Album Assignments: 11

The Smithereens never made it to the top of the pops, but lots of Gen X-ers like me have fond memories of their late-Eighties run, and 11 was their peak. Of course, their peak was a little difficult to distinguish from the rest of their arc, because consistency is one of the band’s defining characteristics. “Blood And Roses” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” hit alternative radio in 1986, and colleges were rocking out to “A Girl Like You” three years later, but they might as well have come from the same album.

For that matter, “A Girl Like You”, “Blues Before And After”, “Baby Be Good”, and “Yesterday Girl” are so similar to each other that when one of them is running through my head it tends to seamlessly blend into one of the others, Beatles Love style. This isn’t a slam — it may be kinda like one long song, but it’s a great song! And it’s not like that’s the Smithereens’ only mood. “Blue Period” exudes a matter-of-fact melancholy, and “Kiss Your Tears Away” is a lovely, loving goodnight.

Still, the rockers are the band’s strength and it’s no accident that they were the first three singles from this album. “A Girl Like You” is a fine pop song, but I think “Yesterday Girl” is the best version of Smithereens rock on 11. The riff and the melody counterpoint each other marvelously, and the lyrics cleverly play with time and meaning, switching from “that was yesterday, girl” to “you’re my yesterday girl” to show how the narrator has moved on without bitterness. “When I think about religion, well, there’s no one to blame” was a line that resonated strongly with me in the song’s heyday.

Album cover for 11

I also have a special fondness for “The Blues Before And After”, because I used it as the title for a huge independent study project I wrote in college, tracing lyrical themes from blues artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters through the rock and roll of Chuck Berry and The Beatles. And who do I have to thank for that inspired title? The guy who assigned this album to me, Robby Herd.

The title was apt because just as my project traced influence through a chain, so do the Smithereens wear their influences on their sleeves. Their riff-y rockers are stamped straight from the template created by The Who and The Kinks. The harpsichord solo in “Blue Period” is a direct homage to the one in The Beatles’ “In My Life” (though, granted, the Beatles didn’t use a harpsichord but rather a piano played back at double speed.) And when Pat DiNizio sings “I believe in true love ways” for “Maria Elena”, he’s declaring allegiance to Buddy Holly.

How interesting, then, that the band who so deftly apes their heroes and whose songs so often strongly echo each other should nod on this album to the classic Edgar Allan Poe doppelgänger story “William Wilson.” In Poe’s story, the narrator tells a story of his childhood and young adulthood, during which he was haunted by another boy with the same name, the same birthday, and (it’s hinted) the same face. As his double ruins scheme after scheme, the narrator finally stabs him in frustration, at which time it’s revealed that the other William Wilson was something like the narrator’s conscience.

In The Smithereens’ song, by contrast, the narrator “tell[s] no stories” and “sleep[s] good at night.” But still he’s haunted by a William Wilson, a source of heartache who could only be abolished with music, and even then not always successfully. The narrator wants to be like him, wants to talk to him, and he lies in bed wondering about the life he’s led. Finally, the narrator understands that “we’re both just the same” and declares that his own name is William Wilson.

What I hear in this song is two kinds of doubling — first, the idea of an alternate self who made different choices, hence “wondering about the life you led.” Second, there’s the alter ego along the lines of the Poe story, an internal voice who wrecks our desire for a simple life with complicated thoughts, which can’t always be dispelled no matter how loud we turn up the speakers. When the narrator hears “there’s no one to blame but William Wilson,” it’s the voice of his conscience talking about himself. There’s also one slight other possibility, if we speculate that there’s more than one “you” addressed in the song — the notion of William Wilson as the man an ex ends up with. In that case, she’s the one who says that no one’s to blame but William Wilson, and “let him run wild” is the narrator’s desire to see his ex ditch the other William.

It’s an intellectually satisfying song on a musically satisfying album, one that beautifully reflects the Smithereens’ own strongest tendencies. As underground peaks go, that’s pretty rich.

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Album Assignments: 25

Adele is young, but she doesn’t feel that way. I know for sure how young she is, because she does us the favor of naming her albums after her age at the time of their recording. At 19, she was a prodigy who sang about dreams and heartbreak. At 21, she was a genuine phenomenon who sang about heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak, and a couple other things, and in the process released the best-selling album of the 21st century, moving over 35 million copies worldwide. These albums were openly confessional, chronicles of relationships gone sour and the multitude of emotions they left in their wake.

23 was not forthcoming. She instead took a break from the music business and had a baby. Come 2015, though, she released another chapter in the story of Adele, called 25. 21 had cemented her image as The One Left Hurting in relationship wreckage, and the first couple of songs on 25 continue in that vein. “Hello” in fact sounds like it may as well have come from 21, and not coincidentally it was the new album’s first single.

It was as if no time had passed. The song went to Number One everywhere, sticking around for 10 weeks at the top spot in the U.S. Adele’s musical persona was just as hurt as ever, and she tells us up front that she “ain’t done much healing.” She also introduces a motif of nostalgia, with an image of herself “in California dreaming about who we used to be / When we were younger and free.”

Album cover from 25

That theme got amplified further in her next single, “When We Were Young,” in which she openly reminisces about those bygone days of youth, during which she and her lover were “sad of getting old.” Now she’s old, and “mad of getting old.”

Right about now is when I start shaking my head and saying, “Adele… you’re twenty-five. You seriously think you’re old?” She sure seems to, as other songs on the album underline that same theme. In fact, one song seriously ups the ante by hyperbolizing the time dilation: “I miss it when life was a party to be thrown / But that was a million years ago.” This amount of nostalgia from somebody in her mid-twenties strikes me as almost comical.

Now, in fairness, Adele has done a lot of living in her years. I certainly wouldn’t know what it’s like to record one of the top-selling albums of all time at 21 years old, and for that matter neither would anybody else in the world this side of Alanis Morissette. There’s an Elton John/Leon Russell documentary in which we hear that fame is like cancer, and Adele certainly has survived an intense dose over the six years between her debut album and this one.

Still, what exactly is she pining for? Flipping back through the first couple of chapters, it sure doesn’t seem like Adele’s life was a party to be thrown. Her way-back-when seems like it was mostly full of pain and yearning, unless perhaps she’s hearkening back to the time before she started recording albums?

In any case, 25 shows us a deepening and broadening of Adele’s experience. Yes, there are plenty of relationship heartbreak songs, along with relationship insecurity songs, and relationship regret songs. But tucked in there are a couple of songs that are directly about her own identity.

The first of these is the aforementioned “Million Years Ago”, whose disappointment and longing for bygone days I find a little puzzling, but the other one fascinates me. It’s called “River Lea”, and from the first lyric it displays a different kind of self-awareness: “Everybody tells me it’s ’bout time that I moved on / That I need to learn to lighten up and learn how to be young.” That sounds a lot like my reaction to “When We Were Young”, though maybe a bit more harsh.

Where it goes from there is even more surprising: “But my heart is a valley, it’s so shallow and man-made / I’m scared to death if I let you in that you’ll see I’m just a fake.” Is this Adele revealing us to us how much performance and amplification is involved in the presentation of her image? Now, before I go further, I need to emphasize that if Adele’s heart is shallow and her emotions are fake, she sure as hell does a magnificent job of performing otherwise. Her songs give me chills, and quite honestly I don’t care if they’re strictly autobiographical or not, though it provides an interesting platform for discussion.

That said, there is a level of melodrama in her work that I think can’t help but be either an exaggeration or an out-of-context set of snapshots from her most extreme emotional moments. In “River Lea”, she goes even further than that, portraying herself as a user of others and an inevitable source of pain. The chorus refers to “every heart I use to heal the pain”, and one verse forecasts the suffering she knows she’ll cause:

I should probably tell you now before it’s way too late
That I never meant to hurt you or to lie straight to your face
Consider this my apology, I know it’s years in advance
But I would rather say it now in case I never get the chance

This is an Adele that is quite separate from the one best known by the world. Instead of the victim, she is the victimizer, and what’s more she knows she’s going to do it. I’m not sure what to make of the river metaphor — perhaps it’s lost on me as an American — but I found this easily the most compelling song on the album, both for its starkly different point of view and for its gorgeous production and instrumentation.

In fact, the production all over this album is fantastic, just as it was on 21. Despite the fact that there are no fewer than eleven credited producers on this album, the consistent thread throughout is that Adele’s dazzling voice remains at the center of every track, and accompaniment for the most part remains simple and subservient. That’s an excellent choice, as vocals should be the star of the show on any Adele album.

Along with the identity songs, 25 gives us a couple of other sides of Adele we hadn’t seen before. “Love In The Dark” shows her as the breaker of a relationship rather than the one left behind. She does it with regret and shame, but with no less clarity for that: “I can’t stay this time ’cause I don’t love you anymore.”

Even more groundbreaking is the final song on the album, “Sweetest Devotion”. Amid a thicket of painful songs, this one is an unabashed expression of joy in love, portrayed as a complete surprise. When she sings, “the sweetest devotion / hit me like an explosion”, it feels like an explosion, and it works just as beautifully as any of the agonized songs that precede it.

Like Melissa Etheridge before her, Adele has made love’s pain the foundation of her career, and we may well wonder whether she has more to give us. If “Sweetest Devotion” is any indication, we need not worry. The growth and exploration on display in 25 makes me eager for the next chapter, wherever it may lead.

Album Assignments: The Dark Side Of The Moon

There’s a rhythm we start with, well before we’re born. A heartbeat. As soon as birth arrives, there’s a new rhythm — the breath. As life continues, more rhythms are introduced. Work has its rhythm, of hours, of days. The relentless ticking of clocks follows us through every minute. Patterns recur, both on the personal level and on larger scales. History repeats itself, like clockwork, and we can feel the heartbeats of economies, of political systems, of ecosystems. Often, we get to see the painful repetitions, the swinging pendulums of human cruelties and human stupidities, human tribalism and self-destruction. Rhythms follow us all the way to the grave, into which we’re lowered accompanied by the tolling of bells. In the meantime, it’s a wonder we don’t go mad. Sometimes we do.

The Dark Side Of The Moon opens with a heartbeat. It’s a syncopated rhythm — thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP, thumpTHUMP. As the heartbeat gets louder, new rhythms fade in, a kind of micro-overture for what’s to come — clocks, cash registers, jackhammers. There are voices muttering darkly, unsettling laughter. And finally, screaming.

That’s when the music starts. The palette is electric guitar, bass, drum, and organ. Like everything on this album, they are mixed exquisitely with each other, and they sound perfect. And then come the words, which begin with, “Breathe.”

The Dark Side Of The Moon album cover

Pink Floyd obviously has the big topics on its mind — life, the universe, and everything. The Dark Side Of The Moon might be the grandest Grand Statement in all of rock. Can you think of a grander one? I mean, it starts out with the fundamentals of living — heartbeat, breath — and then systematically steps through the fundamentals of life, starting from the individual and personal, then expanding to cover humanity itself.

That cycle of big life topics starts with work. At the end of “Breathe”, David Gilmour sings:

Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down it’s time to dig another one
For long you’ll live and high you’ll fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.

These lyrics are clearly setting the stage for a song about work, ambitition, and the ways that they can throw a life out of balance. And indeed, “On The Run” is such a song, but it makes that statement entirely without the use of lyrics. Something extraordinary about The Dark Side Of The Moon is its facility for conveying concepts with pure music. Well, it’s extraordinary for me, anyway. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with instrumental music — it very easily fades into the background for me. Such is not the case with “On The Run”, nor any of the instrumental parts of this album.

The most prominent part of the song is the intense, fast, merciless rhythm of it. Every note and instrumental effect lays on top of a repeated pattern of very quick notes (hemidemisemiquavers, perhaps?) that convey a feeling of intense pressure and onrushing deadlines — certainly a feeling I’m familiar with in my own work. Desperate running footsteps in the background underline this feeling, and chaos builds and builds throughout the song until it all ends in a massive explosion — the “early grave” we heard about earlier.

But we’re not ready to think about death yet. Instead, as the debris settles from the big boom, we hear a new rhythm: ticking. (Usually the ticking comes before the boom — not this time.) The clock sounds increase until every alarm rings at once, waking us from the nightmare of high-stakes career-induced implosion. Instead, the lyrics talk about the very opposite — “ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.” “Time” is all about wasted time, a lifetime squandered until even the song itself gives up in frustration, its coda returning to the tune of “Breathe.”

The narrator of this section is more like the running rabbit from that song — home only occasionally, cold and tired. “Far away across the fields,” he hears “the tolling of the iron bell.” What bell could that be? Well, in the English countryside, it’s most likely to be a church bell, isn’t it? Those bells ring for a variety of reasons, but a bell tolling is more specific. When the bell tolls, it tolls for death.

This is the rhythm that leads us into “The Great Gig In The Sky”, its gentle slow piano echoing those tolling bells. The rhythm of that piano emphasizes the first and third beat, inscribing the opposite of the opening heartbeat. TONEtone, TONEtone, TONEtone. There are some words at the beginning — a spoken clip of Abbey Road doorman Gerry O’Driscoll declaring he’s not afraid to die. Those words aside, this song is the pinnacle of the album’s ability to portray concepts clearly without the use of lyrics. Clare Torry’s vocals aren’t just technically incredible (though they are that, too) — they inhabit both the terror of death and the peace of it, so completely that it feels like she’s been through it. It’s criminal that she was only paid 30 pounds for that contribution, and quite right that she reached a settlement with EMI and the band giving her co-writing credit with Richard Wright.

Thus ends side one, a full one-act play, the complete journey from birth to death. It feels like a self-contained album on its own, and it’s hard to imagine what more there is to say. Side two answers with the ring of a cash register, opening what I think of as Act Two. “Money” is a companion piece to “Time”, appropriately, and like “Time” it opens with practical sound effects before launching into a brilliant loping bass line from Roger Waters. Like “Time”, it personalizes the big concept with a specific point of view, in this case greed.

“Money” is the song that moves the album from a personal journey to a view of humanity at large. We’ve already been from birth to death, but there’s a bigger picture to see than one person’s life and experience. Money only works as a social construct — there’s nothing to it unless there’s someone else with whom to exchange it, so it’s the fabric of a society, not of a life.

That sets the stage for “Us And Them”, the broadest statement on the album. I keep wanting to say it’s the high point, but I’m not sure there is a high point on this album. It’s a sustained high. In any case, Waters’ dazzling lyrics take in the sum of human folly, incorporating all the ways we separate from each other — race, class, religion, views, anything we can do to declare another human the “other” — and the consequences such alienation brings, in war, in death, in suffering. The general who watched as “the lines on the map moved from side to side” is the, well, general view of a critique that Waters will make very specific in works like The Final Cut and “When The Tigers Broke Free.” It’s a stark portrait of human madness, which opens the door for the album’s final act.

To get there, though, we have one more instrumental passage to traverse, this one without any clear thematic hints like those in “On The Run” and “Great Gig In The Sky.” “Any Colour You Like” is a synth and guitar odyssey that serves a couple of purposes. First, it bridges the gap between Act Two and Act Three, the social commentary and the exploration of madness. Second, it invites the imagination to fill in the blank for whatever we may think was missing from the first two acts. Birth, life, work, time, death, money, alienation, war — what’s missing? You may think it’s love. You may think it’s power. You may think it’s a lot of things, and this song lets you fill in any color you think is missing from the full rainbow of the album.

SACD album cover for The Dark Side Of The Moon

And when it ends we get what Waters saw as the missing piece: madness. This was a topic much on the band’s mind, as they lived an insane 1970s rock star lifestyle and had already seen mental illness claim their former bandmate Syd Barrett. “Brain Damage” is about both personal madness (the lunatic in my head) and societal madness (the lunatics in the newspaper.) It’s about the futility of trying to excise that madness, and the odd comfort of knowing that we’re all in it together — that there is no dark side of the moon, really, because as a matter of fact it’s all dark.

All of it. With a transcendent drum intro from Nick Mason, “Eclipse” brings all the grand statements to a shattering peak by encompassing everything in our experience — a long series of statements that include the full totality of that experience, a totality embodied by its title and final image: the sun eclipsed by the moon. Whoever we are, whatever happens to us, the darkness will find us.

And then, finally, we return to that heartbeat, the sign of life, and perhaps the sign of hope. Even when the sun is hidden, there is still life.

Robby assigned me this album in honor of the eclipse, and I have to say it was pretty amazing to be listening to it on the day that totality crossed the United States. With the folded faces of more and more lunatics appearing in my hall every day, with “Us And Them” at a greater intensity in my country than I’ve ever seen, with work frenetic and time slipping by, and with madness afoot in the land, this album resonated profoundly for me, and I’m clinging to that heartbeat at the end, as the rhythms of life continue undiminished by it all.

Album Assignments: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Aretha Franklin has always been a greatest hits artist for me. I love her, but I’ve never sought out one of her albums, relying instead on various hits collections and her 1992 box set. So I wondered if listening to an album instead would recontextualize Franklin’s songs in a different way.

Here’s what I found out, though, at least when it comes to this album: it might as well be a greatest hits collection! Of the album’s 11 songs, fully nine of them appear on the box set. The only ones not included are “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” and, for some reason, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This last one is a bit inexplicable — it’s a marvelously powerful interpretation of a song already written and made into a classic by Sam Cooke, a far better song than, say, “Drown In My Tears.” (Not that the latter is bad — Aretha could prety much do no wrong in this period — but if you’re only going to leave two songs off the box set, why would you keep “Drown” to lose “A Change”?)

Album cover for I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Something fascinating about Franklin’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the way it covers the song but creates a distance between Franklin and Cooke, with Franklin standing aside from Cooke’s story. For instance, the Cooke version begins, “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” Franklin’s version starts like this:

There’s an old friend that
I once heard say
Something that touched my heart
And it began this way:
I was born by the river, in a little tent

If she had begun with the river line, she would be telling the story as her own, but instead, she leaves the story to Cooke, telling it as an extended quotation. In fact, there are times she diverges from it specifically to disagree with its ambiguity. Where Cooke sings, “It’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there / Beyond the sky”, Franklin sings, “He said it’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / I might not be if I knew what was up there / Beyond the sky.” Where Cooke expresses fear and doubt, Franklin replaces it with faith, albeit a faith that still is undogmatic enough to say, “I might not be.”

And then the story truly does become her own. In Cooke’s third verse, he goes to a “brother” and asks for help, but that brother “winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” Franklin’s version frames the encounter differently:

I went, I went to my brother
And I asked him, brother could you help me please?
He said, good sister, I’d like to but I’m not able
And when I, when I looked around, I was right back down
Down on my bended knees, yes I was

It’s in this verse that Franklin clearly identifies herself as a woman dealing with a man. Whereas in Cooke’s song the “brother” might have been seemingly sympathetic white people, engaged in a dialectic that is strictly about race, in Franklin’s version gender has entered the picture, and the object of supplication identifies himself as powerless — probably not a white man, but rather a black man whose own subjugation has rendered him unable to help black women. Through her own identity, Franklin is able to add a layer of meaning to Cooke’s masterpiece, and her own hope that a change will one day arrive for her, both as an African-American and as a woman.

Aretha’s womanhood matters in this song, just as it matters in the album’s other bookend, her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” This song has become so iconic, so ubiquitous, such a signature for Franklin, that it’s quite difficult to hear it as it must have sounded in 1967. But let’s try. Redding’s version emerged in 1965, becoming a top five hit on the Black Singles Chart, and crossing over to reach number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. In Redding’s song, he’s a breadwinner who says, “You can do me wrong while I’m gone,” but pleads for respect when he comes home with money.

Franklin tells a different story. In it, she is the breadwinner, and a loyal one at that who says, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong, ’cause I don’t wanna.” In this song, she is asking for his respect when he comes home, and makes it clear that this respect is the condition upon which she’ll give him her money. She makes the stakes clear in the end: “Stop, when you come home / Or you might walk in and find out I’m gone.”

This had to be a fairly stunning reversal when it was first released. Casting a woman as a breadwinner was unusual for the times, but even more unusual was her confident demand for respect. Where Redding begged for just one thing, respect from his woman, and was willing to allow infidelity in order to get it, Franklin brooks no alternative from her man. Not just as a woman, but as a black woman, “Respect” was her declaration of her own rights, and it’s delivered with such passion that it’s no wonder it has inspired civil rights activists of all stripes for years.

Not that I Never Loved A Man is such a political album. Aside from those two songs, most of it deals with matters of the heart, or in the case of “Dr. Feelgood,” matters of the body. Over gospel instrumentation of piano, organ, horns, and soft drums, Franklin delivers a stirring testimony to attraction and lust. A soulful beat underscores her impatience to be alone with her man, and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get “my mother, my brother, or my sister” out of the house so that she can be alone with him.

Franklin’s vocals throughout this album are astonishing, but for me nowhere more so than on this song, which takes the blues AAB lyric structure and makes it sound like she can’t help but repeat herself, just from the strength of her own feelings. The windup of the song, the “oh!”s and “yeah!”s, and most especially the final “good”, are quite simply the heady, overwhelming passion of new love turned into sound.

Look at this, I’ve gone on for ages and only touched three songs on this album. I’m going to stop before I fill up my night and this blog with exultation. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason why this album is so massively represented in her hits collections: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is Aretha Franklin at her absolute best, and considering what a legend she is, that peak reaches above pretty much every singer, ever.

Album Assignments: The Nightfly

The physical media of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly has long since passed out of my life. I first taped it from vinyl back in the mid-Eighties, complete with a scratch on the title track that jumped over about 3 seconds’ worth of music. (Another reason I’ve never been on board the vinyl nostalgia train.) Some time later, I bought a more pristine copy, but in mp3 form only. However, all this time I’ve remembered a key fact from the liner notes, one that Wikipedia has been kind enough to reproduce for me, saving me the trouble of paraphrasing. Quoth Fagen himself:

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

In other words, this is a prime specimen of that fantastic beast, the concept album. Each song on The Nightfly represents in one way or another the teen dreams of Fagen himself, albeit written now from the distance of adulthood. Those childhood imaginings mixed romantic notions of hard-boiled heartbreak with giddily optimistic visions of the future, both for the world and for himself.

Album cover for The Nightfly

Nowhere is that optimism more obvious than in “I.G.Y.”. The International Geophysical Year was a project undertaken by 67 nations from July 1957 through December 1958. Satellites were launched, undersea ridges were mapped, the Van Allen belt was explored, Antarctic research bases were built, and more. In young Fagen’s eyes, all this scientific advancement and international cooperation meant that “a beautiful world” was just around the corner — by 1976 we’d have cities powered by the sun, leisure time for artists everywhere, eternal youth and freedom.

But of course, this album came out in 1982, and despite its wide-eyed lyrics, Fagen’s voice can’t help but lend a sardonic edge to every song. Thus, unlike Howard Jones’ version of this leadoff track, Fagen’s original maintains some ironic distance from its narrator, whose glorious ideals had already been disproven.

Nevertheless, youthful hope pervades many of the songs on this album. “Walk Between The Raindrops” envisions our hero in an idealized relationship, in an idyllic Miami setting. The title image evokes an untouchability, divine providence to see the lovers unscathed through every adversity. Similarly, “Maxine” paints the future of a high-school romance as a whirlwind of exotic travel, sophisticated living, and morning lovemaking. The album’s sole cover, a version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby”, fits into this sunny daydream world too — within its story of unrequited love is the firm belief that “I’m gonna steal you away from all those guys.”

“New Frontier” sits apart from these other songs. Like “Maxine”, it’s spoken by the high-school boy, but unlike “Maxine”, its visions of the future are in service of making things happen in the present. Young Fagen (or in any case a narrator who might as well be young Fagen) is throwing a “wingding”, presumably in his parents’ absence, inviting friends to explore “a dugout that my dad built / In case the Reds decide to push the button down” — in other words, a fallout shelter. That shelter is fortified with “lots of beer”, which the boy hopes will help him score with a blonde girl who’s “got a touch of Tuesday Weld.”

For this girl, he spins a fantasy which manages to combine an “I.G.Y.”-ish enthusiasm for a perfect future, a “Maxine”-ish idea of his dazzling path into manhood, and an entirely improbable excitement about a post-nuclear world in which “we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn.” All of it, though, is to get this girl alone in the shelter. He asks if she’s single, chats her up about jazz, and urges her to “pretend that it’s the real thing” so that they can “stay together all night long.” Forget about the streamlined world, this “New Frontier” is much more personal and sexual than global and scientific.

There’s another side to this album, though, albeit no less sentimental in its way. “Green Flower Street” is our first hint. In this tune, the narrator is a pulp hero, who woos an Asian woman (“my mandarin plum”) in a dangerous milieu, where “it’s murder out in the street” and “there’s trouble most every night.” Despite her brother’s rage at the interracial affair, the hero’s “joy is complete” when he’s with his lover.

The equally pulpy hero of “The Goodbye Look” doesn’t fare quite as well. The title is a bit anachronistic for the “late fifties and early sixties” concept — the line “I read the book” directs us pretty clearly to a literary predecessor, which I thought for sure would have been a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett yarn, but instead turns out to be from a 1969 novel by Ross MacDonald, the spiritual successor to those innovators of the hard-boiled detective story.

The song’s plot has nothing to do with MacDonald’s book, though — it’s more akin to Graham Greene’s “The Comedians”, if anything — a westerner caught in the machinations of a corrupt Caribbean island government. His tone, though, nails those hard-boiled hallmarks of understatement (“a small reception just for me” is redolent with menace) and regret (in the dream of an old lover, and the title kiss-off image.) That tough-tender combination, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”, is the teenage boy’s masculine ideal, fed by a hundred Chandlers, Hammetts, and MacDonalds too.

That leaves us with the title track, whose title character finds the apogee of the heartbroken hero. Lester the Nightfly brims with sarcasm, a tone Fagen can play to a T. From his citadel at the foot of Mt. Belzoni, he beams “jazz and conversation” into the world, sucking down “java and Chesterfield Kings”, and berating his callers for their wacky views or their inattention to preventing echo by leaving their radio playing during a call. He shills for “that little blue jar / Patton’s Kiss And Tell”, and revels in sweet music. And yet, he says, “I feel like crying,” and wishes for a heart of ice. The bridge brings us the rest of the story, a long-ago love who he still pines for to this day.

In the context of “Green Flower Street” and “The Goodbye Look”, it’s easy to see how this image might have appealed to young Fagen. He’s kind of a spiritual cousin to the title character in Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”, who manages to make car crashes and alcohol poisoning sound like the perfect expression of artistic freedom. The dissolute loser, who gambled at life and lost, is a romantic archetype all its own, and a young man who feels unlucky in love can at least dream of nursing heartbreak while devoting himself to music.

With the exception of the album’s nod to Dion, that music is jazz. Brubeck gets name-checked specifically, but the sound of the whole album wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on WJAZ. True, he covers Dion (or The Drifters, I suppose), but on The Nightfly Donald Fagen shows us who he was, and why he’d go on to bring jazz and rock together so memorably.

Album Assignments: The Airborne Toxic Event

Way back near the beginning of this Album Assignments thing, I heard The Airborne Toxic Event for the first time. They were featured on a Paul McCartney tribute album, covering one of Sir Paul’s lower lights, “No More Lonely Nights.”

That this was my first exposure to the band probably fulfills some stereotype about parents in their 40s. If the shoe fits, I suppose. In any case, I was quite impressed with the cover — it took a pretty hokey McCartney song and infused it with a tenderness, a loveliness even. Combined with a strong recommendation from a friend whose wife happened to be schoolmates with the lead singer (Mikel Jollett), and another fine tribute album cover (of Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”), I put them on my “dig deeper” list, and now here we are.

What becomes clear after listening to TATE’s 2008 debut album is that their softhearted covers aren’t much of an advertisement for their original music, which is fierce and angsty. The album kicks off with a terrific track called “Wishing Well”, which starts as a slow burn and drops into rock propulsion about 75 seconds in, at the lyric “you wanna run away”, throwing in a well-placed f-bomb just to let you know it means business. The song tells a story of somebody tossed by the winds of fate, tumbling off an emotional cliffside, screaming and crying but somehow hoping for the best.

Album cover for The Airborne Toxic Event

Wikipedia informs me that Jollett started writing songs when a confluence of horrible events hit — a breakup, mother diagnosed with cancer, and Jollett himself diagnosed with an an autoimmune disease. That certainly fits with the mood of “Wishing Well”, which has the mood of someone pushed to the extreme by events beyond his control.

Still, it seems like the breakup is the overriding source of anguish, or perhaps it’s just the one that’s easiest to write songs about. Almost every song on The Airborne Toxic Event has some connection with a broken relationship, from the trauma flashbacks of “Something New” to the epic mourning of “Innocence” to the self-explanatory devastation of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

Each of these songs does a marvelous job at conveying the shattered feelings that lie in the wake of love’s dissolution, and if they didn’t speak to me quite as much as they would have 25 years ago, chalk that up to being a parent in my 40s.

Youthful romantic crisis is the name of the game throughout most of this album, but one standout exception is “Gasoline.” The beat is no less fervent and the riff no less urgent than in any of the other songs, but this time the narrator is older, and the subject is nostalgia. This time he’s in a relationship, but reminiscing about the passion of his young love:

And she’ll step away
For a second or two
And I close my eyes
And I think of you

We were only seventeen
We were holding in our screams
Like we’d torn it from the pages
Of some lipstick magazine
And you scratch and turn
And say, “Let’s burn ourselves up ’til we scream”
Like gasoline

Jollett does an amazing job on this vocal, pitching his tone with near-hysteria on the memory choruses but tossing off the last line almost like an afterthought, caught immediately by staccato guitar and Noah Harmon’s bass. The whole thing is a fantastic gestalt — I think it’s my favorite song on the album. But that’s just because it’s an awesome song. Definitely nothing to do with being a parent in my 40s.

Album Assignments: Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

I’m a Fleetwood Mac fan, so it’s been said. But while that’s accurate, it isn’t 100% true. What I really am is a Stevie Nicks fan. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stevie-less versions of Fleetwood Mac, but they don’t inspire the passion and allegiance that I have for the band when she’s in it. Obviously, there was about 8 years of Fleetwood Mac before they’d even heard of Buckingham or Nicks, the group having gone through a half-dozen or so lineup changes as various members drifted into drug-induced withdrawal, religion-induced disappearance, alcoholism, sleeping with the drummer’s wife, and so forth.

That band, in its various lineups, put out plenty of great music, but I think it’s generally agreed (except perhaps by strident blues purists) that the peak lineup of Fleetwood Mac was the one that coalesced in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, Stevie Nicks. Not that they haven’t had plenty of contortions since then. There was the no-Lindsey version. There was the no-Lindsey and no-Stevie version. Then after a brief Clinton-induced classic lineup reunion, there was about 17 years of the no-Christine version. That version did a lot of touring, but not a lot of recording. Aside from the 2003 album Say You Will (which, at 18 songs, is like a double album at least), the only other studio work from that incarnation was the 2013 EP Extended Play, which called itself a Fleetwood Mac album but in my opinion should have been billed more like “Lindsey Buckingham and Friends”. Buckingham wrote 3 of the EP’s 4 songs, and that fourth one was a re-recording of a 1973 Buckingham Nicks demo — more like half a Stevie song, since although she wrote it, she shared lead vocals with Lindsey.

Then, in 2014, Christine shockingly rejoined the band, and toured extensively with them, multiple legs of an “On With The Show” tour. It seemed like the classic Mac was finally back, but… Stevie had put her solo career on hold for ages for that tour, and was itching to promote her own work. So while four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac was eager to record fresh material, Stevie was not up for it.

Album cover of Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

The result is Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie. Given all of the band’s lineup changes, this group has just as much right to call itself Fleetwood Mac as the Say You Will incarnation. The fact that they didn’t is quite telling of how important Stevie Nicks has become to the Fleetwood Mac brand. Instead, although Mick and John play on every track of this collection, it’s billed as a duet album, rather like a bookend to the phenomenal 1973 pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks record.

Knowing this up front, I was quite excited for this album. Stevie is on a level by herself for me, but I absolutely love Christine, and some of her past vocal collaborations with Lindsey (“World Turning”, “Don’t Stop”) have been stellar. I appreciate Lindsey as a fine songwriter, an exceptional guitarist, and a gifted producer. Mind you, I also know him to be egomaniacal, controlling, and (if multiple biographical accounts as well as his own oblique admissions are to be believed) occasionally abusive. That tempers my appreciation of his work, but all the same I loved Buckingham Nicks, and I liked Say You Will quite a bit, so a melding of the two with Christine in Stevie’s place is sure to be a winner with me, right?

Well, sort of. It’s an enjoyable album, there’s no doubt about it. There’s said to be some effect from being in a group, that the members challenge each other and pull each other out of comfort zones to everyone’s benefit. You’ve got your Lennon/McCartney, your Jagger/Richards, and your Buckingham/McVie/Nicks. Some of the benefit of that triad lingers even with Stevie removed — compared to their most recent solo work, Christine sounds more energized and exciting here, and Lindsey sounds more grounded, spending more energy on putting his songs over than on wowing us with his virtuosic picking skills.

But while the album is called Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, that billing is accurate but not quite true. The overall impression, for me, is of Lindsey overwhelming the album and stifling any sense of group dynamic. Certainly on his five songs, I don’t hear Christine at all. They could pass for solo album tracks, and for all I know that’s what they are, just repurposed for this project. It wouldn’t be the first time — in fact most studio Fleetwood Mac albums since 1987 have that pedigree, at least the ones produced by Lindsey.

Christine’s songs, on the other hand, have Lindsey all over them. In fact, several of them sound like they’re going to be Lindsey songs until her voice kicks in. What’s more, a few actually recapitulate old material of Lindsey’s. “Red Sun” begins with a drumbeat identical to that from Say You Will‘s “What’s The World Coming To?”. The “Too Far Gone” riff is a slightly scrambled and sped-up version of the one from “Wrong”, a Lindsey solo track from 1992. And “Carnival Begin” starts out sounding like it’s going to echo “I’m So Afraid” from the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, and when the solo starts it veers back in that direction again.

What they all have in common is that they are guitar songs. The sound of Christine’s piano and keyboards is a fundamental part of the magic from the first four “classic lineup” Fleetwood Mac albums — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — but it’s very hard to find here. That’s what makes “Game Of Pretend” such a breath of fresh air. It’s the only song with a prominent piano sound, and it’s beautiful. Even in this song, Lindsey eventually shows up with a choir of himself — multitracked processed layers of his own vocals accompanying Christine on the chorus — but nevertheless it’s the one song on the album that feels like it really belongs to Christine, and probably as a result, it’s my favorite.

There’s a song on this album called “On With The Show”, and probably intentionally, its guitar part calls back quite clearly to a song called “You And I, Part II” from the 1987 Fleetwood Mac album Tango In The Night. Looking back, I can see how that album marked a turning point for Fleetwood Mac aurally. Buckingham had produced the previous albums, but his production tended to bring out and enhance the other players. Tango is different — it ensconces the others in a full-on Lindsey show, fantastic ear candy but much more about the production than the singers, the songs, or the playing (except of course for the guitar playing.) The subsequent Buckingham-produced Mac studio albums have followed suit.

For the longest time, I ascribed Tango‘s sound to the 80s, and explained away the subsequent albums as due to the absence of Christine. But with this album I can see the stranglehold that Lindsey Buckingham has on the sound of this band for the past three decades. The only one who’s been able to successfully escape it is Stevie Nicks, and only then by completely removing herself from the band and recording with other producers like John Shanks, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Stewart.

“On With The Show” sounds like it intends to be a statement of solidarity from Lindsey. “As long as I stand / I will take your hand / I will stand with my band”, he says. But after listening to this album on repeat, I couldn’t stop wishing that he spent more time standing with the band and less time standing on them.

Album Assignments: Fear Of A Black Planet

It’s pretty obvious by now, from the list of albums we’ve picked so far, that Robby and I are basically rock and roll guys. Nevertheless, we can enjoy good music in other genres, and in my estimation Fear Of A Black Planet has some damn good music on it. That said, I don’t know the terrain as well as when I’m writing about rock, so apologies in advance if I screw up in describing something.

Even a hip-hop civilian like me knows “Fight The Power,” thanks to its inclusion and repetition in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. For my money, this is still PE’s best song (though “Welcome To The Terrordome” is a close second). It’s the pinnacle of Public Enemy alchemy, all the elements that make for a great PE song: samples layered into a slammin’ beat by the Bomb Squad and Terminator X, Chuck D’s fierce, thundering vocals, and occasional jump-ins by Flavor Flav for, well, flavor.

Most importantly, its lyrics are both inspired and inspiring. Or, as the song itself puts it: “As the rhythm’s designed to bounce / What counts is that the rhyme’s / Designed to fill your mind.” There could hardly be a better manifesto for Public Enemy’s music overall, and Fear Of A Black Planet in particular.

Album cover for Fear Of A Black Planet

Frustratingly, though, “Fight The Power” is censored for some reason on this album. Even worse, the interference happens at the climactic third verse, the high point of the song:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me
Ya see, straight out racist the sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

The version of “Fight The Power” that appears on Fear Of A Black Planet drops the audio on “shit” and straight-out bleeps the last part of “motherfuck.” This is especially weird because both of those words appear multiple times throughout the rest of the album, unscathed. Cursory research on my part didn’t turn up any definitive information on why this is, just some speculation that one of the artists sampled on the song maybe didn’t want to be associated with cursing?

In any case, these changes kind of vandalize the song and blunt its attack, especially combined with a few other odd alterations like Terminator X looping Chuck D’s part a few times on “Elvis was a hero to most,” and the removal of Wynton Marsalis’ awesome horn part. It’s still great, and I still love hearing it, but for the definitive version you absolutely have to turn to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack.

There are three basic types of songs on Fear Of A Black Planet. The first, and most dominant, is the “Fight The Power” mold — Chuck D in front, Flav in back. Then there are the instrumentals, though that’s kind of a weird term for this sort of hip-hop. There are some instruments played, and a drum machine frequently in the mix, but for the most part the “instrumentation” is samples — of beats, sounds, spoken words, other vocals, even previous PE songs. This record was released in that brief window where sampling technology had matured but the laws hadn’t caught up, so The Bomb Squad was able to layer dozens of sounds in a single song without worrying about credit, copyright, payment, and so forth. Making an album like this today would be financially and legally prohibitive.

Finally, there are a couple of songs with Flavor Flav in front, and Chuck completely absent. Now, for me a little Flav goes a long way, and I much prefer the dominant mode, but I have to say he comes into his own on this album. “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” is genuinely funny — I laugh every time I hear “Flavor Flav got problems of his owwwwwn!” and “You want six dollars for WHAT?!?” But much better than that is “911 Is A Joke”, a bona-fide strong political statement, where for once Flav’s clowning has a bite all its own rather than just leavening the intensity of Chuck D. By lambasting the slow response times of ambulances in poor black neighborhoods, Flav highlights a type of institutional racism that would otherwise be invisible to the white world.

As for the instrumentals, my favorite is “Incident at 66.6 FM.” The unique nature of these kinds of instrumentals means that they can actually be about something rather than just purely musical. In this case, the samples frame the scene of a radio call-in show, a real show hosted on WNBC in 1987 by Alan Colmes, in which various callers chime in about PE, from articulate defenses to baldfaced racism. Hearing the clips swirled together gives a sense of the chaos of that kind of show, and of the overwhelming context of racial bias against which PE was fighting.

Wait, I take it back — there’s a fourth type of song on Fear Of A Black Planet: “Pollywannacracka”. This tune is spoken (drawled, really) rather than rapped, with no sign of Flav. For that matter, it might not be Chuck D speaking, but if it’s somebody else, that person isn’t credited. Anyway, “Polly” is one of a few songs that take on interracial relationships. The first verse is about a black woman who “wants a lover right now / but not no brother”, while the second verse reverses the first, taking on a “brother who only wants blue eyes and blonde hair.” In both cases, their community’s anger at this perceived desertion is reflected in the chorus, and in the acted interludes that follow it, in which the abandoned one lashes out at the other. Then in the third verse, the narrator himself argues for the validity of interracial relationships, causing that same community to turn on him with the same anger, singing once again, “Pollywannacracka.”

“Fear Of A Black Planet” (the title track) takes a different tack, with Chuck D mocking white fear of racial mixing. While he rejects a different kind of white woman in each verse (“your daughter, nope she’s not my type”, “I don’t need your sista”, “I don’t want your wife”), he also challenges the notion that those relationships would be harmful. “Are you afraid of the mix of Black and White?” he asks, and later, “What is pure? Who is pure? Is it European? I ain’t sure,” and, “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree?” Interspersed through the song is a telling sample from Dick Gregory, who points out that the American “one drop” definition of blackness, dating back to slavery days, is also what feeds that white supremacist fear of racial dilution: “Black man, black woman: black baby. White man, white woman: white baby. White man, black woman: black baby. Black man, white woman: black baby.”

These songs seemed like opposing viewpoints at first, but the more I thought about it, I began to see them as reflections of each other. In “Polly”, the black community wants solidarity, and shuns its members who date outside their own race. Then in “Fear”, Chuck as the representative of that community affirms his own commitment to that solidarity. But just as the narrator in “Polly” argues that “there should not be any hatred / for a brother or sister / whose opposite race they’ve mated”, so too does Chuck make the case that while white racists may be afraid of racial mixing, there’s no reason why black people should be.

While much of this album is great, there are some low points too. I found “Meet The G That Killed Me” the most disappointing, as not only is it outright homophobic (and samples the homophobic Frances Cress Welsing), it also builds on her speculation that AIDS is “chemical and biological warfare” against the black community by tracing a line of disease from gay people right to our hero Flavor, who speaks the title line to indict the “gay germ”. There are also some lines in “Terrordome” that, while maybe not outright anti-Semitic, come way too close to defending Professor Griff’s then-recent statement that Jews cause “the majority of the wickedness” in the world.

On the flip side, Public Enemy upends the misogyny that’s endemic to so much hip-hop in “Revolutionary Generation,” a full-throated defense of black women, placing their oppression within a historical context of general black oppression, and committing to stand alongside them, joining forces in the revolution. They call back explicitly to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” twice in the song, first with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, my sister’s not my enemy,” and then with “She needs a little respect / I would say she needs a lotta.”

This is an epic album — over an hour long — and so packed with musical and lyrical content that I could go on for ages about it, but I have a sense that might become tedious if it hasn’t already. So I’ll just end by saying that for me, Fear Of A Black Planet is not only the best Public Enemy record by a mile, it’s one of the best albums of the 1990s, and an essential work of art overall for the late 20th century.

Album Assignments: Wish You Were Here

I lowered the needle to the record slowly, reverently. In the basement of my childhood house, where speakers sat high up on the walls to paint the room with sound, I still strained to hear. I nudged up the volume as the music began quietly, so quietly. Shooting stars streaked past, light years away, and then a slow hum grew and grew. A stately melody emerged, apparently played on wine glasses, though for all the world it sounds like a synth to me. And thus I set sail for the first time on the musical odyssey that is “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It wasn’t at all what I was expecting…

I got into Pink Floyd thanks to a girl named Vicki, who I knew from theater. Vicki played the piano beautifully, and during breaks in rehearsals and such, she would sometimes wander over to the grand piano and start playing and singing. One day she played “Nobody Home” from The Wall, and I was captivated. I asked her whose song it was, and was astonished when she said Pink Floyd. All I knew about Pink Floyd was that the name showed up hand-penned on jean jackets, locker walls, and notebooks, alongside Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Kiss, and other such scary bands. (Keep in mind I was 15.) How could something so beautiful and sad belong to one of those groups?

Vicki loaned me her copy of The Wall, and I borrowed Dark Side Of The Moon from the public library. I immediately loved them both, and my cassette copies went into heavy rotation wherever I could take them. Then one more Floyd factor entered the picture. Back in the day (the 80’s, that is), planetarium laser shows were a thing. Night-time on a weekend, you’d head to the planetarium attached to our Museum of Natural History, settle into a comfy leaned-back seat, and then darkness would descend, followed by amazing-sounding music. The laser patterns drawn onto the dome were lots of fun, but for me the main attraction was hearing music over such an excellent sound system.

Wish You Were Here album cover

The granddaddy of all the laser shows was, of course, Laser Floyd, and the first time I saw it, they opened the show with a Pink Floyd song I didn’t know, called “Welcome To The Machine.” It goes without saying that this is the perfect song to open such a show, and as with the others, I loved it instantly. As soon as I could, I sought out its album, which turned out to be Wish You Were Here. And that’s how I found myself in the basement, both enraptured and confused by what I was hearing.

The Pink Floyd I’d known up to that time was freaky and psychedelic, sure, but it was very song-oriented. The Wall‘s longest song is 6:23, and that’s “Comfortably Numb”, which is epic and powerful but still very much a verse-chorus-verse affair. Dark Side‘s longest tracks are “Time”, “Money”, and “Us And Them”, all radio staples because they’re such solid songs despite their length. So what I was not expecting from my new Pink Floyd album was a thirteen-and-a-half minute opening track that’s 80% instrumental.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” takes a completely different tack musically from the other Floyd stuff I’d heard, and for that matter from most other rock music. It’s an instrumental suite, divided up into distinct parts — both split across the two sides of the record, and highlighted internally by the subtitles “(Parts I-V)” and “(Parts VI-IX)”. Altogether, it’s 31 minutes long, out of the record’s total 44 minute length. There are parts with words, in both sections, but I’d venture to say they probably take up maybe, maybe 4 minutes total.

I’m not great with pure instrumental music. I’m a language guy, and music without lyrics I find tough to focus on and even harder to write about. Now, I’ve listened to “Shine On” often enough that I can more or less sing along with the whole thing, lyrics or no, but when I think about the song without hearing it, what I’m thinking about are the lyrics. And it turns out, there’s a story behind those lyrics.

“Shine On”, and in fact pretty much the whole of Wish You Were Here, was written for Syd Barrett, an original member of Pink Floyd and one of those sad cases of 1960s psychedelic burnout, like Peter Green and Brian Wilson. The song sets a wistful tone for the album, longing for the return of a visionary victim who was “caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.”

The long “Shine On” suites bookend three other songs on the album, each of which has its piece of the story to tell. “Welcome To The Machine” is about that transfer out of childhood into the “machine” of adulthood under capitalism. It characterizes pre-adulthood as a time of both preparation and distraction. “We told you what to dream,” it says, and it turns out that dream is of what Pink Floyd became — rock stars at the height of consumption, wealth, and power. For the rest of us, that dream is what keeps us placated enough to fulfill our roles in the machine.

As we grind through the days, we like to imagine that those rock stars have escaped, but “Have A Cigar” is here to tell us that their world is just as phony and venal as ours. The narrator is a promoter, or maybe a record executive, who makes it clear that the aim of the music business isn’t to create art, move people, or change the world, but just to “ride the gravy train.” This guy is the essence of “the machine”, so disconnected from the humans he’s dealing with that he cluelessly asks, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”

Both of these themes get taken up later in The Wall, with the institutionalization of school serving as the machine in “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”, and the relentless star machinery of “Have A Cigar” pushing Pink into totalitarian fantasy from “Comfortably Numb” into “The Show Must Go On” and “In The Flesh.” In short, the world is no place for a sensitive boy, even one who manages to live the rock star dream.

I used to think it was Roger Waters who was that boy, and I still think that’s true to an extent, but understanding Wish You Were Here shows me that even more than Waters, the one truly stuck behind that wall was Barrett. Alan Parker’s movie references this when Pink shaves his head, then his eyebrows and every hair on his body. That’s just what Syd Barrett looked like the last time any member of Pink Floyd saw him. He had in fact wandered into the studio where the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” so spookily removed from his old self that it was 45 minutes before anyone recognized him.

For me, the most moving song on the album, the one that sums it all up, is the title track. It’s all about the confusion of adulthood, the ambiguity between heaven and hell, smiles and veils, as shown in “Welcome” and “Cigar.” In the questions it asks, there are no easy answers:

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?

“Did they get you to” makes it sound like the subject was conned, but some of these sound like pretty good trades, don’t they? Wouldn’t you trade hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Waters offsets industrial and pastoral images, winding up for the final punch: “Did you exchange / A walk-on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage?”

That’s a menu with no good choices, which is exactly the point. Those words spoke to me when I first heard the album in my parents’ basement, and they still speak to me now. And now, as then, I still don’t know which is the better choice. The difference for me now is that the choice is made.

Album Assignments: Transatlanticism

Tragedy plus distance equals comedy, says the old formula. But in Transatlanticism, Death Cab For Cutie offers a different math: love plus distance equals tragedy. In song after song, this album looks at many kinds of distance from love, from physical to temporal to emotional and more, and the damage it does to people. That these words about distance live inside music that feels incredibly immediate and intimate makes them even more powerful.

The title track is a perfect example. Gentle piano chords float over a soft but churning rhythm track, sounding like faraway machinery. Ben Gibbard’s voice comes in, draped in reverb and echo, so close to us we can hear his every breath. “The Atlantic was born today, and I’ll tell you how…” The music builds in power, electric guitar mixed equal with the vocal, and equally reverberating, with a synth drone behind it all, slowly growing louder.

The lyrics tell a metaphorical story of an ocean suddenly appearing between the singer and his lover. We can’t tell whether he’s talking about physical distance in a stylized way, or emotional distance in a metaphorical way, but we know it’s painful. “I found it less like a lake, and more like a moat / The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forevermore / The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before.” Then the drums come in, and a ritual chant: “I need you so much closer.” Over and over again. “So come on, come on…” Over and over in grand, layered chorus. This tour de force lasts for eight minutes of increasing intensity, simultaneously wrenching and elevating.

Transatlanticism album cover

Then there’s the breathtaking “We Looked Like Giants.” Surrounded by a turbulent, crashing riff, Gibbard reminisces about a mutual coming of age, where “I’d brave those mountain passes / And you’d skip your early classes / And we’d learn how our bodies worked.” The memory is achingly sweet, a time of closeness that’s never been matched in his life since. And now he feels completely alienated from it: “God damn the black night, with all its foul temptations / I’ve become what I always hated, when I was with you then.” That distance, combined with the vividness of the memory, underscores the narrator’s tragedy.

In “Death Of An Interior Decorator”, the character has aged away from her authentic self, and the love she once had has abandoned her. In “The New Year”, Gibbard offers sharp observations about our strange New Year’s Eve rituals, but completes them with a thwarted yearning for closeness, wishing for a world where “there’d be no distance that could hold us back.” In “The Sound Of Settling” the narrator finds himself in a relationship and a life far away from the one he’d imagined. In the brilliant “Title And Registration” he watches the gap open between himself and his love, who drives away while he can do nothing but look at the old pictures of them together.

“Expo ’86” isn’t so much about distance as repetition — Gibbard uses the metaphor of a Ferris wheel to talk about his cyclical pattern of entering relationships even as he anticipates their end. The structure of the whole record echoes this circular metaphor, as the low buzzing that ends “A Lack Of Color” is the same sound that begins “The New Year”. And he makes the point in “The New Year”: “I don’t feel any different.” For as hard as he tries, for as far as he travels, nothing changes.

The song that steps furthest outside this frame of painful distance is “Passenger Seat”. I think it’s the most beautiful song on the album. Not only does it paint a gorgeous portrait of intimacy and affection, it does so in music that feels both hushed and overwhelming, like being inside the transcendent quiet that can descend between two people who need no words. The picture of these two driving together, talking about the stars, and the incredible feeling of safety between them — “With my feet on the dash / The world doesn’t matter” — completely earns the heartfelt declarations of everlasting devotion that end the song. It’s a portrait of true love so convincing that there can be no questioning the pain of distance from it.