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. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
The Red Hot Chili Peppers fill a special place in my heart as the headlining band I saw at the Coachella I went to with my dad (I was a sixteen year old loner who needed the ride). We left with a contact high, red hot eyes, and an appreciation of RHCP as a live act, but I had never listened to one of their albums until now. I liked Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but the occasionally incoherent sequencing of Public Enemy-inspired protest rap, sex-driven funk, and borderline cafe singer-songwriter ballads showed me that RHCP is more of a singles band. With that said, I think the jumbled track listing on BSSM might be RHCP exploring the struggles of being real. “Power of Equality,” the well-intentioned album opener begging America to give peace “just a little power,” sets up the straightforward nature of RHCPs’ lyrics. The following track, “If You Have To Ask,” is both a wordy assault on the wanna be gangsters RHCP ended up spawning by spearheading the rap metal movement where Limp Bizkit and Korn reached the charts and an explanation for the straightforward lyrics. There is an obvious hatred of posers, and with hatred comes fear of being what you hate, a fear that led to the RHCP drugs, sex, and music lifestyle summed up by Anthony Kiedis’s lyric “My face will never show what is not real” off of “I Could Have Lied.” Leaving things up for grabs is not what rockstars do, so Kiedis doesn’t write many metaphors. Abandoning sexual desires is not what rockstars do, so instead of masking his horniness with composure, Kiedis begs a girl to suck his kiss. Sobering up instead of dwelling in loneliness is not what rockstars do, so “Under The Bridge” ends with Kiedis staying under the bridge with the needles. The benefit of keeping up a reputation is you get to have that reputation, but the negative is it’s difficult to shake. RHCP are the funky and sometimes teary-eyed dudes who deliver their sound consistently, but consistency is unnatural in a species defined by its contingency. Maybe that’s why RHCP isn’t held in as high regard as bands that fucked around with their sound like the Pixies or split up like The Beatles. Fucking around and early endings makes old stuff look great.
2. Frank Sinatra: In The Wee Small Hours
In The Wee Small Hours made me want to fall in love just so to fall out of it and use the album as a shoulder to cry with. The opening strings, piano melody, and Frank’s bemoaned crooning of “In the wee small hours of the morning, while the whole wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake and think about the girl and never think of counting sheep” perfectly sums up this early concept album's subject, a heartbroken fella alone in his obsession with something people don't care very much about (his ex) and who can move on, count sheep and fall asleep, but chooses to linger on her almost unconsciously. It’s exactly how I’ve felt after every break-up, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s felt that after listening to Frank's somber ninth album.
The details and emotions belted through Frank’s longing lips are sometimes so vague they become exact. For example, “when soft rains fall and drip from leaves... I recall the thrill of being sheltered in your arms” are incredibly universal and universality is expected from the pop music Frank helped proliferate in his time. Bo Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff” satirizes the unspecific, disingenuous lyrics in modern love songs with his own lyrics, “‘I love your hands 'cause your fingerprints are like no other. I love your eyes and their blueish brownish greenish color,’” but Frank’s voice quivers, like it’s holding back a tear, when he hits those signature-Sinatra notes. His emotions were raw coming off of his Ava Gardner split, but he sang these songs, lingered on the heartbreak because that’s what artists do. Sinatra explored and recorded his aching heart to give romantics something to cry into a pint of cookies-and-cream ice cream with after a bad breakup.
1. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
Prior to Daydream Nation the only thing I knew about Sonic Youth was “Kool Thing” because of Guitar Hero III, so I expected Kim Gordon’s speak-singing, semi-strange instrumentation, and unconventional feminism to carry all of Daydream Nation. Instead I got two extra singers, otherworldly instrumentation, and bits of feminism, but mostly surreal depictions of the drug-driven, tired-of-Reagan youth culture Sonic Youth was part of, and I loved every second of it. The feeling the album left me with was similar to that of The Velvet Underground and Nico, but the deliciously ear-splitting instrumented mental breakdowns, lyrics like “His mind a countdown, his daylight sparks” used to depict the frustrated rock n’ roll kids of the 80s, and the performance art-piece “Providence” not only showed me the life Sonic Youth lived, it made me feel like I lived it. When the songs fell off the stability provided by Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley’s rhythm, mutated into a mechanized hell where Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitar playing provides the soundtrack, I also broke down. The band tapped into the sound of self-destruction, a sound still being played today.
It’s hard to hear lyrics like “I look into the hate. It made me feel very up to date” and not think about outraged SJWs or Leslie Jones trolls, or “Cop killin heartbeat. Head's lookin down. Bowin out to the street” and not think about cop killings, not feel like nothing has really changed since ‘88, ‘63, ‘64, ‘57, ‘52. Candles are often associated with impermanence, but Gerhard Richter’s candle on the cover of Daydream Nation is unwavering, perpetual, just like the relevance of trolls and cop killing, just like the daydream nation itself. Even Joni in “Hey Joni,” who is convinced by Ranaldo to blow the candle of the past and future, let go of worry with the help narcotic smoke, ends up worrying about the present, “thinking long and hard about that high wild sound and wondering will it last,” proving that self-destruction offers no solace. Millennials aren’t as burnt out as Sonic Youth’s generation or as bored as The Ramones generation, but they are daydreaming about a better world full of political correctness and Bernie Sanders politicians. Difference is, instead of trying to forget about the seeming unreachability of that future like Reagan kids, they're trying to turn the daydreams into a reality. Good or bad, I don't know, but the cynic in me wonders whether or not pursuing daydreams is as self-destructive as driving them away like Joni did.
One Sentence Lesson: Even the most well-intentioned, well-executed actions can inspire unwanted results, from RHCP's BSSM helping birth Limp Bizkit, Frank Sinatra's use of universal descriptions of love leading to the money-grubbing love songs on the radio, and the Sonic Youth generation of slackers and junkies making millennials feel the need to pick up the pace with some activism and MDMA-fueled raves.