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. Björk: Homogenic
Personal Favorite: "Unravel"
Summarizing Lyric: "All these accidents that happen follow the dot" off of "Jóga"
I’m gonna do something risky and try to sound like I understand science. Homogenic means, according to Merriam-Webster, having only one allele of a gene or genes. An allele is an alternative form of a gene usually accompanied by another form, but being homogenic means not having this alternative. Not having this alternative means being as perfect as you can biologically be since there is no way for a gene to be represented in another way, no way for you to have your mother’s red hair instead of your dad’s brown hair. Now, in relating this definition to Björk’s album, 40+ minutes of an emotional and spiritual armageddon, I got the feeling that Björk was arguing there is no alternative allele to disorder. She begins her album with “Hunter,” a song containing the first set of pragmatic, borderline cynical lyrics scattered throughout the album, “I thought I could organize freedom. How Scandinavian of me.” To organize something is to ignore the fact of entropy, of all that is organized eventually falling into disorder. The arrangements on the album–classical, beautifully played strings being mixed with ugly, digitized beats–showcase music’s fall into this disorder, from thought-out symphonies to scatter-brained EDM. Björk’s occasional movement from English to Icelandic, along with her faltered shrieking on songs like “5 Years” and “Pluto,” add even more layers of disorder to the album whose title and cover–an off-putting mixture of Asian culture and an Icelandic visage containing music for American ears–argues it is universal because of how unafraid of disorder it is. But the ending. “All Is Full Of Love,” like the almost ironically poppy “Alarm Call,” does not really fit with the hopelessness of the album, and that is exactly why it fits. The closing track reassures us of love being out there, and nothing is more human, more universal, than holding onto hope despite knowing how hopeless you are to slowly falling apart.
2. Morrissey: Viva Hate
Personal Favorite: "Late Night, Maudlin Street"
Summarizing Lyric: "'How I Dearly Wish I Was Not Here' In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb" off of "Everyday Is Like Sunday
Viva hate, how could someone celebrate such a dangerous emotion without promoting it? I wondered. Morrissey (how could I ever doubt you?) pulled it off by treating hatred as what it truly is, a tool of an emotion that can both mask and showcase true feelings. On “Alsatian Cousin,” Morrissey does what he does best and explores schoolboy emotions, this time creating the character of a spiteful schoolboy for us to look inside and see that this spiteful schoolboy is actually just lovesick and jealous of the boy in a tweed jacket who his crush wrote a note to that read, “P.S. Bring me home and have me.” After such a discovery, “My infatuation is infatuated by another!” a schoolboy often grumbles down the hall for a couple kid-eternities, using hate to mask that he’s one of the boys with a thorn on his side. On “Suedehead,” Morrissey reverses the role of hatred in “Alsatian Cousin” as makeup hiding pain and turns it into the water that washes off some makeup. The song has Morrissey asking an all too familiar question, “Why do you come here when you know it makes things hard for me?” Such a question is verbally published when someone can’t let go, forced to constantly apologize for hanging around, sending text after text, until they finally have a reason to let go, that reason being hate. In “Suedehead,” the person who can’t let go reads their obsession’s diary and sees that they weren’t their obsession obsession (“Oh so many illustrations”). How sickening it feels to find out the world you orbit doesn’t orbit you too. Sickened, Morrissey’s character realizes that his obsession was nothing more than “a good lay.” This realization is accompanied with the sound of a waterfall dripping through the mix, washing away the lust disguised as love, as it fades into the next track, “Break Up the Family,” another celebration of hate as a catalyst for moving on from comfort (“home late, full of Hate, despise the ties that bind. Oh I'm so glad to grow older”). Nothing on the album is more hate-fueled and borderline concerning than the album’s closer, “Margaret on a Guillotine,” but such a track is necessary to see another positive aspect of hate. Tempered and directed hate for a system can and has lead to the formations of groups fighting for a society empty of systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, animal abuse, everything; so, to a degree, I agree. Viva hate!
1. Lou Reed: Transformer
Personal Favorite: "Walk on the Wild Side"
Summarizing Lyric: "It's a lonely Saturday night" off of "Goodnight Ladies"
From Watergate to The Godfather, 1972 is a year that still impacts us today, but just behind these meteoric impacts was an asteroid still gathering speed, glam. It’s a subculture Reed not only helped breakthrough by inspiring the glam icon that is David Bowie, but he also made an album that helped pump gas into its engine. What I wondered while listening was why. Reed didn’t have to choose Bowie and Mark Ronson as producers, he could’ve made another harmless nothing like his previous album, and yet he made Transformer, a record full of lyrics that sometimes complain about, other times poke fun at, oftentimes show love to the movement he helped the pavers pave. The reason his choice to further along the glam movement with Transformer strikes me just as much as the music does is the album’s closing lyrics on the off-kilter cabaret “Goodnight Ladies,” “Something tells me that you're really gone. You said we could be friends, but that's not what's not what I want. Ah, anyway, my TV-dinner's almost done. It's a lonely Saturday night.” Juxtapose this downcast closing with the acerbic ferocity in “Vicious” and you see the lifecycle of an outsider unable to handle being an outsider. To move into another group, in this case the New York drag and drug scene romanticized in “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day,” an outsider would have to hate their older one. Maybe Reed got tired of Warhol’s factory scene, figured it was time to move onto something new. I often get tired of a group of friends and start fading into another. Like Reed’s character seemed to do while walking through New York, I fall in love with the scene I fade into, but then I start hating that new scene for reasons unknown, mock them like Reed does in “New York Conversation.” At the end of the day, outsiders wind up in their natural habitat–not amongst a group of people that they’ll wind up growing contempt for, but alone on a Saturday night dealing with a feeling they try to make bearable with some cabaret music and a TV dinner. Transformation is often associated with growth, but the subtext of this record seems to argue that’s not really the case. The transformations present in Transformer are really just cycles of shapeshifting to fit in with a group, getting tired of that group, and off to the next one, all ways of running away from loneliness.
One Sentence Lesson: Fitting in can, and maybe even is, as essential to function as food is and these three lead singers who went solo show through their respective albums that ways to fit in range from ignoring hopelessness to creatively embracing hate to helping build a whole new subculture around yourself.