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 different beast.

without going into too much detail, i made the mistake — not for the first time, or the last — of investing a lot in a friendship that had nothing much to give back to me. the realization that i was little more than a means to an end left me more depressed than i could remember being in a long time.

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 in my life. still, i think there’s a feeling of sadness hanging over quite a few of these songs, even if it isn’t often spelled out 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 again i ended up with something that scarcely resembled the album i laid out in my head when i first started working on it.

it began with the desire to create music that existed 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. but this was probably at once the prettiest and the most unpredictable set of sounds i’d put together in a while. most of these songs either keep mutating until they die, or else they’re oblivious to the idea of hooks in any traditional sense. it’s also a very dynamic album, with whisper-quiet moments and medium-large explosions of sound sometimes coexisting in the same song.

i hit a bit of a mental block for a while early in the recording process, 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 here 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 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.

i was lucky enough to figure out 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 doing 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 shook off whatever residue remained of the “style” 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 (or both) to get the listener’s attention, and 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. i like how it breathes in an unusual way. it’s home to what might be the most effective use i’ve ever made of the bugle, and it’s easily the closest i’ve managed to come to 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 it’s not a case of the song intentionally destroying itself in an act of musical self-sabotage as much as it’s just a thing that happens. i was working on a more ambitious extended piece that wouldn’t end up making the album, feeling lethargic and unmotivated, not making much progress, 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’d recorded the guitars, bass, drums, bugle, mandolin, and was laying down the vocals, it felt like i managed to perforate the depression for a moment, or at least found a way to twist it to my advantage and make some music out of it.

as a writer, i find it interesting how emotions bend music in different directions. 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, 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 a pretty optimistic place, i tend to get weird, with a lot of wordplay and silliness toppling out.

sadness is something different. it seems to make me more thoughtful, more cryptic, and for whatever reason, it sometimes seems to make me a better singer — 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 starting point of a percussion track made up of gongs, of all things. it’s basically an improvisation, but it’s different from the way i used to improvise while recording. instead of being a live “off the floor” performance, 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. 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, it started with a few different bass parts. 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 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 00-17 that’s 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, 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, culminating in the dirtiest guitar noise i’d unleashed in quite a while. 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 grab a guitar, turn the brain off, 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 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 dissolving in a wash of funny horror movie-sounding synthesizer. it’s fun playing around with 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.

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, with the finish line in sight, i felt like there was something missing. at first i thought i just needed to record what i felt was one of the best songs i’d written for the album but hadn’t got around to tracking yet. it would have been 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 the thing i was casually avoiding was what the album needed — some of those really short “tiny songs”. there aren’t anywhere near as many of them here as there were 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 sounds like some sort of garage band glam metal stomp, built around fuzz bass, drums, and distorted vocals, with a little bit of synth torture thrown in for good measure. (for those who don’t know, a squadger is what happens when a squirrel and a badger really love each other and they decide to make a baby.)

moonwalking was gifted to me by a dream. while i would normally save that sort of thing for an album 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 toyed with the idea of trying to sing it like paul buchanan before deciding to stick with my own voice. i hope paul understands. no one could ever hope to imitate the unique beauty of that guy’s voice anyway.

how we float when we shit, which is as warped as its title, was a quick improvisation for ukulele and voice, with everything distant mic’d and smashed to hell with compression. i slammed my hands against my desk for 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. maybe it’s a bit of both.

we’ll cross that bridge when we burn it is an a cappella 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 were written late in the game. bent bird, broken wing has to be one of the better piano ballad type things i’ve recorded, and the writing of it was unique in the sense that instead of replacing the vocal gibberish from the improvisation that birthed the song with new, unrelated lyrics, i listened to the gibberish and tried to translate what it would have been if i’d been singing proper words. i didn’t do it with such force that the words turned back into gibberish, but i did use the gibberish as a guide, and i don’t normally do that.

the wave of vocal harmonies that comes in about halfway through the song might be my favourite moment on the whole 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. that song originally segued into a 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 ridiculously cheesy combo organ.

animal altruism is equal parts catchy and absurd. the lyrics were inspired by reading about some of the startling things animals will do to help humans and one another, sometimes risking their lives in the process. the inspiration for the atonal bridge section came from a different place. at the time there were some people telling me if i would just cut out the weirdness and odd digressions and random stylistic experiments, if i would just make a catchy 10-song album that kept itself tethered to one place, then i could really go places. then i could finally realize my potential. or something like that.

some of them meant well. some of them were assholes who didn’t like me making so much music that was so varied and giving it away for free, because they felt like i was showing them up.

constructive criticism is one thing. but when someone tells me i shouldn’t do something with my music, with an attitude that implies they know better than i do what’s best for the noises i make, i’m going to go out of my way to do exactly what they don’t want me to do just to fuck with them. so that’s how an uptempo song with some pretty juicy hooks will find itself drifting into intentionally off-key fake opera territory for a little bit.

but back to those songs that were written at the last minute.

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 mess, and they’re about as different from each 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. it’s even played relatively straight. it was probably inspired by the odetta record travis lent me. i started out singing it in a somewhat garbled voice, not unlike the way a few of the bluesy tunes on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN got sung, 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 a little different. musically it’s pretty simple, but the production is 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 a bit of a switch too. 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 seep into the songs 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, 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 isn’t 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 there could have been. it doesn’t even feel like a song as much as an ebbing and flowing of sound, all rise and fall, full of pregnant silences and 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 electric guitar part all by itself is not like any guitar part i’ve played on any other album i’ve made, 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 a jaunty little waltz in a different key. the recurring guitar line that shadows/is shadowed by the voice was a complete fluke that rewired the whole 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. 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” one to me. but the response was really positive. go figure. 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 my brain was at its least sunny, and i feel like that was the case again here.

TRACKS:

knee-jerk howl
skull jugglers
jesus don’t know my name
improvised lake
kings
how we float when we shit
the cost of allowing yourself to remain living
animal altruism
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
moonwalking
the things you love (are always the first to leave)
in my time of weakness

LISTEN:

kings

jesus don’t know my name

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