Love Songs for Nihilists (2010)
if you want to use my somewhat tongue-in-cheek “seasonal releases” idea as a guideline, IF I HAD A QUARTER… is a spring album, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES is a summer album, and this thing here is very much a fall/winter album. AN ABSENCE OF SWAY also falls into this last category, coming as it did so early in 2009 that we were still deep in winter, but this one is a very different beast.
without going into too much detail, i was again dealing with feelings for someone that had to remain unrequited, and settling for a friendship when i wanted more. then, after being there as a friend for her when she needed it, she unceremoniously abandoned me when i was the one who needed a friend. all at once, i realized she had only been using me as a temporary emotional band-aid, before i got a little worn and she threw me in the garbage.
it wasn’t a pleasant realization, and it left me more depressed than i could remember being in a long time. at one point i considered moving somewhere far away, not bothering to tell anyone i was leaving (i figured no one would notice or miss me anyway), and just fucking off forever. funny how one person can have such a powerful effect on your thoughts and feelings. by the time i was finished with the album and it was finished with me, i found myself in a much happier place, with a girlfriend for the first time ever. still, i think there’s a feeling of sadness hanging over quite a few of the songs, even though it isn’t often spelled out in any explicit way in the lyrics.
here i set out to do something denser and more challenging than anything i’d done in a very long time, if not ever (i wanted to challenge myself more than anyone else), and once again i ended up with something that scarcely resembles the album i had laid out in my head when i first started working on it. it began with the desire to create music that exists in moments, tangling itself into knots and then violently tearing the fabric apart, only for the musical shards to regenerate as something new. beautiful moments and ugly moments sitting side-by-side.
that concept didn’t end up sticking entirely, but this was probably at once the prettiest and the most unpredictable set of music i’d put together in a while. the majority of these songs either keep mutating until they die, or they’re oblivious to the idea of “hooks” in any traditional sense. it’s also a very dynamic album — there are whisper-quiet moments and gigantic explosions of sound, both often coexisting in the same song.
i hit a bit of a mental block for a while, early in the recording process, as i found myself spending too much time thinking about what i was going to do, and not enough time actually doing it. i wanted to make sure i didn’t fall into the trap of repeating myself. this album needed to be something different, and i needed to challenge myself a bit instead of resting on my laurels (you don’t know how many people i keep around named laurel…it’s getting bad). i kept throwing most of the things i was writing in the “to be revisited after this album” pile, because they didn’t seem strange or jagged enough. all told, there were somewhere around 50 songs i wrote specifically for potential use on the album that didn’t make the cut — not because i didn’t feel they were good enough, but because they just didn’t feel right for this one. and they say i’m a reluctant editor.
luckily, i realized before too long that this was a trap, and i needed to stop over-thinking things and just throw a bunch of stuff up in the air like i normally would, waiting for it to fall around me in uneven clumps. some fruitful recording sessions with travis reitsma (working on what became OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES) helped to put things back into perspective for me. every once in a while, i need to be reminded that i work best when i don’t really think about what i’m going to do at all, and just let the music unearth itself along the way. CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN did that for me when i found myself in a bit of a funk, and then this album did it again, albeit in a very different way, and with very different results. also, i think this album is where i finished the job i started on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES and finally shook off whatever residue remained of the “style” i had established on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN.
knee-jerk howl has to be one of my favourite opening tracks on any album i’ve made, and it’s a bit of an unusual choice; normally i come running out of the gate with something jarring or uptempo to get the listener’s attention, while this is very much a ballad. it’s a pretty simple song, with nothing very strange going on structurally, but the dynamics of it are a little odd, and i like how it breathes in an unusual way. it features what is probably the most effective use i’ve ever made of the bugle, and the closest i’ve managed to come to successfully faking my own horn section in a somewhat melodic way.
the whole thing splinters and falls apart near the end only to put itself back together again, and this time it’s not a case of the song intentionally destroying itself in an act of musical self-sabotage as much as it’s just something that happens. i was working on a more ambitious extended piece that wouldn’t end up making the album, feeling lethargic and unmotivated, and not having much success, when i thought i would tackle this song in an attempt at getting something useful accomplished. it existed only as an acoustic guitar pattern and some lyrics, with no ideas in place as far as the arrangement was concerned. by the time i had recorded the guitars, bass, drums, bugle, mandolin, and was laying down the vocals, it felt like i had momentarily perforated the depression, or at least managed to twist it to my advantage and make some music out of it.
to that end, as a writer i find it interesting how emotions effect music in profoundly different ways. when i’m angry or working through anxiety, i swear a lot, my writing becomes confrontational and blunt without much of any attempt at being poetic or flowery, and i rip songs to shreds almost as a fuck-you to the songs themselves, just to make them feel my rage. when i’m happy and in an optimistic place, i tend to get silly, with a lot of wordplay and demented moments toppling out. sadness is something different altogether. it seems to make me more thoughtful, more cryptic, and for whatever reason, it sometimes seems to make me a better singer as well — as i felt it did here.
skull jugglers takes the relative calm established by that first track and spits spiked tomato juice in its face. to date it’s the only song i’ve ever built from a percussion track made up of gongs, of all things. it’s basically an improvisation, but very different from the way i used to improvise while recording; instead of being live “off the floor”, this is more of a sonic improvisation that establishes a groove only to tear it down and build something new from its ashes, and then it tears that down too. hey…maybe i did manage to work in my original musical concept of “music existing in moments” after all.
the fender rhodes gets some long overdue love here, and one of its finest moments is probably the double-tracked melody that comes in during the jazzy piano-led section, which gradually builds to something that sounds, to me, sort of like a strange, sad spiritual. i like those low moaning background vocals. it’s only a chocolate cigarette is another improvisation that turned itself into something like a song — in this case, stemming from a few different bass parts (dig the recurring bass harmonic melodic pulse). there’s not much to it in terms of lyrics (and what words there are were improvised, hence the song’s absence from the lyric booklet) and there’s no hook to the thing at all, but i like it as an atmospheric interlude, and the way it builds to a sloppy climax and then an unexpected ending.
crustacean cancer survivor is the sort of thing that never would have been allowed on the album if i had limited myself to the initial concept; instead of messing with structure, it keeps doing more or less the same thing, like a mantra, and only really has four lines of lyrics to it. the song marks the recording debut of a ridiculously cheap classical guitar i picked up on a lark. turns out you don’t always have to spend big bucks to get something with a little mojo to it. that guitar went on to inspire an unexpected new batch of songs, none of them really in keeping with the initial concept either, but i decided i’d best let that stubborn cheap axe assert itself.
it’s pretty funny when you have a recently-acquired 1940s martin oo-17 that is sort of your holy grail acoustic guitar, you’re excited to have it all over your next album…and it only ends up on about two songs, usurped by a laminated, factory-made, entry-level classical guitar that costs less than two hundred bucks new. the martin definitely got its due later on (starting on the very next album), but i still wouldn’t take my eye off that cheap classical thing.
there’s often a song that will stand out as feeling (to me, anyway) like the centerpiece of an album. in this case, it’s a mystery. kings might have fit the bill, if it didn’t pop up so early. it starts out as a skeletal bluesy thing that keeps on shifting and fracturing itself every step of the way, and culminates in the dirtiest guitar noise i’d unleashed in quite some time. it came from a place of real anger, and i’d call it a guitar solo, but i’m not sure the title quite fits. there’s nothing flashy about it. if anything, it might be looking back a little bit to some of the jagged chunks of sound i used to strangle out of guitars back in the guys with dicks days. sometimes it’s fun to just go off on an electric guitar and improvise, and i was glad to be reminded of that.
the things you love are always the first to leave would be another contender for “album centerpiece”, if it didn’t pop up right near the end. it’s another thing that comes from the aforementioned melancholy place i started out wallowing in. it’s long, it’s drenched in a feeling of sadness, and it passes through several different “scenes” before finally dissolving in a wash of funny horror movie-sounding synthesizer. it’s fun playing around with some different time signatures; this one starts out in a jazzy 5/4 shuffle before shifting to 6/8 and then standard 4/4 (along with some passages that are pretty “free” and aren’t really governed by any time signature), and the dynamics are all over the place. playing jazzy brushed drums in 5/4 is where it’s at.
so, in addition to whatever else this album is, you could call it “the album of centerpieces that live far from the center”.
late in the game, as things were nearing completion, i felt the album was missing something. at first i thought i just needed to record what i felt was one of the best songs i had written for the album, which would have come out as another long one around 8 minutes or so…but it felt like the “slowly building and exploding, and then rebuilding and imploding” quota had already been filled by a few other songs, and i didn’t want things to get stale or too predictable.
then i realized that the very thing i was casually avoiding was what the album needed — some very short “tiny songs”. there aren’t anywhere near as many of them here as there had been on the preceding few albums, but the ones that do appear serve to shake things up a bit. you make me feel like an impotent squadger is a demented strut that is easily the most aggressive thing on any album of mine since the bizarre pseudo-metal piece “lessons in self-deprivation and self-destruction” on TEMPORARY AMNESIA. i suppose squadger sounds like some sort of garage band glam metal stomp, built almost entirely around fuzz bass, drums, and distorted vocals, with a little bit of synth torture thrown in for good measure.
moonwalking was gifted to me by a dream, and while i would normally save that sort of thing for the album made up entirely of dream-based/inspired songs i plan to put together someday, in this case it felt too good not to include here. in the dream it was a blue nile song, and i briefly toyed with the idea of trying to sing it like paul buchanan, before deciding to stick with my own voice.
how we float when we shit, which is as demented as its title, was a quick improvisation for ukulele and voice, with everything distant mic’d and smashed to hell with compression, and i slammed my hands against my desk for rhythm instead of using actual drums or percussion. that it came out sounding a good deal less lo-fi than i expected is either a testament to me sort of sometimes knowing what i’m doing and having some pretty good equipment, or just a happy accident. we’ll cross that bridge when we burn it is an a capella number that is, as irony would have it, probably one of the catchiest, most accessible things on the whole album (at least until the final ten seconds or so), without a single musical instrument in sight.
i kept writing songs that could have made the album right up until the moment i cut myself off, and some of my favourite things on the cd were written very late in the game. bent bird, broken wing has to be one of the best piano ballad type things i’ve ever recorded, and the writing of it was unique in the sense that, instead of replacing the vocal gibberish from my original improvisation that birthed the song with new, unrelated lyrics, i listened to the gibberish and tried to translate what it would be if i had been singing proper words. i didn’t do it so forcefully that the words turned back into gibberish, but i did use the gibberish as a guide in a way i normally never would. the huge wave of vocal harmonies that comes in about halfway through the song might be my favourite moment on the whole album:
now that i think about it, i guess several of my favourite songs came during the last week or two of recording the album. improvised lake was written about four days before i did the final mix of the final song and called it a day, and it’s further proof that the cheap classical guitar has some kind of ridiculous magic to it. the song originally segued into a fairly long flamenco-style section that kept building in ferocity until it exploded into dissonance. but, while i liked that part, it ended up feeling a bit too similar to the big noisy climax at the end of crustacean cancer survivor. that song wouldn’t work without the buildup, while this one would survive just fine, so i chopped out most of it and chose to fade back in when things were at their messiest just to rip the nice, soft ending to shreds with some craziness and ridiculously cheesy combo organ. animal altruism is equal parts catchy and absurd, and was inspired by reading about some of the startling things animals will do to help humans or one another, sometimes risking their own lives in the process.
jesus don’t know my name and the cost of allowing yourself to remain living were both written at about 6:00 am, each in the space of 5-10 minutes, back-to-back on two successive days when my sleep was a dire mess, and they’re about as different from one another as two songs that were written on the same cheap classical guitar on subsequent days can be. jesus don’t know my name is sort of…borderline gospel blues, if you can believe that, and it’s even played relatively straight. it was probably inspired by the odetta record travis lent me. that’s right — i said record. as in vinyl. we’re hip bearded men, we are. i started out singing it in a somewhat garbled voice, not unlike the way i sang “beneath the darkening sky” and a few other bluesy tunes on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, but in the end it felt best sung more or less in my normal voice. it was fun acting as my own little backup gospel choir, too.
the cost of allowing yourself to remain living, meanwhile, is something else entirely. musically it’s fairly simple, but the production is intentionally off-kilter (with muffled heartbeat drums, slightly out-of-tune piano, and electric guitar plugged into an old tube amp that sounded like it was dying that day). lyrically, it’s quite a bit of a switch as well; instead of being fragmented and somewhat cryptic, the lyrics here are pretty blunt, though not in the same way i got blunt when i was pissed off at girls and wanting to take a lot of drugs back in the band days. on some level you could look at it as a precursor to some of the heavier themes that would soon emerge on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. i like how the whole thing comes full circle, and the last verse is one of my favourite last verses i’ve ever written, as simple as it is. it just feels like it pulls everything together in a really nice way — a good and proper ending.
speaking of endings, in my time of weakness is not quite like any other album-ending track i’ve ever committed to plastic. i don’t know what it is exactly, but it still feels like the only ending that’s really appropriate. it doesn’t even feel like a song as much as an ebbing and flowing of sound, all rise and fall, rise and fall…full of pregnant silences, and then sudden detonations of feedback-tinged guitar and thudding slap echo-drenched drums. there are no real verses, or choruses, or hooks. it’s just music that’s there until it isn’t there anymore. that jagged electric guitar part all by itself is not like any guitar part i’ve ever come up with before or since, and it’s another one of my favourite musical moments on the album.
the way the song was originally written, it didn’t sound anything at all like what it turned into. it was originally a comparatively jaunty waltz. the recurring guitar line that shadows/is shadowed by the voice was a complete fluke that basically became the whole song and rewired the entire thing. musical flukes that redefine everything are fun.
i had a few vague ideas for album cover art, but didn’t really feel like scrambling around trying to figure out what would make sense accompanying the album title. so this is one of those albums that doesn’t actually have any real cover art at all…just a colour, and some text. the album title was something i came up with years ago — maybe as far back as 2005. there are a lot of album titles i like that just sit around waiting until they find the right songs to attach themselves to, and this one finally found its place.
this was another one of those albums i didn’t think people would be into so much. it felt like a more “difficult” affair to me. to my surprise, the response was really positive. go figure. it does still feel markedly different from the preceding few albums to me, and the best way i can think of to describe it is a feeling that it went deeper and farther than anything i’d done in a while…if that makes any sense. as much as it’s a cliché to say the best songs come out of heartbreak or some form of crisis, i feel like i’ve done some of my best work when i was at my most unhappy, and i definitely feel like that was the case here. but as miserable as i was, it’s not a depressing or turgid album, and it was easily the best-sounding thing i had done up to this point, on the production side of things.
little did i know the next album would go even deeper, farther, and sound even better.
jesus don’t know my name
how we float when we shit
the cost of allowing yourself to remain living
crustacean cancer survivor
it’s only a chocolate cigarette
we’ll cross that bridge when we burn it
bent bird, broken wing
you make me feel like an impotent squadger
the things you love (are always the first to leave)
in my time of weakness