Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gimme Some Truth

Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
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You lose a lot by telling the truth. Lies fester. 
This is especially true of the lies you tell yourself.
The truth is never quite so kind as we’d like.

Do you want to get understood? /
Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? /

“Outlier” is the sixth track off Spoon’s 2014 album They Want My Soul. After four years away Spoon had lapsed into semi-hiatus. Side projects multiplied. The album was good but only just “good” in the context of Spoon’s previous decade, where Spoon released five albums that are also five of the decade’s best. Part of this can be attributed to the record’s production, a more traditional rock sound that saps much of the energy. It is exchanged for a conventional rock presence that never quite coheres. Being Spoon it is still quite listenable. One of the album’s standouts – and one of the few to make good use of the album’s maximal inclinations – “Outlier” immediately attracted interest among reviewers for the seemingly devastating put-down,

And I remember when you walked out of Garden State /
'Cause you had taste, you had taste /
You had no time to waste.

It’s something you imagine Britt Daniel sneering over his shoulder at some cool loft party in SoHo. Except of course that it’s 2016 and for many reasons no one talks about loft parties in SoHo. I don’t know if that was still a thing even ten years ago. And Spoon are from Texas, which is a strange fact we must live with. Britt Daniel is 45 years old.

Who does the line describe? It’s never specified. The song sounds at first listen like a kiss-off but after a few spins the tone reveals itself as something closer to wistful. (Genius helpfully assumes the subject is a she despite the fact that gender is nowhere specified.) You may try to stay current in certain areas of pop culture in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. You don’t want to lose it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I still like to surprise myself musically.

Rock and roll is an attenuated force: not dead but experiencing a dissolution of cultural reverence. It’s on its way to being the new jazz, and there are worst things to be than jazz. Rock records as a genre function similarly to superhero comic books, another seemingly limited sub-genre that somehow hit hard enough early enough to successfully mutate beyond the conditions of its creation. Rock’s relevance is dependent on people growing up with it and coming to regard it as the default background music of their lives. Take that away, reduce rock to just another choice, and it lives or die on its own merits.

Its merits were that white middle class kids grew up listening, and kept listening for the rest of their lives. That’s not something I personally regret by any means. But the reason why I know so much music from before I was born is that my parents have listened to it their whole lives, and to this day they still – dimly, but still – remember a world before rock and roll. I was immersed in it. In any event, the idea that everyone grew up listening to rock music was always a lie, but it was a comfortable lie because we didn’t have to care that “everyone” in this case was a relatively narrow demographic who spent many decades imposing a white-bread monoculture on the rest of the world. Rock’s eternal appeal is premised on the invincibility of youth: rock and roll disconnected from youthfulness becomes rock and roll as a curated object.

As much as I like Spoon there music can be unsettling and insular. It’s sterile in a way that announces them as the product of critical and not necessarily popular culture. It’s rock music for people who listen to a rock music, full of signifiers and trafficking in inference over affect. They Want My Soul is unique in the Spoon discography for the way it plays with expectations, laboriously constructed over the previous fifteen years, of what a Spoon album is supposed to sound like – a stable idea even after the disconcerting Transference. The result is that in many places it doesn’t sound very much like Spoon.

Perhaps the band are aware of these limitations. The tone of They Want My Soul often approaches elegiac: the former Cool Kids, dominant forces in critically-acclaimed rock music of the 2000s, wake up and realize that cool is a devalued currency. Being the most lauded rock band of a generation – at least one of them – gets you a slot on NPR. The album’s last track, “New York Kiss,” returns to these themes with the recurring refrain of,

I knew your New York kiss /
Now it's another place /
A place your memory owns.

It used to matter whether I believed myself to be a person who would nod in approval at a performative walk-out of a Zach Braff vehicle. “Outlier” begins with the words “You were smart / You played no part,” directed at the song’s subject. Who is the “you” here? As in most Spoon songs, it’s never defined. Is it a third party beside either Daniel or the listener? Is it an ex-lover, the diminutive “kid” indicating gendered condescension on Daniel’s part? Or is he addressing his audience directly – all the kids who were savvy hipsters “back in the day” but are growing older and realizing that there’s nothing to be gained from staying “smart” at a comfortable remove from the business of living? New York changed, the idea of “cool” symbolized by pre-9/11 New York changed, maybe even dwindled to nothing. Now these ideas exist in our memory.

The belief that I wanted to be cool, that I cared about being cool – what was that? Pure anxiety. Does any of it matter? Not really. Growing up antipathetic to any expression of masculinity, I gravitated towards that which seemed least odious: the Expert, the man who knows his stuff. I lived to impress record store clerks with my taste, which would be funny if it weren’t true. Anyone who has gone record shopping with me can attest. I tend to preen.

In fairness, the mantle fit. I have a good memory for unimportant trivia and good technique for recalling information I don’t have at my fingerprints. A mania for reference books probably stems from a lifelong battle with short-term recall. Grad school has taught me the value not of knowing everything but of knowing the right things. If I don’t have an answer, I know where to get it.

The problem with being an expert is that the process of becoming an expert can drain the life of your subject. It’s not difficult to go through the motions but at a certain point it becomes rote and unchallenging. Yeah, I like this, this is OK. It sounds like some other thing I heard a while back. And oh yeah I guess this is trying to sound like Monster, well, why don’t I just listen to R.E.M. instead. I don’t listen to Monster near often enough. Didn’t expect Spoon to make an R.E.M. album. Spot the references. Oh, that’s an interesting variation on a theme. Everything interesting in 2016 is a variation of a theme. Good night to the rock and roll era.

No one gets what I've done /
Everyone else seems to look through it /
Oh, but maybe I've never wanted them to /
Couldn't count on it anyway.

Transference could easily have been the last Spoon record, and it would have been a fitting note on which to go out. After defining their sound to the point of clinical exactitude with their last handful of LPs, they set about to problematize every element. It’s not that the album wasn’t produced to within an inch of its life, a trait it shares with every Spoon album since Girls Can Tell. It stands unsettled and dysphoric next to the mannered perfectionism of Gimme Fiction or the clean-room Rolling Stones vibe of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Beats stutter where you need them to strut. The vibe is desultory: it doesn’t seem to add up to anything more than a series of attempts to wring order from whichever series of random recording events converged to create a song.

Picture yourself /
Set up for good /
In a whole other life.

Disquiet and rootlessness are the bedrock beneath Spoon, but Transference takes anxiety as it primary subject matter. Every moment of placidity is undone by the moment immediately after. The album uses the clarity of production on any given track to communicate emotional state: “Goodnight Laura” is a tender ballad, and you know this because the instrumentation sounds like a four-track demo. (It’s not, of course, but they use the badly recorded, out-of-key piano to ensure the song doesn’t get pretty.) “Trouble” sounds like a leftover from A Series of Sneaks, complete with a clever reproduction of late 90s lo-fi production. It’s lo-fi in the way that Pavement was lo-fi: every stray tousled hair has been calculated for maximum effect. It follows on the heels of “I Saw the Light,” which sounds like an intentional self-parody of Gimme Fiction’s distinctive motorik. It promises the transcendence of that album’s “They Never Got You,” but rewards the listener with five and a half minutes of mounting dread summoned by Jim Eno’s Hitchcock rhythm.

Transference is endlessly fascinating. It doesn’t work, it has been purposefully manufactured to work as poorly as possible, and yet it does, because it’s Spoon. We put up with a lot from bands we know and love. We project our expectations onto them. Spoon gave us a Spoon album that requires a great deal of work to appreciate, jittery and jagged. They did so with the confidence that we would put in the work. Our expectations reveal as much about us as about the art. There’s a bit of transference there. Are we still talking about a Spoon record?

I am drawn to the loping final track, “Nobody Gets Me But You.” It sounds off. It’s got two left feet, sauntering precisely in time but missing the swagger you expect. The sound is minimal, Daniel’s voice floating over the rhythm section. When the song finally kicks into gear at around the 1:45 mark, it struts with a disconcerting military exactitude. Can covering Television.

As a lyricist Daniel appears opaque. He is a perfect rock and roll writer because he understands how to create the illusion of intimacy with very few resources. He’s always having a conversation with someone. Almost everything he writes is in the second person – he is exhorting the listener at all times, constantly repeating the word “you” through so many songs as a way of – what? Drawing the listener in? Singling the listener out? Hectoring? Pleading? Daniel rarely tips his hand. The stories and characters he describes have no easy referent or allegory – they seem more along the lines of private jokes, obliquely described to a stranger.

Nobody gets what I say /
Must be some way to convey /
But no one else remembers my name /
Just those parts that I play /
Nobody gets me /
Nobody gets me but you.

Transference is an album about missing pieces. The album appears unfinished. One envisions a cat walking across the keyboard during the final mix-down – everything is knocked a couple degrees off kilter and woozy. It’s about the anxiety that emerges from having just missed something, past the edge of your perception. Who is Daniel talking to in the final song? Is he talking to a woman? A friend? Himself? There’s an obsession with playacting that pops up periodically in his lyrics – see, “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” from Gimme Fiction. He can’t move past the deception, whatever kind of deception it may be, because while it may keep him safe, it also means he’s profoundly alone. Needing to make a connection but feeling unable to do so is the kind of pain whose memory doesn’t fade.

I was dreaming in the driver's seat /
When the right words just came to me /
And all my finer feelings came up.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was released in the summer of 2007. I fell in love with the record soon after relocating from Worcester to Holyoke, a necessary move, and still about twenty minutes’ drive from Amherst. It was a pleasant drive over soft hills and ancient lanes – the road from Holyoke to Amherst passes next to the campus of Mt. Holyoke, in South Hadley. My fond memories of New England begin almost entirely the moment I move away from the vicinity of Worcester. The Five Colleges region is beautiful, and were it not for other factors I would consider living there again. (Mostly having to do with people, there being many from my undergraduate years I wish to avoid.)

The album is fixed in my memory to that point in time, not a good fate. Close identification with specific memories make a record difficult to revisit unless you want to dredge up the emotions associated with that record. I remember the period fondly – it was a very hopeful period in my life, one of the most hopeful periods. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it can be difficult to revisit.

This is also, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time I became disenchanted and bored with music writing. It is possible in hindsight that I could have migrated away from reviews and moved on to feature writing. I could have done that if I’d wanted. My editor put up with a lot from me (all my editors put up with a lot from me). I could tell she liked my writing because I always had all the work I wanted. Even after I got lazy and stopped turning in articles she kept throwing jobs my way, happy to print whatever I sent. Eventually I quit, and I did not leave under amicable circumstances.

Writing reviews is very unrewarding. Even the best review is at the end of the day mostly a product recommendation. Sometimes reviews aspire to something else. I wrote a few of those. Tied as they are to the promotional schedules of major corporations I doubt if music reviews have literary value.

Still there is great technical challenge involved in writing 600-1000 word music reviews. It’s a genre limited by the descriptive imagination of the reviewer. There’s a reason why certain phrases recur so often in writers’ vocabularies, and even become commonplace idiom: it’s hard to come up with pithy yet accurate exegesis without falling back on stock phrases and formulaic structure. It’s so easy to reach for “angular,” although overuse has retired that one.

The masters of the form, such as it is, are writers who craft a distinctive voice for themselves despite the format, a difficult thing to do without becoming a caricature. The best rock writers embrace self-parody – spend some time trolling the archives on Christgau’s site, you’ll feel the grooves of his creative process real quick. Inasmuch as I had a voice, it was close to the voice I used for the early days of this blog – where, likewise, I spent a lot of time honing my chops writing endless reviews for comics that in hindsight did not always warrant aggressive scrutiny

My formula for writing music reviews is simple, and a variation of the format I still use for writing comic book reviews. You always start with context. Especially if you have space limitations, you are going to need to measure every word carefully. Context is hardest to write – a thumbnail history and gesture towards relevant established critical assessment. The cribbed critics’ shorthand required to communicate succinct impressions of a band’s history without any detail is a difficult art. The band’s most recent album is always a disappointment, the new one a “return to form” even if that phrase should be avoided.

It resembles in miniature a structure familiar from late antique and medieval composition: you begin with an infodump of your authorities (I usually pull out the Latin auctoritas to impress the freshmen – never fails) as a way of establishing to your reader that you are a member in good standing of a long-extant discourse network. Medieval monks hunched over parchment in candle-lit scriptoriums scattered across a continent were members of a community tying the middle ages back to the ancient world – that is, the very small proportion of the population throughout history who knew how to read, how to write, and had the time, inclination, resources, and stamina to do what all of these activities required in the ages before the printing press. They all read the same books, committed every line of Macrobius to memory, and could debate their favorite psalms for years at a time through torturously slow correspondence with other members of their tribe. Now it’s music bloggers.

There’s always a long section featuring a description of the record itself. What does it sound like? What is it trying to do? What is unexpected, what is familiar, what works and what doesn’t? There’s maybe time to tie the review into some kind of half-baked sociological thesis that alludes to a longstanding hobbyhorse of yours. Finish with a profound statement on the grand significance of whichever Avril Lavigne album you’re being paid to review (or not being paid to review). Always remember that whatever threads are introduced in the thesis must return in the conclusion, which places a natural limit on the number of themes that can be satisfactorily developed in the space allotted.

If you care about developing a voice as a music reviewer, that’s what you’ll do. Fill in the blanks according to subject matter and temperament. Sometimes, if you've built up enough goodwill to trust your audience, you can get away something expressionistic and personal. Sometimes you can get away with just describing how a song makes you feel.

Any type of writing can be broken down structurally, and once you understand the structure – how a piece of writing induces the desired affect through rhythm and timing – it is possible to create anticipation and suspense solely using sentence and paragraph length to create and sustain pleasurable tension, a ticking clock ratcheting suspense across your narrative. You can use interstitial elements like blockquotes of song lyrics to trick your reader into thinking they’re reading faster when you’re only giving them the false satisfaction of moving their eyes down the page faster. If you are writing something especially long, provide your reader with rest stops in the form of frequent breaks. You have to build to a grand finish, though, or you’ll leave your audience disappointed.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was a conscious attempt on the band’s part to step back from the sterile abyss represented by Gimme Fiction and move in a more organic direction. Organic in this instance meant an album grounded by a Stones-y vibe, complete with slight nods to Sticky Fingers. They do such a good job of inhabiting this voice that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is their most unmoored album, the least prickly of their classic period, the most accessible, most translucent. The least Spoon-like Spoon record. It’s mannered without trying: they songs inhabit their specific idiom so well that the record reeks of pastiche, to a greater extent than anything else the band has done. 

Oh, life can be so fair /
Let it go on and on.
The way I teach my students to think about writing expository essays is essentially the same way I approach thinking about a record. You need to understand your genre – and to do that you must understand who you are writing for, who you are writing to (not the same thing), and what you are trying to accomplish. Once you have a good idea of these you reverse engineer to create desired results. Stylistic development comes through repetition and practice.

So who are Spoon singing for? Who are they singing to? The lie rock and roll told itself was that rock and roll sang for everyone. There was a presupposition of universality that manifested in the hubristic belief that this music would live forever. Of course it won’t, nothing does. Spoon is a band for people with huge record collections. That’s who they’re playing for here, and it’s never more obvious than here. They’ve taken the idiom apart and put it back together in its most efficient possible configuration. It looks the same and makes all the right moves, but motivations are reptilian.

My favorite track off the album is “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” one of two strangely “classic” pop songs that bookend the middle stretch (the other being the horn-infested “Underdog”). It’s the pop rockist writers imagine when they use the term appreciatively – a platonic ideal of how popular music sounded at some indeterminate point in the past, but unrepresentative of how pop music actually sounds in the present. Spoon are under no illusions their music will ever be played on the radio (even if it sometimes is). It’s not designed to be played on the radio. It’s too arch in its devotion to the lost potential of discarded blueprints.

When you don't feel it, it shows, they tear out your soul /

My unhealthy devotion to Spoon begins in 2005 with Gimme Fiction. I think of the three album stretch of Kill the Moonlight through Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga as one unit, three records that while wildly different from each other in many ways represent the pinnacle of Spoon’s imaginative and fastidious music. At no point in their career do Spoon ever add so much as one single syllable to the rock and roll vocabulary. They operate under the assumption that the lexicon is closed, that it’s a dead language, and that there’s nothing left to be done but further refine the ancient style. They distill the affect of past achievement in a sturdy oaken cask and serve to connoisseurs.

I will argue for Spoon as the last great rock band, and Gimme Fiction is their greatest achievement. The album was designed to be the kind of album people refer to as a “greatest achievement”: from the descending acoustic guitar figure that opens “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” to the album’s jarring stop 2:45 into “Merchants of Soul,” there isn’t a single hair out of place. Some people are allergic to fussy rock records, preferring more spontaneous or at least less labored expressions. For Spoon, the effect doesn’t work unless everything has been constructed just so. It’s supposed to be alienating. It’s the only album that begins with a song about writing the record you’re about to hear, with appropriate nods in the direction of the redemptive power of rock and roll, which also manages to sound like the mounting apprehension that precedes a well-planned massacre.

It’s an album I never tire of revisiting. Nothing else has remained in constant rotation for as long – almost from the moment of its release. It never gets old. I regard individual Spoon albums with the same kind of fervent devotion that others reserve for David Lynch movies: each one presents to the audience evidence of a cover-up, and leaves the audience to imagine the crime at the center of the conspiracy. Gimme Fiction is Spoon’s Mulholland Drive.

I don’t regret that I no longer write music reviews. Doing so sapped a great deal of enjoyment out of music for a long time. You can destroy something through examination – vivisection becomes autopsy in the blink of an eye. I’m pretty good at writing reviews, but the satisfaction of writing a good review is purely intellectual. You have a problem to solve – how to describe an object in such a way as to indicate the dispensation of said object for a hypothetical reader – and very few tools to accomplish the task. I can think deep thoughts on demand about the nature of rock and roll but there’s not a lot of practical use for that. Much of the PR recycling that signifies online music writing is useless.

What really matters about music – and books, and everything – is that it makes you feel something. That’s it.

No, really.

It doesn’t matter what that something is – it could be disgust or titillation, academic curiosity or fevered devotion. When I was young I believed there was good art and bad art, and that it was the responsibility of the critic to differentiate between the two – and the reviewer, the critic’s emaciated and defrocked cousin, although they often inhabit the same body, uneasily. There’s no such thing as good art. There’s interesting art, more or less depending on your inclination. You don’t have to like something to regard it as interesting. On the contrary, discovering virtue in something you have previously dismissed, or in a deeply flawed work that nevertheless carries some spark of intrigue, is one of the great pleasures. Listen carefully to everything you hear, and listen with an open mind, or you’ll miss something important.

Cool is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t want to be scared. What does being cool actually get you? Does it bring you closer to the people you care about? Does it make you a better friend? Does it help you work faster? The people most concerned with retaining their cool are the people least able to do so. The people you should be the most concerned with are those least concerned with whether or not you are cool.

And that’s Gimme Fiction. It’s a labyrinth with no center, a maze built of allusion, implication, private joke and performative insouciance. The album’s tenth anniversary reissue came with two albums worth of demos and rehearsals. The remarkable thing about the album’s demos is that they reveal almost nothing about the composition of the songs. Even as demos the songs are fully formed. Chord changes are the same, lyrics, every coda and bridge intact as they will appear on the album if recorded poorly. Even Daniel’s inflection is much the same, every merciless sneer and falsetto turn already calculated and constructed to precise effect.  

Hearing the songs in such minutely realized detail at such an early stage magnifies the album’s achievement. They also threaten to break the album’s mystique. Daniel knew exactly how these songs were supposed to sound before he entered the studio. No assembly required; they were always there, waiting to be painstakingly chiseled out. Spend a few minutes reading Sean O’Neal’s oral history of the album, Gimme Facts. Every suspicion you may have had about the album is confirmed. The band spent a lot of time in the studio getting everything right. It’s filled with small little musical jokes that only a select handful of hyper-attentive listeners will ever get. The lyrics, which in context appear so mysterious, are snippets of conversation and reference to events in the band members’ lives. It wasn’t Daniel who played in a drop-D metal band called “Requiem,” but bass player Josh Zarbo.

It makes sense to describe Gimme Fiction, to explain it in the context of the band’s career, to use it to mount an argument concerning the destiny of rock and roll. It’s all hot air. Of certain interest to those who regard sifting words into novel configurations a noble goal in and of itself. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it is necessary to admit, finally, that any attempt to describe a work of art begins and ends solely with my response. The album is ultimately just a rock album, no matter how much my affection for it makes me want to puff it up into something more. If I’m doing my job I can convince you it’s good and important without making you question whether or not I believe anything I’m saying. Lying in the service of getting you to buy a record – that’s a good use of our time together.

At this point I get up and step back from the desk. I’m talking in circles. I can’t seem to get back to the point I wanted to make. Perhaps the point was lost a while back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I set out to write about Spoon because I had never written about them, even after I realized that they were my favorite band. It seemed an interesting way to talk around what I really wanted to talk about: my voice. I can write music reviews in my sleep. Or at least, I could.  It was a voice I was very comfortable inhabiting. It’s also something that takes a great deal of focus to do correctly, at least to do it in such a way that you’re not insulting your readers’ intelligence. After a certain point it is impossible to know whether you are repeating yourself.

When you were coming up /
Did you think everyone knew /
Something unclear to you? /
And when you were thrown in a crowd /
Could you believe yourself /
Did you repeat yourself? /
Because no one would hear /
And just say it again /

So, who am I writing for? Writing to? Why am I writing?

The answer to the first question is that I’m writing for myself. That’s the only person I’ve ever cared about pleasing. When I write for another venue I write for that venue’s audience, but when I write for myself, I’m writing to my audience. And my audience indulges my every whim. No matter how long an article or demanding an essay, I know there are people who will read it and chew and digest what I’ve said. It’s powerful to know that even if my audience is solely composed of people with whom I’m on a first-name basis, I’m actually on a first name basis with more than a few people. Thanks to my writing.

But it’s not the same anymore. Something’s changed. I can write again, sure, write to excess, quickly, and with alacrity. That much is back. Something that was stuck for a long time came unstuck and now I can barely find it in me to stop writing. Sometimes when I type I know who I am, other times I seem less sure. Recently something inside me shifted and I found a new voice. My old voice did the job for which it was designed: it made me sound smart, made me seem like an Expert. I was making it up as I went along. Most experts are.

It’s a funny type of masculinity that hinges on knowing trivia for fifteen-year-old rock records and thirty year old comic books. It’s the kind of masculinity into which you crawl and hide because it represents the least traumatic way of asserting yourself across a bafflingly gendered social sphere. If you can’t figure out a way to assert yourself, some field in which you can feel as if you have a respectable toehold, then you don’t have anything. It’s not much, but it’s some kind of identity that provides the modicum of success you need to pass relatively unmolested through the world. No one pays close attention to you if you look like you know what you’re doing. Busying yourself with immersive hobbies that demand a great deal of specialized expertise that can only be gained through work and experience? It’s a way of distracting yourself from looking closely at the real problems in your life.

I don’t want to lie anymore. I spent almost every day of my life lying to myself, to other people, to the world – a thousand lies every day, each one more extravagant than the last. I don’t feel like an expert. I feel like an imposter. The reason why is simple: I am an imposter.

And we was cutting through the park /
Trying to get home before too dark /
Who was it that we saw that night /
Was it you?

The third-to-last song on Gimme Fiction, “Was it You?” is a haunted forest, deliberately paced with professional exactitude by Jim Eno, shafts of moonlight falling through the leaves. The band stretches the opening vamp of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” over a tense five minutes. You encounter a mystery in the forest. You are disquieted but you sit to rest. You close your eyes for a moment and you are asleep before you realize you are in danger.

The sound of soft rain on the forest floor gives way to the mechanical stride of “They Never Got You,” tripping along like a metronome. It’s an odd capstone for an album devoted to irony and subterfuge. There’s nothing sinister at work. Coming on the heels of “Was it You?” – to say nothing of “The Infinite Pet,” “My Mathematical Mind” and much of the rest of the album – you expect to hear something false. You listen intently for the hidden valences. Hints, clues, pieces that can be assembled. But there’s nothing obscured. The song is about what it is about, and what it’s about is seemingly the rarest emotion in the Spoon catalog: reassurance.

There’s no sneer, no paranoia, no apocalyptic medieval imagery. It’s as simple as Daniel describing the sensation of confusion that accompanies profound loneliness – what does everyone else know that I don’t? Behind the (fake) ironic detachment and (affected) cool, behind even the intellectual pretense of the band’s sophisticated art direction, the common thread tying together both Daniel’s lyrics and his peculiar talent for musical pastiche is nostalgia. Not for a specific place or location, but for an age, a feeling – youth. Nostalgia operates differently for Spoon than for most pop bands, however. It’s a negative expression. The past is full of bad things: bullies who count your teeth and managers who sink your career. Daniel doesn’t want to be a kid again. He’s happy being an adult, and proud to have escaped whatever awful childhood he left behind. They never got him.

Don't let em in /
Don't go too far /
And cover your tracks. /
Cover the path to the heart /
Don't let those footholds start /
And don't let no one in /
Because they never got you and you never got them.

Why do everyone else’s lives appear to be so easy – or from a younger perspective, why is my life so uniquely hard? It feels like I spend every day all day talking to people and trying to find someone, anyone, who hears what I’m saying and understands what I’m trying to say. I never do, at least when I dream of being young.

But that’s the lesson. Beneath the surface texture – the stannic coolness of an album that crackles like frost under your foot – lies a beating heart. The monster at the center of the maze is a message of hope. It does get better. You can leave your past behind. The truth is what you take away. Everything else is window dressing. 

I took a river and it wouldn't let go /
I want you to stay and I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and it goes on.

I took my first estrogen supplement on July 30th. I’d had the bottle for a few days. I regarded it with the healthy reverence you accord a poisonous snake. Only I wanted to be bitten.

It’s a funny thing, knowing you hold within your hand the means to change your life. The moment is pregnant. You want it, of course you want it. You went to the doctor. You asked for it. The pharmacist filled the prescription for you. You took the bottle home and placed it on your shelf. You don’t want to look at it.

What am I afraid of?

It’s not that I don’t want it to work. Of course I want it to work. I don’t yet know what that means. I know what to expect physiologically even if many of the details vary. I’ve read enough. I’ve been told enough. I’ve thought about precious little else for months.

Am I more afraid of if working, or of not working?

Even though it’s not remotely the same thing, my thoughts dwell on my experience with antidepressants. These were pills that held the promise of some kind of relief and renewal in the face of what I could only perceive as broad dissatisfaction. They never worked – rather, they all worked a little bit. I notice when they aren’t there: my mood suffers and my temper becomes more volcanic than normal. Without them I am less functional, but they give me little in the way of positive help.

It’s not an antidepressant. It’s not a pill to improve my mood. It’s not a medicine to treat the symptoms with dispatch and leave me unchanged. What I have isn’t a disease. It’s part of who I am on a molecular level. The atomic formula of estradiol is C18H24O2. Just a handful of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules cobbled together by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Nothing more. Through a strange and cruel biological quirk my body craves but cannot produce the molecule that saves my life.

But it’s not just that. It represents a life somehow – different? Better, hopefully. More problematic in almost every way. Irreversibly altered. No coming back. When you take the first pill you set a timer. Before you take that pill you can push the clock forward indefinitely. Once you do this, time lurches into motion and you are pulled inexorably forward towards –

What, exactly?

My estradiol is coupled with a testosterone blocker called spironolactone. It’s also a diuretic notorious for making people need to go to the bathroom and consume large quantities of salt. I am given the spiro two weeks before estradiol. This is unusual but not unheard of – in any event, I am glad to start the medications in the order that I do because taking the spiro first allows me to feel in minute detail the immensely gratifying sensation of testosterone leaving my body. Long before my first dose of hormones, I notice a gradual calming. A fidgeting creature ceases to squirm quite so much. The experience is illuminating. Without testosterone my vision is clearer. I feel slightly more relaxed, slightly more focused. (Only slightly, however.) Although I am easily winded and disinclined to heavy exertion, I am happier already.

Life without testosterone is a different life altogether. Things make more sense. The constant screaming in the back of my head falls silent. In its absence there is stillness, crisp and cool. In the steep air I can breathe.

Since the moment I voiced I have felt the truth of my circumstances as a solid object, immovable and undeniable. There was no doubt. I suffered great torment because there was no doubt: I did not feel so much as a token resistance, not from my consciousness. It would be a much longer process to flush the hesitation and temporizing, the fear and regret and self-loathing that accompany the revelation, but the actual premise itself? Never once questioned. Once I heard, I knew. I could never unhear.

There was still, however, one last kernel of doubt, a doubt constructed not from a desire to escape my near certain destiny as a transgender woman – but a doubt manufactured from years of bitter experience and disappointment with drugs that promised to heal but could only ever staunch the bleeding. Estradiol works for most people in my position. But I’m not most people.

Only one way to find out.

I want to be there tonight /
I want to get there but it's just out of sight /
I took a river and felt so slight so hold on.

It is custom among the members of my tribe to dissolve our estradiol under the tongue, those who receive the pill. Why do we do this? My doctor doesn’t believe there’s any noticeable difference in efficacy. I’ve come to different conclusions whenever I’ve looked for a concrete answer.

The truth is that we do it because it’s how we do it. There’s no real ceremony in the process of receiving hormone replacement therapy. It feels important. It feels significant to a degree that few things will ever feel significant in your life. There should be something more significant to the moment than filling a prescription and taking a pill. Placing the tablet under our tongues signifies the event through the observance of a ritual, however small and private. We have precious little history that isn’t colored by tragedy – long centuries of isolation, ignorance, persecution, and suicide. We cling to the culture we have, whatever form it takes. We create it for ourselves from a whole cloth.   

It is profoundly odd to suddenly become a controversy. People dispute my existence. My symptoms are imaginary. My feelings in the matter are just that – small feelings of no lasting import, indulged only by perverts and the mentally ill. But sensation is a species of feeling, and every feeling is imaginary, in that the capacity to feel is solely confined to intangible processes that flit between a billion neurons in the time it takes you to read these words. That I feel as I do, and that these feelings reveal my misattributed gender as a source of constant pain, is not up for debate. It’s not up for discussion anymore than the color of my eyes or my dominant hand. My reality is solid.

Without testosterone my thoughts are clear: that is reality. I do not feel so harried: that is reality. My extreme paranoia dissipates almost immediately: that is reality. I can examine my emotions rationally and deliberately. Here’s my self-hatred, a knotted ball of calcified hair in my gut. Here’s my feelings of inadequacy, remnants of a fetal twin whose passing is marked by a cluster of vestigial teeth extracted from my side and carefully catalogued. Here’s my anger – all my anger, every single ounce of wrath and rage I’ve ever felt burning through my body like alternating current, a tumor nestled against the base of my skull, coloring every impulse traveling along the highway of nerves that run through my body to my brain. My emotions are strong and random, chaotic impulses nestled equidistant between fight or flight. I always feel under attack.  

Owing to a number of factors I remain largely free of the worst consequences of physical dysphoria. I am immensely grateful for this, even abashed. It is likely to my understanding that ignorance of my nature prevented my from focusing feelings of disquiet on any specific parts of my body. I knew simply that I hated it all. I avoided mirrors and was unable to make myself exercise. My body was the enemy, and naturally my research interests focused on relitigating the disposition of body and mind.

I took a river and the river was long /
I want you to stay course I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and goes on.

But reality, if solid, is always more complicated than initially appears. My body wasn’t my enemy. My enemy is my perception of my body. My perception has been until very recently clouded by the presence of the wrong sex hormone. Balance the hormones and balance the perception. That’s how it works on paper. Individual results may vary. I remained convinced, wrapped in the invincibility of my cynicism, that what was wrong with was more than could be fixed with a pill. I was too broken.

And then I took the pill. 

Something unscrews the top of my head. What had been cramped becomes spacious and airy. My ability to think reforms, shattered into a thousand pieces, scattered across a thousand corners of my mind. Where I had felt gravity pulling me downwards, I now feel the loosening of bonds. I am lighter.

Within two days of my first pill I experience a foreshock that heralds a great scouring. I don’t just feel lighter, I feel light, illumination radiating from within and spreading outward to my hands and feet. At first I mistake the sensation for panic. Both panic and joy evolve from similarly tentative origins, moments of unease that often presage imminent danger. But sometimes the danger never arrives. The anxious anticipation that precedes panic gives way to peace. The accumulated plaque and oxidation of decades of misery, crusted across the interior of my skull, begins to dissolve. 

I feel different, emotionally and physically. I move different. I think different. I have reclassified the broad spectrum of negative behaviors that have largely abated since beginning hormones as “masculine”: this is a problematic designation which will need to be revisited at a later day, but it is involuntary. My dysphoria is emotional and behaviorial. When I am angry, when I lash out with rage or sarcasm or caustic wit, it feels wrong, there’s no better way to describe it. When I am compelled to assert myself, to parade my opinions and critical acumen for the world to inspect, preening for praise and looking expectantly to the esteem and approval that I could never instill in myself – it feels like swimming upstream. The testosterone persists as a shadow of fear. I imagine it as black ichor, pure corruption. One drop can scar. There’s no going back to the way things were.   

I stop fighting the current. I let go and float. It’s a cool night. The water feels good against my body. I am warm without heat. The moon is directly above me. I no longer feel my body. I am a speck of consciousness lodged between the earth and the moon. I am quiet.

Had I fought I would have drowned. But I’m not tired anymore. I don’t feel anything. I am empty. I am happy. I am alive.

It's time to take the trash out /
And redefining what you are /
Redefining what you're about.

A Series of Sneaks was released in May of 1998. I didn’t know who Spoon were at the time. The album sold poorly. Four months later their A&R rep Ron Laffitte quit his job and, despite promises, the band were dropped by Elektra and left to fend for themselves.

Bands form their own mythologies, but only great bands leverage that mythology effectively. Lafitte’s betrayal is the catalyst that creates Spoon: after two decent records, one for Matador and one for a major label, there was little left in the way of a career. This despite having already caught the attention of a handful of forward-thinking critics – like any number of bands, at this point in their history they could have easily disappeared and few would have considered it a great loss.

“Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now” is one of two songs recorded and released by Spoon in the immediate aftermath of this debacle. But what should be a straightforward diss track becomes something else. At a point when Spoon’s sound was struggling to assert itself beyond being heavily influenced by the Pixies and Pavement (and the Fall and Wire), they retreated from battle but refused to concede the fight. For a band that could easily have dissolved entirely, to turn around and casually drop one of the best songs of their career under the pretense of attacking their former manager – in hindsight it’s a career-defining move. They had nothing to lose. There was nothing to be gained by not trying to swing for the fences every time.

It’s a gorgeous song, plaintive and urgent in equal measure, wrapped in a minor key melody that lodges itself in your mind despite its grim subject matter. Daniel recycles a painful personal anecdote into a universal complaint with the casual expertise of a master, and its here that his voice fully emerges as more than merely the sum of its influences. The question repeated like a mantra through the chorus, “Are you honest with anyone?” is, an accusation, an expression of anger, but also a lament and ultimately an admission of guilt at his own culpability in having been fooled.

This is Spoon. From the rubble of certain disaster they emerged with something new: a sense of grievance that Daniel could shape his words to fit around, the perfect original sin for a lyricist who would devote his career to exploring the softer side of paranoia. From this betrayal emerged a far more focused band. They returned from a holiday brush with disaster in time to drop five of the great rock and roll records in quick succession at a clip of one every two years. Gaze upon their works, ye mighty.

Redemption. Sentiment without nostalgia. Good things emerge even from lies. One day you too will find the secret key that opens the door to wake the sleeping compassion at the heart of the world.  
Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
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Jean said...

You've convinced me to give Spoon a shot.

alfred pennyworth said...

amazing. i'm really happy for you. will keep working my way through these pieces. aloha & mahalo.