10 Years On: Revisiting Illinois

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a joker. When he released his album, Michigan, in 2003, it marked the beginning of his 50 State Project. He was supposedly going to write an album for every state in the Union. This audacious venture seemed to be confirmed when he released his follow-up 2 years later, Come On Feel The Illinoise, more commonly known as Illinois.

But it was all a lark. Stevens had no intention of creating an album for all 50 states, despite the fact that the first 2 albums were almost universally hailed as brilliant works. When he released the true follow up to Illinois many years later (not including the B-Sides collection, The Avalanche), he had dropped the banjo and folk trappings for an electronica addled album whose lyrics eschewed clear storytelling for more personal yet more abstruse meandering.

Now, on the verge of a new release, Carrie & Lowell, which promises to be a return to his folkier side, this is the perfect time to dust off an old feature around these parts (read the other 2 entries here and here) and give Illinois the ol’ 10 Year revisit.

It’s a long album with long titles and this will be an appropriately lengthy post, so strap in and get comfortable. Here we go.

Illinois Cover (Sufjan Stevens)

 “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

The album begins almost angelically, with a silky piano line and a floating flute while Sufjan introduces us to the two main themes that will weave themselves throughout the album: Christian imagery and arcane historical factoids about Illinois. One of his strengths as a songwriter is his ability to craft lyrics that are packed full of details and yet still feel open to personal interpretation and revelation.

It’s a quick intro, but it sets the mood.

“The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience, but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'”

And then those rumbling drums and escalating voices change the mood. This instrumental piece is the first of many on this album. It’s interesting that in 2005, when this album was released, buying individual songs online had already caused a major shift in the industry (that’s ongoing today). People were cherry-picking their favorite tracks and skipping whole albums, and here comes Illinois with instrumental tracks and interludes that beg you to listen to the whole thing front to back. This is the first indication that this won’t be your average Indie Rock/Folk/Whatever album.

“Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: The World’s Columbian Exposition/Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream”

This is where the meat of the album truly begins. Broken in to 2 parts celebrating, respectively, the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sandburg. If you want a breakdown of all the references in this song (and throughout the album) head over to Genius.com. They’ll do a much better job than I could ever hope to do.

The transition in this song is my favorite part. It loops and escalates like a spring until popping free and opening up to the second, melancholy half with the lyrics, “I cried myself to sleep last night /
And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window.” It’s both celebratory and contemplative, a mixture of emotions best summed up by the refrain, “Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level.”

“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

And then, bam! This is the first stunner of the album, and probably the only song in history about a twisted serial killer that still manages to pack a massive emotional gut punch. It helps that Sufjan’s voice is never more pretty and delicate as when he sings:

“Twenty-seven people
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs

Oh my God
Are you one of them?

This might be the song that most divides the pro- and anti-Sufjan camps. It’s beautiful but creepy, all the more so when the singer draws a parallel between himself and Gacy in the suggestion that they both have secrets under the floorboards. I think this was the first song that truly caught my attention and made me want to read the lyrics. Love it or hate it, you have to admit it’s a pretty ballsy move to put this song just 10 minutes into an hour and 15 minute album.


The 1-2 punch of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Jacksonville” right next to each other is the first indication that we’re in for an unparalleled journey here. Stuffed full of Illinois’ history, the song manages to take Andrew Jackson, Helen Keller and a whole host of landmarks and weave together a narrative that’s both a paean to freeing the slaves and a rallying cry that ends up sounding like something a school band would play as its football team runs to victory.

“A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons”

This is one of those transitions whose title takes longer to read than the song actually takes to play out. It’s just a breather before jumping into the true centerpiece of the album.

“Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”

Beginning here and running through “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Illinois makes its case for being the best album of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Look, if you don’t like old timey music, this one probably isn’t going to be for you, but there is no denying that Sufjan is doing some fascinating tricks with his lyrics here.

Essentially a tour through the entire state of Illinois, the song still manages to tell the story of a stepmom trying her best to make her stepchildren happy even as they do “everything to hate her.” Like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” before it, Sufjan finds a way to imbue an unexpected subject with surprising emotional resonance.

“One Last “Whoo-Hoo!” for the Pullman”

The title says it all.


If the album has a ‘single’, this is it. Partly because of its prominent placement in the indie darling movie, Little Miss Sunshine, this song is the one track that even your friends who have never heard of a banjo will have on their iPod. I love this song as much as I love the actual Chicago.

It probably helps that the song involves someone taking a road trip to 2 of my favorite cities, the aforementioned Windy City as well as New York City. When I first listened to this album in Charlotte, it was the first year of my project and the thought of exploring the country was still an enticing, terrifying dream. I love to travel by plane or train, but nothing will ever beat a road trip.

“You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

If “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is an emotional gut punch, this is the emotional body slam of the album. Again, while I was listening to this album in 2005, I was living on my own for the first time in my life and I was just starting to really explore what it meant to live without the obligation of faith. So how odd is it that the most insightful song on the topic was written by a Christian?

Telling the story of a female friend with bone cancer (at least, that’s how I read it), the narrator talks about their intimacy in the face of this horrible disease. There is one line that has always resonated with me:

“Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I know it’s not meant to be a criticism of faith or god. I grew up with the message that “Sometimes God says ‘No’.” Yet, as a freshly minted atheist, those lyrics summed up everything about my religious experiences: “God always says ‘No’.”

It’s also a song about young love (again, in my reading of it), and how strange it can be for it to feel so powerful and yet be so helpless in the face of reality (another parallel to religion).

A tragic tale that ends with the mournful “And He takes, and He takes, and He takes.” It’s a song that simultaneously celebrates and criticizes faith depending on the audience. That’s an impressive line to walk.

“To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”

I don’t have a lot to say about this other than that it’s my favorite instrumental of the album. And an important one, because it gives a necessary pause after “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

That break is especially useful because this song begins with oddly dissonant guitar noodling and pounding drums before giving over to one of the softer tracks on the album. I’m all for dissonance in music (Penderecki is my favorite composer), but I’m always a little put off by that choice for this song.

I suppose it’s meant to mark the midway point of the album. If I was listening to Illinois on a record player, I could see flipping over the vinyl and having that be an effective kick off for the second half. On CD (or, now, on my computer), though, it’s just kind of an awkward jolt.

Still, it’s a lovely song about Superman and childhood summer vacations (and, of course, more). That’s about all I have to say on that.

“Prairie Fire That Wanders About”

Though there are lyrics, this song feels like an instrumental break probably because there is no lead vocal. Most of the tracks on this album use background singers like a Greek Chorus, singing out details to fill in or embellish the main story. Here, the whole track is all Greek Chorus. It’s an interesting transitional song but not likely to be anyone’s favorite.

“A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze”

It’s a conjunction of drones, dummy.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”

Another beautiful story about youthful love, this time between two friends. There are a lot of question marks here. Is this Sufjan confessing to having fallen in love with a male friend as a child? Is it romantic love or just the love of a friend? Is the narrator meant to be a boy at all? How much of this album are we to assume is autobiographical and how much is just Sufjan being a storyteller?

I choose to not care. I’m less interested in the question of hetero- or homosexual love as I think the more compelling aspect of this song is how frightening and potent young love can be, especially when unrequited. The narrator looks back on a lost love, a friend who ran away, perhaps scared off by emotions that hit like a “terrible sting and terrible storm.” (The wasp metaphor in this song is one of Sufjan’s best.)

Add on top of that the gorgeous interlacing of lead and backing vocals throughout the song and you’ve got one of my favorite tracks on the album.

“They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!”

There aren’t many opportunities to describe Sufjan as funky, so I won’t pass this one up: That bass line is funky. This is easily the oddest song on the album (which says something considering there’s a track about a serial killer/rapist). Beginning with the shouted spelling of “Illinois” and other words, the first vocals sound like the chanting of undead cheerleaders.

True to form, Sufjan finds the human depths within monsters, using his lyrics to seek sympathy for zombies. It’s a surprisingly affecting trick, especially when he bemoans how they have been “at last forgot.” It’ll make you rethink Dawn of the Dead.

“Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell”

Another instrumental with a title that tells you all you need to know…

“In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth”

…followed by another instrumental reprieve. Though, I guess, this one isn’t technically an instrumental as it’s just a soft hum of voices. Whatever.

“The Seer’s Tower”

On an album that no one is going to accuse of being “cheery”, this is easily the most morose track. It begins with the narrator looking down from a tower as the earth burns and the apocalypse approaches and it ends with him sleeping in the “deepest grave.” In between there is a terrible mother and a loving father and the all destroying force of Emmanuel. Unnerving in the best way.

Probably not the song to play at your next party.

“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders: The Great Frontier/Come To Me Only With Playthings Now”

And then there are hand claps and peppy horns. Sufjan knows how to take a left turn. Like track 3, this is broken into 2 parts. There is a lot of intermixing of religious and American symbolism throughout the first part of the song, one of Sufjan’s favorite moves. It seems to be a kind of cry for Americans to rise up and fight. For what, I’m not quite sure.

The song takes a sudden downshift 2/3rds of the way through and like “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” it becomes a showcase for the chorus as they sing about Jane Addams, Benny Goodman and a bunch of other people who I’m sure were all very important to Illinois. It kind of feels like Sufjan had a pile of references he hadn’t found any other songs for so he stuffed them into this one.

If there’s any true flaw on this album, it’s that this, the last song with lyrics, ends on such an anticlimactic note. There’s no story to hold onto, nothing that really draws the listener in. It’s a fine enough song, just kind of a let down after so many emotional highs (for me, of course; someone else may find something meaningful in the repetition of “Oh Great…”).

“Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few”

A riff on a single note that leads to…

“Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From My Sandals as I Run”

The final track is also an instrumental piece. Whether it be “Vito’s Ordination Song” from Michigan or “Impossible Soul” on The Age of Adz (or even “Djohariah” on the All Delighted People EP), Sufjan tends to end his albums with pretty heavy songs, so this is an odd outlier. Perhaps he realized that this was an especially dense album and he wanted to give the listener a calming outro by which to end their listening and get on with their day. If so, it works. It’s not the most memorable finale, but it does effectively draw the curtain to a close.

And that’s it, Illinois 10 Years On. It’s still one of my favorite albums (top 3 on my Last.fm most listened list) and one of the few albums that I still feel compelled to listen to front to back.

It’s 2015 and indie folk is no longer as prevalent or relevant as it was when I began 10 Cities / 10 Years, but a decade of shifting musical landscapes and evolving industry dynamics hasn’t changed one thing: Illinois is a masterpiece.



Class Warfare: Addendum

I wrote this piece a few days back about the so-called “Class Warfare” of Obama’s new proposed tax increases.

I think it rang true for a lot of people, but there are those who disagree and I think their view is summed up in this opinion piece in the Washington Post by ultra-Conservative, German tool, Charles Krauthammer:  “Return of the real Obama.”

His argument, quickly summed up, is two-fold.  First he claims that raising the Capital Gains Tax will hurt the economy, but this point is really tangential (because I think he knows it’s tenuous) to the larger point he wants to make:  Obama is and always has been a Socialist trying to make everyone equal, trying to abolish the super rich so that all people fall into the same “class.”

I have to wonder, what kind of mental gymnastics must a person do to think that raising taxes a few percentage points will suddenly throw the rich into a tailspin that will nullify 90% of their wealth (actually, more, but I’ll round) so that they could qualify as middle class (though, still upper middle class).  If you’re making a million dollars a year and you suddenly have to pay $10,000 more a year in taxes, you aren’t going to suddenly crumble.

Keep in mind, also, that I regularly live on around $20,000 a year, so let’s not pretend the rich in this country are living under some Dickensian extreme pressures.

The idea that ‘fairness’ equates to ‘leveling the field’ is ridiculous and so out of touch with reality that I think we might be reaching a tipping point where even the conservative-leaning moderates are going to get fed up with this hysterical rhetoric.  The rich did pretty damn well during the Clinton years, so don’t tell me they can’t make do now.  And if the rich feel a little bit of strain, guess what:  The rest of us have been feeling it for a few years now, so we aren’t going to shed any tears.

That isn’t class warfare, it’s just reality.

What the Conservative argument comes down to is Trickle Down Economics.  They don’t call it that anymore because I think everyone recognizes it as a line of bullshit fed to us by the Reagan administration, but the same idea is there:  The rich must maintain their wealth so that it can come down to us hungry poor through jobs and generous spending.

Well, the rich are as rich as they have ever been in the history of humanity, so where are the scraps that we were told would be falling from their tables?  If the theory is that the tax breaks that Bush enacted (a decade ag0) were meant to help the rich foster job creation and economic growth, where is it all?  When does it trickle down?

To quote Jon Stewart (that extreme Leftist Jew):  “What are the rich waiting for? How much wealth do they have to absorb before they make it rain?”

While the Right says those on the left are clueless and don’t understand economics*, we are just asking the glaring question:  The 2000s were pretty much the cushiest decade in history for the rich, so how come all those ‘obvious’ economic facts haven’t come true?  And don’t just blame it on the recent recession.  The entire previous decade was “a lost decade for American workers.”  “There was zero net job creation in the first decade of the new millennium, compared to healthy job grow in each of the previous six decades.”  Even with those magical tax breaks, the Bush years were lousy for the economy and for job growth (and let us not forget when the Recession began).

Even being generous and saying that there was some job growth before the recession set in ignores the fact that the growth was miniscule despite the fact that the rich had a much better tax rate than they did under Clinton.  Now, I’m just a dumb Socialist who doesn’t understand how the economy works, but it seems to me that this “Reward the rich, they’ll help the rest” mentality is a load of bollocks.  It hasn’t worked for a decade.

So let’s change it up.

How about we try something like, help the poor (because the rich don’t need anymore help) and then maybe the lower classes can afford to buy into the Capitalist society and thus prop up the rich like they love so much?  You can call it Trickle Up Economics, but unlike the poor, the rich can afford to wait.

*I admit, economics is not even remotely a field of expertise for me.  I’m sure all you armchair economists getting all your facts from Fox News and the National Review can explain to me how really the tax breaks have been helping us out, and we would be so much worse off without them.  And I’m sure you can find a way to call me an idiot at least 5 times in your response, because that’s what Jesus would do.

10 Years On: Revisiting Gold

With about a month before the release of Ryan Adams’ first new album since the unimpressive Cardinals team up, “Cardinology,” I think it’s well worth looking back at the album that truly initiated Ryan’s solo career almost exactly ten years ago, “Gold.”

While his technical first (and still best) solo album was “Heartbreaker,” “Gold” often gets the “first” label, I guess because it was released after his former band, Whiskeytown, had officially disbanded.

Though it is Ryan’s most successful album (as far as units shifted) and probably has his only true radio hit in opening track, “New York, New York,” the album was met with mixed reviews upon release and was considered a bit of a disappointment from the label’s perspective who clearly wanted to position Ryan as THE singer/songwriter of the 21st century.  With a nifty backstory that included dropping out of high school and forming one of the most popular alt-Country acts of the previous decade (and recording an unofficial first solo album that had garnered huge critical love), it certainly seemed like Ryan was on the verge of being the next big thing.

But then “Gold” hardly made a cultural dent, never even achieving Gold status (500,000 copies sold) in the US.

It isn’t really fair to judge an album by sales, though.  Artistic success has never (rightly) been measured in dollars.  Nor should the album be pigeonholed by the reviews of the time that seemed more obsessed with the album cover and production value than the actual songs on display.

Ryan has always been an artist whose antics off and on the stage have been able to distract from the music among those who want a reason to write him off.  On the other hand, his fans are a devoted bunch (myself included), and so it can be hard to find an objective appreciation of the songs.

Here, I’m going to try:

“New York, New York” is the first song I (and most people) ever heard from Ryan, and that’s largely because of the (un)fortunate timing of its release, post-9/11 with a video that pretty much served as a love note to the city which ended with a shot of the Two Towers.  It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed if it had been planned, and yet it didn’t feel exploitative.  (It helped that the video ended with a postscript explaining that it had been filmed days before the attack.)

But separated from that weighty context, the song is still one of the best pop songs in Ryan’s catalog, a kind of cathartic release after the heartbreak of his appropriately titled previous solo album.  Its upbeat shuffle is the exact opposite of “Heartbreaker” standouts “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up,” yet it feels like a natural progression from their pain to that high you feel when the final vestiges of a bad relationship fall off. 

When Ryan sings, “Love don’t play any games with me like she did before,” it doesn’t feel sad, it sounds relieved.  And then he caps it all with the all important, “I still love you New York.”  Like another classic Ryan’s song, “Dear Chicago,” the city is probably a stand in for a girl, but it’s just as easy to listen to it as a song about the city, and in that way, it’s an absolutely fitting tribute to a city worth loving.

It would be easy for the album to drop off immediately after that opener, but “Firecracker” thankfully opens with the always welcome harmonica and includes one of Ryan’s best choruses:

“Everybody wants to go forever
I just want to burn off hard and bright
I just want to be your firecracker
And maybe be your baby tonight.”

That sums up twenty-something romance about as perfectly as I can imagine.  Admittedly, the song is a bit crowded with instruments.  There exists a stripped down version on the unreleased “The Suicide Handbook” double album that displays how the song could have been another “Heartbreaker” winner, but like “New York, New York,” this version feels like an exuberant release, and every post-break-up malaise needs a post-post-break-up rebirth.  This is the sound of being born again.

“Answering Bell” is probably where the overproduction shows itself the most.  I personally don’t side with those people who think music must sound like it was recorded in a garage to feel “real,” but when the banjo on the track sounds like a computer programmed instrument, you’ve gone too far.  Despite that, the song is still a solid number.  The version on “The Suicide Handbook” definitely bests the official release, maintaining the jauntiness of the song without the glaring production value.

It’s pretty much impossible for me to separate my personal associations from “La Cienega Just Smiled” in order to objectively talk about its value.  I love this song.  It hits me in the right place, and even though there is, again, another version of this song that strips it to its barest bones, I’m still partial to this lovely album version that manages to be both propulsive and tranquil.  “How did I end up feeling so bad for such a little girl?” is the root of this song, and it’s the question that will keep a guy up all night.  Heartbreaking love.  Damn, it makes me hurt.

“The Rescue Blues” has been on at least one television soundtrack, so it’s perhaps the second most exposed song from this album.  This song works better live, as it can feel more bluesy which is exactly what it needs.  Another track that probably earns its “Overproduced” label, the song itself shouldn’t be faulted (I actually like it), but I can understand those who would find it grating (especially the odd gospel choir at the end).

“Somehow, Someday,” is one of the more countrified tracks on the album (musically and vocally), but with its glossy sheen and the overzealous refrain of “There ain’t no way I’ll ever stop from loving you now,” it could just as easily have been written and sung by any of a dozen anonymous country pop singers.  A perfectly pleasant song, but subpar for Ryan.  Dirty it up a bit, and you could really have something here.

Most people who have heard “When The Stars Go Blue” have heard a cover by any number of artists (mostly country).  My first exposure to it was the VH1 video of The Corrs with Bono covering it, and I had no idea Ryan was the original composer.  It’s a romantic, shuffling piece and I do believe that his original version is the best, but I have to admit that even knowing he wrote it, it still doesn’t sound like a Ryan Adams song.  I guess this was him going for the crossover hit, and in a way he kind of succeeded.  You could probably get laid to this song pretty easily.

Oh, “Nobody Girl.”  This song just goes on and on.  In his entire catalog, Ryan has very few songs that go beyond six minutes (and most of them are on oddity album, “29”).  Is this song good?  Yes.  Is it nearly ten minutes good?  Eh.  This was probably our first hint that Ryan had a real love for Grateful Dead-esque guitar noodling, and the song wouldn’t lose anything by being cut in half.  But, you know what?  When I’m in the mood I’m kinda glad this song is King Sized because this is Ryan at his most vindictive, and that makes for a fun ride.

“Sylvia Plath” is Ryan being morbid and weird (an especially striking contrast to “Nobody Girl”), and this album is better for it.  After listening to his description in this song, how could you not wish you had a Sylvia Plath?  She sounds like the worst best date you’d ever have.  Imagine Tom Waits singing this song and you’ll know exactly what Ryan was going for here.  And I think he mostly pulls it off.  Every guy should have a Sylvia Plath in his life, just once.

Ugh, “Enemy Fire.”  This is easily my most skipped track on this album.  By now, we fans all know that Ryan has a hard-on for metal and hard rock, so it’s no surprise that occasionally he wants to rock out.  But the results are very rarely satisfying, and this is probably his weakest attempt.  It’s just a slog of a song with a vocal performance that sounds like parody.  Perhaps the problem is that he doesn’t commit to the conceit.  Here he is grunging up his sound, and then he has sweet, backing harmony vocals.  Whatever he was going for, it doesn’t work.  Skip.

And then a complete 180 with “Gonna Make You Love Me,” a bouncy little love song with Ryan again changing up his vocal performance to fit the song (I don’t think enough is said about how many different vocal stylings Ryan can pull off; some better than others).  It’s a short ditty that doesn’t overstay its welcome.  That’s faint praise, I guess, but there’s not a lot going on here, so it gets what it gets.

“Wild Flowers” is Ryan back in pretty mode, and after the previous two numbers, it’s a welcome return.  This song bridges that gap between mopey ballad and panty-peeler.  When those strings come in, you know the eyes are getting wet – well, something is.  The version on “The Suicide Handbook” is identical to the official version, which I guess tells you that this is exactly how Ryan heard the song when he wrote it, and it makes sense.  It feels fully formed.

“Harder Now That It’s Over” has the tone and anguish of “Heartbreaker” in spades, yet this is definitely a case where the production value would make it sound completely out of place on the earlier album.  But that is not a complaint because this song works on “Gold” perfectly and is, for me, one of the strongest tracks on the album.  Ryan is at his best when he’s lamenting the end of a relationship (sorry Mandy Moore), and this song encapsulates the beautiful melancholy that he does so well.

Is “Touch, Feel & Lose” overproduced?  Sure.  But I like this version considerably better than its “Suicide Handbook” counterpart, and frankly, the lyrics are overwrought so why shouldn’t the production match?  I can understand people hating on this song, but I’ve always dug it and I personally like how the floating church organ in the background (with the backing vocals) gives this song a hymn-like quality.  It’s preposterous and overly sentimental, and it’s Ryan all over.

What the hell is “Tina Toledo’s Street Walkin’ Blues?”  I don’t know; you don’t know; Ryan doesn’t know.  But he recorded it and put it on an album, and for that we’ll always have this pleasant little headscratcher.  Not a great song, not even all that fun of a song, it still manages to win some love with its blasted charm.  I should hate this song, but I don’t.  And that alone is a victory.  Still, six minutes?  Ryan, you’re pushing it.

Album closer “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd” is the archetypal Ryan closer, which is to say, a slow, sweet piece of music that plods along gracefully.  The swell of the strings in the background is essentially their own farewell, because after this album, Ryan rarely used them again.  A fitting close for this album: A bit over the top, but pretty enough to win you over.

This album is unquestionably frontloaded, but with quite a few little charmers on the back end to make listening to the whole album a rewarding experience.  It’s clear that Ryan was attempting to hit all the marks with this album to showcase his versatility and prove straight out the gate that he could be an all around performer.  In fact, what this album proved (and his career of albums has substantiated) is that Ryan excels in the pop-alt-country arena but doesn’t quite have the renaissance music man ability he imagines.

A special note about “Side 4”:  There was a bonus disc that came with some early copies of “Gold.”  Ryan initially wanted to release a double album (no surprises there) but his label balked at the idea (no surprises there).  So these extra 5 songs were put on a bonus disc.

The 5 songs, “Rosalie Come and Go,” “The Fools We Are As Men,” “Sweet Black Magic,” “The Bar is a Beautiful Place,” and “Cannonball Days” are uniformly solid tracks and probably would have been favorites if included on the official album.  That said, “The Bar is aBeautiful Place” is really the only true classic in the bunch, which is fitting since it’s Ryan in his wheelhouse, a drunken ballad about love and loss and drinking.

If you didn’t get the version of the album with “Side 4,” you definitely missed out.  Blame the label.

*If you look at the songlisting on the back album cover, you can see that it is broken up into 4 sides.  If you took Sides 1, 3 and 4, leaving out Side 2, you’d pretty much have a classic album.  Interesting what a playlist can do.*

10 Years On: Revisiting Kid A

There are great albums.  There are seminal albums.  There are divisive albums.  There are underestimated albums.

Radiohead’s Kid A manages to be all of them in one mesmerizing album.

10 years is an interesting vantage point.  Sure, it’s an arbitrary period of time that stands out only because we evolved relying on a base ten numeric system, but it’s still a good place for us to take stock and look back.

It’s been a little more than 10 years since the release of Kid A, the follow up to Radiohead’s groundbreaking OK Computer, which is still my favorite Radiohead album.  Truth be told, Kid A is my 3rd favorite Radiohead album, after OKC and Amnesiac, but it’s all merely a matter of degrees on a scale of fanatical obsession, so the difference is rather nominal.

If you want the history on the album, look it up on Wikipedia.  If you want a lengthy discussion of its place in musical history, I’m sure that exists.  Look elsewhere.

This is about my personal perception of the album, how I first came to it, how I first experienced it, and my reactions to it now.

I first started listening to Radiohead in the wake of Amnesiac‘s release.  My oldest brother was (and is) a huge fan and he was attempting to get me into the band by letting me borrow his albums.  I listened to The Bends and OK Computer first, as well as his bootlegs of the import EP, ‘Itch’.  It wasn’t until the summer after my first year of college that I traversed into the “weird” albums, Kid A and Amnesiac.

I borrowed Amnesiac first (which probably explains why I’m partial to that version of “Morning Bell”, a nearly sacrilegious stance among diehard Radiohead fans), and then embarked into Kid A territory.  My brother was one of those people who didn’t fully go with Radiohead on these divergences.  He liked Radiohead when they rocked, he liked them in the expansive, mindbending realms of OK Computer, but the less pop-oriented (pop being shorthand for all music that is meant for general consumption, not just Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears) natures of these two albums was a barrier for him, as it was for a great deal of fans and some critics (I suspect many critics who did praise this album did so just so as not to be seen as someone who didn’t “get it”).

Kid A kicks off with three songs in a row that let their freak flag fly.  “Everything In Its Right Place” begins with cool, digital piano work and Thom Yorke’s voice shimmering in a dispassionate haze.  Eventually the background fills with a second version of his voice, distorted and disembodied, as well as all manner of glitches and scratches, sounding like a song playing over its own remix.  And then there are the lyrics.  What the hell do they even mean?  Well, again, you can find dissections of all of Radiohead’s generally obtuse lyrics all over the interwebs.  For my purposes, though, I’ll just say, “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” is one of my favorite lines ever, and I have no idea what it means.  I wish I could find more reasons to post it as my Facebook status.

The song “Kid A” pushes it even further into the distortion of the new Computer Age, and if anyone was hoping “Everything…” was going to be an anomaly, they are quickly set straight.  Once again, more distorted vocals (way more), more lyrics stripped of context, and still no apparent appearance of guitars.  That was probably the greatest charge of betrayal leveled against the ‘Head:  They had abandoned guitars, and considering that they had two phenomenal guitarists in the forms of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, this was unthinkable.  I will admit, this was one of the songs that took me longest to get into.  There’s no real melody, no obvious musical passage upon which to latch onto.

This may be dangerous for me to admit, but it wasn’t until I heard this cover of the song that I finally ‘got’ it, and now the original version has opened up for me:

For me, this song is about wanting to fight against an oppressive power (political, generally), but the emotionless vocals reveal a kind of emptiness at the heart of the battle, as if admitting that these wars are perfunctory, the world will continue on as is.  So, yeah, not exactly uplifting, but quite affecting in its lack of affection.

“The National Anthem” is the first of the songs on this album that probably could have fit on OK Computer (or even The Bends), if not for a few tweaks.  This song is propulsive and the horns throughout give it a punch that understandably makes it a fan favorite.  Are there guitars?  No, or at least, not noticeably, but it’s still fairly straightforward as a rocker (à la Radiohead), and if the album had kicked off with it, I think more people would have stuck around.  Of course, the end of the song devolves into histrionic saxophone squeals, a cacophony that comes to a head in one final triumphant (or is it defeated) belch.  So, yeah, the song is weird, too, but it’s pretty amazing, and rooted to a bass line that could shake a dance floor.

Then comes the gorgeous, spectral “How To Disappear Completely.”  This takes the haunting beauty of early Radiohead slow burners like “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “The Tourist” and perfects it to the nth degree.  Talking about it only spoils it’s wonder.  Just listen to it.

No one can argue that Kid A is without humanity once you’ve heard that song.

Next comes “Treefingers”, one of Radiohead’s infamous “palate cleansers” (for my money, Amnesiac‘s “Hunting Bears” is the best of these).  Strange, sure, but no more so than “Fitter Happier”.

Then comes “Optimistic” to completely trash the notion that Radiohead doesn’t play guitars anymore.  Oh, they still play guitars, and when they do, they are masters.  This song could appear on any album of Radiohead’s and fit in perfectly (maybe not Pablo Honey), it’s such a perfect example of what Radiohead does best:  Snarlingly, yet slyly hopeful lyrics, Thom Yorke’s vocals floating through the rafters, another finely controlled bass line by Colin Greenwood (an underrated bassist, in my book), drums used more for texture than timing, and of course, guitars that steal the show.  The jazzy outro is the only thing in the song that ties it to Kid A-period, Radiohead, but otherwise, this is timeless in the Radiohead oeuvre.

“In Limbo” returns Kid A to its more ethereal atmosphere, untethered to a central narrative arc, Thom Yorke’s voice once again comes and goes in the background while the central narrator warns, “You’re living in a fantasy world” (is it a warning?).  This song has always worked for me in a way I could never fully explain.  It’s a song that just makes sense, even though I can’t say what it all mean.

“Idioteque”, probably in large part due to arresting live performances of it, has become one of the stand out tracks of the album.  It’s also a dance track, though a sarcastic version of one (hence the name).  Just like “Paranoid Android”, this is a song whose popularity among fans is greater than my personal love for it.  I enjoy this song, think it’s brilliantly put together, but it isn’t among my favorites from this album.  This is just a case of a good song being outshone by (in my opinion) greater songs.

As I’ve already mentioned, I have a personal preference for “Amnesiac/Morning Bell”, but that doesn’t mean this version isn’t a true work of art.  When I was first getting into these albums, I went on a journey to find out what some of these songs meant (Green Plastic and At Ease were invaluable for this purpose), and the explanation that stuck with me is that this is a song about divorce, two parents splitting up their stuff, including their kids, and going separate ways.  In that context, this song is one of the most emotionally resonate songs by the band (in any version).  The last minute of the song is chock full of instruments and sounds coming in suddenly and then leaving just as abruptly, and it’s all strangely fitting of the story.

And then, finally, the song they’ll play at my funeral:  “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”  Yes, the harps make it a kind of obvious choice for the notion of passing over into heaven, but as an atheist who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, that’s not why I think it’s a perfect funeral song (though the harps are beautiful and ‘angelic’).  And it’s not even the line, “I will see you in the next life” (though, that’s a hell of a way to end an album).  No, it’s the lines, “It’s not like the movies / They fed us on little white lies.”  If that doesn’t pretty well sum up everything I’ve tried to say with my life, I don’t know what does.

Kid A has been labeled a classic and highly influential, and it is both (though, if we’re talking about adding electronica into standard pop music, I think the Postal Service have been emulated more slavishly).  Unfortunately, what often happens with “Classic” albums is that they get bogged down in their history and become almost impossible to revisit for their own merits.

Kid A still feels fresh and untainted by its stature, though.  That’s partly because no one has managed to rip it off with some generic radio-friendly version of it (kind of hard to do when two major points of reference are Free Jazz and Olivier Messiaen).  But I also think that it’s because Radiohead never tried to repeat themselves.

If you haven’t revisited Kid A in awhile, turn it on, turn it up:  It still has the power to surprise.