Through A Note Darkly: Discovery, Achtung Baby, Buffalo Springfield Again

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Daft Punk: Discovery

Personal Favorite: “Night Vision”

Summarizing Lyric: “I don't know what to do/About this dream and you” (“Digital Love”)

Discovery is an extrovert. It can talk to anyone at a party, will even go out of its way to get a more introverted person like me on the dance floor for at least one song, but it’s this “life of the party” personality that keeps me from really loving it. Also, because it is a record that’s influenced every other pop song and, therefore, every other person’s personality, it’s the record that’s kept me from really finding a foothold in this millennial generation.  Much like the 60s had “Free Love” as it’s slogan, the aughts seem to have “Love Yourself” as its slogan. I’d argue this record had a hand in that. It begins with a song that asks itself for more before giving itself a thing; the lyrics wear their heart on their sleeves by not obscuring teenage emotions with metaphors and whatnot; “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” takes the words of the powers that be trying to get you to work, to conform, and electronically twists their words into meaningless bleeps. The record exudes confidence, it screams “It’s okay to love yourself!” and that confidence has leaked into modern youth culture. Sure, millennials have their moments of introversion (“Face to Face,” “Night Vision”), but we are ultimately party people who dance to “One More Time” all night long.

A Discovery-inspired drawing

I personally haven't been able to buy into the whole “love yourself no matter what” sentiment, which plays a role in me not loving this record or most dance music. Dance music demands you to let go of your ego and insecurities and dance, but when I see a dance floor I think “No, I sweat too much.” Maybe if I had Daft Punk telling me to stop being neurotic about everything instead of Radiohead encouraging neuroses I’d be better at being a millennial, but maybe not being good at being a millennial is as close to being a good millennial as someone could get because what is a millennial? Introvert? Extrovert? Who knows? The screens have changed everything. Daft Punk’s ultimately puzzling record, front loaded with hits and back loaded with soundscapes, seems to embrace the clouded future. The record wonders “What’s going to happen to pop with all these new sounds? What’s going to happen to you with all that new tech?” and gives itself the answer, “Who cares? Let’s just love ourselves through it.”

Why #3?: It is artistic to front load with the hits, but the album might have benefitted from a more balanced tracking. To let side two be cluttered with the instrumentals instead of sprinkling them throughout the record to create a more sprawling effect might have been a mistake. Also, I'm still training my ear to understand dance music. All the songs feel way too long (except "Night Vision"), but I feel that way about almost every dance song so it's probably just a me thing.

2. Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again

Personal Favorite: “Broken Arrow”

Summarizing Lyric: “Truth is the shame/Yeah, too much pain” (“A Child’s Claim to Fame”)

There is a disturbing passiveness to this record. Every sound feels miles away, every point is buried under the haze of reverb, every eye and ear allows itself to be distracted by the pretty promises and sounds of love, a stage, the American Dream instead of facing the truth, acknowledging the price of these distractions: a river bank, “crowded and narrow,” occupied by the “empty-quivered brown-skinned Indian.”

A Buffalo Springfield Again–inspired drawing

It was impossible not to think of the Dakota Access Pipeline situation when I reached the end of this record and heard Neil Young’s brilliant four-part epic, “Broken Arrow.” It explained why I felt so on edge throughout the record, why it’s dreamy effects caused by the aforementioned reverb and tangential sequencing made it feel more like a nightmare. I wanted to wake up, remain in the chorus of “Broken Arrow” where I could see the disenfranchised people waving hello, saying “I exist,” but it’s so much easier to remain distracted. It’s easier to go on telling yourself the lie that everything will be fine if you let it work itself out the way the characters in “A Child’s Claim to Fame” do; it’s easier to view time as something to be killed rather than cherished, to look at things but never really see those things the way the characters in “Everydays” do; it’s easier to get hooked into the driving rhythm of “Bluebird” than hear Stephen Stills say she’s flying away, to get lost in Young’s cloud of psychedelia and free love than hear him say the clouds are leaving with her.  Why? Because people need to believe they are good people. The idea that our way of living requires the marginalization of others is unbearable, so we get high on wedding dresses, grocery shopping, music, anything to avoid seeing the crowded river bank we are helping fill.

Why #2?: "Good Time Boy." It's a fun song, and the record needs a fun song at this point in the record, but it's the wrong fun song. It throws off the balance of the record and the record hurts the song as well since it was produced to sound like it belonged on the record. 

1. U2: Achtung Baby

Personal Favorite: “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”

Summarizing Lyric: “Ready to let go of the steering wheel/I'm ready, ready for the crush” (“Zoo Station”)

Achtung Baby is what happens when a cocksure group decides to stop turning away from their insecurities and start swallowing them. They feel how an insecurity can tickle the ceiling underneath visible skin and give goosebumps. The chills caused by anxiety are infectious, drug-like, and U2 seemed to want to pass the anxiety-laced joint to their audience.

An Achtung Baby–inspired drawing 

Of course, diving into the murky waters that fill a person’s emotional well is not exactly everybody’s idea of a good time, but Bono’s excitement to jump off the deep-end, to let go of the steering wheel and embrace a crash, gets us excited to jump into his well with him. It is in starting the record with the upbeat, but undeniably eerie “Zoo Station” that I see the brilliance of Achtung Baby. It announces how strange the record’s going to be, but it also promises a good time. U2 took what was done by Bowie on Low, The Cure on Disintegration, The Smiths on every record, and made it appealing to the masses as evidenced by its #1 chart positions and singles more recognizable to most modern ears than “Pictures of You.” “Zoo Station” is what allowed for the pop success, it give the record a rhetoric that persuades you to listen to Bono’s struggles with being an artist (“No new ideas in the house and every book has been read” [“Acrobat”]), with succumbing to self-destruction and realizing the mortality of love (“I wanna get it wrong/Can't always be strong/And love it won't be long” [“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”]), and even with accepting the ultimate uselessness of his efforts to change the world (“And a woman needs a man/Like a fish needs a bicycle/When you're tryin' to throw your arms around the world”). The Edge’s promise to keep Bono’s feelings entertaining with sweeping guitar effects that frame even the most boring scenes on Achtung Baby in an unexpected, electronic, almost Kubrickesque way also lends to the hyper-emotional record’s success. U2 treated personal feelings with the same larger-than-life mentality they treated their “let’s save the world” ideology with, and that had been done by the similarly epic in scope Disintegration, but U2 has Bono, and Bono is not one to stay away from the mic for too long. His confidence helped turn U2’s insecurities into profitable pop, a massive feat few artists at U2’s level achieve.

Why #1?: The record pulls of its arena rock moments while maintaining a relationship with the listener through the lyrics. When the record soars, it makes sure to put you on its back so that you can soar too. The record has those major singles, but they do not overpower the record the way the singles on Discovery do. Every song is great because every song works with the tracks surrounding it.