Through A Note Darkly: Either/Or, #1 Record, Nothing's Shocking

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. Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking

Personal Favorite: “Jane Says”

Summarizing Lyrics: “I'm thinking about power… And I'm pissing on myself” off of “Standing In The Shower… Thinking”

                                  "Mountain Song" Music Video

I tend to interpret shock as verbal makeup, a sort of defense mechanism used to hide true opinions or feelings by pointing at something else and saying “Isn’t that shit fucking crazy!” so when I first saw this album cover and heard it’s social commentary title, Nothing's Shocking, I wondered what Jane’s Addiction was trying to hide when they put out the record. Turns out they were hiding feelings of being too fragile to take the world’s punches (“Ocean Size” and “Standing in the Shower… Thinking”), a desire for pastoral romance (“Summertime Rolls”), the psychological impact of having a father turn around and disappear (“Had A Dad”), and feelings of empathy (“Jane’s Song”) behind those burning twins, but the fascinating thing is how little effort they put into hiding the cries for help in the album. If Jane’s Addiction were a black metal band, any truths would be buried underneath hails for satan, and if they were a competing L.A. band at the time, Guns N’ Roses, truths would be buried underneath hails for sex, but Nothing's Shocking lies somewhere in between these two examples and that in betweenness was achieved by a strange folkiness (probably due to a love of Led Zeppelin's folky side). For example, “Mountain Song,” a song I picked up during my Guitar Hero days because of the thrash chugging and Johnny Rotten sounding singer, has an acoustic panned towards the left during the  instrumental section after each chorus. There is acoustic on other parts of the record, but they are used in a “Battery”-like fashion. To hear “Mountain Song,” a song that made everyone in the music video  for it go as crazy as they did, be grounded by an acoustic is genius and more shocking than Perry Farrell’s repetition of “sex is violence.” How “Summertime Rolls” is on this album is beyond me, but it’s there and it works sonically. The quiet moments that peek through the solos and idiot-rallying lyrics are the true shockers on Nothing's Shocking, shockers that make this album timeless in a world that grows more desensitized to actual horrors with every passing decade.

2. Elliott Smith: Either/Or

Personal Favorite: “Pictures of Me”

Summarizing Lyrics: “It’s just a brief smile crossing your face” off of “Speed Trials”

“I just hope I don't get more from this than you do,” sings Bo Burnham near the start of Make Happy. It’s a line that should be tagged onto overemotional albums as a warning sticker for escapists and as an invitation to catharsis seekers: WARNING: ARTIST MAY GET MORE OUT OF THIS THAN YOUEither/Or is worthy of such a sticker. The lyric “You're such a pinball… There's always something you go back running to, to follow the path of no resistance,” off of “Speed Trials” is a brutal case of self-awareness that sounds like the narrator admitting to himself that the sadness he walks around is self-manufactured, but he refuses to turn the frown upside down because 1. the darkness has become too comfortable and 2. the smile would be as fleeting as the frown. The knowledge of life’s ultimate brevity, ultimate meaninglessness–ideas presented by the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, who originally used “Either/Or" as a book title–is the layer that prevents Smith from crossing that fine line of emotional songs and whiny songs. His endless exploration of a dim street is not without reason, it is not a gimmick–it is all one aware of life’s ultimate meaningless can really do sometimes. This is why one of the most subversively celebratory vocal deliveries on the album comes during the saddest track, “No Name No. 5,” “Everybody’s gone at last.” You can almost feel Smith’s lips reluctantly curve into a quarter smile as he sings the lyric, feels the relief of a world empty of the people who imbue it with evidence-less meaning. After deeper dives into the gray waters of Smith’s self-reflection, dives that give us beauties like “Between the Bars” and lyrics like “When they clean the street, I'll be the only shit that's left behind,” “Say Yes,” the happy ending, comes on, but is it happy? I find it to be the most terrifying track in that the narrator loses his awareness of meaninglessness and gains hope because a girl stuck around the morning after and made him smile, but, as he said at the beginning of the album, “it’s just a brief smile crossing your face.” The moment she leaves, a moment we don’t hear on the album but can feel coming after hearing a slew of sad tracks, the narrator will fall back into a self-aware cycle of self-destruction and “Speed Trials” will come along again.

P.S. Check out this essay for a deeper analysis of connections between Smith’s Either/Or and Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

1. Big Star: #1 Record

Personal Favorite: “Thirteen”

Summarizing Lyric: “It's okay to look outside, the day it will abide” off of “Watch the Sunshine”

The best pop songs often make difficult situations digestible by burying them underneath catchy melodies and layers of production choices (crisis of faith in “Like A Prayer”). I personally prefer music that makes difficult situations harder to swallow through soul-baring lyrics that mingle with minor chords, so hard that I have to spit them out, look at the drool-drenched anxious sorrows, and think about them for awhile. Building that middle ground where escapists and catharsis seekers can meet to enjoy the same music is a task I thought only “Creep” and a few Weezer songs pulled off, but of all the records I’ve listened to so far, Big Star’s #1 Record provides a nearly perfect happy medium between doing everything possible to avoid showing any emotions too difficult for the radio and doing everything possible to make listeners feel every shitty thing they ever felt. Big Star did this through sequencing, letting the songs move you through the deepest valleys and highest peaks of a star. “Feel” builds up to its first lyrics in a bluesy, almost Guns N’ Roses fashion and even starts with a girl obsessed lyric, “Girlfriend, what are you doing?” Representative of the album, this lyric and the song’s celebratory arrangement of horns and riff-driven guitars proves to be a set-up for the punchline that is the darkness revealed by the graveyard harmonies layered over Alex Chilton’s repetition of “I feel like I’m dying.” As “Feel” sinks, “The Ballad of El Gordo” holds the listener's head under the water, only letting us up for air at the defiant chorus, “ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ‘round.”  You are forced to feel the uneasiness felt by the youth in the midst of a draft, and the same can be said for the rest of the album. Whether it’s the upbeat car song “In the Street,” the painfully nostalgic “Thirteen,” or Chris Bell’s uphill battle to please a God-figure on “Try Again,” every youthful moment of joint-driven happiness, schoolboy butterflies, and a need to please is felt comfortably, never forced and never hidden.

One Sentence Lesson: The nakedness in Either/Or is not for everybody, the layers of loud guitars in Nothing's Shocking is not for everybody, the universality of #1 Record is not for everybody, nothing artistic can be made for everybody, so instead of getting fans, why not aim to please the first and only fan that'll really matter in the end, yourself.