"Daddy and the Wine" and "I Drink" were both featured back-to-back in a first-season episode of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour in May 2006. When I hear the songs now, bars, not people, come to mind: dusty, thin-carpeted rooms that are dark in the afternoon, a shaft of sunlight entering through one window, tipping its hat, and walking right back out through the front door.
I've never figured out how I feel about Silver Jews, which is like saying I've never figured out how I feel about oranges. Oranges are oranges, the Silver Jews are what they are, and both get along fine without me. But all of that is horseshit because both are there to be consumed. A song is nothing if not a wish. And there are times when an orange is perfect, exactly what I needed, and there are times when the Silver Jews are also perfect—this summer, for some reason, for me at least. What's truer to say, then, is that there are times when I can take or leave Silver Jews and times when a song of theirs solves a hunger. This song, "The Frontier Index," comes closest to always being that.
The next-to-last song on the Silver Jews' second full-length album, The Natural Bridge, "The Frontier Index" opens with a worried guitar figure that sounds like it resolves but never truly does, and nothing resolves in this song, it just spins around. Not to say it doesn't have dynamics. The first thirty seconds, right? "Look, a horse! Of course!" Under Berman's vocals the drums stumble around and fill up the room. Berman's poetics are countered by jokes, like the "robot walks into a bar" couplet, and then the song empties into open space. The drums, because they've been so busy, sound like they've vanished. In the song's closing minute, all instrumental, the drums stick around under a shimmering guitar in one channel and a racket of interstellar miscommunication in the other.
Here's another joke from the song—
Boy wants a car from his dad.
Dad says "First you gotta cut that hair."
Boy says "Hey Dad, Jesus had long hair,"
And Dad says "That's right son, Jesus walked everywhere."
—a joke that could be considered an anti-joke, a shaggy-dog story, or a koan. You could keep looking for the answer to that one until the sun comes up. For some reason, most Silver Jews songs make me imagine another song hidden inside the song I'm listening to. I think it's David Berman's laconic singing; I wonder what the song would sound like if someone sang it more traditionally, or if Berman did…and then it seems like there's another "The Frontier Index" hiding inside of this one, somewhere behind those guitar parts. What are those drums covering up?
With more time to suss things out, I'd probably be able to make more sense of that Gnosticism, but oh well, that's how things go. And I don't know if I'd want to anyway. Is music criticism about exposing magicians? As if by naming a sub-genre and a few references you reveal the sleight of hand? Is knowing better than asking? If this song works for me all the time while other Silver Jews songs don't, maybe it's because every element of the song seems right and impossible to place. Or maybe it's because Berman's voice, which often seems like it can't be bothered to believe what it's singing, here sounds like someone's holding a gun to it. Tell us the fucking truth. He tries, the band tries, and whether or not they come up short, and no matter how ambiguous the song's collection of confessions, homilies, jokes, and descriptions are, the effort is true. Is there anything more human?
Berman's final words in the song:
When I was younger, I was a cobra.
In every case I wanted to be cool.
Now that I'm older, sub-space is colder,
Just want to say something true.
When I was younger I wanted to say something new, which is the same thing as being cool. That's what young artists want. Then I was older and I wanted to know. That's what pissed-off and justifiably bewildered people want. Now that I'm older, I'd rather say something true. Which seems likelier to lead to something new.
Adventures in brief music criticism. Off-the cuff-rambling. One song, one performance. Studio or live, it matters not. Probably on Mondays.
"It's not the writer's job to tell us how somebody felt about something, it's to tell us how the world works." – Zadie Smith
"Fancy," the jam of the summer by Iggy Azalea, tells us how the world works. There's no real feeling in the song; Azalea oozes confidence, determination, etc., but it all hardens into plastic. Rap bragging goes back to the blues, to Robert Johnson singing "the stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby," and whether it's performed by a man or a woman, the coolness of the boast is usually offset by layers of meaning in the singer's voice, flashes of anger, seduction, and by other lyrics, or the music. Something.
But there are no layers in "Fancy," just the sheen of being rich. You want to know how the world works? Money, the song says. Having it. You can boast about your poor background once you have the money, like Azalea does in the video for "Work". Until then, in the song's world, you can shut up about it.
I don't think everyone who listens to this song takes it at face value; they know it's a dream, the American dream gone global, transformed into the worship of things imagined as wealth in order to keep the dream within reach. Of course the chorus is catchy. That's marketing. In his argument against the kind of writing Zadie Smith and others were publishing in the early 2000s, the critic James Wood coined the term "hysterical realism." There's nothing hysterical about Azalea's music. "Fancy" is credit-card realism.
No one in this song performs under her real name; Azalea's been criticized for not singing or rapping with the natural Australian accent she ditched while working her career in the U.S. south; Azalea may or may not have written any of "Fancy". Those kinds of authenticity questions lead down a critical blind alley. While I'm all for women writing their own songs and being recognized for it, plenty of great songs have been written by teams. As for name and voice, well, art is always acting of some kind, no matter how vapid the play turns out to be. You dream up your identity. You want to replay Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, go ahead. (The video un-parodies a parody, drains out the joke.)
It's knocking your head against a wall, anyway, to argue for biographical authenticity in a song where dressing yourself up into someone else to the extent that nothing remains—new self, old self, whatever—is a good thing. You can become a pouting, sneering credit card. No one's going to complain. That's just how the world works.
Adventures in short music criticism. One song, one performance. Studio or live, it matters not. Probably on Mondays.
If there's one thing you can count on from Prince, it's this: where there are horns, they will be arranged in a tight-ass fashion. This performance of "Mutiny," a song Prince wrote for The Family back in the 1980s and promptly played the hell out of on his Parade tour, is not about Prince. It's about the horns, from the stutter-step Big Band opening to that late-70s television theme-song melody/rhythm they pour into around :29. You expect to see Kate Jackson pointing a gun at some unseen perp. Forget the song structures, singing, guitar playing; Prince's horn arrangements alone cover about fifty years of American music. Yes, I think they're overlooked.
So is "Mutiny," but then, Prince never released his own official studio version. As incredible as the Purple Rain-to-Lovesexy run was, you could have put "Mutiny" together with the then-unreleased or B-side-only tracks "Shockadelica," "Crystal Ball," "A Love Bizarre," "Last Heart," "Sexual Suicide," "Make Your Mama Happy," "Crucial," "Witness 4 The Prosecution," "17 Days," and "She's Always in My Hair" and made another classic record.
I have no idea what the lyrics in "Mutiny" are about except that this is another "woman, you done me wrong" song. But the song is so joyous, her crime starts a party. Look at the backup singers smile! In some Prince jams, the words are about the jam itself as it's happening, instructions for shaking one's rump mixed in with bragging, spiritual optimism, and community. (See "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.") In this song, what most of the words mean on paper has almost nothing to do with what they mean when they're sung. The voices transform the words to suit the occasion, which in this case is a glad riot.
Regardless of how the words work, when Prince is in party mode, all that matters is right now: the groove and the community. Very few American pop musicians can hold an event together by themselves as the center of its attention. Prince is one of them. But in performances like this one, he lets the event take over, playing the role of ringleader and emcee, until the song itself becomes democracy, or as close as you can get to it on a television show.