May 7th, 2006

Bruce Holland Rogers

The Weakerthans

As rare as my entries are here, I make it my policy to not stray far from my usual topic of my own writing practice. For once, I'm going to make an exception and post Something Completely Different: some thoughts about music.

Those of you who have read Word Work know that I have sometimes used music to shape and control my emotional state. When I use music this way, it is almost always instrumental music. In the rare cases where words are sung in the music, those words are in a language I don't understand. It's too easy for me to lose track of the words I am writing if I am distracted by intelligible voices.

Other than the music I use for writing --- mostly movie soundtracks from films I haven't seen --- I hardly listen to music at all. It's true that I'm rarely without my mp3 player when I'm out for a walk, but the sound coming from my ear buds is hardly ever music. Rather, I'm listening to snippets of the languages I am trying to learn. Ahoj! Jak se jmenujete? A la prochaine! Sto bene, ma sono un po stanco.

On the rare occasions when I listen to music that includes lyrics in English, I want those lyrics to pop. Wanting lyrics that pop is very different from wanting pop lyrics. In fact, to qualify for radio play, songs apparently must have lyrics stupid enough to induce headaches and blurred vision.

If the lyrics are interesting, I don't mind some musical simplicity, which is one reason that I'm such a fan of The Weakerthans. Their album Reconstruction Kit is fairly straight-ahead. To my untrained ear, anyway, this is music in the garage-band genre, played well and creatively, but without any particular virtuosity.

I see the music chiefly as a platform erected for displaying John K. Samson's lyrics. In the Reconstruction Kit liner notes, the lyrics are typeset like prose, and several of them might work perfectly well as prose poems. The lyrics are poetically inventive and are sometimes arranged with the music with odd little enjambments, with the music making a single line of two clauses, or a single clause of the lyrics broken into two musical phrases. But these lyrics are also stories, or enchanting fragments of stories. Some are poignant. Some are funny. Two of my favorites are the title song "Reconstruction Site" and the song that is most firmly in the narrative tradition, "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue." "Past Due" is a particularly blue meditation on February and obituaries.

Part of the appeal of Samson's lyrics is that while they are concrete, specific, and suggest a story, most of the time the story is fragmentary, not quite resolved. But I like lyrics that tell the whole story, too, provided it's a good story. A songwriter more squarely in the storytelling camp in Sam Broussard, and I'll have more to say about him on the next rock.
Bruce Holland Rogers

Sam Broussard

Where to begin with my appreciation for the music, and especially the lyrics, of Sam Broussard? Broussard plays guitar as a member of a Grammy-nominated Cajun band, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a band that I like well enough. But it's Broussard's solo effort as a singer/songwriter that I most enjoy. All of the songs I refer to below are on the album Geeks.

What I like best about Broussard's lyrics is their moral complexity and honesty. A great example of this is "Angel of Mercy," a song in the voice of a cop who has had a bad day and has just pulled over a drunk driver who is just as full of piss and vinegar as he is soaked in alcohol. A listener hearing the song for the first time might easily hear in it only one side of its story. Here in Eugene, the brick-and-rock-throwing anarchist crowd would likely cheer "Angel of Mercy" and say, "Yeah, that's what the cops are like!" And I suspect that if I played this song for my brother, a police sergeant, he'd say, "Yeah, that's what it's like sometimes to be a cop." And on a second listen, I'm guessing that the anarchists might squirm a little and start thinking that this song was actually pro-police, while my brother might squirm a little for the opposite reason.

"Angel of Mercy" is morally complex. It tells its story from both sides, the story of what it is to be a well-intentioned and imperfect human being invested by the state with the power to use force. The story doesn't resolve one way or the other. It ends with the cop balanced on the edge of his own warring impulses, and the final verse is probably a good one to hum next time you're pulled over. Not that humming the song will keep you from getting a ticket.

Another song of moral complexity is "Servant of the People." The song is satire, the self-congratulating autobiography of a politician, but the song is as much the politician's accusation of the electorate as it is his confession of hypocrisy. If the politician has a flexible relationship with the truth, who made him that way but an electorate that will damn him as much for truths they don't want to hear as for lies? How can the politician honorably serve a dishonorable electorate? "If you could pack all your troubles in a box, you would float them downstream. Don't lie to me."

"Screws, Pins and Bolts," with its title taken from the surgical implants that aren't consumed during cremation, is, believe it or not, a happy song in the voice of a mortician. We are, the song reminds us, only here for a brief time. Carpe diem. Try finding a song like that on the radio!

"T-Neg" is a ballad, a life's story in song. A love story, as it turns out. It's happy, upbeat, and my affection for it surely disproves the assumption that I only like dark things.

But I do like dark things. Sam Broussard does dark very well. He's not the Stephen King of song, but let's say he's the song version of Joyce Carol Oates in one of her bleak moods. "Ira Visits His Dad" is a song sung by the aged father of a drug dealer. He's not happy with the life his son has made for himself, but he's dying, in pain, and his son can bring him pain relief that the nursing home won't administer.

I said in the previous post that some of John K. Samson's prose lyrics could stand alone as poems, and the same is true for Broussard's free verse. However, poetry for the page is not the same as song lyrics. As good as the words of these writers are, they are enhanced by the emotional color of melody and instrumental rhythm. The Robber Baron in "I Don't Care Where You Bury Me," singing about his indestructibility, has these lines: "Send your foulest demon, I'll choke him with his tongue. Send all your cutthroat lawyers, man. I'll make them eat their young. Yum Yum." The near-rhyme of young and yum yum is funny on the page, but it's funnier when sung than it could ever be on the page or in recitation.

And speaking of funny, one of these songs has one of the funniest (and uncomfortably true) lines that I've ever heard. The line is in "Her Comb and Her Perfume," and ends with the word "enough." More than that, I should not say. You can listen to this part of "Her Comb and Her Perfume" on Broussard's web site. You'll find all of his lyrics and samples of the songs on the site:

Next time, I'll return to writing about my writing. This is probably the last post I will ever put up about music, unless I get brave enough to try to explain why I am so fond of the cartoon-character electronica of the Belgian artist Dim Dim.