It starts with a clean, bright guitar, playing a simple pattern. Then in come the drums. HUGE drums, drums that sound like mountains look. Then a rhythm guitar and a high, sweet wail, leading into thick vocal harmonies that take you for a ride through the rest of the song. Sometimes the bottom drops out, as tones get stripped away, only to have them come surging back stronger than before. Dynamics play a big role here — the reliable trick of jumping into a cue with both feet to give the tune a jolt. A single voice with low tones and a quiet guitar suddenly slams into power chords and those dense harmonies. Throw in a catchy chorus and you’ve got “Say It Isn’t So,” the lead track from the 1985 album Play Deep, by The Outfield.
This band had the perfect sound for their time and place, and it paid off in triple platinum sales. They even caught the mood of the times with their name and album title, fitting in perfectly with other all-American pastime themes like John Fogerty’s Centerfield and Huey Lewis’s Sports, not to mention movies like The Natural and Vision Quest. They also came along at the perfect time for me — I was 15 years old, and just beginning to really embrace music as a core piece of my identity. There was no denying the pleasure in these tracks, awesome for blasting in the car or buoying the mood at high school parties. Everybody liked this music (well, almost everybody), and when we listened to it together, I belonged to that. I bought the LP, taped it, and played them both constantly.
Listening to it now, there’s still a huge amount of fun in that sugary pop/rock sound. But I can’t help notice that lyrically, this album is kind of a mess. Its most popular and iconic song, “Your Love”, depicts a despicable person without a trace of self-awareness or irony. See, Josie’s on a vacation, far away, and you’re a little bit younger than I normally like my girls, so I’m just gonna use your love tonight, if you know what I mean. Stay the night, but keep it undercover, and on your way out, please, would you close the door? Following immediately on the heels of “Say It Isn’t So,” in which the singer is freaking out about his girlfriend’s fidelity, bemoaning the fact that “when you’re out of my sight / I’m out of your mind,” it can’t help but feel more than a little hypocritical. Then comes “I Don’t Need Her,” in which the singer is so relieved to finally detach from his girlfriend emotionally, but still won’t be leaving her tonight. Kind of makes it hard to believe that he’s going to be sending his girl all the love in the world and then turning out the light to sleep all alone.
That’s another thing. Moral judgments aside, boy are there some trite rhymes in these songs. “All the love in the world / I’ll be sending you, girl.” “I cry just a little bit, die just a little bit.” “Since we first met, you were the only one / Sometimes I forget – I’m still the lonely one.” They also had the album formula down pat — a bright and peppy single, followed by their strongest track, then an anthem, and then a slow dance ballad with gooey lyrics for the teenage girls. I’ve written before about what I call “Raymond Chandler syndrome”, in which something original (like Raymond Chandler) sounds like a cliché, because you’re reading it after having heard a million and one pastiches of it. My experience with Play Deep was kind of the opposite — I heard it before I’d listened to very much music at all, so all its clichés sounded original to me.
But still, those drums! That voice! Those harmonies! I cannot help but sing along, joyfully, because this is one of those cases where the words don’t matter anywhere near as much as the sound, and the feeling it brings to me. No doubt that feeling is wrapped up with 15-year-old me, with his odd flat cap and his jacket full of Ghostbusters and SNL pins. For every time he thrilled, I thrill just a little bit more.