Through A Note Darkly: Public Enemy, Pixies, Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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. Elvis Costello and The AttractionsThis Year's Model (1978)

Personal Favorite: “Radio Radio”

Summarizing Lyric: “Everybody is going through the motions. Are you really only going through the motions?” off of “Lip Service”

Elvis Costello’s lyrics on This Year's Model annoyed me at first. I thought most of them were intricate ways of talking about masturbation (“Pump it up, when you don’t really need it,” “‘Have you been a good boy, never played with your toy?’”), and some of them are, but then I realized the reason for them. This Year's Model is summed up perfectly as an album from the perspective of an observant outsider by its cover art (Elvis Costello behind the camera, eyeing you instead of the viewfinder because you’re the subject) and the raucous opening that is “No Action” where Costello immediately maroons himself on an island far from the sex-crazed, drug-fueled, celebrity-packed parties he was probably invited to after the success of My Aim Is True with his lone singing of “I don’t want to kiss you. I don’t want to touch.” Then The Attractions come in, and they shoot Costello off of the island and onto a brown planet with a camera far from Earth with their messy, but leashed speed kept in time by Pete Thomas’s sensational drumming. All this is great, but the lyrics bothered me until I got to “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”, a scathing critique of society’s treatment of expired celebrities (particularly women). The brilliance in something like “Capital punishment, she's last year's model. They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie,” gives a reason for Costello’s artsy descriptions of heartbreak and masturbation–they highlight the type of character he was looking through the eyes of while writing the album, a guy who left the popular crowd out of disgust in their treatment of people (“This Year’s Girl”), disgust in their bandwagoning nature (“Night Rally”), and disgust in their willful relinquishing of their own ideas to be part of the crowd (“Radio Radio”). But becoming an outsider employs inevitable heartbreak and loneliness (two recurring themes in the album), so the question is, is the isolation really worth making This Year's Model-worthy observations?

2. Public EnemyIt Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)

Personal Favorite: “Louder than a Bomb”

Summarizing Lyric: “A lot of daytime radio scared of us, because they too ignorant to understand the lyrics of the truth that we pumping into them clogged up brain cells” off of  “Don’t Believe the Hype”

My mother had Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tupac, and every other popular rapper in the 90s and early 2000s playing on a loop, so, just like kids who grow up listening to Paul Anka be played on a loop by their lame parents, I thought rap wasn’t that cool. It wasn’t until last year that the combined forces of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton got me interested in rap as something more than what my mother enjoyed listening to, as something that provides a voice to people often stripped of their voice through federal laws fueled by ongoing racism. To Pimp A Butterfly riled me up, gave me a perspective on race I needed at a very tumultuous time for race relations in the United States, and the praise I heard from people about Public Enemy as great artists and activists, not to mention the key role of “Fight The Power” in what is possibly the greatest movie dealing with race relations (Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing), made me expect the same mixture of hopeful frustration I felt about the current political system that To Pimp A Butterfly stirred. I love It Takes A Nation as a collage of sounds with its hundreds of samples from speeches and other songs (including one from Slayer, awesome!), and there are moments of that furious brilliance I expected from Chuck D (all of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” lyrics like “Cause every brother mans life is like swingin' the dice, right?” off of “Louder than a Bomb”), but a majority of the album feels like D defending words he’s already said instead of getting radio stations and officers on their toes again. I think if I hadn’t heard the more poignant To Pimp A Butterfly my feelings would be different, but that only shows that hip hop has been evolving, sometimes dipping into the stereotypical misogyny and cockiness associated with it, other times moving forward with nation-changing lyrics.

1. PixiesSurfer Rosa (1988)

Personal Favorite: “Cactus”

Summarizing Lyric: “Bloody your hands on a dress. Wipe it on your dress and send it to me.”

If you go to an open mic and watch a bunch of people do stand-up for free, you will see a newbie go up and say the most horrendously shocking jokes covering anything from rape, abortion, poop going in the wrong places, the list goes on and on. You will gasp when you hear the joke, but it is very rare that the gasp turns into an actual laugh. Surfer Rosa is one of those rare occasions where a newcomer said the most shocking things in the world to get a reaction and actually maintained attention after the reaction by adding Kim Deal (“Where Is My Mind?” is nothing without her howling), and Joey Santiago’s alien dissonance to the shock that is Black Francis and his blood-curdling, subversively honest lyrics.

When someone thinks of a singer/songwriter they think of somebody humming a tune with an acoustic, comparing the loss of love to being in an empty room. That innocent comparison is honest, but there is a whole other side to honesty that Black Francis explored in Surfer Rosa and other Pixies records that is not dissimilar to that of a comedian. People laugh with some discomfort when Louis C.K. talks about wanting to strangle his kids because they know they’ve felt like him, and I laughed with that same sense of danger when Black Francis’ imprisoned character asks a girl to bloody her hands on a cactus tree, “wipe it on your dress and send it to me.” Nobody has ever put obsessive, “I can’t live without you” love into those words, but such a violent depiction of romantic longing spoke volumes to me and a whole bunch of other weirdos who love the Pixies and did that weird sex joke at their first open mic.

One Sentence Lesson: Having a voice distant from the norm and feeling muted has lead to people putting together some groundbreaking works of art packed with brutal observations of the norm they felt left out of, but being left out can also lead to bitter loneliness, unchecked rage, and/or a trip to the psych ward.