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. Suicide: Suicide
Personal Favorite: “Che”
Summarizing Lyric: “Gonna crash/Gonna die/And I don't care” (“Rocket USA”)
Grease is one of my favorite musicals for multiple reasons, the main one being it found its way to me at that age of puberty where sexuality and shame tangoed across my body. The movie has a glistening coat of clean 50’s fun, but that coat is thin. It can hardly hide the darkness surrounding the “Summer Lovin’” lyric “Tell me more, tell me more/Did she put up a fight?” and it makes it difficult for the world, including its males, to not want Kenickie in the back of their car for a night. The glossy theatricality of the movie is at odds with the dingy consequences of the 50s and it's enforced sexual cleanliness. This tension keeps me coming back to it, but Suicide have given me another work of art to satisfy my attraction to the sexual repression seen in the 50s. Instead of trying to hide underneath the 50s cliches of greasers on motorcycles and names like Johnny, Cheree, and Frankie, the album reveals them for what they truly are. The greasers are Ghost Riders trying to save the U.S.A. from its inhuman promotion of no sex, “Rocket USA” shows the teenage explosion that occurs when lust takes hold of a mind who’s coming to realize it will die “Gonna crash/Gonna die/And I don't care,” “Cheree” and “Girl” sound like skeletons trying to seduce you (and it works!), and “Johnny” and “Frankie Teardrop” tackle the hypocrisy caused by the 50s trying to be so clean (Johnny promotes brutish male tendencies, but he really just wants some summer cuddlin’ [“He’s looking so mean he’s feeling so tough… He’s cruising the night looking for love”] and Frankie Teardrop, living in an America where toothy ads say nothing can go wrong, is cheered on by society [“Oh, let’s hear it for Frankie”] in his descent to insanity, a descent caused by the toothy ads being wrong: “Frankie can't make enough money/Frankie can't buy enough food/And Frankie's getting evicted.”) Martin Rev and Alan Vega, with blessed-by-the-Grim Reaper drum machines and keys, took the American 50s and showcased it in the hell it tried so hard to stay away from.
2. Mac DeMarco: 2
Personal Favorite: “My Kind of Woman”
Summarizing Lyric: “When life moves this slowly/Just try and let it go” (“Cooking Up Something Good”)
I’m lying down on this couch, recovering from a bout of giggling at some stupid video on YouTube. I click on another video, but the WiFi betrays me. I’m left staring at a circle of dots eating and birthing each other for what seems like an eternity plus a couple years. Without the jump cuts and mind-numbing hosts, I become aware of the candy wrapper fence I’ve enclosed my ballooning body within, become aware of the fact that this is my mother’s couch, become aware of how little I’ve moved and how little I care to. Like the candy wrappers once suffocated candy, all this awareness suffocates me. I’m about to want to die when *sniff* *sniff* mom’s making dinner. Mac DeMarco’s 2 inhabits those two sniffs. Just when you are about to get depressed over how uneventful your life is, about to sink into the dissonance heard in the “Cooking Up Something Good” chorus, DeMarco pulls you up with a brief bluesy hammer-on to say “Hey, it’s okay. There may be nothing to do, but at least there’s nothing to do, right? And you're getting a home-cooked meal. Life’s good.” This tug-of-war between being sad about how boring a life is and being relieved by it is seen throughout the record. A boring life is free of responsibility, free of a job. Not having a job might freak out the mom who bought the couch you’re lying on, and it should freak you out too, but you can’t deny that part of you who says, “Really, I'm fine/Never been better, got no job on the line” (Freaking Out The Neighborhood”). In a world, or at least a majority of the Western half, where lack of ambition and happiness in paralysis is seen as freakish, DeMarco asks, “But wait, what if I’m happy on this couch?” Where other artists show a sense of urgency, a need to experience life to their version of the fullest, DeMarco is satisfied with whatever. Who cares if I don’t want to quit smoking? Who cares if I’m still in the same relationship? Who cares if I’m bored? How else am I going to be able to observe the indentation on my girl’s face after she falls asleep with glasses on? If I’m trying to get to the next thing, I’m going to miss that beauty, so let me sink. Don’t worry, I’ll swim up when I hear the stars calling.
1. Prince: Dirty Mind
Personal Favorite: “Dirty Mind”
Summarizing Lyric: “We don't let society/Tell us how it's supposed to be” (“Uptown”)
I had just finished reading Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir and was beginning to get my toes wet in the alternative pleasure presented by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in his novella Venus In Furs when I hit play. In other words, never has a record spit into me at a more perfect time. Like the aforementioned literature, Prince’s Dirty Mind obsesses over the acquisition of pleasure by playing in the extremes. Not a single song on this record lingers on the moments of safe intimacy found in the middle of relationships: grocery store adventures, a fight sparked by the constant clumps of hair in the shower, adopting a dog. Prince looked at these moments and yawned. He indulged in the raw and slippery moments seen between people when they first meet, desperate to see what’s underneath and when they leave, desperate to keep what’s underneath. This is where emotions are at their highest, when parts are their hardest, when pleasure is taken. But what makes this sentiment so brilliant is it’s updating of those old texts that promoted the unapologetic seeking of pleasure. In Sade’s text, rape was okay. In Masoch’s texts, the man we are made to believe is made the slave had to convince the woman to be his Mistress. In those texts, the man was in control. In Prince’s world, it’s the feminine. He makes this clear both vocally by living in his falsetto register throughout the record and lyrically in “Sister” where he flips the script of Sade’s text. Instead of having a brother teach the sister their hypersexual ways, Prince has his sister do the teaching. This symbolic role reversal is crucial to Dirty Mind working as well as it does politically. It says seek pleasure, but have some empathy in your search. No woman is made to succumb to a man’s will, no man is told to act like a man. Prince doesn’t preach, he leads by example, and whoever wants to join him and strut the streets donning torn up leather bikini is free to do so. All are invited to the sex-crazed Garden of Eden that is Uptown. By leading with empathy, Prince is able to make his final case and ask “How you gonna make me kill somebody/I don't even know?” He’s shown empathy, he’s even shown love towards his adulterous partner in “When You Were Mine.” He’s refrained from being militant in the spreading of his message, so why can’t society do the same? Besides, “Fightin' war” and dwelling in hate “is such a fuckin' bore” (“Party Up”).