Last Call: “Reason to Believe” by Bruce Springsteen

To mass media, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of all great things about America. His work has crossed four decades, with a new persona for each different phase. He’s gone from the young, idealistic folky singer (“Growin’ Up”, “Blinded by the Light”) to the anthem maker (“Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “Thunder Road”) to the old man paying tribute to the past (The Seeger Sessions, “We Are Alive”).

At its root though, his music has always been about those in desperate times. So much of his music plays as easy listening, yet reveals harder truths, “Born In The USA” being the best example. The song sounds like a straight-faced jingoistic anthem. Yet for that one-in-a-million person who’s actually able to understand what he’s yelling, it’s a dark, bitter song about the realities of a post-Vietnam vet with nothing left to live for.

Springsteen’s music stands the test of time not because it motivates us towards the American Dream, but because it consoles us when we realize there is no American Dream to begin with. Life is life. People live and die, most doing little in between. His music encapsulates this reality.

And none of his albums do this better than Nebraska, his quiet masterpiece. The album, as so many of his albums, is a group of stories written to music. However, without his backing band, and with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica to work with, Springsteen finally matches the music to the lyrics. In the album, lovers ride on murdering sprees, brothers are pitted against one another, desperate men commit desperate crimes, and comfort is provided to none. Lyrics such as “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” and “Lost soul calling long-distance salvation” leave little to the imagination. The album is the spiritual equivalent of No Country For Old Men, only for Springsteen, there’s place for everyone, it’s just never where anyone wants to be.

His last song, “Reason to Believe” is the penultimate track. From my personal experience, after such a weighty album full of dead ends and dead men, I was looking for some sort of redemption in that last song. The track plays on this expectation brilliantly.  It lays each verse out in a simple blues rhythm with just Springsteen and his old friends: guitar and harmonica. Each verse plays through horrible situations, leaving unforgettable images of despair. First a man sees a dead dog on the side of the road. Then a woman waits for her man every night to come back home. Next one baby is baptized as an old man passes away. Finally, a man waits for his bride at the altar, waiting forever. The dominoes keep falling, one after the other.

These verses could easily beat us to a pulp with zero redemption and zero hope in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Yet, the brilliance of Springsteen’s final song on Nebraska is the chorus, which after every one of the above-stated situations takes on the following form:

Lord won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean 
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

The song suggests that we keep moving on, even though life itself gives us few, if any, reason to do so. And God gives us no help in figuring out why.

We continue to live, despite our lives.

Is It Still Any Good: The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”

“Is It Still Any Good?” is an on-going feature dedicated to examining pop-culture artifacts in order to determine if they still have any sort of relevance in the present day.

“Video Killed the Radio Star”

So, let’s get down to brass tax right away on this one.  Is this song still any good?  YES, for oh so many reasons.

First of all, for any trivia fans out there, it was the first song ever played on the now Jersey-Shore-obsessed-but-once-cool MTV. It reminds me of a better time, when videos were actually played on TV and people actually sat through and watched them.  I still remember the beginning of the end, when I was watching an episode of the now-defunct “Total Request Live” (TRL, in my day) and even though they were going through the top 10 MOST POPULAR videos in an hour, Carson Daly needed too much time to talk to Britney Spears about her new movie, “Crossroads” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0275022/, yeah that happened), to actually play these videos.  The show decided ten second clips of the songs were enough.  Sure, most of these songs were about hot women in tight clothing chilling on a yacht with a rapper talking about how he is going to have sex with the aforementioned hot women in tight clothing (perhaps on a yacht, perhaps not).  But dagnabbit, I wanted to see how the story unfolds!  Anyway, I digress.

Second reason “Video Killed the Radio Star” rules is that it actually PREDICTED THE FUTURE!  Take a gander at these lyrics:

“Video killed the radio star. 
Video killed the radio star. 
In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone to far.”

Now, do you know why we can’t rewind?  It’s because we’ve gone too far.  These days we can watch any music videos anywhere in the world at any time.  But you already know that.  And how did the video kill the radio star?  You know that old, sort of ugly aunt you have that can actually sing and play piano (if you don’t, pretend you do).  Yeah, she’s never getting a record deal.  Now, you know that hot Latino girl who can’t sing but knows how to move, apparently.  That’s Jennifer Lopez (aka J-Lo, aka Jenny from the Block).  She has a record deal.  Case closed.  If we had only listened to the Buggles, we’d actually have more quality people playing music and making money like they did back in my day.*

Third reason the song kicks the llama’s ass…because it just does.  Has there ever been a more 80s, 80s song.  It’s got the catchy piano.  It’s got the funky lead singer. It’s got the “oh-ah-ohs”.  I’m convinced this song and Chuck Norris created the 80s.  The funny thing about that is the song was actually written in the 70s.

Fourth and final reason this song is awesome: it got a random Japanese kid to make a cover of it.    Oh and I forgot to mention, the cover is amazing.  Man, if/when I have a kid, I am definitely going to force him/her to play guitar night in and night out without rest for years on end on the off chance that he/she will become like this kid.  He/she will hate me for the rest of his/her life.  But it’ll be worth it.  Can’t wait.

So to sum up, the song is good.  We’ve established the song predicted the future AND created the 80s AND was a part of the only great period of MTV, the period that actually played music videos.  That was when life was good, men were men, and videos were videos. **

*=At this time, you should imagine an old man with a shotgun in his rocking chair on a porch saying this entire spiel.  He would then look at you and say “Get off my porch, sonny!”

**=Imagine the old man again.  Did you immediately get a picture of Clint Eastwood in your head?  He’s becoming THAT guy, right?

Is It Still Any Good: Bush “Swallowed”

“Is It Still Any Good?” is an on-going feature dedicated to examining pop-culture artifacts in order to determine if they still have any sort of relevance in the present day.

“Swallowed”

Remember Bush? Apologies for stirring up bad memories, but I was up late last night trudging through YouTube in a nostalgic and masochistic mood and I stumbled upon a few of their old videos so now you will have to feel my pain. Accept it. The year was 1996, and Bush was already lame. Their first album made me hate Nirvana as much as Nirvana made me like Nirvana. Now two years removed from their first abortion, Bush–for reasons unknown–decided to release a sophomore effort even more esoteric and alien than its predecessor.

I suppose if you’re going to rip-off a hugely-successful band, you may as well go all out. It’s remarkable how similar “Swallowed”–the lead single from Razorblade Suitcase (Jesus, seriously?)–sounds like the genre-defining “Heart-Shaped Box” from In Utero except that “Swallowed” eschews drums entirely during the verses in order to one-up Nirvana’s formula by way of some retarded pop-song derivative calculus.

The lyrics are really the high point here. Gavin Russdale Rashdale Rushdie, bless his heart, never quite grasped the concept of surrealism, and as a result listeners are forced to decipher lyrics that literally make no sense whatsoever (remember “Glycerine”?). Reading Gavin Rushdie’s lyrics gives me the impression that listening to him speak would be like listening to a martian approximate what it thinks English sounds like.

So, is it still any good?

It’s a question without an answer. It wasn’t good to start with.

Should this Man be Arrested: Gillian Welch

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Gillian Welch–faux-Appalachian country-folk crooner, native of Southern California

Evidence:

“I cried, ‘My God, I am your child I am your child. Send your angels down.’ Then feeling with my fingertips, the bottle neck I found. I drew that glass across his neck, fine as any blade. Then I felt his blood pour fast and hot around me where I laid.”

“Caleb Meyer” (from Hell Among The Yearlings)

Thoughts:

Nothin’ better than a good old-fashioned murderin’ song! This one gets bonus points because it’s about a female murderer named Nellie Cane Gillian Welch who, supposedly acting in self-defense, is forced to kill Caleb Meyer while her husband is away in Bowling Green (wherever that is–seriously, is that a real place or is Gillian Welch just like making shit up now?). So the story goes Nellie Cane Gillian Welch is home by herself because her husband is out of town doing … farm work, presumably, and because of her fragile constitution she’s taken advantage of by Caleb Meyer, local drug-store owner/town rapist.

Verdict:

Guilty. We’ll never hear Caleb’s side of the story since he’s been murdered, but it’s safe to assume that Gillian Welch, local farm-hand/town whore, was begging for it while her husband was out of town doing … farm work, presumably. Gillian Welch, I hereby sentence you to live out the remainder of your bloodthirsty days on a barn. Oh, wait.

Should this Man be Arrested: Jeff Tweedy

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Jeff Tweedy–lead singer for influential country/folk/alternative/dad-rock band Wilco

Evidence:

“I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me”

“Via Chicago” (from Summerteeth)

Thoughts:

First of all … wow. I’m not sure who exactly he’s talking about here but it seems plain to me that someone has upset Mr. Tweedy quite considerably. Not only does he dream about killing the aforementioned someone, but he’s singing about a dream that he’s having again. Not only is he dreaming about killing someone again, but he says “it felt alright to me”. From my perspective, he’s a cold-blooded killer.

In fact, just to see if I could redeem poor Mr. Tweedy’s name from his clear status as a psychopath, I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt and see if adding a few more lines to the above snippet would give him room to explain himself. Well, here’s what I found:

“Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed
Buried you alive in a fireworks display
Raining down on me”

Jaw drops … he can’t be … but he is … but he wrote “You and I” … oh God, I hope he wasn’t talking about me

So, is our favorite dad-rocker a criminal?

Verdict:

Guilty. It was a sly trick to cover up your actions through the humble dad-rock posturing of albums like Sky Blue Sky, Mr. Tweedy. Well played, sir. But we’ve got you now. I hereby sentence you to a lifetime of listening to “Shake It Off” on repeat until your head explodes from mediocrity.

The Case for God: U2 vs. The Smashing Pumpkins

The Case for God is an on-going feature that examines God within popular music. Songs featured in this series are either for the existence of God or against His/Her/Its existence. After each entry, a point will be given to the song that makes a better case for the existence of God. At the conclusion of this series, we will determine whether or not there is a God.

U2 vs. The Smashing Pumpkins

“In God’s Country”:

Perhaps the greatest first 15 seconds of any song in the history of popular music. As The Edge’s second (or eighth, who knows?) guitar soars over a triumphant acoustic rhythm section the entire world opens up before your … ears. It’s one of those classic U2 songs that you can’t sing along to because Bono is a better singer than you and a highlight on an album that consists of only highlights.

“Zero”:

Call me crazy, but I think it’s a bold move on Corgan’s behalf to include actual lyrics written by a middle school student on an album that was destined to become an international phenomenon. Wait, what? Corgan wrote it? But it’s meant to be taken sarcas–no? Well, nevermind then. Apparently God–or rather, my faith in the lyrical prowess of Billy Corgan–is empty, just like me.

Conclusion:

God: 1, Atheists: 0