Day: December 18, 2011

A polite look over the shoulder.

I’ve said this before, but I always find it interesting how your opinion of your own work can shift over time as you gain some distance from it and create more work. You get to a place where you can contextualize things more effectively than you could when they were brand new.

There are all kinds of minute changes that happen, but it’s the dramatic shifts in perspective I’m mystified by.

You can believe you’re creating something that leaps over everything else you’ve ever done, decide it’s a piece of garbage the moment it’s finished, and then spend the next several years watching your contempt for it shrink while never quite disappearing (as has been the case with OH YOU THIS).

You can make what you think is a fine piece of work but not anything too special, only to realize later on that it’s become one of your favourite things you’ve ever done (as was the case with PAPER CHEST HAIR, BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, and some others).

You can convince yourself you’ve done the best work you will ever be capable of, and there’s nowhere left to go but downhill, as I did when I was eighteen and had just finished BEAUTIFULLY STUPID…and then you can go on to prove yourself wrong several times over without ever losing your affection for the thing that didn’t turn out to be your creative plateau after all.

One of trickiest love/hate relationships I’ve ever had with an album is with SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN, the third “official” full-length Papa Ghostface CD.

The bloated double-CD HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) seemed a little too unwieldy for its own good, so I decided I would write the lyrics for every song on the next album I made with gord. It was a pretty bold move at the time. I had a habit of avoiding just about anything the least bit premeditated when it came to recording, leaving the lyrics I actually wrote in the conventional sense to collect dust, because it was more fun to improvise and discover what the lyrics were going to be as they were in the process of being sung.

I thought if I stuck to the ten songs that felt like the strongest material on paper, we would have a Papa Ghostface masterpiece on our hands.

See? I did put together an album with my ten best songs on it like a good little boy. I just did it in 1999 when no one was listening.

I wrote most of the lyrics while pretending to pay attention in the middle of different high school classes. And while I usually had music in my head even when I was writing lyrics away from an instrument, in this case most of the words came without any strong immediate musical ideas attached to them.

Gord and I got together in the cramped little music room, and in two nights we recorded the whole album, fusing my written lyrics with improvised music that was given no time to develop. For some reason this seemed like a good idea to me at the time. It didn’t occur to me that I was forcing spontaneity and premeditation together in ways that didn’t always work very well.

The moment it was finished I thought this CD was some of the best work I’d ever done. I gave copies to Jesse Topliffe and my grade eleven drama teacher Mr. Lewsaw. That led to an unexpected musical relationship with Jesse that would go a lot of different places over the next few years. As for Lewsaw, I’m proud to say I think I weirded him out a little.

A month or two later, when the honeymoon stage had long since passed, I saw the album for what it really was — not the worst Papa Ghostface album (that distinction will always rest with LIVE AT SILVERS), but a bit of a mixed bag, and nowhere near what we were capable of at the peak of our powers. When you break it down it’s one great song, a few good ones, and a handful that never quite lift off. It feels kind of slight, which is weird for an album that’s more than an hour long — though that was a little short by our standards.

In the summer of 2000 I toyed with the idea of re-recording the whole album with Gord from scratch. I had it in my head that if we just took a bit more time and fleshed the music out a bit more, maybe it really could be as great as I thought it was for the first five seconds after it was finished. I wrote out a list of what I felt each song needed (“Yogamo” with real drums! “Nerve” with less shitty singing!) but it never got beyond the brainstorming stage.

Yesterday I was scanning the handwritten lyrics for the album’s page in the discography section. I thought I’d pull it out for a listen. I’m going to guess the last time I sat down and let it play all the way through was when I remixed the whole thing in late 2002.

There wasn’t a single song that made me wince. I didn’t expect that. It’s still a mixed bag, but it’s not quite as mixed as I remembered it being. Some of the stuff I used to hate doesn’t really bother me anymore, and the highlights sound just as good as they ever did.

A song called “Compassion to Deceive” was the one thing that always stood out for me. It’s that rarest of things in the Papa Ghostface songbook — a ballad, or at least as close as I was going to come to one 1999. On the first day of the first semester of grade eleven I turned on the TV before I left the house and caught a bit of a music video by Keith Sweat. It was this one right here.

Not really my thing. I’ll stick with Al Green and Marvin Gaye. But that “nobody” refrain…that thing stuck in my head.

I wrote the lyrics for “Compassion to Deceive” in math class with that slow jam playing on a loop in my brain, mutating until it no longer resembled the song I heard on my way out the door. I don’t imagine it’ll come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard a decent amount of my music that the song I wrote didn’t end up sounding much of anything like Keith Sweat. But I’ve always found that bit of inspiration funny.

This is one of the few places on the album where the words are married to music that feels like a perfect fit. I still remember recording it with Gord and being a little amazed that those chords just fell under my thumb. They’re simple chords, and they move in a simple way, but they felt right.

Gord started following me on the bass, I hit the record button, and we were off. All the words aside from the recurring “you got it” vocal hook were meant to be spoken, but in the moment I decided to sing them instead. You can hear me at a few points mentioning off-mic when a change is coming. It’s a rough, first-take performance, with a lot of off-notes from both of us. To say I’m a better guitarist now is like saying the sun shines brighter at one in the afternoon than it does at seven in the evening. And the transition into the bridge section is very sloppy, improvised and unrehearsed as it was. The song also rambles for about two minutes longer than it needs to.

Even so, there’s an odd sort of tender bitterness to the whole thing. Somehow a line like, “A polite look over the shoulder / Saliva on the window of fate,” comes off as being weary instead of ridiculous (though it’s always sounded a bit to me like I changed “fate” to “faith” at the last second).

I think the lyrics still stand as some of the best I’ve written at any point. The song title all on its own has to be one of the best phrases I’ve ever come up with. I have no idea where it came from, and I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Now it’s got a gravity to it I couldn’t feel when I was sixteen years old. In a twisted way, sometimes there really is something compassionate behind misleading or lying to someone.

Stranger still is the way it’s grown into an almost eerily prescient song, reading very much like the sort of thing I would write now more than a decade later.

Compassion to Deceive (original mix)

Some songs really gained something when I cleaned them up and got rid of the low end mud in my 2002 remix. Not this one. It lost something fundamental when I touched up the dodgy bits of my harmony vocal and removed the slapback echo from my acoustic guitar. It was technically “better”, but it sounded wrong. Part of the soul was missing

Maybe some things just aren’t meant to be messed with.

I learned that in a whole new way when I decided I was going to take a stab at recording a brand new version of the song today. After all these years, I thought I could invest it with a whole new depth of feeling, to say nothing of the improved musicianship and production skills. I could hear the keyboard part being replaced with real piano. I could hear drums and a wash of harmony vocals coming in near the end.

It was all going pretty well until I got around to recording the vocals and learned I’d left out a pivotal chunk of music when I was laying down the acoustic guitar, making it impossible to sing a few lines the right way. Instead of starting from scratch, I erased the whole thing. I got the message: leave it alone, warts and all.

The original, less polished mix is still the one I come back to, and it’s the one that’s up here on the blog. Maybe I’ll save the revisiting for a live performance when I play another show in 2023.