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. The Smiths: The Smiths
Personal Favorite: “This Charming Man”
Summarizing Lyric: “It's time that the tale were told/Of how you took a child/And you made him old” (“Reel Around The Fountain”)
It’s not an easy listen, but the lives portrayed on this record weren’t easily lived. From having youth taken by someone who mounts whenever, but never says “‘take me to the safe haven of your bed,’” to being unable to meet the expected behavior of a male (“I could have been wild and I could have/Been free/But Nature played this trick on me… I'm not the man you think I am”) the grimy anxiety that oozes from Morrissey’s throat, the falsetto rage barely contained by the Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce-run rhythm section, the need to escape shining off of Marr’s dream sequence strings–it all makes sense. You’re supposed to feel as low and disturbed as Morrissey's voice on “Reel Around The Fountain,” as low and disturbed as a truly troubled youth. Although, the album does cheer up a bit as the kids get older, encounter “This Charming Man,” start defending their straying from an artificial norm (“Still Ill”), and even start flirting (“I Don’t Owe Me Anything”). The flirting is a little awkward, even creepy, but the kid who was stripped, not allowed to grow out of their youth, is at least learning, at least living. After ten tracks of grayish purple murk, you might find yourself anxious to escape the record, find something more smiley, but then “Suffer Little Children” comes on and you begin to crave all those grim feelings The Smiths put you through. Not only do you crave, but I became grateful for having been able to live through and grow out of “Reel Around The Fountain.” The victims of the Moors Murders will never be able to experience the uncomfortable puberty The Smiths put on tape, so go ahead and complain, it’s normal, but at least you’ll come away with memories of pimples and sexual confusion, at least you met that charming man and felt, for at least a second, how it felt to be called handsome.
2. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Personal Favorite: “Bluish”
Summarizing Lyric: “Sometimes I don't agree/With my thoughts on being free” (“Lion In A Coma”)
Blank sheet. Pen in hand. The same question surfaces above the sea of tangled ideas: remain or progress? Animal Collective’s catalog, packed with pop deconstruction, make their answer obvious (progress), but it's Merriweather Post Pavilion that gives artists an incentive to stop paying so many homages and start moving, the incentive being the record’s proof that popularity and innovation in the arts do not have to exist separately. “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” ask Panda Bear and Avey Tare on “Taste,” the question leaning towards a plead for “No” in tone because the band did not want to be all the things outside of them. They wanted to be their own thing. However, they do recognize the importance of history with the lyric “I know it sucks that daddy's dumb/But try to think of what you want....You got to weigh what he said/To help you shape the way you play.” There is speculation on whether or not “dumb” or “done” is said, but considering the prankster vibe I’m feeling from Animal Collective, I like to think “dumb” is said. It sucks that what’s been done before, what we have to build off of, is stupid, formulaic pop songs, but those stupid, formulaic pop songs worked and continue to work. If a new road is to be paved, those formulas have to be studied, riffed on, and then torn down. But what happens once it’s torn down? With a lyric like “From our window, two lanterns/draw signs on the night/And light our two shadows, I watch with delight/Will I want them to be who they will be/Or to be more like their dad?” (“Frightened”) depicting fear in being too controlling of a parent, it seems that Animal Collective had some paranoia becoming the pavers they became with this record. Perhaps people will stop innovating and start ripping them off for a couple decades, turn their sound into something lingered on instead of moved away from. Animal Collective themselves couldn’t keep from paying their own homages to The Beach Boys and the wave of psychedelia that came before them, but what makes this record so special in a nostalgia-obsessed world is you can tell they almost don’t want to pay homage. References seem to be a necessary nuisance in choosing positive progress.
1. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
Personal Favorite: “Living For The City”
Summarizing Lyric: “A writer takes his pen/to write the words again” (“All In Love Is Fair”)
As smooth as it is, the sequencing of Innervisions is troubling–a hidden bit of cynicism emanating from the ray of light that is Stevie Wonder. Side one lights a match with “Too High” and Wonder’s criticism of those who try to fly away from instead of face the problems on the ground, moves that match towards the fuse with “Visions” where Wonder takes a second to show us his vision of a land of milk and honey “Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands,” and lights the world on fire with “Living For The City” in which Wonder finally spits some fire both musically and vocally at the social injustice that he found himself and his home surrounded by. And then “Golden Lady” happens. The song is gorgeous, easy to listen to, and that’s what’s so concerning. We go from red-faced citizens ready to make change to little children with a crush so quickly. It’s kind of disappointing. “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” could have easily been remixed into a fiery follow-up to “Living For The City” considering the skewering lyrical content that could be applied to a number of politicians we have and will continue to see smudge the blue of the oval office, but it wasn’t. It comes at the end of the record and is arranged to sound like an uplifting spiritual more so than an urgent call to action. Lyrics like “When you say that he's living wrong/He'll tell you he knows he's living right/And you'd be a stronger man/If you took Misstra Know-It-All's advice” should piss you off, but whatever anger you might have is tempered by the sweet melody and passive piano lines. Instead of darting up from your seat to reach for that picket sign the way you did while listening to “Living For The City,” you stay swaying to the groove of another bad dude getting the throne. The juxtaposition between most of side one’s anger and most of side two’s passiveness might have been Wonder’s way of showing how he came to the conclusion that his vision was just that, a vision. People are too comfortable with seeing writers take their pens to write against evil to do anything about it.