Through A Note Darkly: The Boatman's Call, Damn the Torpedoes, Dig Me Out

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on 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. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out

Personal Favorite: “Little Babies”

Summarizing Lyric: “I make rock n’ roll” (“It’s Enough”)

With it’s clap-along choruses, dance-to-me riffs, and a pleasurable dose of dee dee’s and dum dum’s, Dig Me Out feels a couple harmonies and a bass guitar away from sounding like an album by the band Weezer looks like they’re gonna be at the start of the “Buddy Holly” music video.

But Dig Me Out is a Sleater-Kinney record, a band with punk roots, and hearing the messiness and anger that fuels punk be infused with the usually polished production of the rock n’ roll records from the 50s and 60s was jarring at first. I was about to turn it off and try out another album because The Great Albums is about being fans, not critics, and there’s plenty of sites out there that trash music already, so why do it here? Ready to press play on a P.J. Harvey record, I remembered the immense pleasure I got and continue to get out of Sleater-Kinney’s debut record and figured the least I could do is get through Dig Me Out once. I did, and I did find side two more favorable, but Dig Me Out still wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. How plain ole rock n’ roll some of the songs felt, songs like “Dance Song ‘97,” “Words and Guitar,” and “Turn It On,” felt like a betrayal–how silly, right? It was then that I realized I was one of those fans Janet Weiss talked about on the Nerdist podcast, the fan who started hating them because they had “beats” and were growing as a band. Funny how the same thing that happened to people in ‘97 could happen to me 19 years later. I listened to the record again, and with the initial shock gone I was able to love it as much as I hoped I would. I have more appreciation for Sleater-Kinney as a band for having grown as much as they have from Sleater-Kinney to No Cities to Love. Instead of continuing to secrete the Sonic Youth-inspired ooze I loved so much, Sleater-Kinney polished it up with a little Tom Petty “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” ideology without losing their attitude. You can’t make create something like “Little Babies” without being pissed off, but Sleater-Kinney learned to harness that rage a bit, make it catchier. It just goes to show there’s a lot of bad music out there, but there are a whole lot of bad audience members too.

2. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: The Boatman's Call

Personal Favorite: “West Country Girl”

Summarizing Lyric: “And I wish that I was made of stone/So that I would not have to see/A beauty impossible to define” (“Brompton Oratory”)

Looking at the world through a glass half empty might leave one thinking the cruelest thing the world does to conscious beings is pleasure. Why? Because pleasure is a tease, a feeling that leaves and forces our shaking fists into the air above our heads as we scream, “Why give when you’re gonna take!” Having just felt the death of a marriage and rebound relationship, Nick Cave seemed to have his fist shaking in the air while writing the lyrics to The Boatman's Call, but it’s not just the world he blames.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He was a fool, praying to an interventionist God he didn’t believe in, buying into love and inviting her into his arms (“Into My Arms”). It seems sweet, but in the context of The Boatman's Call, “Into My Arms” is the saddest point in the album. Once I saw what Cave’s character ended up becoming, “A useless old fucker” with another prostitute (“Green Eyes”), I found myself calling to Cave’s character across the sea that separates 1997 him from 2016 me, telling him he didn’t really want her in his arms. Cave didn’t listen, and he didn’t listen to the boatman either. The illusory shelter that is a lime-tree arbour, the ecstasy felt while being under that shade with her–it blinded him, made the lime-tree bower his prison just like Coleridge’s character in the poem “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison.” The shade made my call indecipherable, made the people outside the shade seem like loons when really he was the loon. “There will always be suffering/It flows through life like water” croons Cave on “Lime-Tree Arbour,” showing that he knew of suffering’s nature, of ecstasy’s temporality, and yet he stayed “Down the lime-tree arbour.” And that’s when we, the boaters who know how it’ll end, leave and watch the Bad Seeds-scored scenes of immature love wilting; that’s when we promise to never fall for the promise of pleasure–promising until we’re under the lime-tree arbour ourselves.

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes

Personal Favorite: “Shadow of a Doubt"

Summarizing Lyric: “I just catch myself wondering, waiting, worrying/About some silly little things that don't add up to nothin” (“Here Comes My Girl”)

I didn’t go to prom or live in a small town, but listening to “Here Comes My Girl” made me feel like a character in one of those cheesy 80s movies where the guy watches his prom date walk down a staircase. I could see it so clearly–my eyes going wide, her lips curving shyly, but somehow confidently, her father eyeing me suspiciously, her mother taking pictures, and all the stress associated with feeling stuck in the small town fleeing with the naive thought, “Who cares? She’s all that matters.”

I’ve never actually been near any sort of rock bottom, but Listening to “Louisiana Rain”made me feel like I had lived a long enough life to reach that moment where everything, even the atmosphere, felt like it was falling on me. I could see myself seeing that “English refugee singing to the jukebox in some all-night beanery… eating pills like candy,” and having to make the choice of either living like him or realizing I didn’t have to.

Again, these things never happened, but the Damn the Torpedoes made me feel like they did. The immersive quality of the Damn the Torpedoes would have been impossible without the near perfection of the arrangements (every note matching the lyrical tone) and the perfection of the sequencing. Side one is all about being young, falling in and losing love for the first time, a loss so unbearable it is medicated with a trip to Los Angeles where the kid realizes being stuck in that small town with a tiny tear in the heart was not as stressful as big city living, but he had to stay. Side two shows all the side effects of the hurt felt on side one, from fear of being cheated on (“Don’t Do Me Like That”), to outright annoyance with the prospect of love (“What Are You Doin’ In My Life”). It’s a coming of age album that, in the end, felt like it went too fast. I found myself damning the speed of the album, damning the torpedo that is life, but the magic of music is you can hit replay and live the life again, so I did, again and again and again.

One Sentence Lesson: I wasn't an angry Sleater-Kinney fan in 1997, but Dig Me Out let me feel like one; I've been to and escaped the lime-tree arbour and The Boatman's Call let me see that happen again; I haven't experienced many of the events on the record, but Damn the Torpedoes made me feel like I did–maybe history repeats itself because we keep preserving it, making it seem like something worth repeating.