Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
Personal Favorite: “Monkey Man”
Summarizing Lyric: “The blue light was my baby/and the red light was my mind” (“Love In Vain”)
Nobody on this record gets what they want. The people on “Gimme Shelter” may seem to get the shelter they were looking for once they announce their idea of love being a kiss away, but that’s all it is, an idea. Mick Jagger belts the words to bring the song to a close, an action that may be interpreted as him celebrating the conclusion he has come to, but the record moves on to prove that love isn’t just a kiss away, that his belting was less of a celebration and more of him trying to convince himself that his idea is true. “Gimme Shelter” as a closing track would make for an album with a happy ending, but Let It Bleed looks beyond the happily ever after, beyond the happy endings the flower power 60s sprouted from to brace itself for the darkness to come at the close of the decade. Love becomes a brutal feeding frenzy on “Let It Bleed,” fun rock n’ roll shows turn cold under the control of the murderous “Midnight Rambler,” but the overarching message of Let It Bleed seems to be that the happy ending having hints of a frown is not a bad thing. In fact, the reality of life not being all smiles is what should be celebrated, not the fantasy of love being a kiss away. With their last two tracks The Rolling Stones say, “Yes, I am a person and that comes with some ugly traits, but you're a person too, so let's be imperfect together” (“Monkey Man”), and “No, our lives didn't turn out the way we wanted them to, but at least it turned into something” (“You Can't Always Get What You Want”). It's not a cynical ending. It's more mature than that. It smiles at the face of imperfection and says “I love you for bleeding too.”
2. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
Personal Favorite: “Youth”
Summarizing Lyric: “Take only what you need from it” (“Kids”)
Self-awareness frustrates me, and I believe that frustration will only grow as more years land on the back of this young species. I have been in the middle of making a mistake, become aware of the mistake I’m making, and have followed through with it anyways; we have lived long enough to see that history repeats itself, seen enough to know which parts of history we don’t want repeated, but we let all of it, even the ugly bits, repeat anyways. While I sit here seething at personal and universal lack of growth, however, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular bops its head, dancing with and poking fun at the inevitable repetition of history despite the presence of self-awareness. The record begins with “Time to Pretend,” a song about becoming a rockstar that uses cliche lines such as “This is our decision: to live fast and die young,” but uses them knowingly. MGMT knows that “rockstar” is a role that requires the glorification of youth, a “Party all night” attitude, and a downfall. This knowing is what makes MGMT different from the rockstars that came before them. MGMT had the luxury of watching their heroes' Behind The Music; they knew that rock stardom entailed choking on vomit, and yet they still wanted to make the same mistakes. “Time To Pretend” is delivered with a hint of a smirk that says “we’re not really going to go through with this,” but that smirk slowly grows into a dead serious invitation of history’s repetition as the album goes on to pay homage and eventually become the rockstars that came before it by getting the band’s early singles out (“Electric Feel,” “Kids”), experimenting with different genres in hopes of being seen as mature (psychedelic “4th Dimensional Transition,” acoustic based “Pieces of What”), and getting in that end of song breakdown for a tired out crowd to emote to (“Of Moons, Birds, & Monsters”), but then MGMT reminds you of how young they are. They ran the course of the rockstar in 8 tracks without the “sell out” record deal seen on “The Handshake.” This seems to suggest that with all of history repeated so early, MGMT can move on and make new mistakes, give the future a different behavior to repeat. Much like this record doesn’t look too different from its predecessors, the new, synth-driven mistakes won’t make the future look too different (“It was the future reflected/It felt familiar but new”), but at least it’s new. We’ll always be wishing we appreciated our youth, “The rush of blood and the washed out beat of the shore,” more while we were in it, but at least we’re regretting to a different tune.
1. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin
Personal Favorite: “Sleeping On The Roof”
Summarizing Lyric: “Cause in reality there was no reaction” (“The Spark That Bled”)
When I first heard the name The Flaming Lips I thought they would be an emo, Suicide Season-era BMTH type band, so I didn’t give them a listen seeing as I was on my way out of that phase in my adolescence. Then I saw Wayne Coyne on a snippet from Fallon, saw his rugged good looks and slim gray suit, and thought “Oh, maybe they’re more of a hypersexual, but insecure Rolling Stones type group.” A year later and here I am, trying hard to keep my jaw from dropping and disrupting the quiet in this library with a thump. The unidentifiable, utterly unique soundscapes and Wayne Coyne’s wavering, barely standing, but confident voice–I’m obsessed. This defying of expectation is fitting considering I listened to The Soft Bulletin, a record that both grapples with and personifies expectations not being met. Yes, “Love is the greatest thing a heart can know,” and you expect that great thing to stay. Whether it’s your first or fifty first go around at love, a part of me expects it to last, but even the greatest things suffer (or perhaps benefit) from impermanence, and that fact is why “the hole that [love] leaves in its absence can [and probably will] make you feel so low” (“The Spiderbite Song”). Yes, being a good, innovative person that is “forging for the future” is a great, humane thing to do, but it comes with consequences that may seem unfair–suffering, incredible sacrifice, “Theirs is to win/if it kills them” (“Race for the Prize”). Love and good are not all that they are cut out to be. They betray your expectations with their consequences and their reality: love is a bug that will eventually be a minute splatter on your windshield (“Buggin’”) and innovation may be “all the rage… all the fashion” for one second, but “the outreached hands” will eventually notice they were holding “onto something they never had,” this idea of an idea that was better than the actual idea (“The Spark That Bled”). The Flaming Lips, however, don’t cower from this reality the way the gothic blues band I expected them to be might’ve. No, they go against the expected reaction to their realizations of love and innovation and sometimes smile through their instrumentation, (“A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”) sometimes ponder (start “The Spark That Bled”), and sometimes headbang (bridge sections of “The Spark That Bled”). They do not submit to disappointment. The Soft Bulletin says, “Fuck it, I’m gonna be disappointed so I might as well have fun before I do,” hence the sleeping on the roofs, the slim grey suit, the Miley Cyrus collaborations.