Gift for a Spider (2011)
might as well get this out of the way right off the bat — this is a breakup album. IF I HAD A QUARTER… may feel like a breakup album, but it’s only about halfway there. this is all the way there, all the way through. i guess that makes it the first time i’ve made a full-on breakup album since BEAUTIFULLY STUPID back in 2002.
i didn’t plan it that way. this was supposed to be a completely different album; for a while i toyed with the idea of calling it MORE MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, in recognition of the fact that it was intended to be something of a companion piece to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS. then i decided i would call it something else. somewhere along the way i found myself in the middle of an unexpected romantic adventure, and everything mutated as a result. then the whole thing went to hell, everything mutated again, a bunch of new songs came pouring out, and almost every track i had slated for inclusion was dropped to make room for the newer material. then the cover art changed, and the album title itself changed again. so there’s an entire “lost album” (most of which was later “found” on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE) that was cast aside in order to allow a very different album to emerge in its place.
the end result is the most cynical collection of songs i’ve put together in a very long time. the first line of the opening track is “there’s no such thing as love”, and the album closes with a tale of writing an abysmal love song, a relationship failing, and ultimately dying. sandwiched between those bookends are a rap song, slowed-down screaming, a pseudo-orchestral piano ballad, ambient electronica, a genuine love song written for a real person that is almost but not quite ripped to shreds by a few violent guitar outbursts, mutant rock songs with personality disorders, and a whole lot of post-relationship songs that range from melancholy/wistful, to pensive, to downright acidic. there’s also a nice bit of symmetry in the album beginning with a song called i’m optimistic, and ending with one called and i failed. if that ain’t the feel-good album of the summer, i don’t know what is.
the music is as varied as ever, but it feels like there’s some sort of thread that ultimately draws everything together no matter how far out there some things go. i guess that’s to be expected, given where a lot of the inspiration came from. it’s interesting to me how my approach to the whole breakup album concept has shifted over time, too; where before i would scream my guts out and try to strangle an electric guitar until it felt my rage, now the music is much more diverse and thoughtful. it’s the words that have become the sharpest weapons, and these days i use my whole tool belt to get them across instead of just relying on a jackhammer. self-laceration and visceral bile have given way to something deeper and wider in scope. having said that, this is still music as catharsis, and the most personal album i’ve made in years.
(music video made by warping bits of the already warped abel ferrara film the driller killer)
what can i tell you about individual songs? i’m optimistic is the most corrosive opening to an album of mine since…well, possibly since the old band days. even the title is sarcastic. it begins as a pretty catchy song with pretty brutal lyrics that are the opposite of optimistic, and then destroys itself in a sea of dissonance and chipmunk voices. seemed like as good an opening salvo as anything, though a few other tracks gave it some stiff competition. come to think of it, there are a lot of songs here that are oddly catchy for all the sarcasm and bitterness swimming around inside of them. things like emotional blackmail and oh, you pretty little narcissist are some of the more immediately appealing musical packages i’ve put together, until you start paying attention to the words. nightside and pizza pockets are both completely unlike anything i’ve ever done before (the aforementioned pseudo-orchestral piano ballad and rap song, respectively), and surrender to thee sounds a little like a circus strongman writhing in agony while falling into the pits of hell.
different degrees of wrong and some things are better left buried get back to some of that structure-warping i’m so fond of, both sounding like a few different songs spliced together and somehow making friends with one another, while i’m not your dirty little secret anymore summarizes the broad outlines of the relationship that more or less informs the whole album in one way or another (it isn’t very nice, but neither was she, so it all evens out). instrumental tracks range from the eavestrough elbow-smacking weirdness of slow birdies to the funky fake-vibraphone-and-upright-bass-led communist sex igloo, with a brief semi-folky detour in the shape of maple trees are not my enemies and a less demonic-sounding instrumental reprise of surrender to thee thrown in for good measure.
one of my favourite tracks, for whatever reason, is like a lover does. i like the dreamy weightlessness of it, and the fact that every guitar track is provided by a crappy acoustic 12-string i rarely use anymore, and then find myself wondering why i don’t pull it out more often when it inspires songs like this. originally there was a drum track holding the whole thing together…then i pulled it out of the mix and the song seemed to grow a lot more interesting without that steady rhythmic pulse to underpin it. and the comedown at the end of different degrees of wrong that’s built around a backwards electric guitar part might be one of my favourite things i’ve ever done, even though it’s maybe 60 seconds long at most. i kind of wish i had drawn it out more, but it was one of those happy improvisations/accidents, and i didn’t want to force it to be any longer than it wanted to be. so perhaps it’s best that it dissolves just as it really starts to get going.
stutter steps is built around an improvised real-time loop created with the same crude methods i used on the title track for SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP way back in 1999. fingers tapping a guitar, rubbing against themselves, tapping pantlegs and strumming strings create an endlessly-evolving rhythmic bed that ultimately builds to a gigantic wall of noise, but not before one of the more restrained and wistful-sounding songs here is constructed around it. bring rain in case of fire uses a similar approach, but with very different results, with a much more restrained rhythm loop, a lot of different acoustic/electric guitar sounds floating around, and an atmosphere that gets close to something like dream pop (albeit with a bit of banjo picking and a backwards organ coda thrown in for good measure). makeshift ashtray, meanwhile, is probably the closest i’ve ever come to proper ambient music in the idm vein. as with like a lover does, initially there was a beat there…the song just seemed to gain something when i got rid of the rhythm.
(in-studio footage of maple trees in the process of being recorded)
i like the lyrics here, and in some cases they drive the songs more than is usually the case for me. a good example is she’s someone else’s problem now. i was thinking about something the girl said to me in parting, about how i didn’t have a soul, and it occurred to me that maybe she said it because she was the one lacking in the soul department, and it frightened her to be confronted with someone who wasn’t an emotional vampire and didn’t have an agenda, so she pushed me away. i started writing with that idea in my head, and within 5 or 10 minutes the song was there. another one of those cases where a song that came toppling out very quickly sounds like a fair amount of thought and craft went into it. it’s always fun when that happens. even some of the songs that weren’t inspired by the relationship sound like breakup songs; a puppet playing possum is written from the perspective of a marionette who is ignored and left to rot when his owner/manipulator is seduced by a newer, more expensive puppet. it didn’t occur to me until after the fact that it works pretty nicely as a metaphor for a failed romantic relationship.
light sleeper, meanwhile, seemed to somehow predict the whole arc of the relationship before it even started, as if it was some kind of clairvoyant song. in the beginning there’s that feeling of wanting someone to let you in, though you’ve both been hurt before and are afraid of being hurt again. there’s a connection, things are good for a short time, and then everything twists in on itself and you can’t seem to figure out how or where it went from being good, to becoming some sort of strange mess you can’t seem to turn around. granted, that isn’t all spelled out explicitly in the lyrics, but the feeling of it is there. the only difference is, in reality i was the one who was the light sleeper, not her. but i like the idea of not being able to leave the room because you fear you’ll wake the other person up, as a metaphor for not being able to get out of a relationship that’s gone bad. this was going to be the first track on the album for a while, until i’m optimistic asserted itself and grabbed that spot. still, it remains one of my favourite songs on the album. it’s not the most complex thing here from a musical standpoint, but i like the way it slowly unfurls.
and i failed was purely a creative exercise, written pre-breakup, but may well be one of the harshest, most cynical songs i’ve ever written. it felt like the only real ending the album could have, sputtering out into complete failure and bitterness, attacking stupid love songs with forced rhymes — and romance itself — while sounding oddly nonchalant about it. i almost want to call it “dylanesque”, if young bob got drunk on cheap liquor and developed a slight case of potty mouth while strumming his guitar, but i’m not about to make that kind of comparison. however, i will say that the opening verse to this song is one of my favourite opening verses i’ve ever written. the whole thing feels like some sort of transcendent outpouring of bile, really.
as odd as it sounds, on some level i feel like i should thank the girl who inspired most of these songs, because without her about 95% of this album wouldn’t exist. stranger still is the realization that, in some ways, it doesn’t even feel like a breakup album to me when i listen to it. for all the venom and cynicism on display, i don’t find it cloying or depressing. it’s funny how something that came out of a very unhappy and confusing time can somehow be enjoyable to listen to on the other side. so there’s that.
(may 2011 video progress report that talks a bit about the album)
bring rain in case of fire
like a lover does
communist sex igloo
stupid borderline love song i wrote for someone who didn’t deserve it
surrender to thee
different degrees of wrong
a puppet playing possum
oh, you pretty little narcissist
some things are better left buried
maple trees are not my enemies
she’s someone else’s problem now
surrender to thee (redux)
i’m not your dirty little secret anymore
and i failed