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. Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope
Personal Favorite: “Hotel Song”
Summarizing Lyric: “You can write, but you can’t edit” (“Edit”)
There was a time where I’d sit and search for the words that could disprove the too good to be true cliche “happiness is a choice.” Those hours spent trying to disprove actually wound up building an even stronger case for the truth of the cliche, so I stopped. Despite my angst-driven search’s heart having stopped beating long ago (a couple months), Regina Spektor’s endless smile on Begin to Hope still felt like it was directed at that over-the-top, teenage cynic’s corpse, a smile that sometimes opened to say “How silly, to not be happy.” What makes the album great, however, is the restrained nature of Regina’s smile, just like the one on the cover. The record opens with “Fidelity,” an exploration of anxiety’s ability to make the choice to avoid the pain of break-ups by being faithful to singledom very appealing, but it is a choice driven by fear. To never love somebody fully, to always keep one foot on the ground out of fear of feeling a broken heart will still result in a broken heart, a heart broken because its owner never gave it a chance to love, experience the happiness of being with someone for at least a little while. Instead of spelling all this out, Regina shows it through her quirky delivery of “and it breaks my heart” throughout the song, a delivery that can translate into the aforementioned “How silly, to not be happy.” This sentiment is completed with “Samson,” a song where the character left no foot on the ground and, because of that, she’s able to remember their time together and sweetly sing “You are my sweetest downfall.” Even in her more somber moments such as “Field Below” where she feels the ache of life she refuses to be defined by the ache. “I wish I'd see a field below,” she says, and to make a wish is to have some hope something will happen, that the bruises will become ancient again and she’ll see a field below. But why choose happiness? is what I found myself asking. Happiness is a nice emotion, but being sad, especially when sheltered, can have many benefits. By telling a story of an empire trying to remain an empire, Regina gives an answer–“I must go on standing/I'm not my own, it's not my choice” (“Apres Mois”). It’s human nature to try to preserve and remain despite the inevitable end, so why not maintain a smile for the duration of our stay?
2. Nas: Illmatic
Personal Favorite: “One Love”
Summarizing Lyric: “My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper's breath” (“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”)
There are many scenes on Illmatic where we get a peek at Nas’ writing process, but none as poignant as the following–“My pen taps the paper then my brain's blank/I see dark streets, hustlin' brothers who keep the same rank/Pumpin' for somethin', some'll prosper, some fail” (“Memory Lane”) The world of Queensbridge that Nas depicts on Illmatic is a place where “Life is hell… Cops could just arrest me/We’re held like hostages,” (“N.Y. State of Mind”), where bails become sales (“Memory Lane”), where he’s not supposed to succeed at something, and yet there he is, rhymes pouring out of him. To Nas, maybe that didn’t seem quite right (“I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane.”)
In those moments where his mind went blank and he saw dark streets, heard that voice on “Genesis” saying “stop fuckin’ around and be a man,” maybe he felt like he should be in those streets, being that streets’ definition of a man. The feeling of going insane is shared among many past and present artists for many reasons, one of the main reasons being their ego making them think they’re good enough to make a living from making art and that anxiety lurks near the surface of Illmatic. Some artists go in the self-deprecation route to justify their artistic endeavors, others go the Nas route and proclaim greatness to shade the true feelings of uncertainty in their craft. Either way, at least they’re creating, especially those like Nas who, by sheer force of will, created a hitless, but legendary record that makes an argument for minimalism in beats and contains poetry that truly rides through ear freeways like a cop car looking to prosecute the real criminals ("One Time 4 Your Mind").
1. Patti Smith: Horses
Personal Favorite: “Redondo Beach”
Summarizing Lyric: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine” (“Gloria”)
It’s been said, “Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not mine” is a brilliant way to open up an album, but never have I heard two lines that better sum up the angsty, yet poetic inner turmoil of an album and persona. To say Jesus didn’t die for my sins is freeing. No longer are you in debt to him; no longer must you behave and pray as payment for the sin thing. No, now you can break the chains and take on the voice of ravenous men, mourning lovers, desperate to please mothers, alien-seeing, Arthur Rimbaud-becoming boys–all voices trying to transcend. From choosing Velvet Underground legend John Cale as producer to the primitive sampling of lyrics and arrangements (“Gloria,” “Land”) to the mere mention of Rimbaud (“Land”) and quoting of Jimi Hendrix (“Elegie”), it’s obvious that Patti Smith is as much a fan of art as a creator of it. All these influences are artists who had transcended or were close to achieving transcendence and Smith seems to have looked to them as one would to Jesus, only these teachers did not demand loyalty. They wanted you to scream “We are not human,” (“Birdland”), place a blotch of red on a sandy beach and reveal the horrors we attempt to veil (“Redondo Beach”), beg fathers and boys, rock stars and poets, to take you with them up to the sea in the sky (“Birdland” and “Break It Up”). However, there are moments where transcendence seems impossible and costly. To transcend and enter the ship she’d have to leave baby Kimberly, she’d have to see friends on the same quest die (“Elegie”), and transcendence might reveal itself as simple reality. At the end of every high, every hardship, everything, all we see is the man on the sheets dance to those simple rock songs (“Land”), so why try and transcend? When “All the fire is frozen, yet [you] still have the will,” what is the will for? By ending with these questions, maybe Smith is saying transcending is as futile as staying tethered, but it sure is cooler to live a futile life in spaceships than Earth.
One Sentence Lesson: Nas felt like he could be great, Patti Smith believed she could transcend–to realize these things is wonderful, but realized potential can also be quite debilitating and it can put a stop to the pursuit of greatness out of sheer fear that the greatness won't be achieved, so the best option may just be to shrug the heavy feelings of not reaching your full potential off with some silly noises like Regina Spektor does with many feelings that are not necessarily happy.