Here’s part two in that series about albums that cracked under pressure and are all the better for it. We’re gonna focus on two singer-songwriters for this one, the wondrous PJ Harvey, and the bombastic Badly Drawn Boy, both of whom, it would seem, had a pretty lousy year in 2004.
Badly Drawn Boy (AKA Damon Gough) has spent every single note he’s recorded since his 2000 debut trying to recreate the spontaneous, heartfelt, bug bite scratching songs that seemed so much like simple chemistry experiments for him back then. On that album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, Gough went fishing for triphop, swatted flies hovering over a piano which was dangling on the edge of a rickety treehouse, and snuck into soccer stadiums to record songs that 10,000 empty seats ghost-fistpumped along to. The album was full of experimentation, but Gough was your typical british James Bond action hero, jumping into everything with poise and a sly face and a two or three martinis under his belt. Except he was better than that, because he was willing to show us his heart. On that album’s unbelievable closing track, “Epitaph” Gough lullabies “please don’t leave me” and “I hope you never die” and its unclear whether he was singing across the studio to his wife in the control booth, or whether he means the listener, begging them to cue up side one again, or whether he’s begging his own creative mind, the coal mine he snuck into to make this album, hoping it will never become exhausted. Sadly, the last of those did happen; his creativity dried up only to be interrupted by the most unusual deluges. None moreso than 2004’s “One plus One is One”
“Back to being who I was before” Gough sings on the album’s first track, its title track, as if he’s telling us “no, seriously, guys, I can do it again, bare with me, it’ll be just like old times.” He begs critics “give me some peace,” turning John Lenon’s universal pronouncement into a selfish call for the press to call off the hounds, and most sadly, admits his past defeats; “We tried to turn the tide, AND WE FAILED.” The song is a nice enough number, something hinting at the lilting spring feeling of Bewilderbeast’s mellower moments, but never quite getting there. You can tell this album is squirming around in clothes it’s just too big for.
Equally heartbreaking and absolutely brilliant is “This is That New Song,” which is just that, a song Gough had been trying to write for years. Gough sighs as much for the lost love as for the loss of immediate, exciting inspiration when he tells you, “This is that new song I told you about 20 years ago.”
One Plus One is One got pretty average reviews, and truthfully if it weren’t for such immediate, emotional highlights like “This is that New Song” “Another Devil Dies” and the bitter “Logic of a Friend” (where the pressure gets to Gough in one of the more brilliant couplets on this album; “There’s a feast well prepared at the table/And a beast licking holes in your door”) the album would be a total failure. This is the most difficult kind of failure to listen to; one where the artist is smart enough to realize the songs won’t make people happy, and yet they can’t change a thing.
Imagine you’re sitting around with a friend in your kitchen table in your parents’ house, and your dad comes down in a Defend Brooklyn shirt and tells you he’s picking up mom at the Trash Bar and then they’ll see you at the Vivian Girls show at Death By Audio; do they go on at 1:30 or 2 AM? Whether you view “aging gracefully” in the context of pop music to be a cliché, an ideal, a copout, or a market scheme, you’ve got to admit that all artists who have been around for a while have to eventually acknowledge their venerable positon. At that point, they can either pretend to ignore it or accommodate it, but that moment has gotta be there.
In the gap between her extremely well received, poppy 2001 album “Stories from the City, Song from the Sea” and her 2004 album “Uh Huh Her,” PJ Harvey grew 20 years younger, and released the most caustic, sexualized, bi-polar, and ridiculous album of her already pretty extreme career. Unlike the confrontational “Dry” or the frigidly bleak portrait of love and sex on “To Bring You My Love,” Uh Huh Her sounds like Harvey listened to some Peaches records and took close notes. Clearly intended as a response to those who thought she had gone soft after “Stories…” “Uh Huh Her” cotains rants more than songs. “Who The Fuck” is little more than that phrase, chanted over and over ad infinitum. The gender dynamics of “Pocketknife” have the depth of a Spice Girls song. Even the more subtle songs, such as first single “The Letter” which manages to breath some air into the deflated “writing as sex” metaphor is blunted by its bleating, atonal guitar and drunk soldiers drumming. While three quarters of this album are busy screaming their guts out the shorter, quiet songs provide this album with a core, and a beautiful delicate one as well. Just contrast “Who The Fuck” and “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” Uh Huh Her sounds so purposefully sloppy that it almost seems like an act of self sabotage, and it is a credit to unending genius and skill of Miss Harvey that the album is able to survive the onslaught, and actually come out a really interesting listen.
Hey, it’s been a few months since I’ve had a valid excuse to post some Weakerthans songs. But they’ve been shortlisted! For the Polaris Prize! For an album I’m a little reluctant about! Here’s a really good live Replacements cover they did about a year ago. (as per most of my Weakerthans live material, this one comes courtesy of B(oot)log.)
The other nominees are all great as well (except Black Mountain whose new album is about 1/100 as interesting as its title, “In The Future,” would suggest). I’d recommend the wound up pop of Two Hour Traffic, a group of kids who probably grew up near water parks who I hadn’t heard of before yesterday.
Probably my favorite hip hop song of recent years is Smart Went Crazy by Atmosphere. Every time I listen to it, I’m convinced my headphone are breaking, but then I remember “oh, right, the bass really is that thick.” The is the only one I fell in love with on the duo’s 2nd to most recent album “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” but it’s good enough to half justify that albums purchase. Ant production consists of finding the a badass guitar solo and then looping it around a strutting beat, and in a rarity for this album, Slug’s rhyming doesn’t get in the way. Slug spits his heart out, like you’d expect, but here, at least, all he’s emoting is that, really, he’s the greatest MC in the world. Normally when hip hop acts do a track that’s all bragging, I press the skip button, but after the rest of “You Can’t Imagine…” an album of self-doubting soul searching and artificially sweetened love jamz, a track where Slug is telling you, in no uncertain terms, that his shit is so hot, it’s actually steaming in that frigid Minneapolis winter is relief.
(and, after seeing ’em all this weekend, i’d recommend trying to see Bottomless Pit, the Kadane Brothers, Matt and Kim [i’ll defend their sincerity ’till i die or get sick of defending their sincerity] and The Breeders.)