic, Recovery-esque ending, but I’d prefer a song called “Differently Wired” to one called “Legacy,” with all attendant implications of the change.
As the album comes to an end with “Evil Twin,” Mathers meditates on multiplicity and contradiction. One moment he’s on the brink of “[giving] up The Game,” the next he’s “strapped for battles” and contemplating preemptive strikes on other rappers without regard for the consequences. He admits he’s “all out of” pop culture figures “to attack” and might not be into doing that anymore anyway. Yet on this very song he makes fun of Lorena Bobbitt, Sarah Palin, Britney Spears, and Casey Anthony. He “[feels] like [he’s] burning to death but [he’s] freezing.” He seems at peace with these contradictions. During the song’s intro, he speculates that “lines are startin’ to get blurred.” At the end of his first verse, his evil twin is outright “bored of his lines”––in a number of ways, one might say. Even the typography of “Eminem [EMNM]” on the cover implies a melding together or collapsing in on one’s self. Each double-verse splits time between Eminem’s perspective and Slim Shady’s, but if the changeover wasn’t explicitly acknowledged I’m not sure I’d be able to tell there is one. Apparently Mathers can relate, as the song culminates with a proclamation that there is no difference between the hypostases of the Holy Trinity of personas he’s built his music and defense mechanisms around (i.e., Marshall Mathers, Eminem, and Slim Shady).
“‘Cause we are the same, bitch.”
I’m not totally sure what to make of the line. If it’s supposed to be profound, putting it at the end of the album is a cop out. It’s a thesis statement, not a send-off. It requires reams of clarifications, stipulations, and explanations. Seriously, think about implications of admitting that Slim Shady is not a character Mathers sometimes plays on record, but Mathers himself one and the same… I just can’t take it very seriously as a straightforward declaration or insight. It does, however, work as a parallel to and inversion of the last line of MMLP’s closer “Criminal:”
“If it’s not a rapper that I make it as, I’mma be a fuckin’ rapist in a Jason mask.”
There, he dons a mask after tinting his car’s windows and firing a gun at the “private eye hired to pry in [his] business.” Here, he appears to be taking one off after being open about and accepting of who he is. Yet this assumes the line is supposed to be taken at face value––and what does “face value” even mean on an explicitly two-faced song? Remember, Slim Shady delivers both of the lines in question. Aren’t they both the exact sort of thing he would say?
I think the line works best as a joke. For all the ways it’s a perfect capstone on the themes of the song, it flies in the face(s) of those of the album overall. If there’s any unifying force to the preceding tracks, it’s the notion that Mathers’ past is inescapable and bound to bring ruination. “Bad Guy” is the most extreme example. His past rains down fiery karmic destruction. It’s chorus is funereal and resigned. The plane Mathers is writing “Headlights” on appears to be about to crash. In the world of that song, that would mean he wouldn’t actually get to record the bridge-mending piece for his mother or start “a new life.” Even the weird, lazy callbacks to MMLP’s “I’m Back” and “The Real Slim Shady” on “So Far…” present the past as a force of reckoning that’s catching up to him. On the chorus of “Evil Twin” itself, “darkness” is “closin’ in.” It’s all quite ominous. Yet on “Evil Twin,” he marauds around as he always has––antagonizing judges, kicking sand in the eyes of his enemies, bragging about how great he is, degrading women, and slurring homosexuals. One can’t help but think he’s doing everything he feared retribution for on “Bad Guy.” But what happens? Nothing. “‘Cause we are the same, bitch” is the most damning thing he says on the entire album (again, if taken at face value) and it’s delivery is both misogynistic and condescending––not contrite and humble! Unless the silence that follows is supposed to represent Mathers’ death or something, it’s a colossal anti-climax to the judgement he teased the entire album.
The song (epitomized by its absurd last line) almost reads like a dismissal or parody of the entire Eminem mythology. (Perhaps by sloughing off the mythology and collapsing in on himself––and in doing so, collapsing the passageways into his past––Mathers erases his karmic debt?) In a way, “Evil Twin” is the ending to Encore I always wanted. It doesn’t resonate at the end of MMLP2 like it would’ve at the end of Encore, but again, despite the flaws, I like that he ended the album with something relatively concept-heavy and ambiguous.
Right now you might be thinking, “I don’t know, Chris, it seems like you might actually like this album.” To that, I can only respond with this line from “Bad Guy:” “If there’s anything you have left to say––’less it makes an impact, then don’t bother.” Unfortunately, Mathers does not heed his own advice. The album should’ve been trimmed significantly and released as The Marshall Mathers EP because more than half the songs are mediocre or worse. “Rhyme Or Reason” is forgettable. “So Much Better” is petulantly idiotic. The Call Of Duty Marketing Song is a song fit for a Call Of Duty marketing campaign (and a D-List “Lose Yourself” knockoff). “Asshole” is a song-length reminder of something that “everybody knows,” as the chorus even-more-needlessly explains. “Berzerk” is grating. “Monster” is a nice bit of pop-rap, but nothing more. “So Far…” and “Love Game” have novel beats, but their lyrics are off-putting for a number of the usual reasons.
As olive branches to the two women Eminem has attacked most specifically and viciously––Kim and his mother––“Stronger Than I Was” and “Headlights” are surprisingly mature. As pieces of music, I find them rather trite and a bit awkward (the grunting on the bridge of “Stronger Than I Was” is particularly cringe-inducing), but I’m not made of stone. In the grand scheme of things they are probably far too little, way too late (especially when on the same album as songs like “So Much Better” and “Love Game”), but they have their moments of impact. Plus, they resonate thematically with the album’s notion of coming to terms with past mistakes. I don’t think they’re great, but I’d probably leave them on the theoretical EP.
The real problem, then, is that Mathers’ description of the randomness and mundanity permeating his “gourd” on “Brainless” is accurate. MMLP2, as a product and/or reflection of that gourd, suffers a fate similar to that of Relapse: It has some solid core ideas, but they’re muddled by all the fluff and filler. If this was the first time he’d made that mistake, I’d be more likely to view the album as something promising. It’s not. I’m bored and tired of the “I’m an idiot, lol” schtick indulged in most obviously––though certainly not exclusively––on “Brainless” (it’s the song’s basic conceit) and “Rhyme Or Reason” (see: “Quit tryin’ to look for a reason for it that ain’t there … There’s no method to the pad and pen”). Mathers has a brain. He just seems loathe and afraid to use it with any sort of consistency. At one time, that was part of his appeal. For me, that time has long since past. Too often he seems to be thinking small when he should be thinking big (e.g., regarding the overarching cohesiveness of the album) and big when he should be thinking small (e.g., regarding the ending of “Legacy”).
In general and on the surface, MMLP2 is a marked improvement on Eminem’s other two post-Encore albums. His voice is far less grating. He changes up his flows in dynamic ways that make for more listenable songs, even if his delivery is still too hiccup-y for my taste. His wordplay is improved. (Still, there are plenty of awful lines on MMLP2 that never would’ve flown on MMLP. It sometimes seems like he’s less concerned with writing excellent lyrics than merely racking up, like pool balls, the most RapGenius annotations.) The beats are frequently ruddy and full-bodied, if not particularly memorable. The rhyming is for the most part solid.
I’m reminded of Tim Rogers’ oddly-relevant review of Super Mario Galaxy, in which he declares that it, in comparison to the original Super Mario Bros., is “not a cultural event––it’s just a videogame,” and a rather tedious and tiresome one despite some neat ideas and cool parts. So it is with MMLP2. An album. An album doomed to live in the shadow of An Event––THE very Event, in fact, that might’ve calcified Mathers’ artistry and turned him into the sort of person that would make a sequel to an album like MMLP… Is it of interest to dedicated Em fans? Sure. To the music world and culture at large, though? I imagine it will be forgotten in short order. This is not The Renaissance. It’s just a Renaissance faire.
I said in “What Killed Eminem?: An Autopsy Report” that I didn’t think he would recover from Recovery––at least not as anything more than “a reanimated corpse.” This album gives me no major reason to back off that assertion. However, I must admit, there are moments on MMLP2 that make me think I may have underestimated the resourcefulness of reanimated corpses. Occasionally they rise up and walk and run and jump and even–– …Well, you read the title. Motherfucker stole my line. Before I could even write it. That’s something, I suppose.
Pretend the band Pere Ubu broke up just now. The proverbial visibly-shaken town crier bursts onto the balcony and bellows, “Pere Ubu is dead!” Such a scenario would mark the end of one of the most impressive careers in the history of American rock music. Though the band has suggested––both facetiously and seriously (as is the Ubu way)––that its primary achievement is its stunning “loss to longevity ratio” (nearly forty years of existence without even a crossover hit to hang its hat on), it undoubtedly belongs in the American rock pantheon. Yet in the proverbial plaza below, the news does not spread swiftly among the people. Rejoinders of “Long live Pere Ubu!” do not rise up from mournful crowds. There are no crowds. I can understand why, sure, but the explanations don’t make it any less of a shame.
I don’t want to dwell on those explanations, however. I want to focus on the explanation for the band’s longevity in spite of its failure as a money-making venture: It’s been creating timeless music since its inception. I believe that long after rock and roll has run its course, Pere Ubu’s uncompromising and panoramic vision of it being not only capable of, but well-suited to, complex and original expression, will be recognized as one of the most vibrantly conceived and uniquely executed in the form’s history.
The band’s vision comes out of a specific interpretation of that history, so it must be addressed. While I know the intricate interplay of trends, forces, and conditions is probably a more accurate frame for a history than the actions of any individual, I’m going to take up Great Man Theory for the sake of (relative) brevity and use Bob Dylan’s early musical evolution as an exemplar. He’s a major figure in the strain of American music Pere Ubu is descended from––one of the first musicians to make a convincing case for rock and roll as a type of sonic literature. (The loose definition of something with “literary qualities” I’ll be using for this piece: that which represents and reflects on the human condition.)
Bob Dylan & The Rise Of Sonic Complexity In Rock Music
Dylan’s self-titled debut album is often viewed as a modest warmup for the discovery of his generation-defining songwriting skills on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It’s almost all covers and probably isn’t something I would recommend to anyone on its own merits, but it did one important thing: establish Dylan as part of a lineage of American folk music. The covers suggested he had studied his forebears and was versed in the tradition. As I’ll get into, Pere Ubu is an extension of that same tradition. While that might sound like an absurd thing to say about a band that rarely even uses an acoustic guitar, it starts to make sense when contextualized by the ways Dylan built on that foundation.
After synthesizing his vision and influences on Freewheelin’, Dylan’s next major musical development was Bringing It All Back Home, which features the rollicking electric sound he would pursue to legendary effect with his next two albums on one side of the LP and the folky acoustic sound he was already known for on the other. While one might argue he separated them for a reason, I think what came after proves the more important choice to take note of is their inclusion on the same album. The two forms were beginning to be blended into a continuum.
Bruce Springsteen spoke at Dylan’s induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. “… the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind,” he said. That jibes with Dylan’s claim that rock and roll alone “wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” Dylan’s achievement was less the freeing of the mind than the unification of mind-freeing poetry and body-freeing rock and roll, expanding the range of expressive possibilities for each.
I can’t blame people of the time for mistaking Dylan for a pure revivalist based on his early work. Though he increased the poetry and ambition of folk lyrics and modernized their content, he delivered his anthems for the issues and passions of the day through well-worn melodies over traditional chord progressions and finger-picking patterns, rarely using more than his voice, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica. It certainly must’ve seemed like he would be content to revive and update––but never break from––folk’s conventional confines. Who could’ve seen “Like A Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited) or Blonde On Blonde coming? Not many people manage to play both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Dylan did. He threw the switch, and then…
When Dylan “went electric,” it was easy to understand the reaction like this: Fans of his heartfelt folk songs became angry about his “sell-out” to “commercial” rock music. In the years since, that understanding has been complicated. Reports of Pete Seeger attempting to ax a power cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival during Dylan’s electric set turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Seeger has since claimed that he was merely complaining about the distortion in Dylan’s voice, which distracted from the lyrics he felt were important. Others say they were not protesting the ideas of rock and roll and electric instrumentation themselves, but the concert venues’ low quality soundsystems and the cavalier nature of Dylan’s performances, which, with a full band, sounded loose and chaotic compared to the hushed intensity of his solo acoustic sets.
I’d like to simplify the understanding again. Whether disgruntled fans were reacting to ideology or sonics is irrelevant. Music is an auditory medium––sonics are ideology. Take The “Judas!” Incident. For those who don’t know, briefly: In between songs at a 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert, a member of the audience shouted “Judas!” at Dylan during the electric portion of his set. In response, Dylan turned to his band and said, “Play it fuckin’ loud!” What I suspect he knew (or at least intuited) that those booing did not was that the chaos, distortion, and loose, cavalier playing were the point. His solo acoustic sets were intense and intimate in part because they were sonically straightforward. Acoustic guitar strums mainly provided a backdrop for the delivery of lyrics. His harmonica playing, though it added some sonic complexity, was also being played by him and could not be played while he sang. The lyrics-based narratives may have been complex and poetic, but they represented just a single dominant element of a larger sonic narrative that had the potential to be far richer. Dylan recognized and began fulfilling that potential.
“Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’––I just might tell you the truth!” ––“Outlaw Blues” (Bringing It All Back Home)
Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) narrator asks lots of questions––about identity, war, freedom, responsibility, etc. At the time, some may have seemed rhetorical (e.g., “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned?”). Maybe it inspired listeners who viewed it as a protest song to imagine themselves as the titular Wind, the Wind of history blowing towards a more progressive and peaceful era. Unfortunately, infuriating though it may sometimes be, the answers to many of those questions have been proven again and again to be located somewhere between tragically convoluted (“How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”) and outright unknowable (“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”).
As the temporal distance from the question-asking became greater but the proximity to satisfying answers remained static, Dylan’s songs became more opaque and mysterial, reflecting less the questions or answers themselves than the sense of disorientation and displacement a person might feel when contemplating them (or trying to ignore them or even just living in a world in which they exist). Dylan accomplished that sonically by adding jangling pianos, spectral organs, propulsive rhythm sections, and bursts of lead guitar shards to his arrangements. All the instruments sounded, wildly and at once, sometimes amplifying the thrust of the lyrics and vocals, sometimes complicating or contradicting it. The Wind, perhaps once assumed to be a simple but powerful force moving steadily in one direction, was revealing itself to be more like a slew of tornadoes tearing through a hurricane. Though listeners might get sucked into a specific vortex now and again or, mercifully, end up in the eye of the storm, they are spit back out into the wider chaos before long and left reeling.
Dylan’s earlier work is often characterized by fairly overt separations between the political and cultural (The Times They Are A-Changing’s title track, “With God On Our Side,” “Masters Of War,” etc.), the absurdly goofy and surreal (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free,” Another Side Of Bob Dylan’s “Motorpsycho Nitemare” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” etc.), and the poetic and seemingly personal (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” Another Side Of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad In Plain D,” etc.). It got harder to tell the difference as his sound and lyrics evolved. He and his band seemed to be performing surrealistic protests to personal affronts and absurd poetry about goofy politics. On Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde especially, there are few moments in which listeners are obviously supposed to laugh or cry or feel inspired. (The rather confounding title of the Highway 61 Revisited song “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” speaks to this.) Phrases are turned––inside out (“The Post Office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked”––Blonde On Blonde’s “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”). Tropes (the gangsters, gamblers, and Biblical characters of Highway 61 Revisited’s title track, for example) are flipped like flapjacks, flying so high at times that they collide with a ceiling fan and are flung against a wall, splattering batter across the floor (“Food was flyin’ everywhere, I left without my hat”––Bringing It All Back Home’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”).
It would be understandable to claim that the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics of the period is obscure or ambiguous. I’d argue, however, that the meaning is not ambiguous––the meaning is ambiguity. What he’s getting at is slippery and confusing (“… something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is––do you, Mr. Jones?”––Highway 61 Revisited’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man”). It’s loose in the Wind. He can grab hold of it for a moment, but it’s gone before he can get a good look.
On “Visions Of Johanna” (Blonde On Blonde), he invokes the good ol’ “highway blues,” but pins them to… Mona Lisa, who wouldn’t even know what an American highway is. Then again, even if she did, she might have trouble recognizing Dylan’s version of Highway 61 as one. On “Highway 61 Revisited,” it’s where Louis XIV advises a mobster to dump multi-colored shoe strings and defective telephones. It’s where the sun-soaked bleachers for observing World War III will be set up. Then there’s that imitation police siren’s giddy whine––how does that factor into this? Is the narrator a cop? Is law enforcement showing up to investigate all the bizarre activity? If so, that’s kind of a buzzkill (or, perhaps more accurately, a complication) to the myth of open road freedom. Keep in mind, however, that Dylan is revisiting Highway 61, and as often happens with revisitations, unexpected depths are revealed. This place (idea?) is a lot weirder, funnier, and scarier than cultural memory and expectation might lead one to believe.
Plus, Dylan’s revisiting not as a revivalist, but as a re-interpreter reimagining “Highway 61” as a kind of metaphysical carnival where each quavering stab of electric guitar ripples through the grounds, distorting the scene like a heat haze. Throughout the album, he further complicates and recontextualizes the swirls of sounds and images by shifting points of view, sometimes examining the route on a map, other times allowing himself to get caught up in the historical, folkloric, and mythological detritus along the side of the road. Still other times he stops to have a conversation with a hitchhiker.
These are the lyrics of the second half of the last verse of Highway 61 Revisted’s “Tombstone Blues:”
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane––
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.
The narrator wishes he or she could, but presumably cannot. A plain, folksy melody will not suffice. (Recall the song’s opening line: “The sweet, pretty things are in bed now, of course.”) The lady is going to have to go insane and experience the pain of coming to terms with the uselessness and pointlessness of what she knows. As such, rather than that pined-for plain melody, she gets the humongous, vertiginous bent note on electric guitar that kicks off the transition between chorus and verse, which is followed by a bunch of mangled licks that sound like they’re trying to wrangle a bull in somebody’s brain. That guitar playing doesn’t just sound cool. It’s not just transitional filler. It’s an essential element of the song’s sonic narrative. Perhaps it represents the cognitive dissonance created by the narrator’s sporadically non-sequiting streams of strange statements and outlandish images (the ghost of a famous outlaw knitting a bald wig for Jack The Ripper, head of The Chamber Of Commerce, as just one example) and experienced by the lamented “dear lady.” Pulsing behind this psychodrama is drumming as dogged as it is simple. Does it reinforce the relentlessness of the bewildering image flood, or is it comedic counterpoint––absurdly blunt compared to the complex lyrics and their nuanced interaction with the lead guitar playing?
Though one could argue about the answer to that question and with that interpretation of “Tombstone Blues” generally (which is to the song’s credit), I think it’s tough to dispute how essential and intentional ambiguity and confusion are to the music and lyrics. The ending of “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited) is perhaps the strongest evidence for this. The narrator reveals that the surreal parade of characters he or she has introduced are all part of an artifice. They were people mentioned in a letter about a broken doorknob that he or she “had to” rearrange the faces of and rename. Like… what the fuck? This is coming from a lyricist who cut to the heart of many critical issues of his time. He knows how to get at things. Plus, all the lyrics that came before easily could’ve stood alone, intriguing and impressive. But Dylan goes out of his way to incorporate an act of concealment and abstraction, to point out the skewed, fractured approach of a narrator whose mind, it now seems fairly clear, is in ruins. Even the stock question “How are you doing?” sparks paranoia. Future correspondences (which the narrator admits he or she may not even be able to read) will be accepted, but only if mailed from Desolation Row, a “place” the character just essentially conceded exists only in his or her head. If Highway 61 is a state of mind, perhaps what lies off its last (only?) “exit” is Desolation Row, a positive feedback loop of disintegration.
Yet amidst all this Wind, the lead guitar is utterly dignified, its runs and fills often fitting a little too perfectly, bordering on stateliness. Is this mockery? Definitely possible. The grandeur could be alluding to the delusional nature of the narrator’s poetic aspirations (or those of the lyrics themselves, for that matter). Then again, given how often confusion and disorientation show up on the album (nearly every song, but the sensation is summed up most succinctly on “From A Buick 6:” “I need dump truck, baby, to unload my head!”) and the soaring nature of the song’s harmonica solos, it seems likely Dylan has (also) found a nobility or heroic tragedy in his characters’ attempts to make sense of the world. Of course, the most fun interpretation is: both.
The specifics are debatable, as is whether or not this makes for more satisfying music than something like “Masters Of War,” but it’s hard to imagine being convinced Electric Dylan is less sonically “literate” than early Dylan.
“It is obvious that (the history of) Pere Ubu should not be thought of in terms of a linear development … Unfortunately, most criticism - of Pere Ubu, of many other folks - assumes that words have one meaning, that desires point in a single direction, that ideas are logical; it ignores the fact that the world of language, noise and desire is one of lack, insecurity, interruption, struggle, blundering, disguises, ploys, embarrassed grins.” ––Ian Penman in New Musical Express, via Pere Ubu’s website, UbuProjex.com
While I believe Dylan’s best work will always have a place among the great triumphs of American rock music, I wonder if, from a “long after rock and roll has run its course” perspective, his legacy might lie as much with the vistas he revealed as the locations he traveled to. He “kicked open the door to your mind,” according to Springsteen’s Hall speech. Indeed. Turns out there’s a whole world out (in?) there. Word of this world spread. The Velvet Underground incorporated noise and dissonance, Jimi Hendrix unlocked the electric guitar’s expressive potential, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band introduced free jazz elements and declared that the time signatures, they are a-changin’, etc.
Pere Ubu, like Dylan, studied its forebears. Absorbing the vanguard of the form and resolving to push further, the band has concocted a brilliantly baffling bathtub brew of muscular guitar riffs, groovy rhythms, found sounds and field recordings, splattery synthesizers, and wildly imaginative vocals. Conceptually, the murky disorder of Electric Dylan and those that followed him is part of the primordial soup out of which Ubu’s “distinctive narrative architecture” emerges. Founder, lead singer, and sole consistent member David Thomas has described it as “… an idiosyncratic mixture of the observational, the self-participatory, and the Intrusive Other, by which I mean the notion that the telling of a story should involve the incorporation of additional, intrusive POVs [points of view] that might run in parallel or at some angle to the central narrative, crossing it, intruding, overlaying, contradicting, deprecating, or even ignoring it. In other words, mayhem.”
Noticeably, that approach blends what some might consider “high art” (musique concréte, Intrusive Others, etc.) with “low art” (catchy riffs, mayhem, etc.). In addition to presumably inspiring the band’s “avant-garage” label for itself (a combination of “avant-garde” and “garage rock”) and “too art for the pop world … too pop for the art world” quip, it’s akin to Dylan’s blending of folk (“high art”) and rock (“low art”). The band has elaborated on this characteristic of its sound, as frustrated as Dylan was with those unable to understand it as a natural progression: “… ‘avant-garage’ was a useful term to adopt in that it summarizes what has always been considered to be the bipolar schism of Ubu: art and pop. Now, we have never considered these poles to be in any way significant. We like pop music. We like ‘art’ – difficult – music. What’s the big deal? We love hard groove rock with hooks and choruses and all that stuff. We love making abstract noise and playing with structure and narrative. What exactly is so strange about any of that?”
Though Pere Ubu’s music rarely sounds “traditional,” it is part of a long-running tradition that has incorporated innovations both musical and technological to more meaningfully and accurately reflect human experience through sound. Whether it’s early blues and jazz, poetic garage rock, or arty post-punk, the music and musicians striving towards that goal could be seen as part of a folk art continuum. (Perhaps Pere Ubu is the Riemann to early folk musicians’ Euclid in the geometry of American music.) Thomas has insisted, in fact, that Pere Ubu has “always been a folk band” and “always dealt with folk imagery.” (He’s described Pere Ubu’s early output as “folk music of the Urban Pioneer Movement,” which refers to the repopulation of “blown-out inner cities” in the early 1970s.) He once said that “music should reflect a regionalism and it should have an accent and it should be about where you come from and the things you see.” It should be like a vacation photo album enthusiastically shown to friends to help explain “the things you feel and hope and dream.”
Rock And Roll As Folk Expressionism
“Yet by 1978 [Pere Ubu] had achieved what no other group would even attempt, before or since, they had become the world's only expressionist Rock `n` Roll band, harnessing a range of rock and musique concrete elements together in a sound which drew its power from, and worked on, levels of consciousness previously untouched by popular music. The music Ubu made in 1978 was heart and soul, body and mind, in one.” ––Andy Gill in New Musical Express, via UbuProjex.com
“Art is the means to express the non-linear, non-logical nature of consciousness since [its] language is the same as the language of the mind: metaphor, sensation & vision.” ––Pere Ubu
During its Historical Era (defined at UbuProjex.com as the period beginning with its first single, 1975’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” and ending with its fifth full-length studio album, 1982’s Song Of The Bailing Man), Pere Ubu poured on the POVs with calculated abandon, hurtling towards Mayhem, embracing contradiction as the only truth, compelled by the certainty that it was possible to make rock music as bizarre and terrifying and mundane and hilarious as reality, a realm where verses are not always followed by choruses, melodies take weird turns and end up well outside the song’s key––which itself has started wondering what, if anything, it’s supposed to unlock––and, as often as not, chasms are found where it seems logical a bridge should be.
In 1976 (pre-internet, keep in mind), Thomas and collaborator John Thompson identified a cultural phenomenon they called “Datapanik,” a state of “data overload” wherein “information [becomes] a weapon to be used against us as notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti” and “all ‘new’ information will only serve as a sedative-like drug” making “inevitable” the rise of “a junkie culture” in which “dataflow can be the only social imperative” and “discrimination, or any other [hindrance] to dataflow, must become anathema.” Representing and engaging with this sonically required stuffing “as much data into as small a unit of time/space as possible” while remaining “in adequate control of what’s going on,” which includes knowing “when to let go of your artifice and allow it to be mugged by reality,” according to Thomas.
On Historical Era albums especially, Pere Ubu allows its narratives of human experience to be “mugged” by the “reality” of Datapanik in a fashion similar to, but more radical than, how Electric Dylan allows his narratives to be “mugged” by the “reality” of Wind. Individual POVs within songs shape or shatter circumstances and illustrate or obfuscate sensations. Jumps from one POV to another recontextualize the narrative, providing at turns ironic distance and immersive detail. Masterful control (or intentional lack thereof) of these techniques in carefully calibrated (or purposefully out-of-whack) combinations allow the band to operate as both actor and director, disciple and god.
New Picnic Time’s “Small Was Fast” is a great example of Pere Ubu’s ability to wield chaos.
Thomas’s main character flutters in like the ghost of the world’s worst would-be opera star. “IIIII WAAAIIITED FOR YOUUUUUU…” he or she moans amidst an oppressive, wordless background chant and restlessly churning guitar. He or she slurs something indecipherable, then enthusiastically intones, “Was small! Was fast!” Impersonating a slide whistle, the character then repeats the same two phrases, but with a melody that angles sharply upward at the end, creating the sensation of a question. “Was small? Was fast?”
As these squawks and squeals burrow into the background, a fidgety organ solo surfaces, but goes nowhere. Perhaps sensing imminent disaster, the character reenters the scene, laughing off the “misstep” and launching into an insipid (and seemingly improvised) speech of some sort that begins with encouragement to “notice the house” on a hot day and ends with darkness bearing down on them before she or he gets sleepy (correlation or causation, who knows…). “I got ssslleeeeeeeeeepyyy!” is delivered in a style similar to that of the opening lyric.
That doesn’t exactly spur the song toward coalescence, so the bassist jumps in and grinds out what could be called a solo, but only because there isn’t a better word for the brief jumble. Luckily, it buys enough time for the character’s incoherent neuroses to resolve into a militaristic chant: “I waited! I waited! I waited for you!” The wistfully creepy way that sentiment was presented earlier has given way to a bitter anger––over the wasted time, the broken heart, whatever it might specifically be. Confrontation. Catharsis.
Or perhaps not (for long). In the middle of the tirade, all previous sounds are suddenly extinguished and replaced by a high-pitched whistle that recalls––but does not precisely mimic––the “IIII WAAAIIITED FOR YOUUUUU!” melody, a plinking toy piano, and a few other sonic doo-dads that complete a Fisher Price industrial park soundscape. The opening lyric and melody are then reprised, but this time from an echoey distance, as if the character is delirious and running through a factory while someone else, situated above on a catwalk, observes them from across the building with a discomforting mixture of amusement and sadness.
With a particularly staticky buzz from the synthesizer, the band begins playing in full-force again, but only for a few bars, as the bassline breaks from the time signature and the song bounces into a ditch. The end.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit more sonic “data” stuffed into “Small Was Fast” than, say, “Tombstone Blues”––but to what effect? I think it’s fair to say that both songs could have something to do with some sort of mental distress. “Tombstone Blues” is a rock song about such a thing. The lyrics explicitly feature a “hysterical bride” and a woman who won’t be kept from “going insane.” Plus, they disorient the listener by (dis)placing known historical figures in unusual contexts. I suggested earlier that the lead guitar playing and drumming on the song could deepen and refine a cognitive-dissonance-based interpretation. However, it’s unlikely I would’ve associated them with cognitive dissonance if the song had different lyrics or was purely instrumental. Under those circumstances, they probably would “just sound cool.” The artistry of the song’s lyrics is still the primary driver of its overall sonic narrative (even with the increased scope and complexity of its arrangement compared to Dylan’s earlier work).
“Small Was Fast,” on the other hand, is not really a song about something––it is something: a sonic representation of a mental breakdown that uses the syntax of rock in the same way Noam Chomsky used the syntax of English to create the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Much like that sentence has a subject, verb, and modifiers, the song has a jagged chord progression for electric guitar, rhythmic drumming, backing vocals, and solos. Yet the overall effect of both is discombobulation. That sensation is never referred to in the song’s lyrics––it’s created by the gestalt of the music. Though the song does not literally sound like a mental breakdown (what does a mental breakdown sound like, really?), it does evoke panic and neurosis with sound in a manner reminiscent of how this painting does so with color and shape.
“The goal should be to capture the unique and distinctive voice of the individual as he struggles to cobble Meaning together out of a soup of confusions, contradictions, hopes and fears, information and misinformation. Such is the nature of real life. Real life is the only worthwhile ambition for Art,” Thomas has written. “Music … should imitate the way humans feel,” he once told an interviewer. “Nobody on the face of the planet has ever thought ‘My baby’s left me, I feel so bad.’ It’s impossible to think that simply. It’s more like, ‘Oh, my baby’s left me… and oh, geez… this floor is awfully dirty … Whose gonna do the dishes? … The grocery store is closing in ten minutes… This is what human life is about. It’s full of contradictions.” (That juxtaposition of emotional turmoil and mundanity appears in Lady From Shanghai’s “Mandy,” in which a character is “all shook up” by both his or her “baby” and “the thousand things [he or she] should be doing.”) “We had sensations and feelings that were beyond our ability to express in the usual form that we had been taught. We looked for a sound, a style––something would give us the language that we needed,” he said. “We [sought] to create something like that.”
More specifically, Thomas has said he approaches singing as “a mirror of consciousness” that “should be true to the process of thought” and avoids “stylisms that [he considers] artificial.” Elsewhere, the band elaborates on this method, adding that he lacks “any interest in melody,” which “can take too long and can be too simplistic to accurately reflect the human experience.” Its synth players’ techniques are similar, generally favoring texture over melody and rhythm. The band’s stance on visual art is relevant here as well: “All visual art cripples the imagination. The only good visual art is bad looking.” From such perspectives, attempts to simplify, beautify, or perhaps even clarify that which is complicated, ugly, or ambiguous would be to misrepresent it.
The way “Small Was Fast” recontextualizes its narrative, creating a multifaceted view of it within a single song, adds insight and value as well. When the song’s main character first appears, he or she provokes aversion with creepiness and a seemingly unstable emotional state. The band’s deranged performance adds to the effect. Yet after adjusting to the unusual character and music, it becomes apparent that something traumatizing may be underlying the bizarreness (the “I waited … I waited for you!” outburst), which could elicit sympathy for the character. Before too long, however, the sound that has immersed and made itself accessible to the listener disappears and the character is far away (the “Fisher Price industrial soundscape” section). Empathy drains away as observation of the character from this new vantage point makes them start to seem weird again.
It reminds me of taking time to get to know a person that initially seems odd. After adjusting to his eccentricities, he can be fun to hang out with––until it’s in a less intimate social situation. Observing him from the perspective of those with less context, one can understand why others might be put-off, and, right or wrong, begin wondering if he were actually worth vouching for and spending time with. This “Intrusive Other” POV allows for a fuller understanding of the character and his surroundings.
The Art Of Walking’s “Go” works similarly. The initially optimistic main character insistently intones self-helpy odes to the quotidian like “Here’s to the small things that give pleasure” and “Here’s to the everyday things that bring a smile” over a workmanlike chord progression. However, this devolves into strange and ambiguous statements like “My hands are complicated thoughts … but my feet just wanna go.” Soon enough, the song’s bottom end has dropped out and thin, howling winds and a buzzing synthesizer conjure the image of a desert. The character is walking through it, mumbling to someone (me? his- or herself?), “What’s the bus that goes by here?” Does this alleged bus route even exist? Before things get too alienating, however, the sparky riff of the verse returns and with it the realization that all is not lost. Maybe “the smallest victories” are “often the biggest” after all… That may well be true, but it doesn’t diminish the tantalizing prospect of a big victory, nor the taunting frustration that comes with frequent failures to achieve one.
The song is an idiosyncratic articulation of vacillations between hope and hopelessness, optimism and pessimism, and self-assurance and confusion. The motivational marches of the verses crash into the droning existential crises of the choruses cyclically. The middle of the song is an ugly struggle between the gloomy dissonance of the synthesizer and the inspirational surge of the guitar––a conflict that eventually frays out and scrapes to a stalemate. “The smallest details, the finest points… They all add up,” the exhausted character flops out at the end. One can hope they do, but also has to wonder whether that adding up is positive or negative. Maybe all the “details” and “points” add up to a crushed spirit.
The band explains such interplays further: “Nearly every Pere Ubu song is funny in some way and meant to be funny. Often at the same time as being tragic. That’s because the passions and obsessions, fears and desires, of human beings are funny when seen from a particular Point of View. You, the reader, are funniest just at the point you feel least funny. … [You are] no less tragic because of [your] humor. But [you are] also no less humorous because of [your] tragedy. This is not irony. It is humanity. Human beings… ya gotta love em!”
In the above quote about the tragicomedy of Pere Ubu songs, the band notes that a person or situation can be both tragic and comedic (or, I would add, relatable and alienating, hopeful and hopeless, etc.) “at the same time.” Though the often nonlinear nature of the band’s narratives can make time a tricky subject, I can at least say that the examples I’ve given so far have relied on different parts of the given song to suggest that (i.e., time passes in the song, if not necessarily in the song’s world). However, listeners willing to challenge their own assumptions without explicit prompting from the band will find additional instances that muddle binaries between “opposing” feelings.
The Modern Dance’s “Sentimental Journey” is a bleak soundscape of urban disillusionment populated seemingly-solely by a lackadaisical loner who mumbles and sputters things like “Table and chair and tvs and books and lamps and other stuff. It’s home. It’s a rug it’s a home it’s a rug it’s a window. I don’t… Phhght!” He or she is disgusted with these things, spitting and moaning amidst showers of shattering glass, scribbly synth squalls, dejected, decrescendoing fuzz guitars, murderous vocal murmurs, and the mournful bleats of free jazz horns. It calls to mind the type of smoldering insanity brought on by crushing loneliness and crippling isolation. The song makes me feel empty and gives me the creeps––and with good reason. It’s hellish. It’s alienation incarnate.
Yet how absurd is the phrase “alienation incarnate?” Does anything that pure actually exist? Not according to the six year old son of a Pere Ubu interviewer. One might assume “Sentimental Journey” would scare a child. In fact, he found its sound effects hilarious and laughed his way through it. Now his parent, who was once transported to a place of “deeper desolation” by the song, considers it “one of the funniest” he or she has ever heard––and with good reason. The song’s depiction of “deeper desolation” is ridiculously over the top.
Of course, that does not diminish the appropriateness of the initial reaction. In the throes of an emotional moment, feelings can be as intense as they are in “Sentimental Journey.” A bit of perspective and fresh air might be all the song’s character needs, but in the subjective space of his or her mind, life probably does seem pointless and the world probably does seem like it’s ending. Regardless of whether or not it’s rational to have those feelings, they exist.
The song generates the reactions it does because it throws itself completely into the task of evoking the often extreme nature of this type of experience. In doing so, it allows listeners both to be immersed in the intense anxiety and, if they are able to wrench themselves from conditioned expectations, appreciate its absurdity from an outsider’s less-subjective point of view. The song is a two-way tunnel. One way leads deeper into the morass of the human mind and heart; the other, outward and upward for a detached god’s eye view of that same thing. The band responded to the interviewer’s story about the six year old like this: “Kids understand hyperbole. Listen to a kid’s conversation – it’s all exaggerations. And for the record, both of your reactions to [“Sentimental Journey”] are now correct. Before your son’s intervention your reaction was unbalanced.”
I had a similar epiphany while at a Pere Ubu show. The band was playing “Vacuum In My Head” from Raygun Suitcase, which features one of Thomas’s finest vocal performances. It’s built around a startling trilling of the word “but” in the lyric “But I’ve got a vacuum cleaner in my head. It sucks up everything I know.” It always sounded to me like a bout of epilepsy right before a blackout from which one would awaken an amnesiac aware only of the vacuum and its effect. In other words, all the amnesiac would know is that he knows nothing. Disturbing, right?
From my perspective, sure. But much to my surprise, whenever Thomas trilled at the show someone standing in front of me couldn’t stop giggling. It seemed totally inappropriate at first, but as the show went on, I began to think of it as another example of what Thomas meant about allowing the band’s work to be “mugged by reality.” That noise is chilling and jarring, but it’s also goofy and humorous. Who trills a word that starts with a “b,” anyway? (There’s even a part in the studio version in which Thomas trills and then says “whoops,” as if he knows it’s funny.) Maybe the song is less sinister than I initially thought. It could be about, say, blacking out after a night out drinking. (The unusual time signature and lyrics about not being “tongue-tied” around a love interest support such an interpretation. Each acute guitar chime could be another strong drink, etc.) The unexpected reaction of that audience member has given me a new, more comprehensive way of thinking about the song.
Tilting The Cup
“I wish we could take this moment and freeze it. To come back again and again and again. To hold it to the light. To turn it in our hands to study all the angles. To find out how and why it's gotta go the way that it goes.” ––”We Have The Technology” (The Tenement Year)
This is Thomas explaining what he calls elsewhere the band’s “conceptual career” in which “songs are moments frozen from a stream which keeps flowing.”
Perhaps more than any other single factor, this approach to career accounts for Pere Ubu’s longevity and enduring creative spirit. There are infinite angles from which to view “The Cup,” but the band has embraced the task of depicting it from as many as possible. “… the foundation of Pere Ubu … is the ability to produce brutal groove rock. That’s the base camp from which we launch expeditions. But because we have proved we can do it we don’t have to keep proving it every subsequent album. The mission is/was to go forward from that point,” it has said.
It’s been obvious the band could do “brutal groove rock” ever since an exuberant guitar riff exploded out of a tense knot of lashing neuroses on “Non-Alignment Pact,” the first song on its debut album, The Modern Dance. With the release of “I Will Wait” (Dub Housing), “49 Guitars & One Girl” (New Picnic Time), and “Misery Goats” (The Art Of Walking) the obvious became undeniable. As such, it wasn’t long before the band began to mutate.
A reductive but useful way of tracking its early evolution is through the “noise collages” of the Historical Era albums––“Sentimental Journey,” “Thriller!” (Dub Housing), “A Small Dark Cloud” (New Picnic Time), arguably about half of The Art Of Walking, etc. “Sentimental Journey” is, more or less, a conventional––if molasses slow––rock song with an unusual vocal performance and arrangement. It’s a structurally sound building with grotesque graffiti all over it. Three albums later, The Art Of Walking contains about as many dilapidated soundscapes as conventional (by Ubu standards) rock songs. One of the former, “Lost In Art,” finds Thomas yelling “I WANT MY SHOES!” like an attention-starved toddler over little more than a snoring synth and mindlessly bashed snare drum. With little melody or structure and talking and shouting in place of singing, the song (like much of the album) is nearly completely unhooked from rock orthodoxy, which, rather than anchoring the music, hovers around it like a ghostly vapour.
Then, just when it seemed to be on the verge of floating too far into the clouds of abstraction to ever set foot on solid ground again, the band pulled an about face and released the lean and propulsive Song Of The Bailing Man. It transformed itself from an amorphous blob into an intricate machine capable of producing songs that were tidy and tightly constructed, if still somewhat oddly shaped. As tautly wound as The Art Of Walking is loosely sprawling (while some songs on that album seem to lack time signatures, those on Song Of The Bailing Man relish hairpin-turning from one to another) and as overflowing with images from the natural world as The Modern Dance is oppressed with images from the industrial one, Song Of The Bailing Man unearths a new aspect of the band’s sound.
The urban and domestic are nowhere to be found. The album opens with someone a long way from home (“Long Walk Home”), traveling among antelope and buffalo across “the prairie floor” on which “insects roar.” Compare that with the “chitter-chatter” of “a thousand insect voices” in a “house” where “the windows reverberate” and “the walls have ears” on Dub Housing’s title track. The harmonious power of a collective roar seems even more majestic when contrasted with one thousand individual, isolated creatures nattering away in a den of terror and paranoia.
While the uncertainty and anxiety of earlier albums is not entirely absent, it’s much less serious and can often be chalked up to curiosity about the world rather than fear of it. A character from “Stormy Weather”’ wants to know when the bad weather will let up, but then reminds him- or herself that “It’s good for the ducks, so don’t complain” and not to be “so blue” because there are “other things that we can do.” Elsewhere, brazen positivity is bear-hugged. “I had a good time,” a character insists on “Big Ed’s Used Farms.” “Alive! Alive! … Such a happy guy. Just like me. Who can stop that happy guy? … I went to bed with a sense of accomplishment.” “Thoughts that go by steam are met with jubilation” on “Thoughts That Go By Steam.” Though tears and crying would become a favorite lyrical trope of Thomas’s during the band’s next major phase (the “Fontana Years”), here they appear only as a result of joy over the loveliness of dogs (“Use Of A Dog”).
Giddy performances from all involved inform and expand on this newfound verve tingling in nerve endings once fried and frazzled. Much of the album feels like it takes place on a swaying boat or in the middle of a windswept field thanks to subtly wobbling synths, sharply splashing guitars, and delightfully doinked vibes that seem to walk on water over riptide drumming. Plus, the Thomas who wrote “Bump. Bump. Bump bump bump bump” (“Sentimental Journey”), “Dishes! Dishes! Dishes!” (“49 Guitars & One Girl”), and “I WANT MY SHOES!” reveals himself to be capable of knotty, literate lines like “Has the short end of the stick been given archaeopteryx?” (“Petrified”) (he calls that “the greatest couplet in rock and roll history” on the Keep Left Vol. 1 live version), “The folderol of fretful peregrination,” and “What is the designate etiquette on such a day?” (both from “A Day Such As This”).
This is the beauty of the conceptual career. By avoiding the grand, sweeping statements that often weigh down concept albums––and, over time, bands themselves––Pere Ubu is free to fully detail The Cup’s every nook and cranny, even those totally different from or outright contradictory to one another. Each album is like a dot in a pointillist painting. No single one is “definitive” or a “magnum opus.” Instead, the band has created a series of miniature masterpieces that are slowly revealing the final (yet perpetually unfinished?) tableau. For every album that seems to build on a another (e.g., Dub Housing on The Modern Dance), there’s one that seems to counterbalance a previous work (e.g., Song Of The Bailing Man vs. The Art Of Walking). The band’s oeuvre seems like it could’ve been modeled on the self-similarity of fractals. In the same way that a Pere Ubu song features a collection of POVs that intersect, at turns bolstering and balking each other to create the song’s narrative architecture, the individual songs play off each other, constructing the architecture of an album that interacts with all the other albums, cementing the architecture of the career.
“How can I leave you when you won't go away? To be caught in the middle. Neither night. Neither day." ––“Say Goodbye” (The Tenement Year)
Of all Pere Ubu’s shifts, the most tectonic took place during the Fontana Years (1988’s The Tenement Year through 1993’s Story Of My Life), in which chaos and brutal groove rock are mostly set aside in favor of pop music, if a somewhat unconventional version of it. Thomas’s singing, though just as passionate, is less radical. He’s more of a narrator than an actor. Synth player Allen Ravenstein delivers a ferociously psychedelic performance on The Tenement Year, but after that he and subsequent synth players focus more on subtle detailing and minor flourishes than the sonic seizures he was prone to during the Historical Era. Stripping away or reconfiguring element after element that had once seemed essential to its sound, the band proves it can lovingly craft (see: “We Have The Technology,” Cloudland’s “Monday Night,” Worlds In Collision’s “Oh Catherine,” Story Of My Life’s “Last Will And Testament,” etc.) with as much skill as it gleefully destroys.
Rather than volatile song structures and freakout performances, the band’s avenues into the human psyche during the Fontana Years are more often the hopes, fears, passions, and obsessions of its characters, which are frequently filtered through the metaphysics of the American landscape. A character on Cloudland’s “Flat” was once “deep inside the American wilderness” surrounded by “82,000 square miles of flat.” Thinking back on it, he or she now remembers “the day as if [his or her] life was flat.” Story Of My Life’s “Heartbreak Garage” is narrated by a character who goes “down Mystery Road again and again” building “up [his or her] hopes” and letting “them back down.” One character on “Oh Catherine” remembers another “like a house on a hill.” “A road through the Firelands” and “a mark in the snow” are discovered by a character on Worlds In Collision’s “Winter In The Firelands,” who decides those things must be “where the lonely people bury their hope.”
Indeed, Fontana characters are often lonely (“Always in love. And always alone.”––The Tenement Year’s “Busman’s Honeymoon”), but their reactions to that do not put them at risk of landing in a psychiatric ward (“Birdies”––The Art Of Walking) or in jail for stalking (“Codex”––Dub Housing). Though I hesitate to describe the band as “maturing”––both because the conceptual career is more about changing vantage points than progressing along a straight line, and the Historical Era is certainly not immature––its characters seem to be. Having outgrown the panicked neuroses of their youths in claustrophobic urban environments (i.e., The Modern Dance) and left behind the carefree ecstasies of escapes into the natural world (i.e., Song Of The Bailing Man), they find themselves wandering in the cracks and in-between spaces––compromised, but not for any higher purpose. A character on Cloudland’s “Waiting For Mary” finds her- or himself in “the Twilight Zone” and can only wonder, “What are we doing here?” On Story Of My Life’s “Come Home,” one character informs another that “Nobody’s waiting. … Somebody cares. … I left the light on. … Nobody’s there.”
An existential melancholy permeates the lyrics. “I think about old friends of mine,” the narrator on “Busman’s Honeymoon” says. “One day they’re crawlin’ in the streets afraid of a strange, free, wide-open land.” The narrator on Worlds In Collision’s “I Hear They Smoke The Barbeque” fears “we’re on the darkside of forever” and that “them hard times are beginning for real.” Cloudland’s “Ice Cream Truck” features a humorous narrator whose frustration with mediocrity is aggravated every time her or his neighbors, in grand Pavlovian fashion, go “flyin’ out the doors” and “runnin’ up the street” when they hear the rinky-dink melody emitted from the speaker of an ice cream truck.
One would never guess any of this based on the upbeat, catchy music. The band’s fondness for The Beach Boys obviously goes beyond its tribute to “Sloop John B” (Pet Sounds) on “Nevada!” (Cloudland). Melodies soar (“Breath”––Cloudland). They’re downright hummable (“Miss You”––The Tenement Year)! Handclaps are featured on Story Of My Life’s “Honey Moon,” for God’s sake. Handclaps.
Fontana Years narratives are caught between the brightness of pop music and the sadness at the heart of the genre’s lyrics. (Perhaps this is another way of saying they exist in both spaces “at the same time,” like the intersection of a Venn Diagram.) The idea of that “middle ground” is echoed in the temporal and geographic locations of the songs’ characters, who are lost in the middle of their lives (the narrator on Story Of My Life’s “Kathleen” is “past [his or her] prime” and a “slave to a way of life”) in the middle of America (states that appear in Fontana songs include “Nevada!,” Louisiana in Story Of My Life’s “Louisiana Train Wreck,” Texas in “The Waltz” and Kansas in “Flat”––both from Cloudland, and Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Montana, and Utah, among others, in Story Of My Life’s “Postcard”). The morose lyrics introduce characters that are unsatisfied (see: “I lie awake. I was waiting for the clouds to break” and “I play the part called ‘A Broken Man.’ And all I’ve got to do is act naturally”––Worlds In Collision’s “I Hear They Smoke The Barbeque” and “Cry Cry Cry,” respectively), but the music suggests a lightheartedness, hopefulness, and sense of humor about their situation. This elegant approach to narrative reflects experience in a manner less immediate and expressionistic than that of the wild and tangled Historical Era, but more relevant to the themes of the Fontana Years.
Another new narrative technique the band introduces during the Fontana Years is the use of recurring lyrical motifs. Transporting phrases across phases of the conceptual career, words from years earlier are revisited from new POVs and take on unexpected and deeper meanings.
“It was a dream; it was a tin can. … Had he … kicked that dream down the street?” Thomas spouts over a jittery guitar and cooing synthesizer on New Picnic Time’s “The Fabulous Sequel.” Maybe those lyrics and that music are a representation of the wild oscillations and free-associations of a frenzied character’s mind. Dreams and tin cans are just what his or her slot-machine reel synapses happened to stop on. That’s the only interpretation I can offer. It seems like little more than a bizarre line in a wacky song.
This an excerpt from the lyrics of “Breath:” “It was a dream. Nah! But it was a tin can. … Had I not kicked that. Had it clattered in the gutter when it bounced down the sidewalk.” Here, the delivery is pensive rather than unhinged. The lyrics could easily be “I miss my baby tonight” or some other pop cliché instead. Though their meaning is opaque, to put it charitably, the pop arrangement and performance opens them up to more conventionally humanistic interpretations. Perhaps they refer to the death of a dream or the realization of the foolishness of one. The dream / tin can is kicked away––an act of rejection or rebellion. Yet the phrase “had I not” indicates hindsight may have allowed the narrator to realize rejection was not a wise move. He or she is suffering from an inability to discern whether the thing in question (be it a lover or goal or what have you) is worthwhile. Perhaps that indecisiveness caused the narrator to “kick” the dream along like a tin can, refusing to ever “pick it up” and commit to it, creating a constant fear that the next kick could be the one that launches it into an unseen gutter and down the sewer, gone for good.
More broadly, the fact the band presents both the “Breath” and “The Fabulous Sequel” takes on the dream / tin can motif further demonstrates its fascination with possibility. A shift in context (tin) can mean the difference between frantically trifling with a piece of trash for a few seconds and seeing in it a sad metaphor for one’s life.
Another example is Cloudland’s “Bus Called Happiness,” which features the following lyrics:
One day I will say,
“I woke up to find a heap of a mess.”
Running for the bus I cry,
“Hold that bus called ‘Happiness!’”
Why am I so slow?
If I only knew.
The music is uplifting, if a little wistful. Thomas adopts a likeable, down-on-his-luck persona over soaring backing vocals. The implication seems to be that, in spite of her or his slowness, the character will one day catch the bus. He or she is working hard at it. The phrase “heap of a mess” imbues circumstances that have inspired the character to want to flee town on a bus with a quaint harmlessness. The song almost sounds like the theme music of a TV show, the accompanying video of which ends with the bus coming to a stop, allowing the winded-but-grinning main character to get on and find his or her friends on board. It all smacks of an inevitably happy ending achieved because of a noble effort by a good person.
Nearly twenty-five years later, Pere Ubu released a song called “414 Seconds” (Lady From Shanghai). This is the first line: “That day that I say I woke up to find a heap of a mess?” “Remember it? Probably nostalgically, right?” the song seems to ask. Well, listeners––much like the song’s narrator––are in for a rude awakening. The song seethes and lumbers along and splits itself wide open. The bass snaps like a junkyard dog. The tortured guitar wails. The narrator wakes up, unsure of how long he or she has been asleep, to find a house with fly-filled windows, wilted plants, and piles of scummy dishes, then wonders, “Did I do that terrible thing only in my dream? Or is the dream simply a tawdry bit of self-deception wherein I dream that I only did the terrible thing that I did in a dream?” Spiraling further into squalor both mental and domestic, the character breaks into a panic and flings his- or herself out the door and
“Round the corner,
Stumbling and flailing…
Fumes and exhaust, black
and fluid smoke billowéd…
Running for the bus I cry,
Hold that bus called ‘Happiness.’”
The final line rises like a swamp monster out of a bog. The character woke up and found “a heap of mess” alright. Not some TV sitcom mess––something horrific and potentially criminal. Even the bus called “Happiness” has been corrupted, belching black smoke and exhaust fumes. One hopes the character misses the bus. Surely he or she does not deserve to make it. Getting on will only bring ruin onto the other passengers and the people in his or her “new life.” Here, the recurring motif illustrates the way a cycle repeats itself and festers over the years. A guy makes a mistake, he leaves town. He makes another mistake, he leaves another town. It’s cute and fun until he makes the mistake he can’t run from. But all he knows how to do is run, so he can’t face it. What now?
“It's a lonely road when tomorrow has got no home in yesterday.” ––“Drive” (Pennsylvania)
[09/08/2014 note: At the time of publication, Lady From Shanghai was listed on UbuProjex.com as part of the Modern Era. It has since been shifted into the newly created “Orange Period.”]
The “bus called ‘Happiness’” comparison starkly illustrates a primary difference between the Fontana Years and the next (and current, as of publication) period for the band, the “Modern Era” (1995’s Raygun Suitcase through 2013’s Lady From Shanghai). If some characters from the Fontana Years appear in this Era, as the recurrence of the “bus called ‘Happiness’” motif seems to suggest, one might say that, in general, things have not worked out for them as hoped. Attempts to start fresh have lead only to places they don’t fit in and can’t understand. The Promised Land has yet to be discovered, and the search has grown exhausting. The Good Days might really be gone forever. As the narrator on Raygun Suitcase’s “Down By The River II” explains, “As bad as it gets, it’s gotten worse.” In turn, the music has lost more and more of its “lightheartedness, hopefulness, and sense of humor” (remember, though, that that does not preclude the songs from being funny) and replaced it with uneasiness, desolation, and a sense of doom.
The band is at the peak of its cinematic powers. Using heavy duty riffs (Pennsylvania’s “Fly’s Eye,” Lady From Shanghai’s “Lampshade Man,” etc.) and dust storm atmospherics (Raygun Suitcase’s “Ray Gun Suitcase,” Why I Hate Women’s “Flames Over Nebraska,” etc.), it sets the Era’s stories in a sort of Lynchian Bible Belt noire (Why I Hate Women’s “Stolen Cadillac,” Pennsylvania’s “Silent Spring” and “Slow,” etc.) starring Thomas as, at turns, Lounge Singer From Hell (St. Arkansas’s “Slow Walking Daddy,” “Hell,” and “Where’s The Truth,” etc.), Dead Man Walking (Why I Hate Women’s “Blue Velvet” and “Synth Farm,” etc.), and Horny Coot (Raygun Suitcase’s “Folly Of Youth,” Why I Hate Women’s “Caroleen,” etc.), among others. The lyrics, meanwhile, tend to be located somewhere between gloomy and terrifying. The amusingly-titled “Love Song” on the uncomfortably–titled Why I Hate Women features lines like “My eyes are growin’ tentacles for to grab you. My eyes are growin’ hand grenades for to have you. … I live in a house without any windows. … I got a 40 watt bulb to light up my life.” St. Arkansas’s “Dark” opens and closes with the mantra “My friends don’t understand me and my wife begins to fear that I’ve lost some sense of balance, and I’ve lost the will to live.”
The details of characters’ personal declines are mirrored by depictions of deterioration in the America they inhabit. (Note the micro and macro scales again reinforcing each other.) Pennsylvania’s “Woolie Bullie” begins with the story of a local diner being torn down to build a Days Inn, which prompts a tirade from the narrator. “We are abandoned. Liars own the words. … Reality is defined by the needs of the media. History is rewritten faster than it can happen. Culture is a weapon that’s used against us,” he or she says, anger simmering over volcanic guitars. The speech is punctuated by a searing synth blast––the sonic equivalent of a heat wave surging through the thrown-open doors of an industrial oven. Before long, however, the potent slab of noise begins dissipating, eventually coming to sound like a trifling Boy Scout campfire ditty. It’s as if this seemingly irreducible swell of enraged rebellion is co-opted, broken down, and repackaged in a safe, digestible form. Just as the narrator loses her or his beloved bit of folk culture (the diner where he or she “spent [his or her] life … one afternoon”) to a corporation’s hotel chain (Days Inn), the synth solo loses its uncompromising passion and intensity, succumbing to the charm and convenience of facile melody. The slide guitar slice that begins the song feels like a cell bursting open during a jailbreak. The sonically-identical one that abruptly ends it feels more like the zipping up of a body bag, due to what takes place between the two.
Raygun Suitcase’s “Electricity” contains the lyrics “Nobody understands. All the words that we’ve cherished for so long fall on deaf ears. Children, hear our hopes and fears. … It feels like all the faded hopes that never were.” Where “Woolie Bullie” is pissed off, “Electricity” is mournful and resigned to cultural death. The narrator puts her of his faith in the “stones” of cities rather than their populations because cities cannot truly die, though “like the insane do in their awful solitude” they speak “only to [themselves]” after a while. Thomas frequently uses the term “ghost town” to refer to such municipal afterlives in his lyrics. Detailing the phenomenon further, he once told an interviewer that the decline from “city … to ruins” is complete when the people living in a city “no longer understand the hopes and dreams and fears of the builders of a city” (“The heart of the thing is the thing we don’t know”––Raygun Suitcase’s “Montana”). That kind of thinking was introduced most plainly with the “Breath” lyrics “The things that we had. The good and the bad. Now it’s parking lots. … I know the sites to see. The things they mean to me and how we tore it down.” However, the ideas are more thoroughly explored during the Modern Era.
In addition to the geographic ghost towns described above, the band deals with non-physical ghost towns that are located in the ruins of characters’ minds. They’re often arrived at by more personal roads––dreams abandoned too soon or clung to too long or pursued too late (“We’ve trailed our dreams behind us for days like paper shredded by the force of our passing”––“Drive”), memories distorted or unbearably accurate (“I looked in your eyes. I said, ‘I will ruin your life.’ I can see you did not believe me. You remember, don’t you? … ‘Cause I do.”––Lady From Shanghai’s “Musicians Are Scum”), rough patches that stretch into rough periods before finally settling in as rough lives (“I’ve checked in and now I can’t check out. … I guess my life is in transition. From one kind of a life to another. From what kind of a life to another?”––Raygun Suitcase’s “Three Things”), etc. As unpleasant realizations about these sources of pain and regret bear down on the characters (“One day I will be the best that you can do. Time will catch up to you … Like it caught me too”––Pennsylvania’s “SAD.TXT”), the spaciousness of the open road they keep fleeing to (“Somewhere out there the bars are open. Somewhere out there the night is calling. Somewhere out there good times are rolling”––Pennsylvania’s “Urban Lifestyle”) is overwhelmed by the claustrophobia of their minds, which is evoked with smothering synth swaths (“Lampshade Man,” Why I Hate Women’s “Babylonian Warehouses,” etc.) and nervous tic drumming [Pennsylvania’s “Mr. Wheeler,” Why I Hate Women’s “Two Girls (One Bar),” etc.]. Faced with bleak or uncertain prospects, they long for an idealized past (as if they remember the Fontana Years’ music, but not its lyrics) or fantasize about unrealistic twists of fate.
On Raygun Suitcase’s “Don’t Worry,” a woman tears “the roof off somebody’s heart” (notice the linking of edifice and emotion, blurring distinctions between the ruins of cities and those of people’s lives) who was hoping they “might continue as friends somehow.” The character compares the woman to a force of nature (“the wild, wild wind”) and repeats the excerpted lyrics, mantra-like, for the song’s duration. One can feel an imagined connection to an ex-flame gaining more traction in his or her mind with each repetition (he or she “hoped” to stay friends in the first verse and “hope[s]” in the second and third), culminating in the hilariously schmaltzy guitar solo that ends the song.
Other characters attempt to escape their bad memories and dead end lives (“I got a job for life. I am free. … There is a shadow hangin’ over me”––“Blue Velvet”), but can’t stop their pasts from seeping into their futures. Apparitions of buildings torn down (the diner in “Woolie Bullie”) and people ripped away populate their new towns and old dreams (“Last night I dreamt and it seemed so clear––you were there, you were there”––“Babylonian Warehouses”). “… just over the horizon there was a valley that was filled with frozen clouds where dust hung in the air like it was perfume” the narrator on Pennsylvania’s “Perfume” says, again linking environment (dust) and emotion (memories associated with perfume). Even this land seemingly outside of time is invaded by the past in the form of an ex’s scent. Upon getting away from his or her town and/or life, the narrator can only wonder, “Is there someone here who knows me?” Even if the line is referring to a fear of someone recognizing them, the fact remains that the past haunts, epitomized by the guitar’s slither from faint echo to sickening, inescapable scrape. This is the plight of those that live in ghost towns. Trapped in the past, usually because their futures are dark, they are incapable of being present.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. The parallels between citizen and country in these narratives (the narrator on “Woolie Bullie” claims “the land and what we add to it cannot lie. It’s also like a mirror. Reflected we see ourselves or we choose to turn away”) suggest that America might be one huge ghost town––or filled with people living in one. (Greil Marcus, writing about Pere Ubu in his book Double Trouble: Bill Clinton And Elvis Presley In A Land Of No Alternatives, explains how “in a big, multifaceted democracy, you’re supposed to be able to communicate directly with everyone, yet many despair of being understood by anyone at all.”) Who could be present in such a society, one where “My Friend Is A Stooge For The Media Priests” (Raygun Suitcase) who lives “life like a Hollow Man hidin’ out in a Hollow Land?” Who would want to be? Is a ghost town preferable? Is it possible even to know? Not according to the narrator on “Drive,” who summarizes, “We will never know what it was that has been lost from here.” Perhaps ghost towns, then, whether they’re personal or cultural or both, are artifacts of that ethereal sense of loss. Thomas has hinted at this with his stage “banter,” once saying, “That’s the heritage to be passed on, from generation to generation—an echo of pain through time. It’ll be too late, because your parents will be long dead, and no one will understand you.”
“After they've taken everything that we might have owned. After they've stolen the thing that we have loved. … they say, ‘It's just not enough.’ … Standin' on the outside inside lookin' out and I was seein' someone that's too far away. I was standin' on the inside lookin' out lookin' at the outside and askin' myself, ‘Why do I delay?’” ––“Muddy Waters” (Pennsylvania)
“It's time to leave and I don't know when.” ––“Down By The River II”
Pere Ubu understands music as something that is ultimately and literally a celebration of space, be it headspace or physical space. (Describing Pennsylvania as “the space between where you are and where you want to be,” Thomas further reinforces the notion that geography and psychology can be experientially inseparable.) However, the band’s music seems to suggest that when that space has been altered or damaged or compromised––whether by something like “history being rewritten faster than it can happen” or less artificial descents into ruins––odd phenomena occur. The past, present, and future start to smear together (“… nothing can haunt the future of my fabulous past”––St. Arkansas’s “Michele”). The difference between a hope and a fear is less clear (see: “I fear it’s you, so I hope it’s you”––“Babylonian Warehouses” and “I fear I know the things I hope”––“Last Will And Testament”). (Marcus, this time writing about the band in Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock ‘N’ Roll Music, situates it on “a train that passes through a modern nation as if it were an ancient land, all ruin and portent, prophecy and decay. Thus the terrain makes the familiar terrain strange, unseen – new.”) What’s relevant? What’s irrelevant? It’s difficult to say for sure. (“Notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti.”) Thus, an accurate reflection of these types of spaces produces a bolus of randomly glommed-together bits of culture from people lost in space and time, everywhere and nowhere, contextless, paralyzed––AM radio (“Dark,” etc.), highways (“Slow Walking Daddy,” etc.), diners (“Woolie Bullie,” “Perfume,” etc.), jukeboxes (“Mandy”), cowboy guitar riffs (“Wheelhouse,” etc.), old-timey vocal tics (“Mr. Wheeler”), archaic pronunciations (“Los Angeles [‘Loss Ang-Guh-Leez’]”––“Highwaterville”), dreams of other planets and alternate dimensions [“Two Girls (One Bar),” Raygun Suitcase’s “Red Sky,” etc.], roadside attractions (the Elvis museum in Raygun Suitcase’s “Turquoise Fins”), and on and on, into the vortex of Datapanik. Writing about Pennsylvania in Double Trouble, Marcus says, “It is all hints and warnings, and the warnings are disguised as non sequiturs. The secret is told, but nonetheless hidden, in the musings, babblings, or tall tales of people who seem too odd to be like you or me, like us … What comes into view is a secret country: barely recognizable, and undeniable. … all of David Thomas’s voices [swirl] around the listener, on the street. Pennsylvania seems to draw out of its own spectral geography and that street can be wherever you find yourself…”
The Modern Era’s take on Datapanik is perhaps best encapsulated by Lady From Shanghai’s would-be lust story “And Then Nothing Happened.” Swaggering over a jaunty surf rock lick, the narrator channels her or his inner Caesar: “I came, I saw, and I wanted her.” But before a move is even made, she or he is already “resigned” to “the spark [dissolving]” “at the heart of the flame” and “consoled that nothing happened today.” The riff then stalls out and dissolves in a bubbling dysphoria. “Alarm bells are ringing,” the narrator sighs before peacefully being overtaken by washes of noise.
“That’s the cup.” ––David Thomas
A Series Of Observations
- The narrator on “And Then Nothing Happened” says “alarms bells are ringing.” The band then mimics said ringing for the song’s lethargically cacophonous, momentum-killing final minutes.
- “Non-Alignment Pact” begins with an air-raid siren synth screaming across the post-industrial sky. As said siren fades into the background, the song roars to life.
- Pere Ubu’s first album is called The Modern Dance.
- Pere Ubu’s most recent album, Lady From Shanghai, has been billed “an album of dance music fixed” by the band.
- The Modern Dance’s first words are “I wanna make a deal with you.”
- Lady From Shanghai’s first words are “You can go to Hell.”
- The film from which Lady From Shanghai takes it’s name (Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai) ends with a shootout in a hall of mirrors.
“Ars longa, spectatores fugaces.” ––The Ubu Projex motto (Latin for “Art is forever, the audience comes and goes.”)
What makes Pere Ubu “dangerous,” according to composer David McIntire, is that it has “a philosophy.” David Thomas believes that rock music is the highest form of art in existence. He believes it makes other forms of art obsolete and that every new rock album should be evaluated based on how it advances not only “the art of the form,” but also “society and mankind” itself. (Though that’s a very intense way of thinking about rock albums, it also speaks to a concern for society and mankind.) While explaining why “only the surface is salable” in today’s world, he told an interviewer that “the public is not at fault. The media is at fault. It is, in fact, your fault personally. I’m not speaking metaphorically. If you knew what you were doing there would be no crime or cancer or bad music. Shape up.” “He’s off his rocker!” you might say. Maybe you’re right. But I suspect that very same passion––extreme though it may be––is a large part of what fuels his band’s artistic potency. “We’re too stubborn to change our ideas and too stupid to quit,” Thomas has said. “When you’re a True Believer, you have no choice.”
Unabashed dedication to a philosophy is rare, and it’s not inherently admirable. Pere Ubu’s philosophy has disturbing elements. They range from the polemical (see: the assertion that only Americans can really play rock and roll or that “Black music is dead … It’s a stinking, rotten corpse”) to the alarmingly hostile and stupid (see: “Women are allowed into bands because they are accorded the honorary status of men and they are expected to adhere to the rules of a brotherhood,” which makes the album title “Why I Hate Women” seem more like something that doesn’t just speak to its protagonists warped worldview). (It’s notable, given the examples cited, that the band includes non-Americans and a woman in its current lineup, for whatever that’s worth.) I wish it didn’t have those elements, but it does. As such, the philosophy is perhaps only worth acknowledging, not celebrating, as a unique approach to and point of view on American rock music. However, assuming you can make some kind of peace with its disturbing elements, the body of work it’s lead to is certainly worthy of more celebration than it’s gotten to this point. While plenty of musicians have reinvented themselves multiple times over long careers, it seems to me the act is often motivated by a desperation brought on by a lack of any new ideas. Deep down, I think Pere Ubu really only has one idea––“The Cup,” as I’ve referred to it. But it’s such an enormous, fantastic idea, and the band is so in love with and committed to it, that it’s managed to parlay a decades-long career out of bringing it to fruition. Everything it does is in service to it. This unified approach makes listening to and revisiting Pere Ubu’s music over time holistically satisfying in a way few other artists I’m aware of can compete with. “I know where we’re going,” Thomas has said. “It’s Somewhere Out There. When we reach it I quit. The end of a thing is always better than the beginning. I continue to look forward to the end of the road. That will be the great Pere Ubu moment. When we can finally look each one to his brother and say, ‘Well done; our work is finished – rest.’”
Whenever the band arrives “Somewhere Out There,” I’m sure there will be musicians who will pick up the torch. I feel confident about this because some already have.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a song from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is as smart, impactful, and expressionistic as anything Pere Ubu has ever done. The singer’s sleepy vocals, the band’s ceaseless swirl that both sweeps the song into coherence (see: the first time the acoustic guitars strum in stride and the piano solo) and spins it back out in a fumbling daze, and the final two minutes of disintegration, combine to create a semi-conscious headspace wavering between dream and nightmare that’s dotted with fleeting moments of fragmentary insight.
Janelle Monáe’s vocals, though in a totally different sphere, are frequently as commanding and varied as Thomas’s. Her performance on The ArchAndroid’s “Come Alive (War Of The Roses)” between 2:14 and 2:33 is the only one I know of comparable to Thomas’s on The Modern Dance’s “Life Stinks” between 0:49 and 1:01. Both are what I can only describe as “vocal solos”––wordless paroxysms that dominate solos on other instruments (guitar on “Come Alive,” guitar, synth, and horn on “Life Stinks”). Each is so powerful that it took me dozens of listens to even realize the sounds are coming from the singer, not some wild, wailing instrument.
The most sublime moment of The Mountain Goat’s “Cold Milk Bottle” (Sweden) is the repurposing of the lyrics “You’re mean to me. Why must you be mean to me? You musn’t forget, you see, what you mean to me,” from the jazz standard “Mean To Me.” In Billie Holiday’s version, for example, the lyrics are delivered with a languid sweetness. The Mountain Goats’ singer howls those same lines with a passion overwhelming and all-encompassing enough to be life-affirming. He saw the potential for cathartic empathy in a flirty bit of wordplay, just like Pere Ubu sees possibilities for comedy and tragedy in single phrases.
Though I can’t say with any confidence that these musicians were specifically influenced by Pere Ubu, elements of its methods and approach are undoubtedly present in their (and others) work.
"Big organizations are comfortable with hierarchical methods of production, but the cultural history of the last hundred years is marked by the emergence and then dominance of a more chaotic folk methodology found in jazz, rock, blues and country music - music of the 'people.'” ––David Thomas
If we have to settle for Pere Ubu’s ideas living on, I suppose that’s acceptable and we should be thankful for and satisfied with that. But hey, we’ve come this far––let’s dream a bit bigger, shall we? Let’s start by examining this chart detailing Pere Ubu’s interpretation of the history of pop, in which the creation of complex, literate music is a “Historical Imperative” (what I called a “folk art continuum”) and “the Mainstream” is defined by that Imperative, not by what is most popular.
That’s a intriguing and potentially-empowering way of thinking about cultural history. It also begs the question: Is a realignment of folk culture with popular culture possible? Could we create a society in which art “of the people” and “by the people” (i.e., “the Mainstream”) is also “for the people” (i.e., “Pop”) on a large scale? Would “the people,” given a proper chance, embrace that type of society? I like to think we would.
Bob Dylan, at his most revolutionary, was pretty popular. “Like A Rolling Stone” was a successful single. The sales and marketing departments at Columbia Records almost didn’t release it because of its length and “raucous” sound. Even after it started to gain popularity, DJs were reluctant to play it in full on their shows––but the public demanded it.
I’d say the leap from, say, Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry to “Like A Rolling Stone” is greater than the one from “Like A Rolling Stone” to Pere Ubu. And yet Dylan is a cultural icon while Pere Ubu maintains only a cult following. Why is this? Is there a threshold for challenge in popular culture that “Like A Rolling Stone” walks right up to, but does not cross? Are the sales and marketing departments of today––and the hierarchical power structures they’re associated with––more powerful and, seemingly by corollary, more scared of new ideas? The answer to both of those questions is probably “yes,” at least to some extent. But does it have to be this way? I don’t think it does. Thomas has said that Pere Ubu is the product of a group of people who believed that, in the wake of songs like “Like A Rolling Stone,” “pop music would never return to” the teen idols and simplistic love songs of its past. They believed it had been touched by the better angels of its nature. That obviously hasn’t happened––yet. If this section’s epigraph is accurate, though, and the last hundred years of music production have marked a shift towards a “folk methodology,” what prevents us from one day ushering in a similar shift in the culture more generally?
“It's not merchandise. It's not content. It's called music.” ––excerpt from the “What We Are” section of Hearpen.com, David Thomas’s digital download site
Noam Chomsky once made an explicit distinction between folk culture and popular culture as typically defined today (high-rated television programs, in this case). The latter “isn’t real popular culture, the real art of the people. This is just stuff which is served up to them to rot their minds. Real popular culture is folk art––coalminers’ songs and so forth,” he said. If you agree with that sentiment but can’t imagine yourself loading up your MP3 player with coalminer music (or if you are Noam Chomsky), there’s good news: There are contemporary artists who apply the spirit of coalminers’ songs to the cultural, humanistic, and historical moment(s) in which we find ourselves. Pere Ubu is one them. There are others. They’re not always easy to find and they can be difficult to get into. However, to me at least, the effort is often more than worth it. Music that’s truly for the people does not pander to them. It challenges them. It is sure they can handle it.
Life can be chaotic and complicated. Art reflecting and engaging with that is probably going to share some those qualities. However, for better or worse, life is also influenced by art. Unfortunately, there are people and institutions that use this phenomenon to leverage their power and influence. By disseminating culture from the top down and spoonfeeding us easily digestible, highly ordered “art,” they increase the odds of us accepting, and even pursuing, easily digestible, highly ordered lives. That can be a simple and even pleasurable thing––for a while––but keep in mind the potential for that order to become “That’s an order!” and for the easily digestible to become hard to swallow.
If contradiction is the only truth, as Pere Ubu seems to tell us, why not consider this one: A band that basically nobody knows about, that once bragged of releasing an album that is “brutal, lacking charm, and without redeeming values,” that has its pretentious, elitist motto translated into a dead language, might in some way be, well, vox populi––one of them, at least. It almost seems appropriate. If Datapanik has indeed blinded us to value and meaning, then that which enriches and enlightens (far less plentiful than that which entertains and enthralls) is, statistically, likely to be lost within the “storm of confetti.” Although hierarchical cultural power structures and those who benefit from them will continue to mass-produce “confetti,” that doesn’t mean we can’t rain on their parade.
“They tore down the Starlighter down at the end of the road and built a big Day's Inn that blocks the view. But I know that road's still there. I can feel it wherever I go, whatever I'm doing. And it knows that I'm still here. And it's waiting.” ––“Woolie Bullie”
You may now stop pretending Pere Ubu is dead. It isn’t. Now start insisting that it (or whatever your Pere Ubu is) is alive. Because that means it is. “In my ears I heard a hurricane blow. In my ears I heard a hurricane grow,” claims the narrator on Dub Housing’s “Navvy.” Maybe one day, should we insist with enough vigor, we’ll hear the Wind come roaring back in our ears, cohesive and unified and inclusive, the way some of Dylan’s more idealistic fans imagined it. A Historical Imperative. On that day, the people, no longer so proverbial, will cry up at Those On The Balconies, who will turn tail and flee. With reason. The Balconies themselves will collapse. We will hope. They will fear.
11/22/2014 update: This post covers The Slim Shady LP through Recovery. Since its publication, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP 2. A review of that album can be found here, though reading this post first is highly recommended.
For me, it was this: “It’s like apples to oranges, peaches to plums, yeah / I’m bananas, pussy—cut off the grapes and grow a ‘pear.’” I heard this on the third verse of Recovery’s “Cold Wind Blows” and started frantically sounding out the syllables. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. But he did.
Back in the “glory days” Eminem seems to think he’s recapturing on Recovery, he wouldn’t have deigned to use the allegedly unrhymable word “orange” unless he was rhyming it and another word at least three times in a row. It was like he took its “unrhymable” status personally. On “Brain Damage” (The Slim Shady LP—SSLP) he rhymed “storage booth,” “door hinge loose,” “four-inch screws,” and “foreign tools” with “orange juice.” On “Role Model” (SSLP) he started with “orange bill” and added “store ‘n’ steal,” “Lauryn Hill,” and “(ig)norin’ skill” to the list he was surely planning to rubber-band to a brick and hurl through the window of a publishing house putting out rhyming dictionaries. And just for good measure, he did this on the first verse of “Cum On Everybody” (SSLP):
“You thought I was ill, now I’m even more so.
Shit, I got full-blown AIDS and a sore throat.
I got a wardrobe with an orange robe.
I’m in the fourth row, signin’ autographs at your show.”
He repeated the feat on “Kill You” (The Marshall Mathers LP—MMLP), “Business” (The Eminem Show—TES) and “Big Weenie” (Encore). Though the results were somewhat less impressive (diminishing returns, etc.), it was obviously a point of pride. Far be it from me to tell him when and how to use the word “orange,” but to throw that cool streak away for such a vexingly contrived “punchline” during the first song of his second “comeback” album in as many years was pretty much the death knell—and what followed was neither quick nor painless, to say the least.
Recovery is a grating, turgid revival tent spectacular where the tongues spoken are moronic, snake handling is considered far too risky, and, at the end of the night, those who have not succumbed to the throes of ecstasy, noticing that the body on stage does not seem to have actually come back to life, quietly drag it into the grave Eminem has been digging for himself since Encore, shaking their heads. But how did he end up there? What sublimated his destructive impulses from lyrical themes into characteristics of the music itself?
The short answer is: He won. On SSLP, the “caged demon” (“Just Don’t Give A Fuck”) giddily sprayed class-clown rebellion into the fan of his subconscious and watched it splatter everywhere. The reaction to that album steadied his aim (somewhat) and steeled his resolve, allowing him to cogently respond to criticisms and rail against those he felt had wronged him on MMLP. He lashed the backlash back at us, was hailed as a genius, made millions more dollars, performed with Elton John, won another Grammy, etc. By the time TES arrived, there really wasn’t all that much meaningful controversy left to buck against—no matter how hard he tried to convince everyone otherwise on “Soldier.” (If anything else did need to be said about controversy after MMLP, his stunning guest verses on Jay-Z’s “Renegade” covered it.) Sure, he took some half-assed shots at George W. Bush or whatever, but only to distract from the quagmire in which he himself was becoming embroiled. The furious passion that left a swath of scorched earth down the center of Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” (2001) (see also: his early freestyles) and fueled the gut-wrenching catharsis of songs like MMLP‘s “Stan” and “Kim” was mostly gone, as was the ribald sense of humor that produced SSLP’s wacky song-length stories. In its place on TES was woe-is-me celebrity groaning, completely unnecessary shots at “Canabitch” (who gets a lot of attention considering he’s “not even on my radar”—”Square Dance”) and Mariah Carey, and telling admissions of directionlessness (“hungry like a fuckin’ younger me,” “produce hits to break the monotony,”—both “Square Dance,” “in no particular direction it just sprays and sprays”—”White America”).
Remember how annoyed he sounds on MMLP‘s “The Way I Am?” I had always assumed that was because he was aware that a lot of the things he was complaining about were cliche. “Ugh, do I really have to explain the phenomenon of problems not getting any attention until they hit the suburbs to you again? Well, okay…” Yet on TES he recycles a lot of this type of material, but takes it seriously and presents it as if it were a profound revelation (see: “White America,” “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” and “Sing For The Moment”).
It’s understandable that he might not be sure where to turn for inspiration after that album. Though his career seemed to revolve around being off-putting and offending people, he still ended up becoming a bona fide pop star—and how offensive, really, can a pop star be? No matter how many times he dissed *NSYNC (thanks to Wikipedia for informing me that it’s “sometimes stylized” that way) or rapped about killing his wife, he remained wildly popular because the songs were irresistible. Everyone and everything he took on rolled over or was left in the dust. He got bigger and bigger until he was The Biggest (“I’ve created a monster…”—TES‘s “Without Me”). At that point, there was only one target worth going after: Himself. Enter Encore.
It’s worth considering that Encore not sucking as much as it could have—and perhaps should have—was the turning point in his career. He chickened out. The cover art, his massacre-suicide at the end (not to mention the album insert’s fetishistic photographic diagramming of it), the ridiculous gag reel of a middle section—it all points to Eminem trying to destroy himself, to end his career. He lost the power to create controversy with “edginess,” so he offended the only way that was left: by being awful. If his “mature” content had lost its power to shock, what about immaturity? For a third of the album, he threatens to burp and fart his way to oblivion while pretending to be Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. (To Hell in a hand puppet!) When the general public was perhaps finally ready to accept that he was serious about his craft and here to stay, he didn’t just thumb his nose, he picked it and wiped his finger on the brand new wallpaper.
The album has some neat bits of self-deconstruction. “Just Lose It” points to the underlying vacuity of all his lead singles. On “Rain Man,” the guy who launched his career by telling everyone what his name is (“My Name Is”––SSLP) forgets his name. The “most meanest MC on this Earth” (“The Way I Am”) wonders, “Why are you being so mean?” (“Big Weenie”). Even the signature double E’s in the title have had their traditional orientations reversed on the cover (which his name isn’t on), facing outward rather than inward. He brags about being able to do anything he wants (including, but not limited to: repeating verses, pointing out that a song is about nothing, admitting that he is sabotaging material, and adopting irritating cartoon voices), confident that “you will love it” (“Ass Like That”). “Nobody is safe from me—no, not even me,” he admits on “Ass Like That.” During the final skit, he fires the gun he’d been waving around for half a decade.
…But as that image suggests, none of it ended up having the effect I suspect he originally intended because he didn’t follow through (“I don’t think my joke is working! I must flee!”—“Ass Like That”). Instead of a missile aimed at his own overblown ego and iconic persona, he ended up with an album that was weird, but also boring and mediocre due to its first and final thirds containing bland attempts at more “serious” music. It’s obvious, though, that he was completely burned out. Even the first verse of “Mosh”—allegedly an ambitious protest song—is yet another tiring recapitulation of his rise to fame.
His instincts to set the whole damn thing on fire were spot on, and would’ve been the perfect capstone to the “just don’t give a fuck” attitude he’d been touting from day one. I would’ve thought that was hilarious, at least. People would go, “I don’t know, I think Eminem might’ve given a fuck…” and I’d respond: “Encore.” Plus, if he was interested in continuing to make music (which was certainly debatable at that point), this imagined Encore would’ve been great for his creative sanity, functioning as a pressure release that lowered and, more importantly, challenged expectations on his own terms. While he’s theoretically at it, why not take the act to its logical conclusion and drop the Eminem moniker altogether? Leave it and all its baggage in the flaming rubble of a carnivalesque suicide showcasing the grotesque results of Marshall Mathers’ Grand Eminem Experiment.
Unfortunately, none of that happened. But why not? He had money, respect, a disillusionment with fame, and a track record of audience antagonism. Why didn’t Mathers pull the trigger musically the way he pulled it “literally” at the end of the album? The answer may lie with “Lose Yourself…”
If the “greatest hits” collection Curtain Call had been curated with any actual insight, it would’ve begun with SSLP’s “Rock Bottom” (it’s not even on there) and ended with “Lose Yourself.” The former is a deadly serious account of life in poverty. Contained within is the narrator’s fantasy of becoming a rich rap star: “I want the money, women, fortune, and fame / If it means I end up burnin’ in Hell, scorchin’ in flames.” It’s a haunting, convincing performance. When he says he longs “to blow up and leave the past behind,” it’s not hard to believe him. Yet what was the first thing he did after blowing up? Summarize his past and then lament that he can’t rap about it in good faith anymore on “Kill You.” (“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more,” “‘I’ve been through Hell!’—’Shut the hell up!’”) Everything else related to that past on MMLP is inflected by the media (emphasis mine: “read up ‘bout how I used to get beat up…”—”Who Knew”) or evoked in contrast to his new, unrelatable world of fame, money, protests, and lawsuits.
Mathers knew he could never go back without looking exploitative—until 8 Mile, that is. “Lose Yourself” is the meta-sequel to and mirror image of “Rock Bottom,” an inversion of its formula. The underdog rapper fantasizing about being a star is now THE star fantasizing about being an underdog rapper. Ostensibly a call for others to let go of fear and rise to the moment, the track also functions within his career arc as a way for Marshall Mathers to lose himself (and perhaps more importantly, his infamous constructs Eminem and Slim Shady) in the glory days of overcoming incredible odds with determination and skill when something was palpably at stake. He blew it out of the water, of course, eclipsing both the movie and his own previous levels of superstardom. However, I can’t help but think he at least subconsciously grasped the unsustainability of the situation. “Lose Yourself” was a one-time sublime confluence of circumstances. It simply cannot happen again. Much as he burned for years to be recognized as The Best, he had to accept that, well, it had actually happened. “Lose Yourself” was the climax. It wasn’t going to get any better than having a critically acclaimed international #1 single hyping the Hollywood movie based on your life story, and it was time to start letting go. In other words: You can dream of getting to the moon. You can walk on the moon. But you cannot live on the moon.
So maybe it was the afterglow of “Lose Yourself” that reminded Mathers how intense his desire was back in his “Rock Bottom” days, and that turned him off his better creative instincts. He fell in love with his own story all over again and clung to the glory instead of moving on, mixing his past with his present in unhealthy ways that would become more and more problematic. My ideal Encore––an album delighting in being burned out and disillusioned instead of sort of trying to cover it up––would’ve been one of the funniest and most self-aware from a pop star. Hell, it might’ve even ushered in an era of pop music in which Weird Al had no meaningful function.
The debacle Encore actually ended up as sacrificed something else as well: Eminem’s volatility. By approaching the edge too cautiously, strapped with a parachute and bungee cord, he dampened the sense that at any moment he could stomp on the other end of the seesaw and send a song sailing off in a different direction. Keep in mind, this was the guy who brought Dr. Dre’s “What’s The Difference” (2001) to screeching halt, robbed a bank in the middle of MMLP‘s “Criminal,” and was saying stuff like this on his first (major label) album:
I’ve tried suicide once and I’ll try it again—
That’s why I write songs where I die at the end.
‘Cause I don’t give a fuck, like my middle finger was stuck
And I was waving it at everybody screaming, ‘I suck!’
I’m on stage in front of a sell-out crowd and yell out loud, “All ya’ll get the hell out now!”
Fuck rap, I’m giving it up ya’ll, I’m sorry.
“But Eminem, this is your record release party!”
I’m bored out of my gourd
so I took a hammer and nailed my foot to the floorboard of my Ford.
––“Cum On Everybody”
Deprecating and destructing himself in order to have fun with the “burned out and bored” concept has been in his wheelhouse since the beginning (“I can’t rap anymore—I just murdered the alphabet!”—SSLP‘s “Still Don’t Give A Fuck”). The mind that crafted the lines above seems well on its way to conceiving of a record like the Encore I’ve been describing. But of course, that was before he “had to” worry about his “legacy,” making the execution of such an idea untenable. Point being, the volatility was always part of the thrill. It felt like he didn’t belong in the mainstream, but here he was… “Who knows, he might really go crazy!” By the time he got to “Without Me,” though, this was not going to be part of the equation anymore. He was no longer a party crasher. He was the host. He had a formula. His circumstances post-”Lose Yourself” provided a chance to reinvent that volatility on a grander scale and/or strike out for uncharted territory. He failed to capitalize.
If Relapse was in search of nothing else, it was a way of reclaiming the old volatility. This was a stupid goal, and attempting to accomplish it by creating a character that might stick an umbrella into someone’s vagina at any moment was even stupider. Remember how at the end of “Criminal” he said that if he couldn’t rap anymore he’d become a serial murdering rapist? He was prophesying Relapse. Dre’s production is pretty solid, Em’s technical skill is intimidating (“swallowin’ a Klonopin while I’m noddin’ in ‘n’ out on the ottoman at the Ramada Inn” is one of the most phonetically perfect phrases in the English language), but his persona(s) and lyrics are so empty, dated, off-putting, and asinine that it hardly matters. He’s scraping the bottom of the long barren “controversy” barrel, but the hook is that he’s scraping it with, like, a bloody scythe! That he just used to perform a late-term abortion on Lindsay Lohan! Yeah!
In its defense, there are a few compelling ideas at play. The accents, dumb as they ended up sounding, understandably held appeal for Mathers. He’s always reveled in messing with the way words are pronounced (see: the bending of “ideas” into a two-syllable word on “Sing For The Moment” so that it amazingly rhymes with “nightmares”) and these voices did provide him with a new way to tinker, though little else. The niftiest example I can think of is from “Hell Breaks Loose” on the Refill bonus disc, where he accent-pronounces “trance” in such a way that it rhymes with Dre saying “haunts.” A little forced, sure, but it was still encouraging that he had not ceased striving for innovative ways of working with language.
Also, recasting Slim Shady as a byproduct of a depressed, lonely man’s drug addiction is actually kind of clever and weirdly effective as a storytelling device. When the narrator finally “wakes up” (or whatever), the non-accented, seemingly genuine “Deja Vu” really does sound like an epiphany of some magnitude despite being, outside the context of the album, merely a good song. There’s arguably potential for a halfway-decent concept album buried somewhere in the muck. An astute reviewer at Vibe pointed out that there are elements of the niche genre horror-core present (source: the actual review isn’t online anymore, it seems). An album with a few quality songs in that mode followed by the “Deja Vu” “plot twist” could’ve been a sly move. He’d get to both indulge in a little Slim Shady gore and comment on how sad, disgusting, and juvenile it is, especially in the face of a serious drug problem. The twisted class clown of yore meets the weary, isolated man approaching middle age. That would’ve been some classic Eminem persona juggling. Unfortunately, the pressures of still having to be a superstar muddle the potential.
Don’t get me wrong, nearly all of the songs are still terrible. But taking a step back from that, the relatively small scale, concept-heavy album I just described could never even exist from a purely thematic/structural perspective as long as he continues to feel obligated to do the usual Eminem stuff like “My Mom,” “Bagpipes From Baghdad,” “We Made You,” “Old Time’s Sake,” and “Crack A Bottle.” I hate to keep harping on it, but if he had gone ground zero on Encore and reset expectations, it might’ve freed him up to explore just these types of more ambitious storytelling techniques. Though Relapse had less potential and far graver faults than that album, both suffer from the same general unwillingness to fully bake their ideas. Each has a foot firmly planted in the past.
Then Recovery came along, and with it the realization that I’ve almost certainly been giving Eminem far too much credit. It’s irredeemable to the point of making those flickering signs of life I saw in his last two bad albums seem like nothing more than happy accidents. It’s an abject failure as a comeback because he completely misunderstands what he needed to come back from. It was not his inability to emulate his early success—it was his inability to escape it. This album essentially declares, “I was wrong to have tried to move forward as an musician!” and sprints with single-minded gusto towards a ghost town. (“‘Cause some things just don’t change / It’s better when they stay the same”—the album’s first words…) Disowning everything lacking The Fans’ approval, swearing up and down that he’s figured things out, he tries to bamboozle listeners into believing that things is just like back in the good ol’ days (life tip: these are nonexistent). Don’t be fooled.
This is not simply an unsatisfying comeback, though. It’s fairly embarrassing music steeped in ill-conceived, retrograde ideas that has disturbing implications for Eminem’s future. The flimsy beats—gaudy and bloodless—are not the problem. The tellingly-empty and tonally-inapporiate cover art? Nah, not that either. Even the god-awful jokes are not the (main) problem but, what the hell, let’s give them some attention first.
This is a “punchline” from “Not Afraid:”
“So fuck the world—feed it beans.
It’s gassed up if it thinks it’s stopping me!”
I’ve never read any comedy theory, but there is no way that qualifies as a joke, right? Here’s an equally arbitrary version: “Fuck the world. It must’ve been carved by Gepetto because it’s got a long nose when it says it’s stopping me!” Why is the world being fed beans? Just so he can seem “clever” in the delivery of his cliche me-against-the-world line? Really, it’s written as a command, like, “You there! Feed the world beans so I can make this joke I just thought of!”
Here’s another mindless piece of “wordplay” from the untitled last track:
“You can rack your brain like pool balls.”
Does the addition of “like pool balls” alter or clarify the meaning of “rack your brain” in an illuminating way? Not that I can tell. Racking your brain means to think to the point of exhaustion, whereas racking pool balls refers to collecting loose items in a container––so if anything, it muddles it. The only connection between “rack your brain” and “rack pool balls” is the word “rack.” If that’s his only standard, why not go with, “You can rack your brain like breasts” or “You can rack your brain like boobs, dawg,” if the rhyme scheme must be maintained? That’s equally as meaningless, but at least makes the listener work a bit, requiring him or her to remember that “rack” is a slang term for “breasts.” There are ways the line could have worked. I’m just spitballin’ here, but what about… “you can rack your brain like pool balls… but I’ll still ‘break’ it when I blow your mind…” That’s within walking distance of actual wordplay territory. But there’s no thought put into many of his lines, just automaton-like recognition that one word is vaguely related to another, if even that.
“Call me the ball sack. I’m nuts.” (“Cold Wind Blows”)
That was worthy of opening his first verse, apparently.
“Excuse the corny metaphor, but they’ll never ‘ketchup’ to all this energy I’ve ‘mustard.’” (“You’re Never Over”)
Not a metaphor. Not excused.
“Watch her leave out the window. Guess that’s why they call it ‘window pain.’” (“Love The Way You Lie”)
Nobody calls it that! What does “it” even refer to in that sentence?!
“I’m standin’ on my Monopoly board. That means I’m on top of my game.” (“No Love”)
“Quit playin’ with the scissors and shit, and cut the crap.” (“Not Afraid”)
And on and on and on…
These are basic charlatan tactics. Every time he employs one of these “punchlines” it’s to cover up a banality or cliche. “Like a fuck you for Christmas, his gift is a curse” (“Not Afraid”). All that’s really being said is “his gift is a curse,” but the delivery attempts to beguile the listener into not noticing that. The sad part is, he used to be funny. The formula wasn’t even that different. Check out this line from SSLP’s “I’m Shady:”
I try to keep it positive and play it cool—
Shoot up the playground and tell the kids to stay in school.
Here he’s working with another cliche: telling kids to stay in school. It works, however, because he’s messing with listener expectations. The context of the song has established the narrator as a psychopath, so when he starts in with claims that he’s a feel-good person, it’s obvious something’s coming. Aha! See, he was just setting us up—he actually wants to open fire on a playground. But hold on, he was only doing that because he doesn’t want kids to drop out of school. Of course, he’s still winking when he says that, twisting the cliche’s meaning towards being physically inside of a school instead of committed to education.
He does something similar on “Remember Me?” from MMLP:
When I go out, I’mma go out shootin’.
I don’t mean when I die—I mean when I go out to the club, stupid!
A bit more on the nose, certainly—but a higher level of thought is at work. He uses the “go out shooting” cliche, but his ultimate meaning is a clever subversion of it. “A fuck you for Christmas” is just a literal curse-gift, and a really forced one at that. The premise is nonsensical from the start because no one has ever been given a “fuck you” for Christmas, so you immediately know it’s a setup and can probably predict the ending before he says it. If anthropologists find Recovery‘s lyrics sheet hundreds of years from now, they’ll probably think it’s a relic from an early period of experimentation with teaching computer programs to craft jokes.
More to the point, though, has Eminem ever even used the word “punchline” before? I can’t think of a time. Yet here he bemoans his former inability to write one (“Talkin’ 2 Myself”), and then gloats over his newfound stockpile of them, even teasingly holding them back as if we just can’t wait to hear his next “foot the bill” (LITERALLY, LOL) joke (“On Fire”).
Maybe the reason he never thought about them before is because THEY DON’T MATTER. Parts of “Criminal” were clever (in a trollish way, to be sure) and it didn’t have a single Recovery-style punchline (aside from the “checkin’ the ‘male’” thing, which was intentionally awful). What it did have was context. That was a song for those who (I use this regrettably) “got it.” “I stuck my dick in this game like a rapist. They call me ‘Slim Roethlisberger’” (“Almost Famous”) …is, well, not.
But alright, I’ll cut him some slack. Being generous, one might say that these kinds of lines have a certain goofiness to them. You know who could have brought that quality to the fore? This guy, from 1999:
Looks like a person who might be kind of fun and goofy, right? Probably doesn’t take himself too seriously… Compare that with the person on this “OFFICIAL 2012 CALENDAR.”
What the hell is even going on there? Why is he scowling on top of a skyscraper? Can a man without a sense of humor even tell a joke?
I can’t answer those questions, but I imagine the answers relate to why he’s self-seriously shouting so much of Recovery. The pompous-to-the-point-of-parody persona pulverizing the album makes me think Mathers must’ve gotten amnesia and then hired a marketing squad to restore his sense of self. After months of focus-testing, the squad had compiled a list of his most surface-level traits (mean, misogynistic, angry, aggressive, intense, homophobic, etc.), each one displayed on a huge, explosion-shaped sticky note, and assembled a supplementary PowerPoint presentation consisting of slides like
MAIN INSPIRATION FOR FLOW: CARPETING BOMBING
MARIAH CAREY DIDN’T JUST BREAK UP WITH YOU, SHE KILLED HAILEY
CLAIM TO HAVE FUN. DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ANY.
YES, YOU HAVE ASKED CRITICS HOW THEIR DAY WENT
In response, Mathers goes, “I don’t know… That kinda sounds like a robot with a personality disorder, you know what I’m sayin’? Isn’t there some way to make me seem more… human?” The marketers quickly huddle up (subliminally influenced by their obviously-very-effective “NFL REFERENCES” slide) and emerge with: “Well, what if you said a bunch of inane shit like ‘Yeah, it’s been a ride’ [“Not Afraid”] before every song?”
If that’s not how this album turned out the way it did, then surely it was created by running random songs from TES through the musical equivalent of Bad Translator. During the first verse of “On Fire,” he says that dissing him is “just like pissin’ off the Wizard Of Oz.” Now this sounds like a boast, but if you think about it for ten seconds you have to ask: Did he see the movie…? THE WIZARD OF OZ WASN’T EVEN REAL FOR FUCK’S SAKE! He was all smoke and mirrors, a blustering mirage being operated by some doddering old fool behind a curtain, which is pretty much a perfect metaphor for this album.
I’m now going to go against the grain of 21st century hip-hop criticism by (sort of) defending skits. Most people seem happy skits appear to be on the way out, and for the most part I am too. However, some of Eminem’s skits on previous albums served as a confirmation that he was, ostensibly, both in on the “joke” and a step ahead of the reaction (see: several of the “Paul” and “Steve Berman” skits, the PSAs on SSLP and MMLP, the intros to “Still Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Criminal,” etc.). They showed that he was thinking critically about himself, his music, and his audience. By predicting knee-jerk reactions, he attempted to deny power to those who would succumb to them. One might say that they were a way of encouraging listeners to also critically consider the music, since he was providing them with an example of what not to do. (They were of course flimsy shields against the many indefensible elements of his music––”it’s ironic” isn’t enough––but that’s been well-covered in other forums.)
There are no skits on Recovery. In their place are declarations that he doesn’t know why he is the way he is, and that he’ll always be a jerk and a great rapper. Why? Just because. He’s “Shady until [his] dying day” (“Cold Wind Blows”), whatever that means, exactly. When will he retire? “It’s not for [him] to say” (“Cold Wind Blows”). Any other questions? (Besides: “Will you be Shady in the afterlife as well?”) Just “don’t ask him ‘Why?’ or ‘How can he?’” (“Not Afraid”). Thoughts like these speak to a shortage of substantive reflection. Creative passivity permeates the album.
“The new me ’s back to the old me” he proudly proclaims on “Talkin’ 2 Myself” in the midst of an extended apology to The Fans, exemplifying both his continuing inability to decide whether he’s returning to the past or pushing into the future and a tendency to surrender agency and vision to the expectations of others, a trend that culminates in his saddening confession that he suspects the real reason he got clean was to be able to give The Fans what they want (“Not Afraid”). Recovery feels like it was inspired more by random guesses at what people liked about his first three albums than an honest attempt to figure out what separated them from his last two. Would-be triumphant moments of self-actualization never escape that undercurrent.
Eminem has compared himself to Elvis on several occasions (another sign of self-awareness), but I had hoped that perhaps the white-person-using-a-traditionally-black-musical-form most analogous to him was actually Bob Dylan. Both were controversial. Both have antagonized power and their own audiences. Both have been misunderstood (as well as understood and fairly criticized). The idea that Encore and Relapse were just confusing, Dylanesque bumps in the road on the way to Mathers’ Blood On The Tracks didn’t seem completely ridiculous before this. Recovery is Dylan announcing that he just can’t figure out where to turn, so he’s going back to doing all solo acoustic protest songs because gosh darn it that’s just what The Fans want. Screw The Fans. What ever happened to “a brand new CD for these fuckin’ retards” (“Criminal”) and “Fuck it, just shut up and listen” (“The Way I Am”)? Is there a significant difference between his relationship with The Fans on this album and the way conservative protest groups invoked The Kids during the SSLP/MMLP era?
Something I’ve always liked about Eminem was his ability to summarize his albums satisfyingly on their last songs. Regardless of what you think of the albums themselves, it’s hard to argue against “Still Don’t Give A Fuck,” “Criminal,” “Encore,” and “Underground” being appropriate and/or illuminating capstones on their respective subject matter. Admittedly, “My Dad’s Gone Crazy” isn’t really about anything, but neither is TES. Yet even there he managed to muster up a tidy recap of his career on the last verse. So what can we learn about Recovery from the appropriately title-less last track? Something about fish poop? or Troy Polumalu’s hair, perhaps?
“Untitled” is a void Eminem stands in the middle of “yellin’ at air” (“On Fire”)—a vacuum of mindless virtuosity left in the wake of the album’s irreconcilable conflicts canceling each other out. On one side there’s someone who swears he’s back to his old self, the one who was always on the brink of flaming out and just didn’t give a fuck. On the other, a person slavishly prostrating himself before his audience, begging for forgiveness and swearing he’ll never change or go away. He claims to have cleaned up his life and become a mature, responsible adult worthy of respect (both from himself and his audience) while insistently preserving the misogyny and homophobia from his earlier music. YOU CANNOT LIVE ON THE MOON. These are not compelling contradictions that culminate in thrilling, explosive moments like “Criminal” (in which, even if you don’t find the argument convincing, you at least feel like one has been articulated––and in an entertaining style), they just sit there awkwardly, interfering with any sense of cohesion.
Mathers seems to want this album to be about how he finally knows who he is. Well, who are you? He certainly claims to know, but if he had actually figured it out, I think he would’ve hammered the answer home in the last song—or at any point, really. The only “insight” he really offers up can be boiled down to a möbius strip wherein he’s back because he’s finally figured it out, and what he’s figured out is that he’s back.
The real problem, then, is not that Recovery sucks, but that Eminem is so blindly self-assured and aggressively proud of his fear of the future and misunderstanding of the past. He’s made it the heart and soul of his expression. He’s become Stan. Even if he somehow realized his grandiose claims on this album were empty, I think admitting it would be too humiliating. He trashed Relapse (his other “comeback album”) and Encore on this album. Trashing Recovery on his next…? It’d make him an untrustworthy laughingstock. Thus, this album is likely the cursed burial ground on which he will build the rest of his career. And I don’t care if he calls his next record Resurrection—he ain’t coming back from that as anything but a reanimated corpse.
I thought about ending this with some kind of aphorismic line like, “So, why did Eminem die? Easy, he couldn’t kill himself” as a tribute to this oddly-relevant Old Man Murray article and a callback to the karmic load that’s been accruing since the half-aborted Encore. “He brought it on himself!” and all that… While I wouldn’t have written the above if I didn’t believe that he’d sealed his own fate (slowly over time and indelibly by betting everything on Recovery), we’d be remiss if we didn’t reflect on our own role in Eminem’s passing.
For better or worse, Marshall Mathers has always been, to different degrees and in various ways, aware of his audience’s perceptions of him. Recovery was for the fans he felt he had let down. He wanted to be loved again. That he offered up an album I hope I have proved is at least objectively stupid in order to accomplish that is perhaps less important than the fact that he was listening at all. We could’ve told him this album sucks too. We didn’t. We stood by as he buried his face in the dried up tits of past conquests and cheered when he started motorboating them. “Dude is gettin’ LAID!” we were impressed to note. We were as thoughtlessly rabid in our desire to declare “Shady’s back!” as he was rabidly thoughtless in his desire to be back. He was lost before this (recall his frank admission of wavering faith in rap being able to redeem him on Relpase’s “Beautiful”). Can we really blame him for latching onto some positivity when he finally found it after years of turmoil?
The short answer was: “He won.” Maybe it’s the long answer as well. The popularity of this album can’t be ignored. It’s generated two of the top ten most-viewed YouTube videos! I may hate it and believe it will damn him to making worthless music for the foreseeable future, but he was right. He undoubtedly got what he wanted out of Recovery. He’s back. We made him “relevant” again.
We could’ve held out for a narrative misadventure as funny as “Brain Damage,” an opening couplet as dazzling as “I murder a rhyme one word at a time. You never / heard of a mind as perverted as mine” (MMLP‘s “I’m Back”), a five-syllable rhyme as jaw-dropping as “heterophobic” and “genitals bulgin’” (“Criminal”), or just some freakin’ subtlety of any kind. (Revisiting the relaxed, silken flow of SSLP-era material wouldn’t hurt either.) Instead, we settled for him spasmodically screaming in the third-person about his Legacy and how he’s married to The Game and The Industry as if they were far more than concepts.
If he truly thinks “rap is a landfill” (“Cold Wind Blows”), why not find some hungry young talents and put them in the spotlight (Sticky Fingaz’ verse on MMLP‘s “Remember Me?” will still knock you flat) instead of Rihanna and P!nk (again, hat-tip to Wikipedia)? Maybe it’s because he knows he may be louder and more flamboyant than up-and-comers, but is no longer more insightful or deft. Maybe it’s because he’s just a bland pop star now too, rehashing That Which Sells ad nauseum.
I’m not saying there should’ve been a boycott or anything like that. I know it’s inevitable that an Eminem album is going to sell millions of copies. However, Encore and Relapse both sold millions and he was still ashamed of them because people were disappointed. Recovery was celebrated. For all his audience antagonism in the content of his lyrics, when it comes to the overall quality of the music, he seems to be sensitive to our reactions. We blew it here, folks.
Songs like “Stan” and “Just Lose It” are proof that, at one point, Mathers understood what was compelling about his work and had some ironic distance from it. Is there any proof that The Fans at large were right there with him? Maybe people only liked “Stan” because Elton John star-wiped in for the chorus during a high-profile Television Event. Maybe years of being surrounded by enthusiastic supporters who missed the point of his work as often as his less-thoughtful critics did made him question what the point was to begin with.
I’ll leave you with this final piece of incriminating evidence: “The Real Slim Shady” was never supposed to exist. MMLP was, as far as Mathers was concerned, finished. Interscope disagreed, demanding an additional song be recorded that re-introduced Eminem and his music to the public, a la SSLP‘s “My Name Is.” With the album’s due date fast approaching, crunch time inspiration produced “The Real Slim Shady,” which replaced “Who Knew” (a song of more depth, though certainly less catchiness) as the lead single.
I’ve always wondered how Eminem might’ve turned out if that hadn’t happened. Maybe he wouldn’t have become so ubiquitous so quickly, allowing him a chance to mold a less reactionary identity at a more natural pace. The attention he received might’ve been less overwhelmingly widespread, but more encouraging and sympathetic to his unique talents and specific goals for MMLP—one of which was, ironically, to definitively establish that he was not a pop star. He didn’t want to be “pigeonholed” or have to “top on ‘My Name Is’” (“The Way I Am”). Did these record execs listen to the album’s lyrics? Did they even look at the song titles? There were already tracks called “The Way I Am,” “I’m Back,” “Marshall Mathers,” and “Remember Me?”—the first of which proved to be quite serviceable as a smash hit single. That’s already too much introductory material. A singles run of “Who Knew,” “The Way I Am,” and “Stan” would’ve been a near-perfect distillation of purpose. The album was going to be huge with or without a sequel to “My Name Is.”
I don’t hate “The Real Slim Shady.” It’s fun, I guess. But what does an environment which rejects “Who Knew” in favor of “The Real Slim Shady” do to a person over the years? Is it possible that this decision, a microcosm of many things to come, prematurely transformed Eminem from an accidental pop star dynamically figuring out what he stood for into a calcified cultural institution? Was it the chunk of plaque that amassed girth until it broke off of the artery wall, entered the bloodstream, and ended up causing a stroke?
Decide for yourself.
Cause Of Death:
Manner Of Death: