Rocket Juice & The Moon is a collaborative project from Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s pointedly African in sound, which is cool. I like Albarn, but Tony Allen is a real cool dude, too. I don’t know how they traded off responsibilities, but I’m thankful they made the album. It’s an aight record, not too exceptional, but one line from it, courtesy of rapper M.anifest, has been stuck in my head for months: “Oh, what a life! Cheat on Death ’til she upset!” It’s from “The Unfadable,” definitely a highlight of the album.
Sometimes you receive wisdom and you don’t even realize it until later. This line, or some mangled version of it, came to mind when I was outside taking a walk one day. It was long after I’d rotated Rocket Juice & The Moon off my iPod, so it wasn’t fresh in my head or anything. It popped into my head out of nowhere — it took me forever to even remember where it was from — and it really struck me as maybe being the realest thing ever wrote.
It’s not deep. It’s just aware of what life is and how we live it. Life sucks. Late night calls never bring good news, your job can be a slog even if you love it, and things are going to go wrong. It’ll make you feel bad, blue, and black and blue, and you won’t be able to do much about it.
But. Life is still amazing. The long rhythms of cars passing through stoplights, the sun setting behind buildings… have you seen the fake stars in cities? The ones that are just antenna or airplane lights? All of that stuff is amazing. “Breathe in: inhale smoke from bright stars that shine. Breathe out: weed smoke retrace the skyline.” We did that. The trick is learning to appreciate it, or letting it pull you out of a black mood.
“Oh, what a life! Cheat on Death ’til she upset” crawled its way up into my brain and came out just when I needed it most.
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The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the final entry. I had a conversation with a friend about Damon Albarn and what I’ve been calling urban ennui. This is me trying to quantify that feeling, and how the music I enjoy the most has reflected or dealt with that feeling. This is more a collection of thoughts than a proper essay, but I hope you underdig it regardless.
-One of my favorite, or maybe my most favorite, songs on the debut album from the Gorillaz is “M1A1.” Listen:
-The first couple minutes of this song are taken almost verbatim from George Romero’s Day of the Dead. The man’s shouts for other people turn the song into something a little creepy. He’s seeking companionship and finding none, but he keeps trying and the music eventually buries him. The implication is that he never finds anyone.
-“M1A1″ could mean a lot of things. It’s a type of tank, a flamethrower, and a submachine gun. It’s also the name for a road in England, built toward the end of the ’90s. From wikipedia:
Between 1996 and 1999 the M1 section north of the M62 underwent a major reconstruction and extension to take the M1 on a new route to the A1(M) at Aberford. The new road involved the construction of a series of new junctions, bridges and viaducts to the east of Leeds. When the new section of M1 was completed and opened on 4 February 1999, the Leeds South Eastern Motorway section of the M1 was redesignated as the M621 and the junctions were given new numbers (M621 junctions 4 to 7).
-The song goes from empty loneliness to rapid-fire music and shouts. It’s an interesting balance. It’s not even remotely single-worthy or radio-ready, but it’s still a great song.
-It evokes a specific mood. It sounds like cities feel. You don’t talk to strangers. You don’t make friends. You stay in your bubble until you reach safety, and then you get to go wild — party, drugs, girls, sports, whatever.
-That mood puts me in mind of a Kid Cudi line from one of my favorite songs about depression: “Crush a bit, little bit, roll it up, take a hit. Feeling lit, feeling light, 2 a.m., summer night.” This is how we have fun. Looking out over a city when it’s long past bedtime, enjoying the quiet, the swoosh of cars going by outside or at street level, and the cool winds. But it’s a little futile, too. The song’s called “Pursuit of Happiness.”
I bailed out of my life and went to Los Angeles last week for a few days. No email, no tweets, no nada. I don’t think I even texted that much, beyond getting directions from the LA gang. I spent Saturday night in Santa Monica, and I woke up around 3am. I got something to drink, looked out of a window, and realized that it was bright outside. The city lights made 3am look like 7pm. The weather made it feel the same. An eternal comfortable twilight, the perfect time of day locked in place and preserved. I wanted to take a walk, but instead I just went back to bed.
-I live in San Francisco, and sometimes I take walks at night with my iPod. This city is really nice at night, and I live in a pretty busy part of town. It isn’t quite as bright as Santa Monica was after midnight, but it’s still nice. My only issue is with the weather — I have to bring a jacket when I go out. But, sometimes, you hit that perfect balance and the city is beautiful in all the right ways.
-A couple Sundays ago, I found myself sitting on a bench in Japantown (a district in SF, just a couple blocks from my place), pleasantly faded, reading stories out of a copy of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome that the homey Sean Witzke sent me. It sounds simple, I mean I was just reading outside on a bench, but that’s not an experience I could have back home in Georgia. The people going by, the location, the smell of food from Yakini-Q drifting down the block, the reflections from the New People building… there’s something special there. Something fascinating and appealing.
-One of my favorite images of a city is a Black Star song, “Respiration.” It opens with a woman saying “Escuchela… la ciudad respirando.” I don’t know where that’s from, but here’s the hook and a youtube:
So much on my mind that I can’t recline
Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin
Chest heavin, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving
It’s beautiful, yeah? I love “Breathe in: inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/ Breathe out: weed smoke retrace the skyline.” It’s crystal clear, a thousand words worth of imagery packed into two short lines. When I think of what I like about cities, this is what I think of. The city as a living, breathing organism and the citizens as people just trying to get by.
-I loved this song before I moved to a real city. I spent a couple years in Madrid, but that wasn’t quite the same. I wasn’t on my own. When I moved to SF and found myself alone, I finally understood the melancholy aspects of the song. City living is like nothing else, but it will burn you out if you can’t keep up.
-I was trying to explain this to a friend in email, and the only compact term I could come up with for what I’m talking about was “urban ennui.” Urban ennui is that feeling that arises when you’re caught between a city’s majesty and its dungeon. It’s the combination of pretending you’re sober enough to talk to a pretty girl on somebody’s balcony at midnight and curling into a fetal ball in your apartment because the pressure is too much a week later, and then doing it all again because escape is unthinkable and unwanted.
-The feeling isn’t ennui, not really. Ennui is a listlessness, a tiredness. It’s exhaustion. Depression. But that’s the closest feeling I could come up with, even though this is something different.
Urban ennui about the push and the pull between the sacred and the profane, and how both are required if you’re living in the city. It’s how a smile from a stranger can change your day just as fast as a mean mug from another. It’s how a snarl of cars is beautiful from four stories up and a nightmare at street level.
-I can hear traffic from my place late at night, when it’s real quiet. I like how cities sound, and if I’m up late, not sleeping, that quiet motion is comforting, like the ocean. I don’t know why I like it, I doubt if I could quantify it, but I do.
-One of my favorite rappers, a guy whose career has had almost undue influence on my writing style, is El-P. He started with Company Flow, moved to Definitive Jux, and I’ve followed him ever since I first heard CoFlow’s Funcrusher Plus. Here’s his song “For My Upstairs Neighbors (Mums The Word)” off his (very good) Cancer 4 Cure album.
He packs a lot in. Cops as hostile invaders and obstacles, New York attitude, snitching, abuse, but most of all, the unique relationship between neighbors in a city. You hear the noises from other apartments, the arguments and screams and orgasms and heels, and you ignore it. There’s no real common area, so you don’t hang out and become friends. Each apartment is a world unto itself, orbiting the sun of the apartment building but existing almost entirely apart from it, as well.
-I don’t know any of my neighbors. I’ve had conversations and introduced myself to a few, but I wouldn’t call any of them friends. We don’t hang out. We smile as we pass each other and continue on in our lives.
I live directly across from the main elevator and stairs, so I hear everyone. Snatches of conversation. Muttered arguments. Drunken ramblings. But I don’t know anyone. I don’t know faces, only voices, and I barely know those. I have neighbors, but they just live near me. They aren’t neighbors like I had back home.
-El-P is familiar with urban ennui. It bleeds out of his discography, in addition to his songs about abuse, addiction, and depression. It’s one of the things I like most about his work, honestly. That paranoia and pain that oozes out of songs like “Stepfather Factory” and “The Jig Is Up” hit me hard.
-It’s no surprise that whatever it is inside me that loves cities latched onto El-P and his love of the same. The actual surprise, though, was Damon Albarn.
-Blur just released two new songs: “Under the Westway” and “The Puritan.” They’re pretty good.
-The Westway is another road. Albarn sang about it in “For Tomorrow,” from Modern Life Is Rubbish. A video and another quote:
She’s a twentieth century girl,
With her hands on the wheel.
Trying not to be sick again,
Seeing what she can borrow.
London’s so nice back in your seamless rhymes
But we’re lost on the Westway.
So we hold each other tightly,
And we can wait until tomorrow.
“We’re lost on the Westway, so we hold each other tightly, and we can wait until tomorrow.” Terror and love, inseparable.
-I like “Under The Westway” more than I like “The Puritan,” but that’s more due to the fact that “Westway” sounds more like the era of Blur I’m really into, their 13 and Think Tank albums. “The Puritan” sounds more like Modern Life Is Rubbish to me. (Not a complaint, mind.)
“Westway” is properly melancholy and explicitly about cities. Here’s an excerpt:
There were blue skies in my city today
Ev’rything was sinking
Said snow would come on Sunday
The old school was due and the traffic grew
Up on the Westway
Where I stood watching comets on their lonesome trails
Shining up above me the jet fuel it fell
Down to earth where the money always comes first
And the sirens sing
Bring us the day they switch off the machines
Cos men in yellow jackets, putting adverts inside my dreams
An automated song and the whole world gone
Fallen under the spell of the
Distance between us when we communicate
Still picking up shortwave
Somewhere they’re out in space
It depends how you’re wired when the night’s on fire
Under the Westway
Love-horror-love-horror-love-cities. Again and again.
-I got into Gorillaz (who I’d liked since high school) in a major way after I moved to SF. I reconsidered Demon Days, I dug Plastic Beach, and I grabbed all the b-sides I could find. Here’s a snap from my Google Music:
I don’t have everything (I haven’t grabbed the Laika album yet), but I do have most of their stuff.
-I also got into Blur, and Albarn in general. I’ve enjoyed all of his side projects to varying degrees. I haven’t disliked any of them. Some are just more good than others.
The internet makes it easy to binge on an artist’s discography (“damon albarn discography mp3 high quality”), but I don’t usually get into artists like I get into Albarn. I never felt like I needed to get every Joe Budden song ever, or Fabolous. But I did that with Albarn, and I’ve even got three zips of bootlegs and live recordings to go through even still.
-I think I binged so hard because Albarn scratched the same itch that El-P does. They’re both exploring these ideas of love, hunger, fear, and obsession on wax. They have a habit of seeing the beauty in pain — El-P enabling a neighbor to murder her abusive husband, Albarn focusing on the love that keeps us together in hard times — and being honest about who we are and where we live.
They don’t have a lot of common ground, but the common ground they do have is remarkable. I don’t think they’ve come to the same conclusions, either. Albarn seems like he’s made his peace with how things are, while El is much more abrasive and prickly about it. Maybe that’s that New York swagger vs whatever they have in London, I don’t know, but I enjoy thinking about it.
-I wouldn’t be the person or writer I am today without music. Specifically rap music, guys like Nas and El-P and Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox and Jay-Z and OutKast and Goodie MOb and Backbone and Cool Breeze and Too $hort and Mos Def and Talib Kweli and RA the Rugged Man and dozens more. They all either explored ideas that are near and dear to my heart or explored ideas in a particularly clever way.
The language they used and the ideas they explored are what made the difference. They opened something up to me, whether it was showing that every subject is worthy of consideration or just flipping a hysterical lyrical miracle off a spherical aerial toward the pinnacle, minimal satirical.
The way that I talk, the way I choose to write, is a direct product of a childhood spent listening to music. The books that I read ranged from classics to airport trash, and none of them hit me as hard as, say, “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” or “Find A Way” or “2nd Round KO” or “Uni-4-Orm” or “Fugee-La” or “Scream Phoenix” or “Shadowboxin’/4th Chamber.”
-Music taught me to be willing to find different ways to explore ideas, rather than just being simple and straightforward and boring. If you have to work for something, even just a little, it tastes better.
-I realized that several of my most favorite songs and albums explore city life and urban ennui entirely by accident, but it made a lot of things about me fall into place. It’s like opening a safe. The tumblers fall, click click click click, and then the door slides open and you have that lightbulb moment.
It makes sense. City living is stressful, especially on your own, and why wouldn’t it be explored via music? San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, New York, whatever. There are differences, but I bet the basic foundation of living in those cities is the same. It’s one of those things you have to make your peace with, or else just leave the city entirely.
-I’ve started running in the mornings, since I’m not really biking currently. I know my neighborhood well, or at least maybe a three square block radius. It’s different when you’re up at 6 or 7 and winding your way through the sidewalks, portapotties, and overgrown trees. You look at different things because you can’t run with your head down. It’s easy to find something you never noticed before as you watch the fog burn off.
It’s another angle on the city, basically, something new to love and fear.
-Urban ennui isn’t a concrete concept, or like a dominant one or something like that. It’s part of a spectrum of things: depression, relationships, adulthood, son-hood, and whatever else. But this feels significant to me, it’s something that matters. It’s something that’s real.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the fourth, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s Think Tank. We broke it down track by track for you, so follow along on your mp3 player or listen to the embedded music videos.
Graeme: There’s something about this song that really makes me feel like it’s 13 done right – It’s got the same droning, mumbling, incantation thing going on, but there’s a sharpness and clarity to the noise, at the same time, if that makes sense? Also, it’s only 5 minutes, and really doesn’t outstay its welcome (It also changes things up enough so that it almost feels like a couple of songs in one – I really love the bassline that comes in around 3:30). Lyrically, there’s something to be said about the first line of an album being “No, I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, no,” after the break-up depression and drama of 13. It’s the sound of someone who’s found a new confidence in himself, and wants you to know.
David: I bought Think Tank off Amazon, and it comes with a hidden track first, which is actually just the first 6:45 of the twelve-minute first track. It’s the talking guy from “Parklife” yapping about something over droning and pulsing kind of backing music. The music part is okay, but it’s called “Me, White Noise” and it’s easy to see why. There are some good bits in it (especially around 2:18 or so when it goes really dancey), but it pretty much instantly overstays its welcome, and then goes on for a full six minutes.
Graeme: God, I’d entirely forgotten about “Me, White Noise.” It’s like the uglier brother of “Parklife,” with the jangly guitars grown into squelchy noises and everything sounding like a hangover. It really reminds me of “Essex Dogs” from Blur, but a very bad take on the same idea – It’s different, yes, but so different that I didn’t really have any desire to listen to it again after the second listen or so.
David: Other than that though, “Ambulance”? I like how it sets the stage for the rest of the album. It’s typically Blur subject matter, a kinda melancholy love song thing about your own personal shortcomings, but the music feels newer. It doesn’t sound like “Tender” or “Boys & Girls” or “For Tomorrow.” The rising action that kicks a little before the end is great, too, and it sounds like an orchestra rising up behind the singer looks.
You’re right on the significance of the first line, too. I thought this record was much, much less mopey (as much as I like moping) than 13. Albarn’s singing on “Ambulance” reminds me of “Beetlebum.” You’ve seen the video, right? Where he’s essentially fellating a microphone? The delivery there reminds me of the delivery here.
Graeme: I can see that, but the video it reminds me of is “No Distance Left To Run.” This is Damon still a little sleepy, waking up and everything better after a good night’s sleep.
2. Out Of Time
Graeme: Another beautifully sad song, and again, there’s a clarity to the noise that makes everything feel new after 13. But there’s also the… counter-programming, perhaps, of the Moroccan instrumentation that really adds something to the way it all sounds, and makes it feel as large as the lyrics demand. “And you’ve been so busy lately/That you haven’t found the time/To open up your mind/And watch the world spinning/Gently out of time,” sings Damon, and it’s like he’s gone from snarky observer (Modern Life Is Rubbish/Parklife/The Great Escape) to introvert (Blur/13) to… what, enlightened observer? But there’s such melancholy in the way that he sings it that it doesn’t come across as impartial. Am I making sense?
David: “And you’ve been so busy lately/ That you haven’t found the time/ To open up your mind/ And watch the world spinning/ Gently out of time” is exactly what drew me to this song, actually. It paints a fantastically detailed picture of a world where all is lost, but not really, because there is still something pretty. We just have to slow down to see the beauty and finally notice the decay.
This is an easy one to relate to. It reminds me of Atmosphere’s “Modern Man’s Hustle,” from God Loves Ugly. The chorus (which is infinitely catchy) is “I will show you all you need to know/ You must hold on to anyone that wants you/ And I will love you through simple and the struggle/ But girl, you got to understand the modern man must hustle.” Like, yeah, I love you, BUUUUUUUT surviving has to come first. Priorities. (and if you want to talk about albums that are autobiographical for the listener, I couldn’t listen to God Loves Ugly for like three years.)
Being too busy to take the time to do nice things is pretty much the dictionary definition of modern life, innit? Turns out modern life is rubbish (sorry).
Graeme: Interesting… I’d always taken it as Damon being someone who’s almost reprimanding – albeit very, very gently – the listener/whoever he’s singing to for being too busy. As in “This is who you’ve been, but you have to change, or you’ll never get better.” Are you saying that you hear it as Damon just being sad that that’s the way life is now?
David: I’ve been listening and re-listening to it while replying to you, and the song definitely isn’t partial. He’s singing about the way things are, but pushing for the way things should be. I think you’re right about Albarn admonishing the listener, but it’s also told from the first person plural at certain points, which says to me that he shares some of the blame. “Where’s the love song to set us free?”, right? It feels sort of like resignation, whether from him (“I can’t quite make the leap to this kind of love”) or about her (“You need to slow down, life could be really nice for us.”). The Atmosphere reference isn’t quite as close as I’d thought, on further reflection.
But basically, this one is saying to me, “We/you/I ain’t perfect, and we make do, but it’d be nice if we could do better.”
3. Crazy Beat
Graeme: Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like posturing, like they’re trying to do something like “BLUREMI” or earlier, punkier music, and it just doesn’t convince – Again, there’s something about the production that doesn’t work for me, it’s muddy and feels small in the same way that a lot of 13 did. It feels out of place in the album, as if they were told by the record company to come up with an upbeat single and half-assed this.
David: I like this one more than you do for sure, in part because it’s basically in the vein of “I Love Rock & Roll” (in subject matter, at least, and in execution with the “I love that crazy beat” part) set over something I’d want to dance to. It’s light, though, and I don’t even think it’s single worthy. Like, maybe in the ’90s, but this feels like a throwback, save for the talkbox. This is just okay.
Of course, after I say “this doesn’t feel like it’s single worthy,” I google and find that it was a single. Well.
4. Good Song
Graeme: The first of many songs on this album that feel as if they could’ve come from a Gorillaz project. I’m not sure what the differentiator is for me, but maybe it’s the drums and the finger-picked acoustic guitar sounding like a loop? It’s a very slight song, but nice enough. Maybe it needed a guest-star, a la Gorillaz.
David: Hands down best part of the song is “And you seem very beautiful to me” and that lead-in to the instrumental break. The last verse is no good, though. The falsetto doesn’t work, the trailing off… it feels like he’s trying too hard. You’re right that it’s slight, and I think what it needed was a female vocalist, someone to go back and forth with Albarn.
Graeme: Yes! Bring in Little Dragon. I still think “To Binge” from Plastic Beach is the best Albarn song in years. Or maybe just the most complete.
David: “To Binge” is great, but c’mon… it’s gotta be “Broken”.
“You seem very beautiful to me” is great, though. Seem is one of those words that I think is a little wishy-washy, like you use it when you don’t want to make a firm statement. That, then, raises the question of just how sincere this song is supposed to be. Is it just an attempt at an escape? I dunno, but this track needed more to make me dig it.
5. On The Way To The Club
Graeme: This one just kind of leaves me flat. I don’t DISLIKE it, I just don’t particularly like it, either. It’s just there, and not very interesting to me. Again, parts of it – everything post 2:05, in particular – really sound like an unfinished Gorillaz song to me.
David: Man, yeah, I have hardly any opinion on this song at all. I get it, it’s about longing and not really being able to do much about it, but it feels like half a song. I don’t buy it. I keep forgetting its on this album, too. It just comes and goes. Post-2:05 sounds a little Demon Days-y, but only in sound, not in focus. The wailing and noises there felt like they had a point, while here… it just feels like dead air.
6. Brothers and Sisters
Graeme: I love this song; I love the guitar, and the way it sounds like it’s going to be a totally different song until the bass comes in. I love Damon’s attempts at rapping, I love the moaning background vocals, and the way the song twists and turns into something completely different by the time it finishes, especially the really dated-sounding keyboards. One of my favorite songs on the album.
David: Setting aside my obvious attraction to anything named “brothers,” you’re right here. The slant rhymes, the chorus, all of it is great. Do you hear him slurring his vocals on the chorus? “Gi’ us somethin’ toniiiight…” I love drug songs, and while this isn’t as teeter-totteringly clever as, say, Aesop Rock’s “Greatest Pac-Man Victory In History”, it’s still great just for its sheer straightforwardness.
I love how he flirts with the word “sobriety” at the end, too. Albarn goes “Librium for anxiety/ Drinking is our society/ Guessing out of tirety” and that’s great, because you KNOW the next rhyme HAS to be sobriety, but, no the song’s over. No sobriety for you.
Graeme: This sounds like a cousin to “Battle” on 13 somehow, but again, much cleaner and… more melodic, perhaps? Again, I love this song, especially the arrangement (The guitar? keyboard? that comes in behind the singing at 1:15 really makes the song for me) and the distortion on Damon’s voice. The laziness to the “la lala la la la la”s as well, it feels effortless, intimate. There’s something very… disconnected, in a good way, about a lot of the sounds on this album, very spacey but in a different way to 13 – I really like it.
David: The distortion is what makes this one. It’s like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, where a robot voice is playing this very melancholy role and hitting melancholy notes. This is another one of those rainy day songs, where really all the video has to be is a camera looking in a window from the rain while the band plays. That’s the exact picture this paints in my head. Intimate is a good word, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. There’s definitely something at least slightly masking his emotions–in this case the distortion.
I do like how the song reverses course in the second verse, though. First verse: “I’m a screw-up.” Second verse: “No, wait, I have family.” And “Sometimes everything is easy” feels like it has an unspoken “but not this time” sitting there in the shadows.
8. We’ve Got A File On You
Graeme: See, THIS is what I wanted “Crazy Beat” to sound like. This feels like an upbeat, shouty song that actually BELONGS on the album, and done in just over a minute! This is the kind of punk I want.
David: The first what, twenty seconds of this song? Flawless. It’s something that should be in one of Tarantino’s soundtracks. The rest of the song is great, sure, but that wind-up before the pitch is great. I think “Crazy Beat” is too different in tone for it to work as being a really shouty piece, though.
Graeme: I first heard this song when the album leaked online, and it was missing the last “ON YOU!” Weirdly enough, I think it was better that way. It just… stopped. Seriously, play it back and stop it right there. You’ll hear what I mean.
9. Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club
Graeme: This is really a bass-heavy album, compared with all the other Blur albums, isn’t it? Alex really takes a massive role on this one, and really grounds the songs in a way that he’s never really had to before. Case in point: For everything that’s going on in this song, it’s all about that bass line, and it’s the bass line – and probably Dave’s drums – that make it feel so loose and light. This is another one that feels like, with different vocals, it could be a Gorillaz song.
David: You know, I couldn’t tell you what a bass guitar sounds like if I tried. If someone pointed out the differences, sure, I probably could, but right now? No idea. You’re absolutely right in that the music carries this one, but I really dig the way that the vocals come in as a track of their own two minutes in, with the ’80s (or at least what I associate the ’80s as being like) vocal distortion feeling more like music than actual vocals. I really like the drums here, too, but can’t quite articulate why. They sound sort of like the boom-bap from some of the indie hip-hop I was into in high school.
10. Sweet Song
Graeme: Definitely my favorite song on the album, it’s another Albarn song that just feels honest and open and effortless, and again, he’s being melancholy. It’s something that he does really well: Not SAD songs, necessarily, but melancholy ones, ones completely infused with sadness, but also some kind of optimism that keeps it from being a complete downer (“But I hope I see the good in you come back again/I just believed in you” is the kind of beautifully heartbreaking line, all filled with regret and hope that I love Elliott Smith for, even though everyone else in the known world seems to think he’s only about the depression). I like that the song ends, but the track continues with that long fade that sounds like something moving further away, for another few seconds, too.
David: This sounds like it could have easily been on 13, or even Plastic Beach, when I think about it. This feels like “On Melancholy Hill”‘s lyrics mixed with the music from “Broken.” “I deceive I deceive I deceive I deceive ’cause I’m not that strong/ hope you feel the same” is a little bit brilliant, too, the kind of line you want to chew over for a while.
I can’t quite decide what the song’s actually about, though, in part because of that line. Did he hurt his girl, was she not open to him trying to do good, what what what? “I hope I see the good in you come back again” sounds like she went sour, not him. It’s just a little ambiguous, isn’t it?
Graeme: All the best melancholy songs are ambiguous, I think; all the better for you to think “He/She’s singing ABOUT MY LIFE.” I know there are multiple Albarn sad songs that I feel completely possessive about, and it’s all because of the very specific readings I give them.
Graeme: Another could-be-a-Gorillaz-song-in-an-alternate-universe track, but it feels unfinished and a bit throwaway in a way that earlier instrumentals hadn’t. Also, by the time the saxophone comes in, just being a bit jazz-wanky, I’ve pretty much lost interest.
David: I actually really, really dig this one. It sounds like a Saul Williams song, from Albarn’s voice down to the heavy, messy drums. I like how it has a few specific modes, too: the part where Albarn’s lyrics fade in and then fade out (which is the heavy part), the plinky-plink part before and after that, and then the oppressive bit after that, before flipping back to plinks. This is good writing music and a real head-nodder. The sax was a bit much, though, especially around 6:05.
12. Gene By Gene
Graeme: This always makes me think it’s a really simple love song (“You’re my jelly bean” strikes me as such a lovelily goofy expression, and completely unexpected by this point in the album) done very elaborately, based around what sounds like samples of random noise? But I love it, completely, it’s just… happy, or at least it sounds happy enough that I find myself ignoring the lyrics and just listening to the noises, something I do to a lot of songs that just make me smile. For all I know, this is a really depressing song if you listen to the lyrics, but I don’t care. Someone (his daughter?) is Damon’s jelly bean, and that’s all I need to know.
David: Is this song depressing? Even looking at the lyrics I can’t quite tell, and the song being so incredibly upbeat muddies the waters even more. “Gotta get to know you, gene by gene” is good stuff. It feels like a song that’s straight up autobiographical, too. “Got a radio hit in mind…” This is another song that demands you nod your head along with the music, especially with around a minute to go and the vocals begin wrapping in on each other. The outro is weird, though, more horror movie than pop song.
“Get out the shower and I’m four fifty?” Google says “Force 15″ but that makes even less sense.
Graeme: No, wait, that makes sense: Force 15, like a hurricane. Is that a British thing?
David: Ah, no, that makes sense. Wikipedia says that it only goes up to Force 12, but that still makes much more sense.
And on the point of it maybe being about his daughter–“jellybean” is such a daughter-y nickname.
13. Battery In My Leg
Graeme: It’s Blur-fan-heresy, I know, but this song – the only one on the album to feature Graham Coxon, who fell out with the rest of the band and left during recording – is just… I don’t know, overblown and bland in a way that the rest of the album isn’t, and I’m very glad that the rest of the album isn’t anything like it. Everything else feels more alive, whereas this feels uncertain and uncomfortable. You can hear the tension inside it, and it’s a relief when it’s done.
David: This song’s a drag, through and through. Even the piano keys taking the song out bore me to tears. The lyrics are okay, I guess, but it feels like a Blur song that’s intentionally Blur-y–“Here is what we do, so let’s go ahead and get it over with.” It’s like 2/3 of the songs on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 in that way. “This is what people expect.” Bleah. Pass.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the third, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s 13. These are raw track by track opinions, generally written over the course of the song we’re discussing. I’d have embedded music videos so you could listen while you read, but Parlophone doesn’t let you do that. Instead, open youtube in another tab and listen along.
David: My first thought was, “Wow, a seven minute introductory song?” For some reason that struck me as an awful idea, like maybe they should have eased into this one or used it as the last song simply due to the length. But no, actually, this is really good. The “oh my baby, oh my baby, oh why, oh my” bit is scary catchy, and the “Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much” is pretty great, emotionally. It’s interesting that the song is essentially two identical halves, and I’m not sure what that means just yet, but as far as a song about wanting to be in love goes, this is pretty great. It’s the kinda song you want to do in Rock Band (I really like going “Oh whyyy… oh myyyy…”)
Graeme: The first single from the album, and one of those songs that just hits you at the right time so that it sounds like a message from some higher power as much as it does just a song. The first time I heard this, I was maybe a week at most after being dumped by a girlfriend of a year or so, on-and-off, and it was as if Damon was singing to me. Because of that, maybe, this always sounds much bigger than it might do to other people, something I can’t just take as a song because it also feels like a hug, or a friend telling you that you’re going to be okay. Come on, come on, come on, get through it.
Random fun fact: This has the worst edit in any modern pop song I can think of. Listen closely at 4:00 and you’ll hear Damon go “Tuh” because they didn’t properly cut out what was, presumably, him doing the final verse before they added in the solo and chorus.
David: Puts me in mind of “White Light” from Demon Days and “Punk” from Gorillaz, but less successful than either. I like when the “na na na na” comes in about 60 seconds in and then the song goes crazy twenty seconds after that, but overall, this is like 75% noise to me. Is this about drug dealers? “I know the nodding dogs,” with doing heroin being “on the nod,” the city being portrayed as dangerous… This song is like two minutes too long, though. There’s this huge outro that I’m not into at all. Neat in theory, ehhh in execution. It’s very Gorillaz in sound, though.
Graeme: This is… fun enough, I guess, but pretty much a muddy mess overall. I think this is a really muddy album in general, in terms of production – It lacks the sharpness and clarity of the Britpoppy stuff, adding more reverb and distortion but forgetting to make anything really stand out. You’re right in saying that it’s two minutes too long – This was the album where, in interviews, they said things like “We’ve learned to keep all the noodling in, instead of just cutting it out,” but for all of that “Yeah, we’re being true to the way we are in the studio” posturing, it misses the point that the songs were better when there was more of an editing process. Maybe that should add to the wallowing aspect of the whole thing, that Damon post-break-up is lazy and messy musically where the rest of us are emotionally?
David: Reminds me of my limited exposure to REM’s catalog for some reason–the soft vocals and twangy guitar put me in mind of “Orange Crush” and “Losing My Religion,” though not for any specific reason or hard connection. Just a weird “Oh, is this like that?” I like it, though. This song feels very conversational, rather than being a tour de force of singing prowess. I really like the way the vocals feel soft, and the drumbeat is good, too. This one is about… being rescued via love? I don’t know. I don’t know about the squeaky guitar solo, either.
Graeme: “Do you feel like a chainstore/Practically floored” is one of my favorite opening lyrics to anything ever, it has to be said. This has very little Damon on it – He didn’t write it (It’s Graham Coxon, who also sings lead – He did “You’re So Great” on “Blur,” as well), and only does chorus lead vocals/background vocals and the keyboard at the end – but it’s one of the most pure moments on the album, for me (This, “Tender,” “Mellow Song” and “No Distance Left To Run” feel like they’ve come from a different album, in terms of sound). Maybe because of the way that Graham sings – quietly, mumbly – it feels really intimate, so I can totally see where you’re getting the conversational thing.
4. “Swamp Song”
David: I like the “I want to be with you” part of the chorus, but overall? Not really digging it.
Graeme: It’s got a great opening riff, and there’s something I kind of like in a “singing along when I hear it, but not listening to it intentionally” way, but yeah; this isn’t really the greatest song. Like “Bugman,” “BLUREMI,” and “Caramel,” it feels more like a half-finished song that should be a B-Side or something, if that makes sense. In particular, this song really, REALLY doesn’t have an ending.
If you’re following lyrical themes through the album, though: “Gimme space brain” harkens back to “Space is the place” at the end of “Bugman,” weirdly enough. Wonder if that means anything?
David: This is about being dumped and hoping that the dumper feels bad, right? It took a while, but I came around to liking this one. I like the way the song builds and peaks toward the middle with loud noises and uneven volume around the third minute before just completely devolving into something else–a thunderstorm?–and then cutting out a few seconds before the track ends.
Graeme: My Britpop memory is off, but I’d be very surprised if 1992 isn’t the year that Damon met Justine, the girlfriend that most of this album is about. This really reminds me of the shoegazery music that Blur did for the first album, and again, it doesn’t have an ending, it just gets louder and stops, which… doesn’t count.
David: This sounds almost like it should be the theme song to a sitcom, but I like it a lot. Is this a punk influenced song or is there some history to this sound? I really dig the vocoded/sped up B-L-U-R-E-M-I laid over Albarn’s normal vocals. Wait–is this about history? “Group using a loop of another pop group, completing the cycle, until the teenage maniacs, they bring it all back?” Music moves in cycles, what’s old becomes new, and Blur is on a 70 year old record label… The piano outro is interesting, but I’m not sure what it represents.
Graeme: It’s “Bugman” part two, but with an annoying ducklike vocoder moment! THIS is the one that really sounds like “Punk” to me, if only the annoying “BLUREMI” duck voice wasn’t there. One of the things that this song really underscores for me is how much I like lyrics in this album when I dislike the songs – I really, really like the “group using the loop/of another pop group/completing the cycle” take on pop music that Albarn is showing off here (Also, maybe it’s him getting his head around non-Britpoppy music, in a way, preparing for Gorillaz?), but musically…? This just doesn’t work for me.
David: I like it. It sounds like outer space. I didn’t get the lyrics at first because of how he’s pronouncing battle–I hear “Batou,” like the guy from Ghost in the Shell. (I noticed that on “Song 2,” as well. I’ve never heard anyone say “jum-bo jet” like that before.) This one feels really noodley, like they were fooling around in the studio and improving or something. I like when the heavy guitar comes in at around 2:30 and then transforms into another sound in time for the next verse. I like this one a lot, and his singing feels… not quite melancholy, but maybe so. It’s a song for a rainy day, when things aren’t bad, but you just kinda want to relax and re-center. Maybe a little Pink Floyd-y.
Graeme: A song that really, really grew on me, back when I was first listening to the album – I didn’t like it at first, but the more I heard it, the more things jumped out at me… The way the drums just push the whole thing forward (Dave doesn’t get enough credit for his drums in Blur, I don’t think; something like “Song 2″ or this is just awesome work), and you’re right, yeah, it sounds very spacey – There’s a great UNKLE remix of this that came out as a B-Side that turns it into a something much sleeker and dancefloory, but there’s really something about the… unpredictability of this version, and the way that it holds together nonetheless, that I have ended up loving a lot. It sounds fucking GREAT on headphones, as well, with all the panning between left and right.
8. “Mellow Song”
David: I like this one a whole lot. Maybe I just like the sad stuff more. It’s clearly about a breakup, and “giving away time to Casio” is brilliant. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite on the album, but I definitely like it a whole lot.
Graeme: God, I love this song so much. I love almost everything about it, especially the lazy, quiet way it starts – the ghostlike keyboards that come in on the second verse, the murmured vocals, the “Is this where I’m going to…? We’ll see… We’ll see. We’ll see” in the chorus. I’m with you on liking the sad songs more – I think almost all of my favorite Albarn songs are the sad ones, he does melancholy really well, I think.
David: I don’t much like the “Freestyle! Forty five!” part, but the “I’m a Country boy, I got no Soul” verse (bridge?) is pretty great. This one kind of overstays its welcome, though. There’s this weird piano loop in the background that sounds like Final Fantasy VII music, too, or at least reminds me of it. This, in fact, but less… jubilant. But that rising and falling action–that’s it. That’s what I hear.
Graeme: I’ll give you the “Freestyle – 45!” thing, which just feels like a pose, this inauthentic thing in the middle of a great song that I otherwise love. In a weird way, this song feels like the heart of the album to me, the one place where the honesty and hurt of “Tender” and “No Distance” and “Mellow Song” meets the over-produced weirdness of everything else, and again, it’s all in the vocal and the lyrics – The underperformed way Albarn offers up “I’m a country boy, I got no soul, I don’t sleep at night, the world’s growing old” and the repeated “I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones.” I said in an earlier email my theory that losing his girl to the Rolling Stones is an allusion to Justine (allegedly, seeing as I don’t want to get sued) falling into the rock and roll lifestyle of heroin following the first Elastica album, right? I’ve always thought that since the first time I heard this song, and it makes it so much sadder, somehow, as if Albarn is actually just repeating his flaws and the cliche that he’s lost his girlfriend to without being able to do anything about it.
David: I like this one a lot. Melancholy, quiet, great vocals, great lyrics. I like how it spins up into something almost jazzy and frenetic, too. I think he’s chanting “Love, love… love” about 5:30 in? I’m digging it. Another good Rock Band song. I like that the outro sounds like an old record, but I still don’t get it.
Graeme: The sound of a man trying to pull himself of… what? A bad relationship? MOURNING a bad relationship? “I’ll love you forever…” but who is he saying that to? Another song that’s less a song than an incantation, repetition and rhythmic without falling into the verse-chorus-verse structure, and underscoring the feeling that this album is full of expression, even if it’s this weird stream-of-consciousness expression that could’ve done with some editing.
11. “Trimm Trabb”
David: I’m not sure what “Trimm Trabb” is, but I like how this one sounds. The layered vocals on the chorus are pretty cool, too. Just slightly different enough from each other to sound like a handful of vocalists. There’s a lot of vocals that I can’t quite pick up–the counting in the background, the robot voice–but I still dig this one. Not top 5 on the album, I’d say, but very listenable, even when it breaks down into yelling.
Graeme: Trimm Trabbs are – were? – sneakers. So “I got Trimm Trabb, like the flash boys have” is meant literally as “I have the cool shoes.” (Weird coincidence: “Killing of A Flash Boy” is a popular song by Suede, Blur rivals and the band Justine belonged to when Damon met her). Again, this starts nice and lazily, and builds up – that feels like the structure of a lot of these songs, sonically, or is it just me? – and has a very passive Damon working through his demons: Not only does he say “That’s just the way it is,” but also “I’ll sleep alone” is repeated over and over again.
David: The opening guitar makes it feel like a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a Western, though the vocals obviously don’t match. This is a monster break up song, too. It’s fantastic. Probably tops on the album?
Graeme: I’m convinced this album plays in reverse. This is clearly “set” before “Tender” – This is the actual break-up of the relationship that Damon’s recovering from in that song, right? It is completely and utterly heartbreaking, so open and honest and fearless in its emotion – Again, when I first heard this album, I was in the middle of this horrible breakup (that ended up lasting months as we’d continue to hook up and self-destruct and bring out really bad things from each other without meaning to), and so, a lot of what Damon says here was exactly how I was feeling, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. There’s something so amazingly heartbreaking about the “I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel that this life is the life/Who settles down, stays around, spends more time with you” part, especially… The idea of just surrendering to the idea that you are at fault, that the pain is on your shoulders, that you weren’t good enough. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song, and never fails to make me want to cry.
13. “Optigan 1″
David: Weird thought–this feels like an intro, doesn’t it? Like the prelude to the album? I wonder if it and “Tender” were switched in the sequence? Maybe I’m reading too deep/being too picky. This one sounds old, like hand cranked record player old. I like it. Weird placement on the album, I feel, but it also feels very final at the same time.
Graeme: Yeah, it does feel like an intro – and if this album is played in reverse, it WOULD BE (Dun dun dun). But it also feels like a farewell, like something that would be playing in a theater as you’re leaving following a show. It doesn’t feel quite there, either; too quiet, too old, too… not present. The sound of the past, fading out.
It’s funny – Listening to this again to write this, I realized that there’s more to this album that I liked than I’d remembered. I’m still not sure that it comes together or works as an album – It really doesn’t feel like a BLUR album to me, if feels too overproduced, if that makes sense? – but as some kind of side Albarn project, it’s more interesting than I’d thought.
I’ve been pretty well obsessed with the Gorillaz lately.
I rediscovered them earlier this year when “Stylo” leaked, and I thought it was pretty okay. Later, after buying Plastic Beach late, I got into the habit of listening to all three of their proper albums every couple of weeks. I’ve been through the wikipedia pages explaining the meta-story, watched the videos on Youtube, and spent a lot of time thinking about the band.
It all comes down to fiction, I think. Telling stories and how you tell them. Each album is accompanied by a series of videos, background pieces, and text explaining its story. Each album, then, represents, or is part of, a story. The characters begin in one place and end up in another, for good or for ill, and each album evokes a specific mood or style. The narrative isn’t always clear just by listening to the album, the way the narrative in a comic isn’t crystal clear if you just have the art, but when you add in the other media, the picture becomes more filled in.
It’s modular storytelling, isn’t it? You can enjoy the Gorillaz on their own, just listening to the music and buying the albums every few years, and stop there. That’s how I did it until earlier this year. Gorillaz hit while I was in high school and got a lot of spins. I liked the joint with Del on it, even though I wasn’t even really a Del fan, because there was rapping. Demon Days was college, and I think I gave it short shrift at the time. I forget what song I bumped on that one… these days, it’s “Feel Good, Inc.” I feel like I dug “Dare,” but I can’t call it. Regardless, I love it now. But that’s how you consume music, isn’t it? I listened, I liked the tracks I liked, and I kept it moving on to the next one.
You can also begin absorbing the other media info–the DVDs, music videos, website info, and so on. They fill in the picture around the album, expanding upon the mood and vague hints found on the albums. Why does Demon Days sound so dark? What is a “Plastic Beach?” If you wanted just the story, not the music, you could use Wikipedia, Youtube, and fan sites to get the job done. I think the music is an integral part of the narrative, personally, but whatever floats your boat.
Together, all the parts make one whole. You don’t need all of it to get the job done. Each individual piece has merit on its own, whether it’s as marketing or art. But together, you have something really interesting. You have a genuine narrative. It’s told in a fractured way, but you can track forward motion.
The Gorillaz themselves are fictional, the product of Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, and whichever musicians they’re working with at the time. In the world of the Gorillaz, those musicians are used as in-story personalities. Del the Funkee Homosapien is turned into one of the spirits inside Russel’s head. De La Soul are malevolent forces in “Feel Good, Inc.” Shaun Ryder is a giant severed head turned music box.
Even their live band features other, standalone musicians operating under the umbrella of Gorillaz. Everything is subordinate to the story. Sure, we know that Albarn or members of The Clash are there, but while they’re on stage, they’re Gorillaz, which suggests a certain style or sound.
Look at the group, too. A young Japanese girl (20 years old this year). A black guy from the US. Two Brits. They don’t exist. They’re fake. And yet, they have detailed histories on Wikipedia. You can point out what they were doing on specific dates. They aren’t real, and yet, they are. Just like Batman.
This kind of thing is really interesting to me. I think most of what I’ve written about on 4l! is all about fiction and narrative. You can even look at the race stuff as pointing out things where storytelling got it right or wrong. It’s all about the telling of stories.
Everything is. That’s why I read comics, play games, watch movies, listen to music, and everything else. The rappers I like, the ones I come back to, paint pictures with their words. Sometimes it’s an entire story in one song, sometimes it’s evocative of a certain mood or emotion, or something it’s just a song about how they’re the best ever. It’s all creating something new, whether from the ashes of something old or entirely from scratch. Create and innovate.
I like the multimedia approach of Gorillaz a lot. It’s 2010, and I have more information available to me after a five second Google search than probably every person combined two hundred years ago. Coincidentally, my attention span is exponentially shorter than what people were working with two hundred years ago. I need a lot of information in varied formats and styles and I need it two weeks ago. The Gorillaz fulfills that need in some way by giving me a lot to absorb, and most importantly, whenever I want to absorb it.
Honestly, though, I’d kill for a Gorillaz comic. I need more Jamie Hewlett in my life.
(There’s this strange connection in my head between the Gorillaz and Jet Set Radio Future, the classic Xbox joint. I’m not sure if it’s because they share Miho Hatori [and maybe Dan the Automator?] or if they both were working in a similar flat kind of art style around the same time or what. They’re both fairly global in scope, too. JSRF and the Gorillaz have a multi-ethnic that synthesizes myriad and sometimes obscure influences to create something fresh.)
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