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Between Age - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Between Age
We all have our songs, the ones we turn to like comfort food, the ones that make it right. And then there are the ones that move us because they're about not making it right, sonic underlining to our acknowledgment, however temporary, that the drop at the edge of the cliff is never going away, no matter how many trees we plant.

For most people, I suspect that it's the music that matters most. But I'm a lyrics man. Simon Frith once asked, with plenty of justification, "Why do songs have words?" I've been working on a response for over a decade, but all I've come up with is a lame, "For people like me, Simon."

Sure, I feel the music. But it's the words that pin me down fastest and longest. Ever since it came out -- June 24, 1999, if I'm not mistaken -- the song "Ann Don't Cry" off Pavement's final Terror Twilight album has been one of the two or three songs that run through my head most frequently.

At first, it was the opening lines: "The damage has been done/ I am not having fun anymore." I love the weighty pause between "done" and the start of the next line, which conveys the effort to scramble for an explanation. In what does "damage" consist? Why has it already been done? I'm equally taken with "anymore," which disrupts the neatness of the rhymed couplet and pushes the listener forward.

As the song presses on, the lyrics get less direct, more like the ones Pavement fans expect. The first-person speaker becomes unstable. Could he be switching back and forth between perspectives? Some of the most memorable lines sound like an effort to put on a brave face by playing the icy wit: "But your vocal display/Caught me off guard/ Cold, cold boy with American heart." It's like he's singing about his own singing.

For every moment like this, though, there are two or three in which the immediacy of the lyrical content makes postmodern irony seem like a poor defense strategy: "Tied, tied, tied to the tracks/Just remember the facts/Repeat until you're running aground." Although the first-person speaker may want to get surreal, he find himself tongue-tied, repeating himself when he should be moving on to richer lexical pastures.

At this point in "Ann Don't Cry," the music gradually takes over, as the repeating guitar figure that's been going since that first "anymore" struggles to keep danger -- represented by low guitar notes wobbling like a wet rubber band -- at bay. When the words return, with the refrain, "Ann, don't you cry," the danger disappears and an easy bass groove gradually asserts itself against that original guitar figure.

Then the lead guitar follows the singer, as he moves from "Don't you/Cry, Southern lover" to "Don't you/Believe in/What they say/Believe in/What they say/Believe in/What they/Believe in/What they/Believe in/What they/Say about me/Sweet Ann/Sweet Ann." The melody climbs to the second syllable of "believe," then cascades downward, getting cut off abruptly at "they" twice before the final drop to "say about me."

There are dozens of Pavement songs that revolve around a double-meaning, whether it's the ambiguity of pronunciation -- "career" or "Korea"? -- or the way enjambment struggles against the musical current, as it does here with the "don't" that's in danger of being forgotten by the time we hear the fourth or fifth "believe". Does he want those things to be believed after all?

It's fitting that the short coda following "Sweet Ann" provides no resolution. All we can hope for is more of the same. That's not a terrible prospect, mind you, since the song is pleasing to the ear. But the absence of a climax strikes me as more honest, not to mention troubling, than the indication of a way out would have. The perfect aspect of "has been done" indicates a possibility permanently foreclosed. "My heart is not a wide-open thing/I know," he sings towards the middle of the song. The present tense is telling. Maybe it was "wide-open" in the past, maybe not. But it's certainly not going to be that way again. The future only holds the prospect of a petering out, however graceful. The notes at the end descend from "believe" to resignation.

I'm sure there are lots of good songs about becoming middle-aged. "Ann Don't Cry" is the one for me, though. If you decide to check it out, be sure to listen on headphones for the maximum effect. This is music to swim around in, even if you end up going over the falls.

Mode: rocks in an icy current
Muse: Ann Don't Cry - Pavement - Terror Twilight

7 comments or Leave a comment
siyeh From: siyeh Date: September 27th, 2004 05:45 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I was thinking not that long ago about why I find myself often not hearing lyrics to my favorite songs, despite my training in literature. All I can figure is that I was trained as a musician first, and all those years of arranging and writing and playing and obsessing over jazz, musicals, and everythign else possible made me only see the mathematics of chord progressions. I guess that must be it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 27th, 2004 06:17 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That might be the reason. But lots of folks who didn't have the sort of experience also focus more on the music than the lyrics. My mother, for example, who spent much of her life singing in a chorus, but who even seems never to have heard most of the words in her favorites Smiths' songs -- yes, my mother had a thing for the Smiths, oddly -- despite the fact that they are almost impossible not to hear.

When you're into lyrics, I think you seek out music where they come to the fore and, however simple, resonate on repeated listenings. Prince's lyrics, even when they aren't about much -- or are only about sex, which is a "much," I suppose -- stick in the mind.

My favorite artists over the years from the Beatles (seventh grade) to the Police (ninth grade) to Bruce Springsteen (eleventh grade) to REM (twelfth grade) to the Violent Femmes (first year after high school) to Pavement (graduate school) to Wilco (late grad school to U of A) have little in common besides the fact that they have plenty with which to please lyric-focused listeners.

The music has to be great too, naturally. And I love all sorts of things where the lyrics are inconsequential, such as My Bloody Valentine, Mouse on Mars etc. But the bands I obsess over always seem to be the ones whose lyrics are running through my head day and night.
art_thirst From: art_thirst Date: September 27th, 2004 11:39 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've often wondered why most people prefer lyrical music. I much prefer instrumental. Mentioning having a song's lyrics in your head all day is the perfect reason I don't like lyrics. It's like something that controls my thinking, forcing me to think in a more specific way about music when I prefer to have my own thoughts about it and, form my own personal relationship with it. Well, forming a personal relationship might not be correct. Maybe I should say I form my own references to the music and the way we form memories that get triggered by some event or object. It's early, maybe I'm not thinking clearly yet but, I hope you get my drift.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 27th, 2004 04:21 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That makes total sense. I have quotes floating around in my head all day anyway, though, so I don't mind if they happen to be from songs I love. At least there's the music to complicate matters!

When I'm writing, however, I prefer music without words: electronica, jazz, and baroque.

Thanks for writing. I like that cotton shot. We have lots of cotton here in Arizona, so the sight of the fields has become familiar for me.
art_thirst From: art_thirst Date: September 28th, 2004 03:38 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I don't think I looked to see where you live. I like AZ and NM. I have good memories of driving thru there on route 66 when it was really used (1958-1966).
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: September 28th, 2004 04:22 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
We're down in Pima County, far south of the old 66. But it's nice down here too. Lots of amazing slantlight and stars to die for.

Hard to believe you were around and conscious back then!
masoo From: masoo Date: September 28th, 2004 05:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
A friend of mine, a lifelong musician who continues making his living at his art, asked me recently what exactly I liked about Sleater-Kinney.

I tried to explain, but it's hard to put into words. I know that none of my attempted answers dealt with lyrics ... that seemed irrelevant. If I could verbalize the feeling I get when the entire band rushes to the end of "Youth Decay," that would explain it. But I can't verbalize that, anymore than I can verbalize what's going on in The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.

I am trained in literature. But what I respond to first, before lyrics, is a sound. The first Clash album had been out for a couple of years before I saw a lyric sheet, and I sure didn't understand what Joe Strummer was saying until I saw those words on a page. Didn't prevent me from loving that album to death.

I like adrenaline-rush music, "I Heard Her Call My Name" by the Velvet Underground, music that makes you go AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
7 comments or Leave a comment