Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. Eagles: Hotel California
Personal Favorite: “Wasted Time”
Summarizing Lyric: “they called it paradise/I don’t know why” (“The Last Resort”)
There I was, wearing the Slayer pentagram and fretting the reds, greens, yellows, oranges, and blues on my Guitar Hero guitar, unexpectedly amazed by this song where no one was screaming and solos weren’t impossibly fast. “Hotel California” should’ve been one of those classic rock songs pre-teen me, unable to appreciate anything other than Metallica and emo bands, only played once to unlock the next set of songs, but I kept coming back to it. I soon found out my mother liked the song, and after hearing him hum along to it when it came on classic rock radio, I discovered my dad liked the song too. At this point, most teenagers might have started hating the Eagles. They were parent music, and walking ads for Hot Topic can’t like parent music. The song stuck with me though. I thought it was nice that my parents and I had some sort of common ground when it came to music. Yes, Hotel California and the Eagles in general are too clean, too serious, too everything you’re supposedly supposed to hate about stuff, but those are a couple of things I kind of love. I think the Eagles are a placeholder for all the bad classic rock in the world and might even be a little bit representative of our relationship with the past. There’s a need to disassociate from it the way teens tend to dissociate themselves from their parents, and there are definitely parts of the past that should be disassociated with, but this album is fantastic. The production is crystal and the lyrics are relatively surface, but they achieve their goal–an exploration of a crumbling paradise with California antics at centerstage (you can’t not cry at Henley uttering, “You don't care much for a stranger's touch/But you can't hold your man” during “Wasted Time”). Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is grittier, Marvin Gaye was way more soulful, but Hotel California shows that maybe you don’t need all the grit or soul in the world to make a great record. You just need a good mix of what you have, and the mix on Hotel California leaves a bit to be desired from side two, but overall it’s a yummy dollop of whipped cream dressed in gray sprinkles of a record.
2. The Cure: Disintegration
Personal Favorite: “Disintegration”
Summarizing Lyrics: “Hopelessly fighting the devil futility” (“Homesick”)
Everyday is a storm, no matter the age. The only thing that changes with age is awareness of that storm. Children are fairly unaware of it, adults learn to ignore it, but teenagers lie in purgatory. They have just become aware of the storm and with that awareness they realize no one gave them a sweater to keep this shiny, but vicious new feeling called love from stabbing the very organ that loves, ear muffs to mute the nagging reality of mortality, ear buds that assure them “you’re fascinating enough,” an umbrella that shields their yielding skin from the idea of futility. But then they find Disintegration and receive the next best thing to an umbrella, a hug from a fellow drenched struggler. The album transported me to times when I saw my over the top, melodramatic behavior as completely normal, a time when I looked up at the adults acting like everything was chill and started thinking, “they’re the crazy ones!” However, there is an undercurrent of maturity in The Cure’s theatrical handling of emo feelings. From the beginning with “Plainsong,” the dialogue between the song’s two characters ends with the one pining for love being told by the loved that the reason their admirer feels like he’s living at the edge of the world when he’s with her is simply her ability to maintain a smile in spite of stormy weather. Nothing supernatural or inexplicable. “Fascination Street” presents another case of maturity with the line “So just pull on your face, just pull on your feet.” The label "fascinating" requires a costume, and the off-upbeat nature of the track feels to be both mocking and sorrowful. That people replace skin just to fit in with the other fakes on fascination street, it is worthy of mock and empathy. Then there’s the ultimate evidence of self-awareness, “we both of us knew how the end always is” (“Disintegration”), a line that leads to “Hopelessly fighting the devil futility” (“Homesick”). “In other words, there’s no umbrella that repels futility,” says the drenched struggler, “Love isn’t supernatural, being fascinating is overrated, but the price you have to pay for those relieves is futility.”
1. Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones
Personal Favorite: “Shore Leave”
Summarizing Lyric: “There’s a world going on underground” (“Underground”)
“There’s a world going on underground” barks Tom Waits, the arrangement staging him as a ringmaster inviting one and all to enter the world behind the cement curtain under their feet. This world, however, is not all fun and games. By "underground," it seems Tom Waits meant the underground of ourselves, the hopeless and senseless emotions we bury underneath simple smiles and frowns. “Shore Leave” presents how anyone can wind up in the underground by depicting the world’s placement of a purple heart recipient in a boat where he is meant to row down a gutter into Singapore, forced to relax without his wife back in Illinois, and howl without hope up to the moon, “Shore leave, shore leave.” From there we get stories ranging from presentations of senseless, drunken anger (“never could stand that dog” being the explanation to Frank burning his suburban life down off of “Frank’s Wild Years”), to presentations of madness (“Swordfishtrombones” showing a more demented version of the confusion soldiers coming home go though as compared to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother;” “Down, Down, Down” more overtly presenting that soldier’s spiral; and “In The Neighborhood” showing the madness lurking underneath well-groomed lawns in a very Lynchian fashion), to some more tear-inducing hopelessness (“Soldier’s Thing” holding a camera on a person seeing an award for bravery as another buck to make at the next yard sale; “Town With No Cheer” documenting the death of pastoral scenes under the knife of industry). All this, however, would not work without the faltering smile Waits shows towards the top of the album on “Johnsburg, Illinois.” Like every good tragedy, Waits’ lets us see a protagonist think of a loved one and smile, a smile that makes the underground that much scarier and tragic as it is replaced with crooked lips. The transition from parabola to zigzags demands tears as we feel “Rainbirds” sink us to sleep, our simple smiles and frowns starting to seep back onto our faces, hoping we’re never forced off our comfy loveseats to enter the world underground.
One Sentence Lesson: From California to teens, everyone is in some way crumbling, but crumbling does not necessarily mean death; crumbling just might mean exiting stage down and entering from stage up onto the underside of life where new, more desperate, sometimes demented, sometimes fun experiences await.