Wednesday, August 3, 2011


I'm not the only person who has ever tried to think of songs about states (you're rarely the first person to think of something on the internet). I don't really mind, though, because it's nice to have a fallback when I'm really stumped for songs to write about. This morning I googled "songs about Maine" and discovered that almost no one can think of any songs about Maine. The same was true for Connecticut, so I've decided to do a more general "New England" themed entry this time.

The one and only song I could find that actually mentioned either state in any relevant way was Vampire Weekend's 'Walcott.' Not surprising, considering the band's pastel-wearing, collar-popping status as the musical poster boys for New England prep culture. 'Walcott' is a song about New England's idyllic coastal towns that name drops Connecticut's Mystic Seaport alongside other locales like Cape Cod, New Provincetown, and Wellfleet. It's a veritable roll-call of cheerful vacation spots characterized by cutesy, whaling-themed taverns and gift shops full of things printed with anchors and lobsters.

In many of their songs, Vampire Weekend plays into these New England stereotypes, especially in their oddly detailed descriptions of clothing. The band is quite image-conscious in live appearances, sporting the "bleeding madras," "pure Egyptian cotton," and "Bennetton" that their songs invoke. Their attachment to a very specific, Vineyard Vines-Lily Pulitzer aesthetic underscores the peculiar culture of the New England coast, an isolated, wealthy, and hereditary enclave with a certain level of detachment from reality. See Oprah's recent interview with former President Bush and his family at their Kennebunkport, ME compound-- the elder Bush sporting a garish combination of brick red pants and pastel yellow shirt that VW singer Ezra Koenig would love-- for a perfect representation of the cultural niche of New England resort towns. The attachment of these super-rich families to their palatial vacation homes, beginning with Gilded Age greats like the the Vanderbilts (whose absurdly vast Breakers mansion stands as the boldest monument to the American dedication to vacationing), suggests an attachment to the region and its traditions confirmed by Vampire Weekend's lyrical obsession with the proper attire.

This affection, however, isn't so simple. Running below the celebration of pastels, beaches, and New England campus life in Vampire Weekend's songs is a current of uncomfortable cloistering and a desire for rebellion. In their lyrics, they harbor the same desire for escape and movement that many of their American musical contemporaries express. However, they're escaping from the polar opposite of what artists like Springsteen lament: oppressive wealth and exclusivity. VW is constantly "wanting to leave" the "compounds...lazy and safe" that epitomize the New England coast. In a moment of brash, youthful distaste they proclaim, "The Bottleneck is a shitshow/Hyannisport is a ghetto...fuck the women from Wellfleet/Fuck the bears out in Provincetown/heed my words and take flight." The denunciation-- somewhat ironic, as Hyannisport is home to the Kennedy compound-- rejects all the niches of New England culture. It's also, incidentally, a nod to the short film about a vampire attack in Cape Cod that gave the band their name. While 'Walcott' is complicated by this film connection, VW's catalogue as a whole has undercurrents of distaste for New England life, for the "uniformed gloves and courtyard gates" of 'Taxi Cab,' a track about Koenig's dissolving relationship with a girl who came from the privileged background eschewed in 'Walcott.'

VW's rebellion against life on New England's "compounds" might stem from the fact that the society there is emotionally deadened by wealth and tradition There's a reason that Vampire Weekend stands out-- there aren't a lot of other bands singing about madras and prep schools. In 'Taxi Cab,' Koenig describes himself as "unsentimental," and relates a conversation with the former girlfriend who lived "in the blocks uptown: in the shadow of your first attack/ I was questioning and looking back/ You said, 'Baby we don't speak of that'/ like a real aristocrat." Of course she isn't a real aristocrat, but this descendant of those Gilded Age lords is as close as America will ever get. Musicianship requires a level of emotional awareness and expressiveness that doesn't mesh with upper crust New England life, and it's this-- the aristocratic need for conformity, appropriateness, tradition-- that the band rebels against most. They undermine the image of New England life as elegant and perfect in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a Kennedy biopic.

However, the criticism isn't entirely successful or complete. A lack of sentimentality lingers in "Taxi Cab," as though the band questions their self-pity for being confined to opulence, or can't escape their own New England upbringing. "You're not a victim/ neither am I/ nostalgic for garbage/ desperate for time/ I could blame it on your mother's hair/ or the colors that your father wears/ but I know that I was never fair/ you were always fine." The lines in reference to parents-- allusions to prep school colors and the iconic "Bergdorf Blondes," suggest a continued attachment to, a buying-into, the stoic way of life that has been part of the New England coastal lifestyle since the Puritans. 'Taxi Cab' could also be a realization that really there's no reason to be so unhappy, because it could be far worse. What do you get if you escape to New Jersey, Springsteen's grinding poverty? Maybe that's why Koenig asks, "Don't you know that it's insane?" to leave Cape Cod. He's an indecisive rebel, hating his roots but unable to stop embracing them.

It's not exactly cool to be super rich and problem-free in a band (who's going to take you seriously?), so maybe Vampire Weekend just want to give themselves some credibility by rebelling against their dreamy, sun-dappled New England summers. But there's an undercurrent of darkness in the stories of most of the great northeastern families that suggests a genuine unhappiness in the upper echelons. Look again at the Kennedys, the Gilded giants who fell, the pathetic protagonists in the bizarre film Grey Gardens. Maybe there is a reason to escape Cape Cod tonight.

Taxi Cab
The Kids Don't Stand a Chance

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I started this post in a bad mood on a rainy day, and the songs I had initially chosen for Ohio were suitably negative and critical. First of all, I didn't know a lot of songs about Ohio. The two that came to mind were Drew Carey Show intro 'Cleveland Rocks' and Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' Great, I thought bitterly, prime stuff right here. Even one of the bands can't wait to get out of Ohio. Though I will include these songs, I quickly realized that I couldn't make a very substantial post out of them by themselves. It was hard to admit to myself that my music knowledge might be less than encyclopedic, but I bit the bullet and plugged 'songs about Ohio' into Google. The top hit was this post from Paste, which was mostly about the overwhelmingly sad quality of songs about the state. I've chosen Sun Kil Moon's 'Carry Me, Ohio' as a representative sample. Though I am allowing some seriousness to infiltrate the post, I couldn't resist this cartoon from Ohio native Natalie Dee:

We'll start with the least serious song from the trio above, Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' I want to establish something up front: I'm not endorsing this as a quality song. At all. It's a TERRIBLE song. Only listen to it once so you understand this blog entry, then never again because it's profound awfulness will make your brain pour out of your ears like pancake batter. It's really bad. I've warned you. Let's take a glance at the opening lyrics to get a sense of what we're dealing with here.

She said she needed a break
A little time to think
But then she went to Cleveland
With some guy named Leland
That she met at the bank

There's nothing wrong with Ohio
Except the snow and the rain
I really like Drew Carey
And I'd love the Scene, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame

This is definitely the track Natalie Dee was thinking of when she drew her cartoon. Some definite themes, if such a serious term can be used to describe the topics addressed by a song that rhymes "Cleveland" and "Leland." Apparently the only things of note in all of Ohio are Drew Carey, Cleveland, and how much it sucks to be there. Bowling for Soup's song, along with the Natalie Dee cartoon above, illustrate an unusual phenomenon about art that discusses the Midwest-- a baseline level of mockery. We all know jokes about the midwest, Fargo is basically one that goes on for two hours. Bowling for Soup do it with much less panache and artistic viability than the Coen Brothers, but the same sentiment is there: don't take the midwest too seriously, it's a little silly and backwards and not quite like the population centers of the coast.

Fargo, however, is usually understood as a rather affectionate portrayal of the people who populate the center of America. Songs like "Come Back" suggest that Ohioans are in on the joke, and despite the catalogues of things they find wrong with their home state. In fact, Ian Hunter wrote "Cleveland Rocks" in 1979 to say just that. The version that appeared on "Drew Carey" is actually a cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, but Hunter wrote and performed the song because he believed people should know there's a "lotta heart in Cleveland." Hunter sings:

Mama knows but she don’t care
She’s got her worries too
Seven kids and a phony affair
And the rent is due
All the little chicks with the crimson lips go
Cleveland rocks, cleveland rocks...

I got some records from world war two
I’ll play ’em just like me grand dad do
He was a rocker and I am too
Oh Cleveland rocks, yeah Cleveland rocks

It's kind of a gimmick song, and the lyrics are actually sort of a downer about economic depression there at the beginning. But underneath the layer of slight comedy, there's an actual warmth for Cleveland. Hunter seems to admire the city for its working class roots, and he embraces the past through references to his mother and grandfather, reflecting a pride in his roots rather than the desire to escape that many musicians express. His reflections on parents and grandparents also hint at the family values central to midwestern culture, although the portrayal of his mother doesn't follow the most traditional path down the road of that theme.

Finally, let's transition to the most serious of our three songs, Sun Kil Moons 'Carry Me, Ohio' to consider the other end of the midwestern spectrum, the rich, genuine spirit of the region. Maybe it's because it's less flamboyant than the surrounding regions, but the Midwest seems to inspire a quiet affection and straightforwardness that's mirrored in Sun Kil Moon's depressingly emotional lyrics. The band reflects fondly on Ohio's Tuscarawas River and returns to a theme common among songs about rural areas of America-- homecoming and connection to home. 'Carry Me, Ohio' seems to be about the death of a loved one, and like North Carolina's 'Yankee Bayonet,' it focuses on the return home in death. States that are marginalized in the American cultural consciousness as less cultured or significant, especially southern or midwestern ones, are often associated with this theme in music. Mark Kozelek sings, "Children blessed/ gather round the home she will rest/ so poor and cold in their Midwest..." Even when the state is "poor and cold," it is "theirs." Ohioans embrace their home, strengths and flaws alike, with a long-suffering earnestness that isn't found in tracks about, for example, New York.

It's a little cliché to talk about Middle America and wholesomeness, but a lot of the jokes in the first two songs covered here are clichés too. Midwesterners embrace the best and worst of their states, the constant jokes and cold, windy winters alongside the values of hard work and family, with consistent warmth and humor. And with this honest, straightforward outlook, they also achieve moments of emotional clarity like 'Carry Me, Ohio' that are untainted by the bitterness of jaded states like New York and California.

Ohio (Come Back to Texas)
Cleveland Rocks
Carry Me, Ohio

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I'll confess: this entry will be a little bit of a cheat. Songs about specific states in some regions are few and far between, and I managed to find one that dealt with both Alabama and Arkansas, so I'm going to more generally on the South. We'll be taking a look at the aforementioned states through some very old and very new songs, one from the 2009 debut album of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and one recorded in 1936 by blues legend Robert Johnson.

Edward Sharpe is the brainchild of singer Alex Ebert, but it's actually a musical collective of Arcade-Fire-rivalling size. Arguably their most famous track is 'Home,' the country-tinged duet between Ebert and Jade Castrinos that has been featured everywhere on TV since its release. The most immediately noticeable thing about Sharpe's debut album is its genre diversity; 'Home' is a self-consciously country track among more grandiose takes like 'Om Nashi Me' and 'Kisses Over Babylon' and the spartan acoustics of 'Simplest Love.' As such it's almost a parody of the genre, from its down-home whistling intro to the folksy spoken interlude. The lyrics suit this purposefully simplistic take on songwriting, a straightforward exchange between Castrinos and Ebert in down-home personas:

Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma and Pa
Not the way that I do love you

Holy moly, me oh my, you’re the apple of my eye
Girl, I’ve never loved one like you

Man, oh man, you’re my best friend, I scream it to the nothingness
There ain’t nothin’ that I need

Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie, chocolate candy, Jesus Christ
There ain’t nothin’ please me more than you

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

The fact that the songs is so cheerful sets it apart from most of the music that has appeared in this blog. The sense of connection and contentment-- between Castrinos and Ebert as well as between them and their-- obviously-- home. "Home" for them is associated not only with one another, which bundles the concept of home with that of love and belonging, but with everyday objects. Another trademark of Southern music is a lyrical focus on relatable topics, fostering a sense of connection between musician, audience and place. As we saw in 'Yankee Bayonet,' the relationship to home in Southern music is substantially different and more positive than in music about other regions, where the desire to escape or progress reigns supreme. Musicians writing about the South embrace the everyday there in a way that reflects genuine affection for the region. Individual lyrics here don't really say a lot about our locations for this week. Why? Because Wikipedia tells me that the album that includes 'Home' is "about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. According to Ebert, Sharpe "was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind...but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love." I don't even know where to start with that. Instead, the important part about Sharpe's adoption of Southern stereotypes is how fondly they're embraced instead of rejected in favor of progress.

Some of the connectivity between artist, audience, and place in the South might stem from the importance of local music production there-- a topic which brings us to our other musician, Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. All the known recordings of Johnson's work were recorded in two sessions, one in San Antonio in November 1936 and another in Dallas the following year; he died at 27 just a year later during a stint of concerts in Greenwood, MS. Little is known about Johnson's life or death and most of his recordings weren't even released during his lifetime, but his song 'Terraplane Blues' became what one writer has described as a "regional hit" in the South-- it's this track, which name-drops Arkansas, that I'll focus on.

Johnson has been described as one of the most profoundly influential musicians for rock artists, and 'Terraplane Blues' illustrates the best of his work, as well as its most frequently mimicked characteristics. Like 'Home' nearly 80 years later, 'Terraplane' is about two relatable subjects: a car and a cheating girlfriend (lyrics). 'Terraplane' was about topics that people who lived near the artist would understand and it was largely performed in local venues. Johnson's music-- the dialect, the incredibly distinctive Delta sound-- captures a time and place with great specificity, fostering a strong audience connection. Southern music today has a similar tendency toward regionalism and close-knit, dedicated fanbases. The South has long been the source of some of America's most iconic music, perhaps because artists are so inspired by the places they live.

A crucial element of lyrics about the South is often a connection to the past. Whether literally songs about the past, like The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet' or simply the adoption of more innocent ideals as seen in 'Sharpe,' these tracks return again and again to their predecessors, expressing a reverence for Southern history and ideals. This focus on history draws together all the threads of Southern music-- the value of home and insularity, the theme of the everyday and regional. Southern musicians focus not only on the simplicity and history of earlier times in general, but display a deep reverence for their musical predecessors. The influence of Johnson and his blues contemporaries on music across genres, from the earliest rock in the 50s to a cadre of musicians, like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Robert Plant, who are legends in their own right. Along with Edward Sharpe, other groups like The Avett Brothers and London-based Mumford & Sons are bringing bluegrass out of the South and into the mainstream. Maybe this expansion of Southern style music reflects a desire to move away from the cynicism that characterizes a lot of modern releases here and in the UK. The simple values of 'Home'-- family, day-to-day life, a sense of belonging and place-- hint at a nostalgic desire for these values, so succinctly expressed by Southern musicians, even in those with no connection to the South. That's a powerful endorsement for the lyrical and thematic strength of music about the region.

Don't let all this talk about innocence and nostalgia mislead you. There's also a sharp(e)ness to a lot of Southern music that belies the "aw shucks" simplicity of the vocals. Take another look at Johnson's lyrics--you'll be surprised how racy they are for 1936. But there is a refreshing lack of cynicism in Southern music that separates it from the rest of America. The warmth and depth of emotion in tracks about places like Alabama and Arkansas reflects a desire to connect with one's place and past, to preserve history rather than progress from it. It's an outlook that diverges from what we commonly think of as the American dream, and an unusual one to find in a place that's often considered the most powerfully influential region for American music.

Terraplane Blues

I again recommend Marcus' Mystery Train for more on the enigmatic Robert Johnson. Also, check out this interesting article on the controversy over the recording speed of Johnson's few surviving tracks.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I never intended for this to be a political blog (God knows there are enough of those), and I don't consider myself an especially political person. But when I stumbled upon a song about Arizona--probably the only one I'll find-- it happened to address a topic that has been the source of intense political debate in the past few months. Arizona is a border state, so of course I'm talking about the immigration debates that have garnered a lot of CNN face time. We arrive at this topic through the lyrics of unlikely political commentator Brandon Flowers and the song 'Magdalena.'

For a song about the woes of illegal immigration, 'Magdalena' has a fairly upbeat sound. Flamingo sees Flowers experimenting with an array of sounds that move away from the Killers aesthetic, from old-timey country ('On the Floor') to the mariachi tint in 'Magdalena.' The 'plot' of the song, such as it is, revolves around the journey from the Arizona border town of Nogales to Magdalena, in Sonora, Mexico. It's a trip of about 60 miles through the desert, and the first thing you'll notice about the song is that its protagonist isn't going the direction you'd think. In light of the recent immigration debates in Arizona, we think of surreptitious midnight border crossings from Mexico to the US, but the travelers here are returning to Magdalena. As explained in this article, the trip from Nogales to Magdalena is an annual pilgrimage taken by hundreds of Mexicans every October. They make the journey on foot over two or three days, carrying "mandas" with them. As Flowers phrases it in the song, I assumed a manda was a type of talisman or religious reminder, but actually it's described as "penance, miracles, promises and pay it forwards." Like pilgrims throughout history, those traveling to Magdalena are seeking spiritual fulfillment or redemption.

Through its connection to redemption, the Nogales to Magdalena pilgrimage parallels dozens of other writings and songs about journeys in America. We've discussed Raleigh's redemptive journey after falling into disfavor with Queen Elizabeth, and it's also a theme that Springsteen returns to over and over. Images of the desert or other spacious locations are most often associated with these redemptive journeys, and 'Magdalena' follows this trend with its cleansing trip through the desert.

If this journey was from Magdalena to Nogales, this post would be about the search for the American dream that millions of immigrants have undertaken since the first settlers arrived in the sixteenth century. But what's interesting about 'Magdalena' is that the journey takes place in reverse. The travelers in 'Magdalena' are not seeking progress and success in America, but a return to the traditions of their homeland. It's an unusual twist on the narrative of the American dream, a rejection of all that that the nation represents. "Please don't offer me your modern methods/I'm fixin' to carve this out of wood," Flowers proclaims at the beginning of the track. Putting aside the obvious problem of imagining Brandon Flowers handcrafting anything from wood, the image suggests a desire for tradition above success.

'Magdalena' is a song about the failure to find the bounty or happiness that America promises, and as such it's a remarkably thoughtful and modern look at the state of affairs on our southern border. The song's bridge makes it clear that Flowers has the political issues surrounding immigration in mind. He describes "a bullet in the night/a Federale's light" before imploring San Francisco for aid. As a resident of the southwest, Flowers has certainly seen the issues that arise with immigration, but he's unusual in taking the viewpoint of the thousands of immigrants who don't succeed in their new lives. He describes them as "prodigal sons and wayward daughters," implying that their return to their homeland is inevitable once they discover the hardship that awaits them. The song also suggests that there is something corrupt in seeking success in America, that its wealth is a siren's call away from tradition and home. The song's final lines are: "If I should fall to temptation when I return to the evil throes/ From Nogales to Magdalena as a two-time beggar I will go/ Where I know I can be forgiven/ The broken heart of Mexico." As chaotic and dangerous as Mexico is, it is the homeland, preferred to the loss of culture and tradition that accompany a transplant to America. In fact, there's a shame in abandoning your culture that requires a redemptive journey, and perhaps more than one if you fall prey to the temptation of Americanization more than once.

In 'Magdalena,' Flowers finds some of his strongest parallels with his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen. As songwriters, both return over and over to the importance of religion in the American consciousness. Springsteen seeks "the promised land" just as Flowers takes the pilgrimage to Magdalena. Also, each meshes the idea of a redemptive journey with a mixture of disdain and longing for home. Flowers' pilgrims value the traditional lifestyle of Mexico-- complete with its religious practices and beliefs-- over the foreign success of life in America. In parallel narratives, Springsteen's protagonists seek better lives outside New Jersey even as they express nostalgia for their home state. Relationships of tension define much of the American experience-- tension between tradition and progress, between religion and superstition and modernity, and between home and the potential for a better life elsewhere. These themes become especially meaningful when considering our border states and our relationship with other nations. For a Vegas showman who's usually more interested in rhinestones than politics, Flowers creates a nuanced consideration of cultural conflict and the power of tradition.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


Let's establish something from the get-go. Brandon Flowers loves Las Vegas. LOVES it. LOVES IT. He named his debut solo album Flamingo in honor of one of the city's famous hotels. His next album could be called LAS VEGAS: AWESOME and he could use the songs as a soundtrack for his campaign to become mayor. So there was no one else I could ever think of writing about when I got to Nevada. Not that there aren't a multitude of other artists associated with Vegas-- The Rat Pack, of course, as well as dozens of others who have taken up residence at various casinos and theatrical, now-mostly-defunct emo act Panic! at the Disco-- but no one seems to engage as personally with the city and state as native son Flowers, born in the Vegas suburb Henderson, NV.

One side of Flowers' Las Vegas is the one that appears in the ubiquitous commercials promising "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." Bright, glamorous (?), fun more than anything else. On the title track of his solo album, Flowers bids us 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'-- a song he prefaces at gigs with a story about passing the iconic sign as a kid from the suburbs. In 'Welcome,' 'Sam's Town,' 'Neon Tiger,' and several other songs from the Killers catalog, it becomes clear that Flowers has a genuine tourist's of affection for Vegas as a mecca for flash and entertainment. 'Sam's Town' [a nickname for Vegas] "rolls that world right off [Flowers'] shoulders;" he buys into the image of Vegas as an escape.

However, there's also a certain cynicism in Flowers' Vegas that suggests he knows it better than your average tourist. In Welcome he asks, "Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?" Everyone realizes that there's a lack of substance underneath Vegas' flash, and that whatever substance it has is seedy at best. In 'Sam's Town,' Flowers seems defeated by the city-- "Nobody ever had a dream round here," he begins, "I don't really mind that-- it's starting to get to me." 'Welcome' reimagines the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty for Vegas-- "Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins, Las Vegas." It's an interesting take on the American dream, something of a parody, and the song itself takes on that style as well. It's overly grand (even for Flowers), with a big, arching chorus and a lengthy run time. It's Flowers' answer to a Vegas show or the hotels that are parodies of real places around the world.

The most interesting thing about Flowers' portrayals of Vegas is that they constantly reference the American dream, even as they doubt that the city can be a place to fulfill it. 'Sam's Town' is a song about Americana and success, as is much of the eponymous album. "My brother, he was born on the Fourth of July," Flowers proclaims. (Strangely enough, a true fact.) In 'Sam's Town' and 'Bling,' Flowers finds a realization of the dreams of success he places on Las Vegas. And in some ways, Vegas is a realization of a certain American dream. It's big, it's bright, it's full of money and fun. But as we've seen in other 'fun' states like California and Florida, sun and relaxation comes with a sense of impermanence or falsity. The flipside to the American dream of success is the need to work hard, to suffer in some Puritanical way, and places like Vegas that lack that facet always bring with them some sense of suspicion.

Flowers also writes frequently about the rest of Nevada, and the dichotomy of Vegas glitz and grimy desert tableaux in his solo album and his Killers discography represent the state itself fairly well. In his digressions into the desert, Flowers seems to find more hope and spiritual resonance than he does in the glitter pastiche of Vegas. Despite being under 30, he channels a world-weary Dylan or Springsteen when dealing with the 'Dustland' that surrounds his hometown. There's more purity and personal engagement in these tracks, and listeners get the sense that this is where Flowers really finds the American dream. He writes about his family when he writes about the desert-- his siblings, the parents he idealizes in 'Dustland' and 'The Clock Was Ticking' as an ideal couple. Critics have been harsh with Flowers for his sudden transitions into down-home diction on tracks like 'This River Is Wild' after the British overtones of debut Hot Fuss, but I don't think it's entirely an act. It might be more a revelation. Maybe it's easier for Flowers to pretend-- to be a Vegas showman with slick faux-English production like the fake Eiffel Tower on the Strip-- than it is for him to dig into the reality of his childhood and share it with listeners.

Moving back to Vegas, Flowers' disillusionment with the city is mirrored in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A long-weekend look at the city through a haze of drugs, Thompson's writing is a snapshot of all Vegas' excesses. It's not as grandiose or idealized as Flowers' takes on the city, but there's a similar loss of touch with reality. Critics point to the notion in Thompson's writing of "solace in excess," the idea that when you cannot think of any other way to be content, you simply seek and acquire as much as possible. For Thompson in Fear and Loathing this comes in the form of drugs. In one of Thompson's favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the original champion of 'solace in excess.' Without a family name to bolster him and desperate to reclaim a childhood love, he throws lavish parties, buys houses and cars, and in one famous scene from the novel owns enough shirts that it makes that childhood love weep to see them all. Gatsby and Thompson take parallel journeys in their respective works, seeking the American dream of success and happiness through temporary, material acquisitions and vapid escapes and coming up with nothing in the end. Vegas, equally entertaining but hollow, is the city for both of them-- maybe in a modern version Gatsby would go there instead of East Egg. It's this side of Vegas that Flowers fears and rejects, a substanceless place of constant consumption and disposal. Maybe it's why he prefers the desert.

All these elements-- Flowers' Vegas and desert, Thompson, Gatsby-- come back together in a final Killers track. 'Read My Mind' is arguably the centerpiece of Sam's Town, a driving burst of synth backing up some of Flowers' strongest lyrics:

On the corner of main street
Just tryin' to keep it in line
You say you wanna move on and
You say I'm falling behind
Can you read my mind?

I never really gave up on
Breakin' out of this two-star town
I got the green light
I got a little fight
I'm gonna turn this thing around
Can you read my mind?

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze

Oh well I don't mind, if you don't mind
Cause I don't shine if you don't shine
Before you go, can you read my mind?

It’s funny how you just break down
Waitin' on some sign
I pull up to the front of your driveway
With magic soakin' my spine
Can you read my mind?

The teenage queen, the loaded gun;
The drop dead dream, the Chosen One
A southern drawl, a world unseen;
A city wall and a trampoline

Slippin’ in my faith until I fall
You never returned that call
Woman, open the door, don't let it sting
I wanna breathe that fire again

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun
When you read my mind

There's less 'story' to this track than many Killers songs, but the images are strong enough to create the dichotomy you need to understand. Flowers creates a balance between purity-- the teenage queen, the Promised Land, the secret kiss-- and corruption or confinement in the city-- "a broken wrist and a big trapeze," the loaded gun. In the end, as so many American songwriters do, he wants escape. He's most likely to seek it outside Vegas, where the "stars are blazing." He uses a natural image, and one that would be impossible to see above all Vegas' lights, to symbolize the attainment of what he really wants: the connection with another person that he idealizes in songs about his parents and his desert upbringing. Flowers refuses the theory of 'solace in excess,' trampolining over the city wall that confines Thompson as he's holed up in a Vegas hotel room. Flowers isn't unaware of Gatsby either-- "I've got the green light/I've got a little fight" is a reference to the light on the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald's novel, known to anyone who's taken a high school English course. The green light represents Daisy and love, the things Gatsby wants most but can't attain through the excesses of his lifestyle. Like Flowers, what he wants is more organic than what money can buy in Vegas.

In one way, Vegas is its own unattainable dream. Flowers' wish to "break...out of this two star town" is double-edged. Is he dismissing Vegas, or echoing the more common American dream of making it in the big city? Who but Americans, bolstered with lingering Manifest Destiny, would have the audacity to construct a city in the desert? Flowers and Gatsby could appreciate that-- the desire to create, to strive and improve and achieve a dream. The excess of Vegas gets condemned overall, but maybe solace remains in the notion that there is no dream that can't be achieved. You can make an oasis in the desert, you can go there and win a million dollars, you can jump the wall or finally swim to the green light.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
Sam's Town
A Dustland Fairytale
Read My Mind

Monday, February 14, 2011


I had a different post in the works for this week, but in honor of Arcade Fire's well-deserved Grammy for Album of the Year last night I decided to shuffle in a post inspired by the album that won them the award-- The Suburbs. Arcade Fire excel at producing albums that capture the spirit of a moment in their lives, and their true gift is that they so often capture a moment in yours, too. With that in mind, this post will be a less literal look at its particular state-- Texas-- than some of the past ones have been. This has also been one of the hardest posts for me to formulate; I'm not sure I can capture the spirit of such a complex album in a few paragraphs, but I'll do my best.

That said, let's start with the one concrete reference to Texas that The Suburbs offers. In 'City with No Children,' lead singer Win Butler sings, "I dreamt I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground/There was no light that we could see as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." Thematically, the album focuses on suburban expansion, nostalgia for childhood, and the alienation resulting from change, ideas easily applied more broadly than to just Texas. But Win and brother Will, AF's energetic drummer, are Houston natives, so it's safe to assume that the memories of a suburban childhood are at least somewhat inspired by that city.

Before we get started then, a quick look at Houston. In light of an abundance of space to expand and relatively lax zoning laws, Houston is a massive urban area. In 2009, NPR reported, "The city of Houston covers 620 square miles...You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously...the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit." I've been to Houston and I knew it was big, but I had no idea it had reached such a prodigious size. The picture above is of a Houston suburb in 2006-- imagine 620 miles of that with the bland concrete of Houston's downtown and you'll understand how Win and Will remember their hometown with such loneliness; for such a huge place it has very little character. I found it interesting that even the title of that photo,"Sprawl Houston Suburb 2006," and the NPR article, "Texas Sized Sprawl: No End in Sight," pick up on the central theme of The Suburbs.

The album centers on a series of paired songs, including opener and closer 'The Suburbs' and 'The Suburbs (continued),' 'Half Light' I and II, and 'Sprawl' I and II. 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' picks up where 'City' leaves off, with the narrator's return to his home. It's easy to imagine the Houston suburb pictured above:

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay in
Couldn't read the number in the dark
You said, "Let's save it for another day."

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You're talking at me but I'm still far away

Let's take a drive
Through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
Then you said, the emotions are dead
It's no wonder that you feel so strange

One of the most rewarding things about The Suburbs as a complete album rather than just a series of singles is the way lyrical themes return over and over during the 16 tracks. The idea of a town "built to change" surfaces again in 'Suburban War' with the lines, "This town's so strange/they built it to change/and while we're sleeping all the streets get rearranged." AF's portrayal of the suburbs is as a place without the ability to connect to the life of an individual. Every image of the suburbs, where "dead shopping malls rise/like mountains beyond mountains," is one of division and loss, whether of innocence, friendship, or place. Even the city center itself, usually thought of as a vital, lively place, is sapped by movement toward the uniformity of the suburbs. 'City,' 'We Used to Wait,' and 'Rococo' focus on the notion of a "wilderness downtown," where the music scene has devolved into a shallow popularity contest of fad bands. "They build it up just to burn it back down," Butler dismisses the "modern kids" of 'Rococo.' The remaining city-dwellers are engaged in meaningless wars over commercialized products, even as they slip further into the sprawl. It's a common metaphor, but the sprawl represents the loss of individuality, or even the choice to be an individual. The opponents in the 'Suburban War' are "businessmen," "the markets," "the modern kids" who think life in suburbia is ideal.

What makes the nondescript portrayal of suburban sprawl especially wrenching is the way AF pairs it with memories of childhood, a theme that they bring forward from debut album Funeral. 'City with No Children' is the most obvious choice to discuss this theme, which is often connected with the idea of accumulation of wealth and urban expansion. Butler describes the city as "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." 'Half Light II' culminates with the observation, "This city's changed so much since I was a little child/Pray to God I won't live to see the death of everything that's wild." Childhood becomes a mirror for freedom-- creative and spatial-- that is lost when we buy into the notion of suburban life as an ideal. AF frequently portrays children as inherently wiser than adults because they embrace their own beliefs without molding them to social norms. "My old friends/I can remember when/You cut your hair/I never saw you again/Now the cities we live in/Could be distant stars/and I search for you in every passing car." The friends who cut their hair are the ones who have been lost to the sprawl, "divide[d] into tribes" by the music scene eschewed in 'Rococo.' AF returns to the past, the value of "wasted hours," the simplicity and excitement of receiving letters, biking down streets in the middle of the night.

Meditations on childhood in AF are in a way meditations on their style of music. They've long refused major label contracts and produce dense albums without obvious hit singles; they are the independent children, fleeing the suburbs on their bikes in 'Sprawl II' or tunneling through the neighborhood snow in Funeral's 'Neighborhood I.' So it's no surprise that he redemptive force in The Suburbs comes from the theme of escape, often figurative rather than literal, although the constant return to cars and travel in the lyrics suggests a physical departure from the sprawl too, encouragements to "Grab your mother's keys/we leave tonight." 'Sprawl II' and 'Month of May' comment directly on the creative process of making music and the challenges that arise in a society that demands mass culture. 'Sprawl II' opens with Régine Chassagne singing, "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."

Though creativity can be a challenge in the suburbs, songs about the creation of music are some of the most passionate on the album. 'Month of May' is one of the most rock-oriented songs the group has ever done, though I think I prefer the ebullient synths of 'Sprawl II,' an incredibly perfect match for Chassagne's stage presence. When I describe The Suburbs to people, they often come away with the mistaken impression that it's just a depressing album about the loss of innocence and individuality, but these songs show that it's the opposite-- a mustering of courage to fight against the homogenization of suburbia. It makes me think again about the album as a meditation on the state of music itself, and the resurgence of creative independence now that the state of the industry is changing. In 'Month of May,' "a violent wind [blows] the wires away" as the band contemplates making an album about "2009, I felt then." The wires, as a representation of the technological age of music and the confining connectedness of the suburbs, prevent them from making a record until the natural force of the wind, something sublimated by the encroachment of suburban sprawl on the wilderness, destroys them. 'May' is one of the angriest songs on the album but also one of the most hopeful; AF believes that bands have a renewed hope of making the kind of music they want to. There's an opportunity to return to the unstructured innocence and wisdom of childhood.

Having talked so much about the suburbs generally, I should return to Texas. Every other song I could think of about Texas involved some kind of state pride that definitely doesn't translate in The Suburbs. These are songs about cowboys on the range, expansive vistas of desert-- what we imagine when we think of Texas, but which is no longer a reality as it becomes home to massive urban centers like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Perhaps the thematic discrepancy arises in a generation gap; a lot of the other songs about Texas are, expectedly, country, a more traditional genre that's still heavily reliant on old-school music industry practices. It's also important that AF chooses Texas as a touchstone for commentary on the suburbs and uniformity because it's a state where expansion creates such a dichotomy between city and wilderness. Traditionally thought of as a frontier because of its historical significance as a disputed border state, Texas is now conquering itself through constant expansion, eating up its vast spaces with ever-growing cities as it once drained oil in a There Will Be Blood-style orgy of consumption. No wonder AF worries about sprawl with Texans chomping down massive amounts of land and energy even as other parts of the nation cut back. Known for its desire to be bigger than anywhere else, Texas is the perfect antithesis for a band who doesn't want to be bigger, but just wants to be themselves. Texan devotion to industry and expansion, with total disregard for beauty or personality, makes it an ideal villain in a story about retaining the past and its values.

As a side note, it's interesting to me that one city in Texas has surfaced as a center for the kind of creative freedom that AF embraces. Austin, home of breakout-band showcase SXSW, has become an enclave of musical talent spanning a remarkable array of genres. Austin's music scene has the kind of organic feel that's missing in Houston generally. As a commentary, The Suburbs could be a call for more development in that direction as well as a general reminiscence about the past of music, something that makes the album especially meaningful as a Grammy winner over mass-produced musicians like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Katy Perry. The layers of meaning in this album are what makes it so special, and I hope I've captured at least some of that in this entry-- childhood, creativity, cities, suburbia, nostalgia-- it's more to take in than perhaps can be said in one inconsequential blog post. It took AF a double album to say it all, so maybe I'm just being presumptuous thinking I can even start to understand. But that's the beauty of their music-- when I listen to it, I feel like I do.

Having written this, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what AF has to say; I'm sure I'll come back to this entry with edits. The only real way to understand everything this band wants to tell you is to hear the music itself. This blog isn't really about music recommendations, but if you haven't heard The Suburbs, give it a shot. Give all of their albums a shot. Arcade Fire aren't signed to a major label, they're making the kind of music they want to make, and it shows in their enthusiasm and the depth of their creativity. Plus, even Kanye West tweeted about how much he loved them after the Grammys last night and he hates everyone, so you know they must be something special.

Sprawl II (live)
The Wilderness Downtown (interactive film for 'We Used to Wait')
Suburban War

Monday, January 31, 2011

North Dakota

This is a post primarily about North Dakota, but also a little bit about South Dakota and various other places (SD will eventually get its own post too). It's not that I want to cop out here, but come on. There just aren't that many songs about either North or South Dakota. The two I've chosen to discuss this bastion of coldness and remoteness (home to a whopping 9.738 people per square mile!) are Killers b-side 'The Ballad of Michael Ballantine' and a return to Bright Eyes' 'Four Winds.'

North Dakota in winter doesn't look to conducive to driving, but this post will be about a great American tradition-- the road trip. The Killers have given interviews explaining the titular character of 'Michael Valentine' as a traveling gambler, one of the carefree, itinerant figures who populates American literature, folklore, and history itself (see: Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark, the millions of settlers who went west in pursuit of Manifest Destiny). The compulsion to get in your car (or Mississippi River raft or covered wagon) and go anywhere else is an American compulsion. Springsteen expresses the desire to escape by heading West, but Conor Oberst and The Killers seem like they only want to wander. To spout an insufferable cliché, the journey is the destination.

North Dakota, as one of arguably the remotest states, becomes a stand-in for any faraway destination in what I'll call "road songs." In both 'Valentine' and 'Four Winds,' North Dakota is contrasted with Mexico as locations visited by the traveling narrators. America is a vast place, and there's a certain pride in the declaration that you've made the journey from one far-flung point to another. Maybe it's a way we embrace our pioneer spirit in the modern era when there's less to explore. Michael Valentine also visits Memphis and New Orleans, southern outposts in the American odyssey. The journey is remarkably similar in 'Four Winds'-- Mexico, Dakota, and Cassadaga. The West, far North, and South are viewed as places that still require a substantial journey from the population center of the eastern seaboard.

Like contemporary road movies and books, 'Michael Valentine' portrays an American road trip as an extended celebration; the narrator is the road trip compatriot to the title gambler. Valentine meets women in each city on his aimless progress. There's no plan in his journey. The song begins, "I caught up with a friend in Dallas/ We took a trip to New Orleans/ Those black-eyed ladies/ Won't say they're sorry/ We finally caught a train to Memphis. Where everybody talks the same/ Those blue suede babies/All know my name." Valentine just having an interstate party in a "new suit and black tie." The final line before the last chorus is "I ain't gonna let you rain on this parade." Then the track loops back to another classic American trope-- the American dream of Hollywood. "I've got the buzz like Greta Garbo, walking forward into the sun," the narrator concludes. It sounds like westward progress, toward the sunset, but in the most cheerful way possible.

Bright Eyes' road trip is somewhat less cheerful and slightly more focused on the history of the Dakotas. There's a definite correlation there (we've all seen Fargo, North Dakota isn't exactly a wonderland). As we've seen, Oberst visits all the corners of the country-- Mexico and Cassadaga in the West and South, the "Ivy League moons" of the East, and North Dakota to-- obviously-- the North. Oberst returns to the frequent image of the sunset as well ("shadows lengthen in the sun"); it's a visual that emerges as a metaphor for westward progress and change in the American imagination, closely tied to migration. But Oberst's journey is more thoughtful than joyful, a reflection on "caste, class, country, [and] sect." "A genocide sleeps in the Black Hills, the Badlands, the calloused East." Oberst considers the toll of our conquest of the land, the loss of traditional, pre-Columbian cultures in our push westward. He also casts a different light on the benefit of the road trip. In most incarnations it's a valued learning experience; here it seems hollow and he doubles "back by rented Cadillac and company jet/like a newly orphaned refugee retracing [his] steps/All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead." Unlike Michael Valentine, he can't enjoy the journey-- like the solider in 'Yankee Bayonet' he thinks of the past and wants to get home.

Thinking about these road songs brought me to the ultimate American road trip-- Kerouac's On the Road. As spontaneous as 'Michael Valentine' and discontent as 'Four Winds,' Kerouac's work is the road story that every other storyteller aspires to. Like Bright Eyes and The Killers, his journey includes a foray into Mexico (which somehow becomes a de-facto part of the US in a lot of these road trips) and ends looking westward into the sunset. Whether or not Brandon Flowers and Conor Oberst read or were inspired by On the Road (my guess is yes for Oberst at least), the links between the text and lyrics suggests an ideal road trip that American travelers can make. But a song about Kerouac himself bursts the bubble of the road trip idyll.

Death Cab for Cutie's "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is not about North Dakota, but about DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard taking his own journey to a remote place in hopes of finding inspiration. Gibbard wrote part of the album Narrow Stairs in a cabin in Big Sur where Kerouac himself suffered a nervous breakdown. They're a little long, but I'll post the full lyrics here because you really need the whole story:

I descended a dusty gravel ridge
Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge
And soon I eventually arrived
At the place where your soul had died

Barefoot in the shallow creek
I grabbed some stones from underneath
Waiting for you to speak to me

And the silence, it became so very clear
That you had long ago disappeared
And I cursed myself for being surprised
That this didn't play like it did in my mind

All the way from San Francisco
As I chased the end of your road
Because I've still got miles to go

I want to know my fate if I keep up this way
It's hard to want to stay away
And everyone you meet all seem to be asleep
You wonder if you're missing your dream...

Then it started getting dark
And I trudged back to where the car was parked
No closer to any kind of truth
As I must assume was the case with you

This is more a 'Four Winds' road trip than a 'Valentine' one. 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' is another story of disillusionment following a journey. Rather than being enlightened in the place where a great author once sought inspiration or solace, Gibbard finds only emptiness. Gibbard and Oberst each recognize the ghosts in the place they visit, lingering sorrows that conflict with what they expect from the expansive West of American dreams. Whether it's the genocide sleeping in the Black Hills or the emptiness of the place where Kerouac faced personal misery, what the destination in the road trip provides is further distress rather than clarity. Maybe the problem is that the modern road trip can only be an escape-- we no longer have places to explore, we're only trying to get away from the ghosts we know. It's interesting to note that Gibbard also closes with an image of sunset in the form of nightfall. He tints the idea of westward progress with a suitably more grim conclusion, just waiting for the coming of darkness rather than following in the path of the sun.

And there we are. An entry about road trips in a blog that's a virtual road trip. Meta or something. Hope you've enjoyed the ride.

Four Winds
The Ballad of Michael Valentine
Bixby Canyon Bridge