You’re a Nation (1999)
the full flowering of fucked up shit makes for the first real papa ghostface masterpiece. this is where it all finally came together. the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired; i didn’t back any of the songs up on the mixer, so i’ve never been able to give the music the remixed treatment it deserves…maybe someday when i’ve got some extra cash i’ll see what a good mastering engineer might be able to do with this stuff. as it is, even with all the low frequency mud and ugly digital distortion, this will always retain “classic” status for me until the day i die, no matter what else i go on to do musically.
i had learned an important lesson from SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN — if you’re going to write lyrics with the intent of actually singing them instead of just letting them pile up in folders of unrecorded songs, let them be as twisted as they want to be, and make sure the music you’re singing them on top of actually compliments the words. where the improvisation/premeditation mixture often made for an awkward fit on that album, here things had dramatically changed in a few short weeks. one big difference was allowing things to lean much more heavily in the direction of improvisation, to the point that a “written” song would often find itself completely derailed by a random impulse (one of the best examples is the happy dentist, which begins as a fairly straightforward — if unsettling — spoken word piece that sounds a little like an acoustic variation on “horsemouth”, only to end in several minutes of complete chaotic psychosis and faux-japanese gibberish, complete with the sound of me spitting a piece of gum into the microphone). but the real game-changer, believe it or not, was a lack of sleep.
i’d fallen into a routine of staying up pretty late on weeknights, to the point that it was unusual for me to get a good night’s rest. most school days followed a pattern — at first, i was disoriented, everything was amusing, and some people thought i was high. or else i was close to falling asleep in the middle of class. sometimes a little bit of both. around lunchtime, i’d start to lose steam, but then i would eat and get a much-needed shot of energy. i would feel pretty normal until around 2:00 in the afternoon, when all the colour would drain out of the world during my last period french class, and it felt like every last bit of energy i had just seeped out of my ears. i’m convinced i could have fallen asleep while standing.
was it healthy? hell no. but it worked wonders for my writing. i filled spiral notebooks and countless sheets of loose-leaf paper with increasingly skewed lyrics, and it felt like all the internal editing systems were completely bypassed. without realizing it was happening, i started to make music that grew directly out of the way my day-to-day life had taken on an otherworldly, almost hallucinogenic hue — music soaked with a feeling of having stayed up for several days straight, and instead of crashing, tapping into a strange, jittery place that wasn’t quite awake or asleep.
it crystallized with the very first thing recorded for the album — rippin’ — which was written as a country song, if you can believe it. by the time i was recording it with gord three days after i’d written the words, it had been transformed into a metronomic monolith that captured a sound i had tried and failed to achieve with a completely different song. it was more ambitious sonically than anything we’d ever done before, and its almost 14 minutes of insanity set the tone for what was to follow. at one point i manage to get a mandolin-like sound out of my acoustic guitar by pressing the strings against the microphone and using the grille sort of like a slide. gord’s electric guitar-playing seems to be at a whole new level; he tosses out jagged lines left and right, soloing at will, and somehow it works even while i’m singing at the same time he’s going off. an insistent drum-and-fake-strings-loop runs through the whole thing like a drone, and we both add some dissonant arp omni-2 stabs at odd moments. gord makes some pretty bizarre sounds at the end with a bottle of blue powerade (gatorade’s cousin). i always thought it sounded a bit like some sort of alien reptile grunting with fear after being ripped from its natural habitat.
while my sleep-deprivation feeds the madness, gord does a lot of singing that helps the cause (probably the most he ever did on one of our albums), and i kind of wish he’d done it more often. it says something that the weakest track here is the most accessible by far (we’re all gonna go). everything else is pretty out-there, and this might be the most consistently “druggy”-sounding album i’ve ever made, though i only ever got to listen to it once while under the influence of anything. it’s also home to what has to be one of the best hidden tracks i’ve ever concocted, even if i again had to cut out pieces of it in order to make it fit on the cd. it’s mostly just me literally punching my bass while using a distant microphone to distort it through the guitar effects box, and then overdubbing some distorted singing and screaming on top, but somehow it seems to bring the whole album to a satisfying conclusion.
before the hidden track rolls around, spandex resurrects one the first real musical ideas gord and i ever conjured from the ether (from the same night “pacing the cage” was recorded on cassette tape), and turns what was originally a ninety second improvisation into an operatic exploration of…well…spandex. and the fact that i hated geography class with a vengeance. gord’s acoustic guitar threatens to blow up the microphone, while i mess around with different keyboard sounds and overdub myself into a mini-choir of spandex-worshipers. nothing from nothing is one of my most effectively creepy spoken word creations of all time, with some deliciously evil guitar-playing from gord that almost takes us into the realm of industrial music. the first time my dad heard the song, he was driving around during one of my last piano lessons and gradually started to feel like he had no idea where he was or where he was going. suddenly nothing seemed familiar, and he felt like he was experiencing a horrible acid trip. i took that as a huge compliment when he came to pick me up and told me about it. i expected dustin to find much more of interest here than he did with the previous cd and duly gave him a copy, but he surprised me by not having much to say.
the rest takes in extramarital affairs via bestiality, love via urination, a perverted dentist who finally gets what he deserves, the effects of a protracted lack of cable tv on a male libido, and smoking pot in the park at lunchtime — which i had never done, so i didn’t realize how many of our fellow walkerville brethren it spoke to at the time when i sang about it in fatties, the closest thing to a ballad on the album. she’s awfully lovely brings ronita back to life briefly to shudder at her impending motherhood, before segueing into a bouncy sing-along about a girl with magical breasts. it also marks the precise moment at which my shitty red strat copy became a five-string guitar, when one of the strings was removed to replace a broken string on a sparkly les paul i was renting at the time (you can hear gord tuning it up at the beginning of the song before handing the guitar back to me, since i knew nothing about stringing up guitars at the time). it stayed a five-string for at least four years and served me well in that form, surviving various odd tunings, dead frets and all, until someone at long & mcquade threw on a sixth string when i had them fix up the dying hum-bucker pickup. i was going to rip it back off, but thought i might see how the guitar liked having all of its strings for a while, and it’s stayed that way ever since.
piss on me, the happy dentist and nothing from nothing — three of the most twisted songs on the album — were all recorded in one night. we had the house to ourselves for a while, so gord and i snuck out into an alley and smoked a joint in the darkness. back then i had no idea how to inhale properly, so i didn’t get high at all, but i definitely felt something…it must have been a bit of a contact buzz. instead of making me cough as i had expected it would, the pot seemed to open up my vocal cords in an odd way, particularly during piss on me, allowing for some higher-than-usual sans-falsetto singing. gord was definitely high even if i wasn’t, staring at the guitar effects box and looking mesmerized as he pulled some appropriately weird sounds out of his guitar. my speaker-blowing howl at the end of the song (“so piss on…MEEEEEE!”) is one of the album’s definitive moments, along with the unexpected bridge section that’s almost romantic in a weird, bittersweet way, and it cracks me up right at the end when gord realizes the song is over and asks if we were recording it.
one thing that distinguishes this from the other papa ghostface cds is the predominance of between-song bits; there are several fragments that show up at the beginning or end of songs that don’t really have anything at all to do with the songs themselves (the neil-young-on-crack intro to the happy dentist, for example). and yet somehow they all fit. everything that hadn’t worked on SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN works here, and then some. i longed to make another album this messed up with gord a few years later, and it would have been interesting to see if we would have been able to come close to matching the inspired insanity on display here, but it wasn’t to be. maybe someday we’ll reunite and make it happen. you never know.
she’s awfully lovely
we’re all gonna go
piss on me
the happy dentist
nothing from nothing