This is a breakup album.
IF I HAD A QUARTER… might 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 full-on breakup album in my catalogue since BEAUTIFULLY STUPID back in 2002.
I didn’t plan it that way. This was supposed to be a very different album from the one it turned into. For a while it was going to be called MORE MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, because it was meant to be a companion piece to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS.
Halfway through, I found myself in the middle of an unexpected romantic adventure, and everything shifted. Then the whole thing fell apart, everything shifted again, a bunch of new songs came pouring out, and almost every track I’d slated for inclusion was dropped to make room for the newer material.
So there’s a whole “lost album” (most of which will eventually be “found” on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE) that was cast aside in order to allow a different album to rise up in its place.
When the dust cleared, what I was left with was the angriest, most cynical collection of songs I’d put together in a 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 before 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’s almost but not quite ripped to shreds by a few violent guitar outbursts, a few mutant rock songs with personality disorders, and a whole lot of post-relationship songs that range from melancholy and wistful, to pensive, to downright acidic. There’s also a nice bit of accidental symmetry in the album beginning with a song called I’m Optimistic and ending with one called And I Failed.
The music is pretty varied, but it feels like there’s a thread that draws everything together no matter how far out-there some things go. That probably makes sense, given where a lot of the inspiration came from. Anger has a way of gluing things together.
It’s interesting to me how my approach to the whole breakup album concept has changed over time. Where before I would scream my guts out and try to strangle an electric guitar until it felt the way I did, here the music is more diverse, more thoughtful, given more room to breathe. The words have become sharper weapons, as self-laceration and visceral bile have given way to something that’s hopefully a little deeper and wider in scope.
Having said that, this is still music as catharsis, and the most personal album I’ve made in recent years.
What can I tell you about individual songs? I’m Optimistic is the most corrosive opening to an album of mine since…well, maybe since the old band days. Even the title is sarcastic. It begins as a pretty catchy song with lyrics that are the opposite of optimistic. Then it destroys itself in a sea of dissonance and chipmunk voices. Seemed like as good an opening salvo as anything.
Come to think of it, there are a lot of songs here that are pretty catchy for all the sarcasm and bitterness rattling around inside their guts. Things like Emotional Blackmail and Oh, You Pretty Little Narcissist are some of the more radio-friendly-sounding songs I’ve put together, at least until you start paying attention to the words. Nightside and Pizza Pockets (the aforementioned pseudo-orchestral piano ballad and rap song, respectively) almost have no business being on an album like this, but it wouldn’t have felt complete without them. 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 of old, both sounding like a few different songs spliced together and 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 (it might come off sounding misogynistic when it’s really just anti-one person), but neither was the experience. So it all evens out.
Instrumental tracks range from the eavestrough elbow-smacking weirdness of Slow Birdies to the fake-vibraphone-and-synthesized-upright-bass-led groove of 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 has always been Like a Lover Does. I like the dreamy weightlessness of it. Every guitar sound on that one comes from a cheap acoustic twelve-string I picked up back in the TEMPORARY AMNESIA days. There was a drum track holding the whole thing together for a while, but when I pulled it out of the mix the song seemed to grow a lot more interesting without a steady rhythmic pulse.
The comedown at the end of Different Degrees of Wrong that grows out of a backwards electric guitar riff might be one of my favourite things I’ve done, ever, even though it’s maybe sixty seconds long at the most. I kind of wish I drew it out more, but it was one of those happy improvised accidents, and I didn’t want to force it to be any longer than it wanted to be.
Stutter Steps is built around an improvised real-time loop created with the same crude methods used on the title track for SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP way back in 1999. Fingers tapping a guitar, rubbing against themselves, tapping pant legs, and strumming strings create an evolving rhythmic bed that fades away for a while, comes back, and builds to a semi-dissonant wall of noise, but not before one of the more restrained and pensive-sounding songs here is constructed around it.
Bring Rain in Case of Fire uses a similar approach, but with very different results. There’s a much more self-contained rhythm loop, a lot of different acoustic and electric guitar sounds floating around, and an atmosphere that gets closer to something like dream pop, with a bit of banjo picking and a backwards organ coda tossed into the mix (just because).
Even some of the songs that weren’t inspired by the relationship come off sounding like they were. A Puppet Playing Possum is written from the perspective of a marionette who’s ignored and left to rot when its owner/manipulator is seduced by a newer, more impressive puppet. It didn’t occur to me that I was writing about a failed romance in code until after the fact.
Light Sleeper seemed to somehow predict the whole arc of the relationship before it even started, like some kind of clairvoyant song. First there’s the feeling of wanting someone to let you in, though you’ve both been hurt before and are afraid of being hurt again. A connection is made. There’s the hope of something good growing into something even better. Then everything twists in on itself and you can’t work out how or where a promising beginning devolved into a strange mess you can’t seem to turn around or find your way out of.
Granted, that isn’t all spelled out in the lyrics. But the feeling of it is there. The thing is, she could have slept through the apocalypse. I was the light sleeper, not her. I never got one good night’s sleep in her bed. But I like the idea of not being able to leave the room because you fear you’ll wake the other person as a metaphor for not being able to get out of a relationship that’s gone bad.
That was going to be the first track on the album for a while, until I’m Optimistic elbowed its way in there. Still, it’s 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 moves.
And I Failed was a pure creative exercise, written pre-breakup, though it doesn’t sound like it. It might be one of the harshest, most cynical songs I’ve written. It felt like the only real ending the album could have, sputtering out into complete failure and bitterness, attacking love songs with forced rhymes and romance itself. The opening verse is one of my favourite opening verses I’ve written. Something about the almost giddy harshness of it all appeals to me.
As funny as this is going to sound, on some level I feel like I should thank the person who inspired most of these songs, even if there’s also a part of me that wishes we’d never met. Without her, most of this album wouldn’t exist. After it stopped being too close to the bone for me to listen to, I came around to the realization that I like this one quite a bit. So hey, doomed whirlwind relationships that leave you feeling demoralized when they end in a stupid way are good for something after all!
Here’s a period-correct video progress report that touches on the album a fair bit, if you’re after a bit of additional information.
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