Thursday, January 04, 2007

MP3 of the Week #4

One of the few albums to register with me as an adult in that rabid teenage way was Pulp’s 1999 album This Is Hardcore. I never quite understood the press and Jarvis Cocker (the lead singer) himself carrying on about how dark the album was. It was dark in an intelligent, morbidly funny way – emotional pop music with sweeping wind-ups to big choruses. There was no single song on the album as good as their earlier hit “Common People” (the best song ever written about classism), but the album held together better as a whole.

So, Pulp puts out another album a few years later that struck me as lacklustre. The band breaks up. Jarvis Cocker disappears for a few years, then puts out a solo album in the UK (don’t think it’s available here yet) in the fall of 2006. Through, uh, nefarious means involving the internet, I get a copy around Thanksgiving and find myself mildly disappointed – about three repeat-listen songs, one of them sampling Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” and a bunch of so-so songs that took him years to pull together.

But one song in particular, really grabbed me: “From Auschwitz to Ipswich.” A nice, breezy, little piece of melodic pop – wistful, mid-tempo, all the right things. Sounds like a hit to me. But, then, I pay closer to attention to the lyrics. I’ve reprinted them below:

They want our way of life.
Well, they can take mine any time they like.
Cos God knows, I know I ain’t living right.
I’m wrong. I know I’m so wrong.

So like the Roman Empire fell away
Let me tell you, we are going the same way.
Ah, behold the Decline & Fall.
All hold hands with our backs to the wall.

It’s the end.
Why don’t you admit it?
It’s the same from Auschwitz to Ipswich.
Evil comes I know from not where.
But if you take a look inside yourself
Maybe you’ll find some in there.

Not one single soul was saved.
I was ordering an Indian take-away.
I was spared whilst others went to an early grave
Got stoned. Yeah, went out and got stoned.

Well, if your ancestors could see you standing there
They would gaze in wonder at your Frigidaire.
They had to fight just to survive
So can’t you do something with your life?

Here it comes
Why don’t you embrace it?
You lack the guts needed to face it.
Say good-bye to the way you’ve been living.
You never realised you were on the wrong side.
And nobody’s going to win.

They want our way of life.

Well, they can take mine any time they like.

It’s the feel-good anthem of the year. The song is obviously about the terrorist bus attacks in London a few years ago. American listeners might think it’s about 9/11, and may be tangentially and thematically, but people in the United Kingdom, especially Londoners, were far more affected by the bus bombings. So, Jarvis wrote about how he handled the crisis … ordering Indian food and getting stoned.

And if you think I’m going to give a stern lecture about bravery and such, forget it, because his option is as valid as anyone else’s. That’s what I love about the song. The guy’s faced with crisis so heart-wrenching and immediate that the only possible reaction, to him, is to try to do normal things, which include getting high. For better or worse, his sense of normality is to avoid reality, which seems about right for a rock star. (As a New Yorker, I can tell you that once the shock of 9/11 started wearing off, the only thing I wanted to do was get back to my normal routine. Immediately.)

I love that Jarvis Cocker’s balls are big enough to not just take on a subject like this, but to then make clear that he has no answers, and getting lit up to temporarily escape the situation, while not recommended for everyone, worked for him. When’s the last time anyone wrote a sweet pop song about a terrorist attack? Never. And I’m glad the guy didn’t proselytise for any cause – he just stated how empty he felt, before and afterwards. And drew larger conclusions from his emptiness.

What don’t I like about the song? A few things. That whole “Islamic terrorists want our way of life” rhetoric went out the window pretty quickly, at least in America. They don’t want our way of life – they want to annihilate us and our way of life. That much should have been crystal clear after 9/11, yet I do recall some folks putting forth that the reason for the attack was jealousy over how much more advanced our society is than those of Islamic countries. Which is absolute bullshit. Those guys aren't jealous – they're genocidal maniacs. As far as they’re concerned, we’ve gone way too far and need to be brought back to (their) basics. Which, stripped of the genocidal intent, bears a small measure of truth, because our culture is warped, out of control and wrong in many senses. (Then again, the culture they aspouse makes our Christian Right look like the hippie desert farmers in Easy Rider.) But, of course, you try to kill mass numbers of us to get this point across, you’re going to lose the thread and change that kernel of sanity into a murderous challenge that needs to be thwarted.

I also don’t like Cocker’s easy self-loathing, which I suspect is no affectation. The strength of many of his lyrics is that he doubts and questions himself constantly, but usually knows when to make his point. “Common People” is about a rich college girl who falls in love with the song’s working-class protagonist's way of life because she thinks “poverty’s cool.” But he recognizes there’s a big difference between her slumming for a few years and the guy in his song always being poor, and gets righteously angry. That sort of self awareness is missing in this song – leaving just the self-loathing. Cool to a certain age, after which point it gets tired. I suspect a rock star's life comprises a whole lot of lazy down time surrounded by intense bursts of activity, which are immersed in a mini-culture of worship surrounding him. Probably a hard place to stay sane in, so I gather when the down time comes, a lot of laying around the sofa, getting baked, thinking bad thoughts, questioning one's motives, etc. I'd suggest it would be a good place to leave, save I can see how seductive it is to not have to work for months or years on end and still get by financially.

It’s also not “the end,” and he knows it. Frankly, in some ways, I wish it would end. Our society has entered a ramped-up phase akin to the Roman Empire spiraling towards a fall. You can write it down to politics and war, but I’d say it’s much more lifestyle. We’ve geared up a way of life that forces everyone in it to make large sums of money to live even an average existence. This sort of financial pressure didn’t exist 30 years ago, or if it did, was nowhere near as pressing. You have people in New York paying $2,000 a month for a living space the size of a one-car garage. From what I gather, this sort of mental illness regarding real estate has spread throughout most of the country. Turn on a TV set and you’re bombarded with images of wealth, all of them assuming that this is normality, and not to crave these things is to be out of step with society. People get in debt up to their necks all their adult lives and consider this normal.

And it isn’t! Or at least shouldn’t be. All I ask for are basic options, that I don’t have to choose between a ghetto or a penthouse, or a 60-hour work week or subsistence. I think if any “end” comes, it will be this sort of fiscal insanity imploding on itself, followed by a dark ages, not some dramatic war between middle-eastern and western values.

I like that Jarvis Cocker understands that our forefathers had truly ragged ways of life that make ours look like a pleasure palace, yet we appear far more troubled than these earlier cultures. But I don’t seen any “end” to this in the near future, especially with China gearing up to be just as materialistic as America. That’s probably going to be the cause of more shit this century than anything else.

I forwarded this song to pal Andy S. a few weeks back, probably raving a little too much about it, and he found the song to be too obvious – pretty sounding, but heavy-handed and sophomoric with some of the lyrics. And he may be right on that count. But I still think it’s an interesting effort, especially for a pop song. It’s the polar opposite of something like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I don’t see Chevy pick-up trucks looking to license it any time soon, unless they want to appeal to guys wondering what would happen if they drove their pick-ups off a bridge.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"I forwarded this song to pal Andy S. a few weeks back, probably raving a little too much about it, and he found the song to be too obvious – pretty sounding, but heavy-handed and sophomoric with some of the lyrics. And he may be right on that count."

Just to clarify, I did like the verse about him escaping the bomb and getting stoned. That was the one real moment in the song. I agree with the Roman Empire comparison, though I do think the song is politically naive. But my biggest problem is that, purely from an artistic, songwriting standpoint, he just bit off more than he could chew. An example of a current song that offers a much more elegantly-written take on modern politics and personal responsibility (and is admittedly less ambitious) is "Young Idealists" by Lloyd Cole, on his new album.

By the way, I share Bill's enthusiasm for Cocker/Pulp's earlier work, especially the This Is Hardcore album and the single "Common People."