Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Free the demon / Hear this ceaseless screaming.

John Henry

It would be an extreme overstatement to say that John Henry was a "grunge" album. And yet at the same time it would be incorrect to say that the album didn't feel and sound quite differently from its predecessors, and that a great deal of this change in tone was a direct result of the band's decision to actually become a rock band. If you're not that familiar with They Might Be Giants, this might seem like a fine distinction: after all, TMBG had always been a "rock band," in that they had always played rock & roll music. But it wasn't until they toured for 1992's Apollo 18 that they had actually put together a band - drummer, bassist, extra guitar. And it wasn't until 1994's John Henry that they bought a fuzz box.

To say that the album met a mixed response would, again, be something of an understatement. This was back in the earliest says of the World Wide Web - I wasn't around on Usenet, although I'm certain there were plenty of TMBG fans who were incensed that the Johns were using a real drummer. With almost twenty years (!) in the rear-view, such fine distinctions seem comical - after all, by now the Johns have been a "rock band" for almost twice as long as they were a duo. But people hate change. I remember specifically that I didn't like the album at first, either. It took me a while to come around to it. I don't know why, in hindsight - it certainly sounded different from their previous albums, but not enough so that you'd be hard pressed to recognize one of the most distinctive-sounding bands of the last thirty years. Perhaps it was less a matter of the album sounding different from its predecessor than of it sounding uncomfortably similar to the then-current gold-standard of post-Nirvana high-gloss rock and roll jamming the radio waves in the year of Kurt Cobain's death.

Again, this is a tricky proposition, because John Henry is still far closer to being a They Might Be Giants album than, say, a Smashing Pumpkins album. But the more I listen to the album now the more I also see it as something that remains an artifact of its time. That's not necessarily a bad thing. My mind has always twinned John Henry with R.E.M.'s Monster - two albums released two weeks apart in September of 1994, which I purchased on the same day on a trip to the Tower Records on Watt Ave. in Sacramento. Both albums seem to me to be an expression of the same kind of desire to emulate the trademark heaviness of early nineties grunge without subscribing to the prevalent self-seriousness that was already recognized as Cobain's dubious legacy. Monster was essentially a peak-era glam album released 20 years too late - playful, sardonic, and intense in equal measure. John Henry was - well, it was still a They Might Be Giants album. But if the album began with the band's trademark accordion (the first few seconds of "Subliminal") that accordion is soon joined by heavy drums and deep growling fuzz guitar. The Johns weren't just playing around with the denser sound afforded by the post-grunge heavy rock palette, they were fully committed.  

It should always be remembered - despite their unique career trajectory - that They Might Be Giants are a historically important band in terms of the evolution of quote-unquote "alternative" music. Depending on your perspective they were either one of the last significant "college rock" bands or one of the very first "alternative" bands - do you remember college rock? Do you remember how when college rock actually started selling albums it morphed into the vague category of "alternative," because in order to be considered legitimate in the nineties, you had to come positioned as either an implicit or explicit "alternative" to something else? "Dirt Bike" is a song explicitly about the salad says of college rock radio, telling the story of a fictional touring band - called Dirt Bike, of course - touring the country and slowly taking over:
Here comes the dirt bike,
Beware of the dirt bike,
Because I hear they're coming to our town.
They've got plans for everyone.
And now I hear they're over their sophomore jinx, so you had better check it out.
Mind control is a frequent topic in TMBG songs, and the metaphor is useful here as a means of describing the intense bond between college bands and their fanbases - exchange "Dirt Bike" for any mid-to-late 80s hard-touring regional rock band. Michael Azerrad named his book on American "underground" rock of the 1980s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and in the post-Internet, post-Napster, post-Pitchfork world, it's becoming harder and harder to understand how the small scale of post-hardcore pre-grunge American indie-rock bred such fervent and long-lived loyalty from its fans - how to imagine a world where good music was hidden like a secret, in which uncovering a new favorite band could feel tantamount to becoming a different person? RIght now you have at your fingertips a machine that can give you access to the sum total of all written and recorded music throughout history with a few key strokes. Remember when we had to pore over back issues of SPIN to catch brief mentions of promising ultra-obscure bands? When people actually circulated zines ,and college radio stations were cultural institutions? I'm barely old enough to remember that heyday myself but it already feels like a far-distant age of Pharaohs.

If you were feeling unkind you could say - perhaps not without some justification - that TMBG's switch to a more conventional full-band rock sound in the mid-nineties reflected a broader pasteurization of the college format to reflect the realities of alternative rock's brief commercial heyday. Despite having significantly exceeded expectations with the improbable success of 1990's Flood, TMBG were soon lost in the shuffle of A&R shakeups at Elektra. Apollo 18 was a fine album that met a muted sales response, and the chances of John Henry being lost in a similar fashion were high. By 1994 it was probably hard to ignore the probability that Flood would remain the group's commercial high-water mark. Was the adoption of the full rock sound an attempt to appeal to more conventional radio audiences by jettisoning many of the band's more prickly and unpalatable eccentricities?

The evidence doesn't seem to back up this pessimistic narrative. Although the harder rock sound of John Henry would be mostly abjured on Factory Showroom, the band would never return to the more stripped-down sound of their earlier releases. Every album and tour since the Apollo 18 tour has been performed by the band as a full band. Although they would never again release an album as consistently "hard" as John Henry, the hard rock sound would remain in their repertoire, popping up most notably on 2007's downbeat The Else. John Henry didn't mark a permanent change in the band's sound, but indicated the means by which the group would continue to expand and enhance its stylistic variety. Put simply, as the band has grown and changed they have remained resolutely chameleonic, and if John Henry means anything with almost twenty years' hindsight, it marks the point where the group was first able realize the full range of their wide ambition.

The album's stylistic ambition is nowhere more clear than "Sleeping in the Flowers." The song begins as a heavy, borderline sludge-y rock track before veering to the left to become an up-tempo vaguely ska-core ditty, before veering back towards the heavy sound of the song's introduction, and back again. In the space of four-and-a-half minutes (itself a previously-unimaginable running time for the band), TMBG runs the gamut between sincerely facetious appropriation of Alice In Chains-y shredding and Operation Ivy skronking, complete with horn section. It's a bravura performance, showcasing not merely the kind of facile wit for which the band was already well known but a level of compositional acumen that was simply head and shoulders above anything they had produced up to that date. And of course, being who they are, the band follow up "Sleeping in the Flowers" with a bonafied country song, "Unrelated Thing."

Perhaps the single most important factor in the album's success is Brian Doherty's extraordinary drumming. For their first album sans drum machine, the Johns were clever enough to find a percussionist who could appropriate the precision and forcefulness of a programmed drum track while also offering the kind of energy and spontaneity that is very difficult to produce with a machine. From the very beginning of the album and the primitive stomp of "Subliminal," up through the frenetic workout of "Meet James Ensor" (seriously, listen to the drums on that song), Doherty is precisely the kind of drummer TMBG needed in order to be able to be able to convincingly "sell" their rock pose. They still had the pop ditties and the strange genre experiments (coutnry on "Unrelated Thing," barbershop quartet on "O Do Not Forsake Me"), but the backbone of John Henry is a real rock & roll rhythm section.

If "grunge" is the first word we need to keep in mind in relation to John Henry, then "maturity" is the second. This is something of a canard, I realize, and it's become something of a shadow narrative throughout these articles: have They Might Be Giants somehow "failed" to mature? Did their so-called "arrested development" hurt their output, particular into the late nineties and early aughts? As I've discussed in past articles, I've struggled to frame my own disappointment with the band's post-Elektra output not in terms of their failure to live up to some kind of implicit "potential" - as if there was an alternate universe somewhere with a demure, adult contemporary They Might Be Giants playing soulful dad rock to Pitchfork crowds - but as a product of my own understandable alienation from their deserved and long-overdue sustained success, a success that just happens to have come about as a consequence of their transformation into children's musicians. I don't resent them their success but much of their output for the last decade, until last year's Join Us, just hasn't grabbed me. I used to think the correct model for comparison for TMBG was the Flaming Lips: another veteran of the mid-80s college rock scene who made the transition to major label success and "alternative" status with indie cred left (relatively) intact. And, of course, this comparison is deeply unfair because the same year the Lips released The Soft Bulletin, the Johns were reeling from their major label exodus and releasing unsatisfying experiments  like Long Tall Weekend.

John Henry is a great album - a truly great album - because it confronts the question of "maturity" that had always been lingering in the background of any discussion about the band and places it defiantly in the foreground. It's not a mature album with all the loaded, dad-rock qualifications that brings to mind - it's something far more rare and infinitely more rewarding, it's an album about maturity, about the act of growing up without actually being grown-up. They Might Be Giants built a loyal constituency out of precocious adolescents and disgruntled teens - the kind of kids who were far more clever than their surroundings but nowhere near yet wise enough to look past the limitations of "clever" as an overriding worldview. John Henry represents a confrontation with the profoundly, triumphantly juvenile worldview of their earlier recordings.

The album is filled with stories of unhappy, paranoid, delusional characters, confronting a world that refuses to conform to their deeply unrealistic expectations. Nowhere is this more clear than on the aforementioned "Sleeping in the Flowers," about the painful discrepancies between the fantasy and reality of unrequited crushes. "I Should Be Allowed to Think" quotes Allen Ginsberg to make a point about the growing pains of young intellectuals. "Why Must I Be Sad?" is a song about youthful misanthropy filtered through the lens of Alice Cooper. "Extra Savoir-Faire" and "No One Knows My Plan" are both about suffering delusional levels of self-regard.
"A Self Called Nowhere" is unambiguously about depression. "Meet James Ensor," ostensibly about the painter, is also about misanthropy masked as asceticism and self-denial, a theme echoed again on the brief sketch "Window."

The album climaxes with "Stomp Box" and "The End of the Tour." Although on first blush these tracks could not be more dissimilar, they fit together as the culmination of the album's themes. "Stomp Box" is a violent pseudo-metal stomper, led by a distorted, demonic vocal that spews a barrage of sarcastic bile, echoing and lampooning the endless destructive if of early 90s hard rock:
Kill Kill Kill Kill
Kill me now
Free the demon
Hear the ceaseless screaming
Little Stomp Box
Tear it from my heart.
For all their reputation as perpetual adolescents, They Might Be Giants nevertheless see right through the supposed "maturity" of the early nineties. Just a few months after Cobain's death, it was hard not to see the limitations of using rock music as catharsis. Genuine emotion easily congeals into self-parody with just a few turns of the notch. 1994 also saw the release of The Downward Spiral and while it's not hard now to see that Trent Reznor always had a sense of humor (most early industrial acts, it must be remembered, were also quite funny), few who followed his footsteps, or Cobain's, saw the inherent absurdity in the pose.

"Stomp Box" fades into "The End of the Tour." This track is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of the band's best. It    comes after almost an hour of songs and stories about delusion and self-parody, unhappiness and sadness masked in uptempo drumbeats and chipper melodies. What is the song about? I've heard some theories that the action in this track - a car crash on the interstate - is a kind of capper for a number of the people involved in previous songs - "AKA Driver," "Subliminal," "Sleeping in the Flowers," very much like the end of Short Cuts or something similar where all the previous threads are drawn together in a single massive accident. I've seen ideas that the song is a tribute to fans who died in a car crash on the way to a show, that the song was a tribute to the Grateful Dead ("the engagements are booked through the end of the world"), or that the song was specifically about the death of Kurt Cobain. (The "girl with the crown and the scepter" is supposedly a reference to the cover of Live Through This.) In any event, the song is about endings - about something drawing to a close, about admitting that " the scene isn't what it's been," and that it might be time to go home. It could be about death or dying, or hearing about the death of a close friend, or simply the literal act of being a touring band, and the point when driving around the country in a van starts to lose its appeal.

It's a song about what it means to be a rock & roll band in the mid nineties, after the underground scene you were a part of crested and became an aboveground phenomenon, after the community spirit of eighties indie rock became a marketing slogan for nineties alt rock, after Pavement recorded "Range Life" and Cobain wrote "Serve the Servants" and R.E.M. wrote Automatic for the People and all those other bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements and the Minutemen broke up and scattered to the winds. It's a song about growing up whether you want to or not, and it comes as the climax to nineteen other songs about the negative consequences of not growing up, not learning to acknowledge other people, not being able to look past your own self-obsession. It's sobering, but it's also hopeful - maturation doesn't have to mean death, but it does mean change. Sometimes it might even mean change for the better, once you've got over yourself.
And it's old and it's over, it's over now
And it's over, it's over, it's over now
I can see myself.

Next: Industrial Revolution

(out of five)

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