January 31, 2009

Requiem for a Music Geek: Silver-Tongued, Sharp-Toothed Snow Leopards

There's a certain style of pop-rock songwriting and lyricism that I've always been attracted to: the deft, acerbic expression of power that rears its sneering visage into view via two or three talented people per decade. The best singer/songwriters who work that way, of course, have never confined themselves to such a one-dimensional, silly caricature like that, but you know when you listen to their stuff that it might go sideways on you at any time—because once someone gets to the point where easily using and abusing such a frequently fucked-up language like English is second nature (let alone setting their screeds to music), they're not gonna be a dull waste of time. That such people can survive professionally and creatively on down through decades of shit-stupid pop music is no mean feat, either—but since there are so many of them (really, it's true), for now I think I'll just stick to my three main fountains of inspiration (plus one literal contemporary): Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, David Lowery, and Jenny Lewis.

Dylan's an easy choice, of course, because despite having been persistently deified by millions of slavish acolytes like me for almost fifty years, he has consistently frustrated all efforts at emulation via his own restless creative schizophrenia. Every poser with a pen and a guitar has had to contend with the man's imposing creative shadow; the sheer power of what he can accomplish in just one song—"Like a Rolling Stone," for instance—is equalled only by his maddening ability to self-sabotage with half-assed shit like his late-80s albums or the pitiful "Self Portrait" platter from the Woodstock-wilderness days. When he's on, though, he's more on than most anyone; he's the one who threw away his useless folkie skin when the humorless old bastards couldn't take even the slightest electric shock. The one who behaved like a speedball-fueled magician of letters and Telecasters until he crashed his bike in upstate New York and nailed himself to a hyperbolic legend that will outlive us all.

But hell, you can read about that Dylan in any hagiographic gusher at Barnes & Noble, and yeah, sometimes I like that guy a lot too. It's easy and fun to love the omnipotent 1960s Dylan and rolling-thunderous 1970s Dylan just as much as any hippie burnout—you can't be a lyricist in a 12-bar-blues band and avoid him—but for lots of people my age, the old-fogie Dylan is "our" Dylan. The cranky bastard who cheated death and came back with that triple-threat of the virulently misanthropic "Time out of Mind," gleefully masterful "Love and Theft," and I'm-still-here-you-punk-kids "Modern Times" albums. He's almost 70 and is still playing hundreds of shows a year—which of course isn't novel, thanks to B.B. King and Willie Nelson and countless other crazy old men—but none of those guys has consistently manipulated the English language as dexterously and expertly and seemingly effortlessly as Bob Dylan. He can do it all: snide lashings of revenge like "Rolling Stone" or "Idiot Wind," epic poems like "Tangled up in Blue" or "Highlands," moving heart-wrenchers like "Sara" or "Dark Eyes," and haunted death-marches like "Desolation Row" or "Blind Willie McTell." He's a huge inspiration, and of course it's always overstated, but like Yogi said, "it ain't braggin' if you can do it."

I first heard Bob Dylan's feral whine at a young age, when it regularly blasted out of my father's hi-fi, and thanks to people like Adam Cota who bugged me about him in high school, it didn't take me long to become a major Dylan geek. The same sort of thing happened with Elvis Costello, but in that case, I got there all by myself. Costello started out full of the kind of focused rage that it took Dylan four or five albums to warm up to—but of course Elvis couldn't control himself and simply had to try out every genre of music he could get his concrete little hands on. He's also obviously a major talent, but it helped that his band the Attractions weren't exactly slouches, either—especially, in my opinion, the Thomas rhythm section of Pete and (eternal Costello nemesis) Bruce. The latter is such a phenomenal bass player that it's really no surprise that there wasn't enough room for both him and Elvis in the same combo. Anyway, I jumped into Costello's catalogue relatively late, but it was still right around the time I was beginning to churn out my own lyrical slabs of revenge and guilt (1999/2000), so I was primed to absorb everything from 1977 to 1996—the Rhino reissues and the Warner Brothers flailings.

The thing I always have been hung up on about Costello is that the fool really does need an editor. He's a great employer of puns and internal rhymes and all kinds of tricky shit, but he's such a virtuosic talent that he can't help but dribble his superlative abilities over the top of almost every good idea he's ever had; the songs on "This Year's Model" aren't just angry, they're poisonous; "Imperial Bedroom" doesn't just sound lavish, it's fucking decadent. Even a seemingly messy aural tooth-pull like the "Blood and Chocolate" album was still an astounding act of malevolent willpower, and the overriding emotions that color other discs (creative inadequacy on "All this Useless Beauty", sonic tourism on "The Delivery Man") are almost fussily constructed. It takes some hard work for Elvis to fail, too—"Goodbye Cruel World" is so perfectly complete in its failure because it seemed to deliberately take some excellent lyrics and douse them in the worst sounds the early '80s had to offer. And shit—here I've rambled on about the sneaky bastard without even listing my favorite lyrics, but there really are too many favorites for me to list them all: "Accidents will Happen," "Beyond Belief," "Blame it on Cain," "I Want You," "Shallow Grave," etc etc ad infinitum. The most fitting line, though is probably on "Little Atoms": "...and if you still don't like my songs/well then you can just go to hell."

The youngest gun of my big three is David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Lowery is almost equal parts Dylan and Costello, to my ears: he's got the snide silliness of mid-60s Dylan, the vicious streak of nastiest Costello, and the multilayered emotional pathos of both when he's feeling nostalgic or lonely. The goofy semi-throwaways he penned for Camper's first few albums, like "Take the Skinheads Bowling" or "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" are refreshingly unpretentious, but when he put some real effort into the acerbic side of things, out popped "Tania" and "Eye of Fatima" and "She Divines Water" and "Life is Grand." Then Lowery topped himself with an arguable career peak on the first side of Camper's "Key Lime Pie" album; the stretch from "Jack Ruby" through "Sweethearts," to "All Her Favorite Fruit" is a fantastic exercise in thematic discipline and crazed tone.

Lowery would go on to do the same things in Cracker, but the looser boundaries of that band seemed to make the snide/rocking stuff a little more malicious and condescending (if still hilariously funny, like anything from "Teen Angst" to "Get Off This" to "Eurotrash Girl"). His real progress in Cracker was to latch on to Johnny Hickman's evocative tunes and craft the best faux-blasé world-weariness the '90s could muster: the casual expertise in "Seven Days" and "Been Around the World" is only exceeded by some truly great, epically heartfelt ballads: "Big Dipper," "Bicycle Spaniard," "Take Me Down to the Infirmary," and the recent "Sidi Ifni." And of course there's always "Low," lurking out there at the end of Cracker's live sets like a vengeful golem, ready to stomp all other one-hit wonder competition. It's been strangely both disappointing and gratifying to see Lowery's name become mud in the music industry—because Camper's and Cracker's discographies have been roundly abused by Virgin Records—but then he seems to be doing just fine creatively, and there's a new Cracker album in May, so we'll see what happens.

Naturally, my massive ego demands inclusion to this self-made canon, but enough about my own unsubstantiated and naked hubris; Dylan's in his 60s, Costello his 50s, Lowery his 40s—surely there's a budding lyrical genius out there in their 30s, right? Well, the one I found a few years ago isn't me, of course—it's Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and other points adult-album-alternative. The music is pretty mainstream-y—including her rootsier solo albums—but Lewis' particular brand of sardonic kitchen-sink melodrama on "Go Ahead," "Silver Lining," "It's a Hit," "Wires and Waves," and so many others has completely suckered me. She's just as uneven as the above three guys, though—RK's last album was 70% dud, and her great first solo disc was followed by a spottier second—but if that proves anything, it's that the best talents go through some mediocre/fallow periods just as often as they churn out brilliant works of curdled genius. For me, who's only managed to cough up about 25 lyrics in the past decade worth shouting about, that's a reassuring straw to grasp at. When you set yourself up against the silver-tongued, sharp-toothed snow leopards of rock lyricism, you walk into the arena at a profound disadvantage, so you take whatever crumbs the lyric gods see fit to toss your way.

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