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. R.E.M: Automatic for the People
Personal Favorite: “Man on the Moon”
Summarizing Lyric: “We're closer now than light years to go” (“Find the River”)
Like a hand raisined with the waters of time, Automatic for the People seizes you by the shoulders and turns you around to reveal a face cluttered with abysses ready to give you the usual, but worthwhile advice that is “Enjoy your youth.”
The record kicks off with the repetition of “Hey kids, where are you?/Nobody tells you what to do,” and “Hey kids, rock and roll/Nobody tells you where to go,” the first lyric possibly addressing children trying to grow up too fast and the second being the advice to stop and just enjoy your life while you have time to enjoy it without real things like bills and arthritis telling you what to do. However, the bitter tone evoked by the instrumentation and Michael Stipe’s delivery might suggest that this advice giver knows that experiencing youth is ultimately futile. Whether you enjoy your childhood more than the kid across the street doesn’t really matter because your both gonna end up being another cog in the wheel that keeps "Ignoreland" running. “Ignoreland,” by the way, very much reminds me of conversations with older folk who can go from delivering this mystical wisdom to going on a rant about some of the political shit they lived through. “Star Me, Kitten” has the similar tangential feel, but about a lover whose effect never left their head. By the time we reach the final three tracks the elder is back on track and telling us his love of the fairly obscure celebrity that was Andy Kaufman, a true lover of not giving a fuck. “Man on the Moon” is a fitting introduction to the final two nostalgia-packed songs where we hear Stipe’s character long for the days of skinny dipping at night (“Nightswimming”) and hate the current bringing him into the eternal ocean that is death (“Find The River”). In those two final songs you hear a character who wished he was more like Andy Kaufman, and it is only in the final lyrics that they become Andy Kaufman and stop caring that life is ending constantly (“All of this is coming your way”). In summary, “Enjoy being young and become Kaufman as you age,” says the strange old man that is Automatic for the People.
Why #3?: There are times on this record when R.E.M. tries to get precious the way The Smiths did ("Everybody Hurts," "Nightswimming"), but these precious moments clash with the tracks that poke fun at precious lyrics ("The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite," "Star Me Kitten"). There almost seems to be an insecurity with how emotional the songs got, so jokes were added as a deflection. The deflection very well may have been done on purpose (that would be very Kaufman-esque), but it didn't click with me the way The Smiths mixture of comedy and sensitivity does. Stipe also sounds angry enough to hit someone whereas Morrissey never did. Morrissey (song-wise) alienates with too many tears, Stipe does with too many barks. I prefer the tears.
2. The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat
Personal Favorite: “White Light/White Heat”
Summarizing Lyric: “Waldo Jeffers head… split slightly and caused little rhythmic arcs of red to pulsate gently in the morning sun.” (“The Gift”)
If you’re sober while listening, White Light/White Heat will pluck your polished brain right out of your head and replace it with a singed mind twitching from the speed it just ate.
Because this brain’s been in the dark for so long, all it can see when the eyes hooked up to it are opened is the blinding light of surgical lamps, all it can feel when someone touches the skin attached to its nerves is the unearthly heat of a white flame. In other words, everything becomes an extremity (not unlike the 60s). A story of a naive boy’s love being unreturned becomes a horror story where a head is slashed in half, Lady Godiva becomes a transexual woman put to death because of a botched surgery, the call of your name becomes a proclamation of love and you become obsessed, even an orgy loses all taboo in comparison to the steampunk circus fuck party that is “Sister Ray.” As “Sister Ray” came to what I thought was its close (there were actually seven more minutes left), I was reminded of my experience watching The Wolf of Wall Street. Like the movie, White Light/White Heat spotlights the most extreme way to live a life for an extremely long time so that you’re left craving moderation. The problem with the movie and this record, however, is they’re too good to not come back to. Even the meandering moments are impossible to nod off to, and maybe that’s the ultimate statement of the record. As boring as you think they should get, the extremes that are drugs, sex, love, obsession with blood, they all remain too entertaining to run away from easily.
Why #2?: This was my favorite record of the three on this week's list and I thought it would be a shoe in for number one, but then it had me asking the question of what is really valued about a record, listenability or artistry. The record works as a piece, but a piece that makes itself difficult to revisit for more casual music fans. I think the best records are the ones that work as a piece, but are also somewhat detachable in the sense that a couple of the songs could be taken out and work in a playlist. White Light/White Heat does not open itself up to such customization. IN other words, too good of an artpiece. Never thought that would be a problem...
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell
Personal Favorite: “Y-Control”
Summarizing Lyric: “flesh ripped off, RAWR!” (“Rich”)
With it’s gargantuan drums, heavier than caskets guitar sound, and vocals amplified by a lighting-packed cloud, I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing this record a disservice by not listening to it in a room covered in colorful, but still emo posters. Side one of the album is the colorful part. It demands to be jumped along to and I was happy to give in to its demands. I don’t know if it would be taken as a compliment, but I do mean it as one: I felt like I had been listening to side one of this album for most of my life. My body just instinctively knew when the drops were gonna come, when the 21st century duwops (manic screeching) would become a chorus. In fact, the whole record fit like a glove.
Just as I was getting tired from the internal moshing, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs settled down with me to reveal why I was moshing in the first place. All the frustrated jumping and vocal lacerations were a cover for the insecurity that follows falling in love alone. In “Maps,” we hear the lightning-packed cloud that amplified Karen O’s voice drop the held back rain and reach out to someone already leaving. In “Y Control” it’s revealed that the love was left unseen, unrequited, “so all my lovin' goes/under the fog,” and she feels stupid for having “believed them all,” the myth of love and its control on a beloved. Then “Modern Romance” arrives. It's at this point in the record that the shock of the color on the cover wears off and you see the underlying emo aesthetic–a girl who had to be attached to strings to become the rockstar she wanted to be. The strings are, maybe, controlled by the hands of love’s Hurt, a being which led to the cynical lyrics “Don't hold on/Go get strong/or don't you know/there's no modern romance.“ But then the strings change the girl’s pose, have her saying “well I may be just a fool/but I know were just as cool/and cool kids they belong together” so that she could start the cycle again (“Poor Song”). It’s the cycle of the teenage romantic–go after the cool kid, rock out to side one, fall into side two hurt all over again, repeat.
Why #1?: Fever to Tell works both as a cohesive piece, but the songs are also playlist-friendly. I read one review that critiqued the sequencing, but I think the choice to go with a Big Star #1 Record-type sequencing was brilliant in telling the story they were trying to tell. I didn't think this would beat out the two classics above considering it definitely took something from them (especially The Velvet Underground messiness), but this seems to be a case where the sequel wasn't derivative, just progressive.