Sonnets About ******* #2: Jordan, Minnesota…A Retrospective

by Indiana… on Saturday, 2 July 2011

Steve Albini is a lyrical genius…there I said it, but before we get to the crudities of 'proof'  it is times for some pretty, word-boxy puzzles.

As you might expect, moderate to fair profanity after the jump…alongside odd re-imaginings of 80's noise rock—you were warned.

Stay with me, my five year old, come and kiss…
Stay with me, play hide and seek…gentle, meek.
 You do as you are told—domestic bliss,
You will meet some one new this time next week.
This is Jordan, here we do what we like.
 Why do you grow so frosty, hoar'—too old,
This is our land, we gotta right, 
Must I really scold, just do as you're told
This is Jordan, here we do what we like.
 He will show you what it is like to semper fi:
Might makes right, if you do not want to die…
Might makes right, do not even attempt to cry.
You cannot hide from our needs and fears,
 You will know us by the trail of tears.

Big Black was a band interested in well ugly things, to paraphrase the man himself "all the bad, bad things you do to yourself to fulfill some gnawing need. The ugly things you do to yourself and other people not because of the ugliness but usually because there's something else there and you'd do it no matter what.".

Dave Henderson pertinently called the album Songs about Fucking "a prickly sensation that's as all-consuming as it is repellent" and he was right: the lyrics are crude, cutting and vitriolic, much like the sound of the band itself. But it precisely this meshing of the harsh dissonance of the noise rock tradition with the power of pop that gives it this all consuming nature; these terrible deeds, thoughts and sounds made maddeningly, eminently listenable.

The line at which the expressions of emotion reach their physical end; where these expressions take on meanings of their own and become almost rituals in their gravity, is where Steve's lyrical wit truly shined. It didn't matter what end form these took "fist fucking, wife beating, whatever", Albini flipped the lid of 80s America and showed the stewing mire of discontent that lay beneath it.

This portrayal of the self mythologisation and the embryonic ennui of the ostracised American working underclass in contrast to the 80s vision of progress and glory, much like the provocative choice of the album title Songs about Fucking, challenges our notions of what pop album or even society is. But as Henderson said this is an addictive if unpalatable album, for "those who expose corruption are challenging the very nature of who we imagine ourselves to be." and the sustained attack of pile driver drums, screaming guitar and vocals slice through these inbuilt assumptions like so much cheap sheet metal…and you know what, it is good.

The contrast between our expectations, the self portrayal, of America and the realities and banalities of the slums and suburbias we are presented with is an odd one. It is hard to decide whether to laugh or cry at the line in Steelworker "I am a hunter-gather…I am a steelworker" and the need this espouses; to fufill the gap in the American dream with the framework of an imagined manifest destiny.  It is at once too cutting to be funny and too funny to be comprehensively understood, and like the 'narrative' of the song collapses under the weight of its own allusion. The various constructed mythos are as all consumingly tempting as they are repellent in their brutal, illogical simplicity. The very eminent listenability of these songs are very much an affirmation of the banality of evil.

But no doubt Albini himself would write this off as pretentious bullshit, and you know what he is partially right…Big Black are big, brash and brutal but beneath the walls $4 distortion it is not hard to see a reinvention of the medium of beat poetry as co-opted by the disassociated youth of another generation.

Never entirely earnest, never entirely ironic but always compelling.

One comment

I'd just like to point anyone who likes these to The Steve Albini Lyrics Project - even if you don't have any Big Black (or even Rapeman/Shellac) records, seeing the words laid out in front of you still makes for some pretty ugly, gut-wrenching reading.

Steve and his studio Electrical Audio are pretty big names to throw around nowadays (much as he likes it or not), and there's a pretty good chance he's produced or been involved with a band you like. Sadly, it's much easier to call him 'the In Utero guy' or let his angular aluminium-guitar playing overshadow his oft-forgotten lyric-writing ability. The only artists who I feel even come close to painting the ugly, haunting anecdotes are King Missile's John S. Hall or Primus' Les Claypool, albeit they take things to far more cartoony extremes.

Steve once said 'I only write lyrics so that I have an excuse to scream into a microphone', but he doesn't give himself enough credit. Scream he might, but it doesn't detract from the fact he's obviously put some real thought into what he says and the strange, not always coherent, ways he phrases them. Some songs are admittedly easier to 'get' than others - 'Jump the Climb' is pretty baffling in its lyrical brevity and could simply just be about an angry murderer (in that sense it has a lot of company in Big Black's catalogue) - but the best lyrics allow room for interpetation, and Steve gives you (more often than not) a hell of a lot of room.

by Rathe on 2 July 2011 at 11:04. #

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