Look me in the eye

I ran into this review of the new La Sera album before I had gotten around to listening to it and it basically irked the hell out of me. The specific claim at issue is that the album is “pretty but defanged,” which first of all is kind of an annoying thing to say in general, and also it’s one of my buttons, and it’s the kind of thing where you know you’re going to be thinking about it instead of being able to just pay attention. Like, I got over it (since I know you were worried), and I also realize that the review itself is not making a particularly substantive claim and is basically just a random #content fragment, but I think this is a fairly common confusion, and it’s also something that the album in question addresses as fangfully as possible. So, personal idiosyncrasies aside, I’m gonna go ahead and hit it.

La Sera’s obvious Thing has always been Katy Goodman’s distinctive singing voice. It’s impossibly high and sweet – “sunny” is a difficult adjective to avoid – but it’s not small or distant in the way that high voices sometimes are. It’s engaging and enveloping, grounded in a subtle but solid forcefulness. She’s a good singer, is what I’m saying. And while this gives the project an immediate obvious appeal, Goodman doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s been at it for a while now, and she’s been advancing her songwriting and pushing into new areas the entire time. Which is actually where the confusion comes in. The new album is rather bluntly titled Music for Listening to Music to, and the addition of guitarist and occasional vocalist Todd Wisenbaker as a permanent bandmember, combined with slightly heavier production that melts soft vocals into an oceanic guitar sound, makes it feel less quirky and more professional. As a particular point of contrast, the previous album, Hour of the Dawn, had more of a hard-rock edge, opening with the relentlessly driving and mercilessly cruel “Losing to the Dark.” So whereas the new one is basically a country/western album, which classifies it pretty definitively as Not Punk, it’s easy to understand this as the “smoothed out” version of La Sera, in the way that wrong things tend to be easy.


Let’s start with the end – that is, with the fact that this album ends sad. “Too Little Too Late” isn’t just about failure, it’s specifically about doing your absolute best and facing up to the fact that it’s not enough. Think about what this means in the context of a polished and professional album that’s part of a consistently successful career. No matter how well you’re doing, there are always regrets. It’s always too little, and too late. You might, for example, be an experienced musician doing your best work, only to find that, at the height of your powers, you still can’t accomplish what you wanted to. Or you might be a fan, committed to “always find the voice you love and follow it until it fades,” and you might find yourself at the point where that actually happens, abandoning you before you were able to grasp what you were after, leaving you with nothing. This takes direct aim at not only the album itself, but also at you, at the thing you are doing by listening to this music. The approach this album is taking is not at all naive; that’s not what the title means. The sorrow in the vocals weighs the whole thing down like a curse, retroactively haunting the rest of the album.

Which is to say that, at the same time that this album is bright and enjoyable, it’s also pretty consistently sad. “I Need an Angel” is a cute title for a cute song, but it’s not actually a positive sentiment. It’s desperation. The whole point of that phrasing is that angels don’t exist. Saying “I need a miracle” specifically indicates that the thing that you can’t live without does not exist in the real world; you’ve “tried all your luck” and you’re still screwed. That’s pretty fucking hardcore. And, on balance, most of the album lives in similar territory. “One True Love” is the opposite of what both its title and its tone imply: “The woman I love, she said she’s running away, she’s leaving me today.” So if that was your one true love, y’know, that has certain implications. “Take My Heart” is equal parts devotion and despondency: “it’s the only way I know to live,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A sharp guitar line slices through the chorus, creating an emotional gap that deepens the sense of ambiguity. The delivery of “do you believe in me?” makes it clear that this is a real question without an easy answer – it may even be that either possible answer isn’t really going to work out.

But it’s not that simple either; these aren’t just songs that sound happy but are secretly sad. Each song does what it has to to get its point across; the issue isn’t which means of expression the album uses, it’s that its means of expression aren’t restricted. This applies both on the macro level, to the conception of this as a pop-country album in the first place, and on the micro level, where each individual song is open to sounding silly or maudlin if it needs to. This is where you fail when you’re looking for things that sound “intense” or “tough” or whatever. You’re living in the shadows. And even if it’s a shadow cast by love, even if the conditions you’re setting are ones born of justified devotion, they’re still stifling.

“Shadow of Your Love” is an extremely down song, but it’s not depressing so much as it is a genuine lament. It’s a sympathetic acknowledgment of the limitations that people inevitably place on themselves, often for the best of reasons. But that sympathy doesn’t go very far, because it’s just the fact of the matter that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.” The negativity here points to what’s positive about the rest of the album: it stands in the daylight, and that requires a toughness that no amount of screaming or thrashing can match up to. “Are you with me now? Have you ever been?”

And all of this is happening at the same time that this album is smoothly written and just really nice to listen to. So the most basic version of the point here is that trying to categorize things as “hard” or “soft” or whatever is just a dumb way to go about it. Pop songs and hardcore songs are equally capable of childishness; basic songwriting can reveal hidden emotions as easily as complexity can obscure them; explicit inaccessibility can be a challenge or it can be defensiveness. There are a lot of different ways that things can get inside you. “Eyes can meet a thousand ways.”

See, even if you go back to Hour of the Dawn looking for something “harder,” you’re just going to get hit by the same force moving in the opposite direction. The album cover shows Goodman, face obscured, rocking out against a clear blue background while wearing a Poison Idea shirt.1 There’s nothing contradictory about any of this. It’s expressing a total situation that can’t be understood though a myopic focus on individual aesthetic effects. “Running Wild” sounds exactly like its title, but the content turns it completely around. Like the inverse version of “Shadow of Your Love,” this song is also doing both things at once: it’s sympathizing with the motivations that lead a person into this situation, and simultaneously clarifying why things can’t work that way. It’s just a fact that “running wild” is useless when you’ve “got no place to go,” in exactly the same sense that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.”

Just as Music for Listening to Music to makes its point even as it’s being as cute as possible, Hour of the Dawn makes its point even as it’s going as hard as possible. As mentioned, the first song, “Losing to the Dark,” is both vicious as hell and totally hardcore, tearing the album open with an extreme immediacy. But conceiving of it as a “fuck you” song is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s actually positive, declaring the singer’s intent to step out of the darkness and into the light. But the context of this affirmation is that the singer has been losing this entire time, and that this has been happening because of love. Meaning it’s a love song. The fact that it’s about how love can be a evil force doesn’t change that fact; in fact, it enhances it. It’s a song about being in love, about one of the things that being in love can be like.

In short, aesthetics are non-trivial, and this is true even when you’re talking about something as dumbed-down and overcooked as the concept of the “love song.” You can think of Music for Listening to Music to as an album full of “love songs” if you want, but that doesn’t work as a criticism, because a love song can be just about anything. In fact, it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Even when something really is just a verse-chorus-and-such song, there are still a lot of different ways that can go.

“A Thousand Ways” makes this point explicit. “Love can be cruel, gone and wrecked this town”; “love can be real, it can stick around.” The serial variations on the chorus, rising in intensity, affirm that love can do all of these things. It’s not one affect; it’s a force. Sometimes it’s comforting, and sometimes it’s devastating. Love does not preclude claws. Quite the opposite. In other words, what La Sera is doing here is exactly what they’ve been doing from note one: aiming for the heart. There is nothing more vicious than that.

As though intuiting that this was all too subtle for people, Katy Goodman recently teamed up with Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore to produce what is essentially a master’s thesis on this very topic. Take It, It’s Yours is a covers album that redoes classic punk songs in an old-timey slow-pop style. Its approach is very consistent: low-intensity, wall-like synths create a background of noise, simple guitar parts set the basic song structure, and huge vocals shove all the way to the front. This has interestingly different effects on each song. “Bastards of Young” comes across pretty similarly to the original, but it’s refocused towards a different corner of the same emotional space; “Ever Fallen in Love” makes the opposite initial impression but ultimately draws up the same underlying feeling; “Pay to Cum” is completely unrecognizable.

This is easy to understand as a gimmick, so it’s crucial to emphasize how wrong that is. Like, sometimes this kind of thing is done as a joke; you take an “aggressive” song like “Straight Outta Compton” or whatever and you have someone with a little girl voice sing it over acoustic guitar, and it’s like, ha ha, that’s so funny, like it’s different from the regular thing. Take It, It’s Yours is the exact opposite of that. These songs are not ironic in the dumb “joking” sense of the term. They’re ironic in the correct sense of the term: they use context to convey additional, extra-literal information. The contrast is there, obviously; that’s still part of the point. But it’s part of a real point. In one sense, these songs feel reverent, like hymns to dead gods; in another, they’re explicitly blasphemous, intentionally destroying a lot of what people liked about them in the first place. But the stronger impression conveyed by their simplicity and directness is that they’re just songs. They stand on their own; their reinterpretive aspect isn’t required in order to feel what they’re getting at.

Let’s look at “Bastards of Young” a little more closely. The original has a very explicit “angry young man” affect that is closely tied to its meaning. So you might think that if you don’t have that, you don’t have the song; you might even think that that’s the entire thing that the song is, that attempting to remove it can only be an exercise in point-missing. Under this interpretation, aesthetics only operate on the surface, they don’t point to anything deeper. In which case aesthetics are meaningless; it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you “defang” something, because the fangs never sank into anything in the first place.

As a matter of fact, I saw another band cover this song earlier this year. They were a pretty straightforward rock band, and it was a pretty straightforward cover. This would seem to be uncomplicated: a perfectly “faithful” cover, one as close to the original song as possible, should consequently get as much of the original meaning as possible. But this is precisely the shallow understanding of aesthetics that we need to avoid. There wasn’t anything wrong with the performance, it sounded good and everything, but it was basically just “here’s a song you recognize.” Instead of pointing to the same thing that the original song was pointing to, or turning it around to point to something different, it merely pointed to the original song itself. Insisting on intensity can enforce shallowness; trying to be cute can create complexity. Staying as close as possible to something can drive it further away. And given that this song is about emptiness, this approach misses both coming and going. If you’re trying to express an “unwillingness to claim us” and the fact that you’ve “got no one to name us,” claiming it and naming it is kind of the opposite of what you’re after.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that . . . well, I’m going to have to get a little bit technical here, because I’m about to use the word “essence,” which is not something that someone in my philosophical position can just throw out there, so I need to be clear about what it is that I’m talking about.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that, either way, what you’re aiming at is the essence of the song.2 Essence is not real, but it’s also not magical; it’s a concept. The essence of an apple is what you infer about it from all the different ways you can physically interact with it. So the essence isn’t the “complete” or “ideal” version of the apple, because there’s no such thing. The essence is simply (or not so simply) the aggregation of all potential apple-experiences. The catch is that this isn’t a fixed thing; it doesn’t all add up to the One True Apple. Different people are going to have different reactions to different apple-aspects. If you lived on an apple farm as a child, apples might, for you, be inseparable from the concept of childhood. For someone else, who is allergic to apples and has had a near-death experience from accidentally eating one, the smell of apples might evoke the nameless terror of the true void. And the way you feel about apples might be the way I feel about oranges.

So a) things have different meanings for different people, but b) these meanings are contained within (or at least represented by) the same physical object, and c) the same meanings can be reached through multiple distinct physical means. Does this mean that there is no connection between subjectivity and objectivity? Uh, I fucking hope not, because that would pretty straightforwardly imply pure chaos on the level of meaning. The subjective aspects of the object are what matter, but they can’t be aggregated into any kind of understanding of it, both because they are potentially infinitely many and because subjectivity is not accessible to investigation in the first place. Rather, what it means to understand things is to use objectivity to get at subjectivity. It’s not really a bridge, because subjectivity is absolutely unreachable, but it’s sort of a signpost.

If you’re traveling and you’re trying to find a certain town, there are different ways you can go about it. You can look for signs to guide you there, or you can consult your map, or you can survey the geographical features of the area looking for indications of civilization, or you can ask someone. And maybe your map is out of date, or maybe the person you’re asking doesn’t remember things quite right, but all of these things will still, in some capacity, point towards the thing you’re looking for. Whereas if the terrain changes, if a rockslide blocks off a path or something, this is no longer the case. Nothing about the sign itself changes, but now it doesn’t actually point to anything. It is no longer capable of directing you to the town. Someone has to make a new sign. And a sign whose only purpose is to point to another, already-visible sign isn’t particularly helpful. The artist is the person who has at least some idea of where we need to go.

A song is also an object, albeit a complicated and loosely-defined object, so the same principles apply. The subjective aspect is far more obvious: of course people’s subjective reaction to music is the part of it that’s actually active. That still doesn’t make it magic; a songwriter produces something that can be written down and understood by others, and a performer takes specific physical actions to produce explicable phenomena. But the purpose of these things remains to get to subjectivity, so if you just copy the actions themselves without trying to get behind them, what you are engaged in is mimicry without understanding. You’re working off an old map that doesn’t account for the current terrain. You can do a faithful cover, but you can’t expect it to be a simple apples-to-apples comparison. As a counterexample, I saw another relatively straightforward rock band do a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It was also a faithful cover, and it wasn’t like a revelation or anything, but it was messy and deranged in a way that drew out the “slicing up eyeballs” aspect of the song. It pointed at something.

The Morgan/Goodman version of “Bastards of Young” is essentially a mellowed-out version of the original, but this doesn’t flatten the song’s intensity; it draws out the sorrow and earnestness that were masked3 by the original’s aggressiveness. It’s a different means of pointing to the same essence. And of course this means it’s not going to work for everybody, but what must be realized is that this was equally true of the original song. This understanding has always been there, and the Replacements themselves are actually a great example of it. They used their “young, loud, and snotty” style to great effect on songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” but they also used that same style to convey naive confusion on “Sixteen Blue,” self-pitying resignation on “Swingin Party,” and anguished desperation on “Answering Machine.” Eyes can meet a thousand ways. Raw power has a healing hand, and it can also destroy a man.

For any song that is meaningful to you, there is someone out there who heard it and actively hated it, and someone else who heard it and had no idea how anyone could possibly care about it one way or the other. So if you really think that there’s something there in a song you like, you should want it fucked up in as many different ways as possible. Assuming this is being done competently, it will broaden the general understanding of the thing that you care about. And if there’s a band you think has something to say, you should be happy to hear them trying different things, including or even especially things that are foreign to you. Not just for the sake of others, but also because you don’t have it all figured out either, and an honest challenge from someone you trust is invaluable guidance towards doing better.

In a sense, what’s happening on Take It, It’s Yours is that these songs have all been redone as “love songs,” but because the results are so strong while being, at first glance, so divergent from the originals, what this ends up doing is problematizing the typical “love song” concept. Because these covers don’t actually change anything in this sense; they reveal that these songs were all love songs in the first place. This version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the song that Danny Fields called the one true punk song, actually feels like it’s the original; it makes the Stooges version sound like the ironic reversal. Because of course it does, because the song was always a slow, tragic love song. And it’s not like it’s an anomaly or anything; songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are also love songs. These aren’t a bunch of different songs being redone as the same thing, they’re a bunch of different songs being redone as themselves. Love can do all of these things.

Again, aesthetics are not shallow. A “love song” isn’t one thing, and neither is a “punk song.” Any affect can achieve lots of different effects. Aesthetics are also not neutral. You can’t just redo anything in any arbitrary style and have it mean the same thing. If the only purpose of aesthetics is to put a wrapper around stuff you could just say directly, then aesthetics don’t actually do anything. This is not a contradiction. Words aren’t neutral, but you can theoretically use words to express anything you want. In fact, the reason you can do this is because words are not neutral. Contextual connections are what give words their power. In the same sense, what makes any particular aesthetic mean something is the situation in which it exists. Punk meant one thing at one time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing anymore. Actually, that isn’t even it; punk never did mean “one” thing; like love, it was always a force. The obvious paradox of punk has always been that, if punk is about rejecting traditions and standards and doing your own thing, then as soon as punk comes into being and sets a standard, you’re obligated to reject it. But this is only a paradox if you’re an absolutist. All it really means is that the true meaning of punk is that there is no true meaning of punk. It’s yours.

So I guess I should stop beating around the bush and get to the fact that there’s an obvious political angle here. Saying that something is “pretty but defanged” is basically equivalent to saying that it’s “too girly.” Y’know, speaking of the fact that aesthetics aren’t neutral, the idea that “hardness” is better than “softness” is some pretty basic patriarchal ideology. Everybody gets this backwards: feminism is not an ideological imposition that ignores the obvious truths of reality. It is merely the insistence that ideology be visible, that ideals be justified and not simply assumed as the “natural order” of things.

(While I’m certain that you’re not so unsophisticated as to claim that I’m “overthinking” this, I’ll go ahead anyway and clarify the fact that I’m not. I’m just telling you what I learned from these albums. The fact that music is so unsusceptible to analysis is part of what makes the attempt so useful. It happens to you without your permission, so then you have to go back and figure out what the hell just happened. I’ll spare you the diary entries, but “Running Wild” and “Shadow of Your Love” are both direct criticisms of me. When I first listened to “Running Wild” I noticed that the lyrics were kind of weirdly perpendicular to the tone, and then I started to sort of understand what they were saying, and then I got the hell scared out of me when I realized the song was about my exact situation and behavior. This is the type of thing that becomes possible once you stop trying to line things up properly in boxes and start listening; it is the sense in which apolitical statements are the most political of all.)

So the fact that the songs on Take It, It’s Yours are essentially “girlified” versions of songs that are known for being “manly” makes a non-trivial statement about both the songs themselves and the context in which they are being understood. As maleness is taken as default and femininity as fetish, the masculine versions of things are always considered “normal.” Per the title, Take It, It’s Yours insists on its own normality, and it also insists that you insist on your own normality. The slow, dreamy version of “Pay to Cum” is exactly as justified as the psychotic rush version, and so are the thousands of other versions that people have not yet imagined, because they’re strapped in to the notion that only certain types of people are allowed access to certain affects. We live in a big, complicated world, where many apparently contradictory things are true at once. Multiple simultaneous approaches are required to deal with any issue of substance. Until we start understanding this, we will never be able to understand anything.

And this is why creating “music for listening to music to” is not a simplistic retreat from significance, but rather the basic precondition for significance to exist in the first place. It seems insightful to say that something that’s just “fun” or “pleasant” to listen to is empty, that it doesn’t do anything, that it’s ear candy. This sounds incisive, but it’s actually nihilistic. It denies lived reality in favor of unattainable ideals; it puts meaning eternally out of reach. The fact that music sounds good to listen to is a real thing, and that’s only a problem if you conceive of real things as fake versions of ideal things. This is backwards. The point of ideals is to help us get to reality. The ideal doesn’t supersede the thing itself, it outlines it from behind. Clinging to ideals means hiding in the shadows of reality. If you have to choose, you choose earth, because the experience of living is the only thing that we actually have. Music is for listening to.

So, I mean, the obvious contradiction here is that I’m explaining why you should be able to listen to a record without explanation. Indeed, Music for Listening to Music to is fairly impressionistic; it resists analysis, in this sense. You’re not supposed to respond to it by . . . doing the only thing that I know how to do. In fact, it’s worse than that, because I’ve kind of been screwing around this whole time. The first song on the album, “High Notes,” addresses the situation as directly and completely as can be done in two minutes and five seconds. If you’re actually listening, there’s little else that needs to be said. So, in the spirit of things, I’m going to go against my instincts and let this one take care of itself. This is yours:

A little girl pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t make it through the night
Well thank you darling, this I know
I threw a look over my shoulder towards the guys who look dissatisfied
I’m sorry, is this song too slow?

Well I can’t sing it for you just the way you want me to
I might be tall but I’m not half the man you thought you knew
Who knew?

I’ll hit the high notes, wink as you walk by
I’ll sing a sad song, smile as you cry
Taking the high road, look me in the eye
Time waits for no man, old man, I’m saying goodbye

  1. If you’re unfamiliar, Poison Idea is a hardcore band that’s more on the “crazy asshole” end of the spectrum. They have a record called Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes, which is basically the same sentiment as Music for Listening to Music to
  2. This still applies if you’re fundamentally reinterpreting the song; you’re just reversing the essence, or coming at it sideways or whatever. If what you’re doing has no relationship to the original essence, then there’s no sense in which it’s a cover. Like, that’s actually why it’s called a “cover,” right? It’s a different surface over the same thing. 
  3. Just FYI, masking something is different from concealing it. 

Not afraid of the light


American Tragic is a breakup album. This is obvious enough that it can’t be ignored, but leaving it at that would be as reductive as it is silly. In general, any worthwhile work of art is about more than its nominal subject; specifically, this album isn’t the type of thing that a breakup album normally is, and the difference is important. As just a convenient point of contrast, the recent Best Coast album opens with a breakup song called “Feeling Ok.” Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that American Tragic is not about feeling “okay” or “getting over it” or “moving on.” It’s about being on your knees, tightening your grip, and facing the night. It’s about survival.

The previous Wax Idols album, Discipline + Desire, was where sole permanent bandperson Hether Fortune really came into her own as a songwriter. It’s a broad album that covers a lot of territory, beginning with “Stare Back,” a full-throated statement of intent which takes Nietzsche’s famous warning as a commitment, and ending with “Stay In,” a low-key personal lament that, in retrospect, disturbingly foreshadows the content of American Tragic. In between, it confronts suicide, oppression, mercy killing, and the fundamental emptiness of the universe. It maps out a worldview, and American Tragic is what happens when that worldview has to face up to a specific catastrophe – when ideology hits the ground.

Where Discipline + Desire was more noisy and opaque, the songs on American Tragic are clear and dramatic, though with the same post-punk guitars and gothy atmosphere. The real difference, as noted, is that American Tragic is less of an ideas-focused rock album and more of a personal bloodletting. There’s sort of an open stage in the middle of each song for the vocals to inhabit, and Fortune uses it to basically emote her ass off. Between introspectively murmuring on “Lonely You,” howling in desperation on “I’m Not Going,” vamping it up on “Severely Yours,” and lashing out wildly on “Seraph,” she’s almost acting (or, you know, not acting) as much as she is singing. This is all underscored by the fact that, aside from the drums (by Rachel Travers, who adds a real sense of underlying strength) and couple of supporting bits, everything on the album is performed by Fortune herself. Of course, you can’t actually tell that by listening, but you can tell that everything on here is coming from a single human heart.

There are a number of specific references between the two albums that make the connections explicit. American Tragic begins with “A Violent Transgression,” which contains the following warning: “There are no squares in nature, so don’t create a corner when the pain starts to burn.” This is an extension of a metaphor from “Ad Re: Ian” off of Discipline + Desire, which is certainly among the best songs ever written about suicide:

In these never ending circles

A corner can be paradise

Press your head against the wall

Colors dance inside your eyes

And the promise of eternity

Escape from all the lies

Now with open arms & reaching hands

You give yourself to night

So a “corner” here is an escape – a place where you can go to get away from the constant horror of reality, to get out of the “never ending circles.” The tone of “Ad Re: Ian” is deeply sympathetic; it’s an attempt to understand what things would have to be like for someone to choose to annihilate themselves. Whereas in “A Violent Transgression,” the tables have turned: the singer is now the one on the knife’s edge, and she’s rejecting escape as an option for herself. There are no squares in nature, nothing can be boxed off and avoided, so when you’re tempted to try, you’re creating a corner. The fantasy of escaping from the lies is itself a lie. You have to stay in the circles.

The result of this understanding is that, despite the vibrant songwriting and emotional intensity that make American Tragic the exact opposite of a depressing slog, the album nevertheless lacks of any kind of comfort or resolution. It simmers, seethes, and screams, and there is zero catharsis. Again, this is an album that doesn’t “get over it”; it’s drenched in suffering from start to finish. There’s one particular moment that really drives this home. “Deborah” is given the standard “lead single” positioning: it’s a few songs in and it’s the most “fun” song up to that point, with a strong, smooth rhythm and a catchy chorus, but also with sketchy, twirling guitars that lack the satisfaction of any big riffs. The chorus includes the lines “dream of nothing, cuz it feels that way,” and “flowers wilting, axis tilting,” so, you know, there’s that, but the critical moment comes towards the end. The song is an explicit exorcism, and it seems to be building up to a big cathartic finish. The instruments drop off, leaving nothing but a chattering drum line and sparse, heavy bass notes. Fast, whispery vocals rush in to build the tension, and everything is primed for a big power lift to finish the job. But the lyrics here are a series of unresolved questions, and the drums chop them off before the second repetition finishes, pounding a couple of times to create an arresting tension (Travers really nails it here), which leads in to . . . basically nothing. The chorus comes back again, sounding just as anguished as before, only with the addition of a background full of desperate, repeated cries that drag the song to a limp conclusion. The exorcism fails.

So, even though all this really is as dark as you’d think, this is not a depressing album. Though the album exists in a small space, the songwriting is bright and open, and the key to the whole thing is the fact that it’s actually dance music. As scary and dramatic as it is, it’s also just really fun and exhilarating to listen to. This approach sublimates the album’s deep personal emotion into something new and alive, while maintaining an imposing sense of dread throughout. The obvious reference point for this contrast is Joy Division, but, despite its subject matter, American Tragic lacks that band’s dense haze of oppressiveness. It’s less melancholy and more, like, fire-breathing. (By the way, the title of “Ad Re: Ian” refers to Ian Curtis, so this isn’t just a musical difference: Hether Fortune’s understanding and rejection of the perspective portrayed in that song constitutes both the connection between and the bright line separating Wax Idols and Joy Division.) The inventiveness and energy of the album are central to its message: rather than seeking comfort, it surges forward.

I saw Wax Idols last year around when the album came out, not knowing anything about it at the time. But when they played the new songs, I understood exactly what was going on, even though I didn’t know what I was actually understanding yet. The songs were imposing and unnerving, and at the same time exciting and engaging. You can feel the combination of horror and visceral positivity. The dance aspect is important not because it ameliorates the album’s negativity, but because it synthesizes the negative subject matter with an affirming spirit. This combination is what the album is truly about. It’s both an embrace of the infinite darkness of the universe and a refusal to give in to it – a commitment to life with an understanding of the true terror it includes. This is the apparent paradox that defines the album: “we turn and face the night, that’s where we find the light.”

The lyrics are full of evocative and occasionally mysterious imagery, much of which sits alongside outright cliches. Of course, the “breakup album” itself is a cliche, and this sort of situation tends to inspire people to make big gestures that are as dramatic as they are familiar. But this doesn’t actually imply a lack of insight, because there’s an ironic subtlety to cliches that is lost when you either take them at face value or dismiss them as inherently empty. After all, this is hardly an album that falls back on familiar comforts; even with the cliches, there’s a striking lack of naivete. Cliches may seem like native inhabitants of the realm of fake smiles and Hollywood endings, but they contain truths that can be imported into the real world and applied productively.

Cliches are not at all the same thing as stereotypes, for example. It’s commonly said by stupid people that every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, but this is exactly wrong. Stereotypes are lies specifically chosen to cover up inconvenient truths by overwriting them with the opposite understanding. As a particularly dramatic example, the stereotype of black people being lazy originated during motherfucking slavery, a time when black people were being worked harder than perhaps any other group of people who have ever lived (I guess the people who built the pyramids might have a better case). Acknowledgement of this fact is not compatible with belief in white supremacy. The paradox of slavery is that any group that would implement it does not deserve to be in charge, which is why it requires a supposedly naturalistic justification. Slavery was deliberately reconceived as an inherent defect in black people to conceal the fact that it was actually a chosen defect in white people’s values. In short, stereotypes operate by using power to replace the uncomfortable truth with an apologist lie, and this is why all stereotypes must be destroyed.

A cliche, however, represents an original insight which only seems glib and meaningless after being dulled from overuse and flattened by assimilation into a truthless narrative. The reason cliches are usually intolerable is that they’re being spewed out by people who don’t really have any problems and aren’t actually saying anything, and it’s valid to dismiss them for this reason. But they can also be usefully redeemed by pulling them forward through the spectacle into present reality. Specifically, when everything goes to hell and you need something to hold on to, the hidden insights buried in the static start to shine forth. Shit gets real.

The various cliches scattered throughout the album act as hooks, connecting the album’s perspective to more commonly understood concepts. “I won’t let you hang me out to dry” is elevated into a radical statement of justified selfishness, while “pushing up daisies” is used to highlight the passivity and hollowness of the path being rejected. The moment of deepest connection comes on “At Any Moment.” This is the one purely upbeat song on the album – the one that seems to finally break free of the darkness. It carries itself with a blood-pumping sense of vitality. Rapid-fire drums and slashing guitars hold tough, confident vocals snake effortlessly through the verses and strike hard on the chorus, and synth melodies blare out on top of everything, rising towards an open sky. Yet in the face of all this, the vocals are just as chilling as ever, “wrapped in subtle forms of sorrow, and laced with fear.” The song’s powerful hook is actually terrifying: the singer takes as her saving grace the fact that anything can die “at any moment.” This would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory: there’s no despair, but only because there was no hope in the first place. But the intensity of the delivery makes this reading impossible; it’s brimming with such confidence as to force itself to be felt as genuine triumph.

What connects the song’s apparent cold comfort to its burning blood is its use of cliches. Following up on the chorus, the singer insists that “it’s a damned if I do, damned if I don’t ever-after.” Again, we can’t understand this as a statement of futility. To interpret this properly, we need to know what “ever-after” refers to here, and this information comes from “Dethrone” off of Discipline + Desire. As the title makes obvious, this song is a comprehensive refutation of any justification for rulership.

They take you to the edge of light

“Have a glimpse of ever-after”

They sell you faith, they sell you lies

And you’re the source of all their laughter

The source of the ruling class’s power is their claim on eternity – they extract loyalty by offering the hope of a room in heaven or a footnote in the pages of history. But it’s a mere hope, a glimpse, because there’s no such thing as eternity. As the term itself connotes, “ever-after” is a fairy tale. It’s a lie, masking the true purpose of material gain in this world, the only world there actually is. The “throne” here is the conceptual source of arbitrary authority – the concept of something else that supposedly justifies an obviously unjust state of affairs – and that’s what we have to destroy.

So, with regards to being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” what this means is that there’s no hope of salvation, that we’re screwed either way, but also that this realization is the substance of liberation. Letting go of the fantasy of eternity allows us to really be present in present reality, to make free choices. Here, it means that the singer isn’t shackled to an abstract conception of love, and she doesn’t have any arbitrary expectations to live up to. She’s dealing with a direct threat to herself, and she’s facing it directly.

Building on its momentum, the song drives home its final statement: “You fool me once, you won’t fool me twice, I’m not a virgin on the altar of sacrifice.” Again, the cliche here is normally a palliative, a sort of “oh well, maybe next time” at the discovery of having been fucked over. But by making it a promise rather than a hypothetical, both halves become necessary. Being fooled the first time is the unavoidable consequence of real engagement, of caring enough to make yourself vulnerable; when it comes to love, there’s no room for half-measures. And the second half is more than just learning from your mistakes, it’s a commitment to cleave as strongly to pain as to passion, to face up to and actively oppose the things that are trying to kill you rather than merely avoiding them. The statement thus becomes a commitment to deep engagement, anticipating disaster, combined with an obligation to take the pain and use it. Hence, not a virgin, and also not a sacrifice.

Because another thing that’s a stereotype is the “negative” person who “looks for things to be upset about” rather than doing something “constructive.” The truth that this lie conceals is the fact that “negativity” is a positive force. For one thing, it’s very often nothing more than honesty; the insistence on “staying positive” at all costs is a requirement to abandon the truth. Furthermore, “negative” people are the ones doing the real work of reconstructing an evil world into something that actually works for people, and mandating glib positivity is an attempt to cut them off at the knees. While cliches are not inherently political in the way that stereotypes are, they can be politicized. They can be used to construct a world where the pathways to freedom are missing, where the only choice is in choosing how best to get by. A man telling a woman to smile is the entire psychology of oppression distilled into a single gesture.

Our ability to use the components of reality’s present constitution against itself is more than just a means of defense, it’s how we make the world a real place. If this really were “the best of all possible worlds,” there wouldn’t be anything to do except sit around feeling content about it. But in the jagged, ill-made world that we actually inhabit, there are decisions to be made, things to be sought, and things to be driven out. Instead of walking around in a haze of complacency, fated to forever act out the shitty scripts that have been written for us, we can decide what matters, draw lines, and define our own terms. We can be real people.

There are an awful lot of religious references on this thing, particularly for an album written by an atheist (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs, but we’re at least talking about the kind of person who capitalizes “Death” but not “god”). What religion and love have in common is that they both speak in the language of transcendence. They’re the aspirations that humans have to be something more than mutated apes shuffling about a crumbing ball of dirt.

Christianity in particular has been very successful at conflating its own particular mythology with the general concept of love. This success is unjustified. What’s notable about Christian metaphysics is that the Christian “God” is literally everything – the world is represented as one big undifferentiated mass of creation. Unlike in, for example, Hinduism, where Shiva the Destroyer is worshipped as one of the universe’s primary forces, the Destroyer in Christianity is the enemy – destruction is always an evil act. In other words, the central claim of Christianity is that nothing ever actually dies.

This is the meaning of the crucifixion: it’s the ultimate affirmation. Jesus affirms the human world even in the midst of suffering its greatest horror, granting it redemption. “Goodbye Baby” uses this imagery in the same sense: “nail me to the cross, I’ll be a martyr for this lost cause.” The singer here affirms love while suffering its worst consequences. This is kind of self-deprecating – when we tell someone to “get off the cross,” especially in the context of a romantic relationship, it’s not because we’re impressed with their commitment – but it’s also kind of serious. The lyric is a testament to the lengths that people are willing to go to for the sake of affirmation.

But of course, as the refrain of the song makes obvious, the point is that this isn’t actually what she’s doing. Like religion, love can oppress as well as liberate, and sometimes the only solution is to cut it off hard, to insist that “I owe me more than I owe you.” And while she accepts the consequences of her decision – “you can call me evil, you won’t be the only one” – she still claims allegiance to the truth (the song actually includes the line “I’m not a liar, I gotta tell the truth,” which seems pointlessly general until you consider it in this context). She insists that she’s doing the right thing – “I won’t let you turn my good heart bad,” which is what can happen when you commit yourself to affirmation over all else, when you decide you owe someone, or an idea, or the world more than you owe yourself.

With Christian ideology having thoroughly percolated throughout secular America, the idea that full, uncritical affirmation is the solution to everything manifests itself in a number of places. We see it in the naive valorization of “free speech,” which asserts that malicious and ignorant opinions are just as valid as deeply considered ones, that expert testimony is just as good as knee-jerk reaction, and that “censorship” is the only true crime. Related to this is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas,” which holds not only that active discernment is unnecessary, but that harmful ideas must be permitted to keep existing. It’s why we can only understand economic activity in terms of constant, accelerating growth. And obviously consumerist ideology is based on the assumption that crowding store shelves with as much trash as possible is an appropriate definition of “abundance.” Hand in hand with all of this is the concept of salvation – the idea that, because the existence of everything is justified, something in there has got to be the thing that saves us.

Obviously, none of this is accurate. If nothing else, the rise of the internet has made it painfully clear that some people really do need to shut the fuck up. More generally, some ideas don’t just represent bad things that should be rejected but are themselves harmful things that must be destroyed. A dramatic example is rape, which is only understandable based on the malformed idea of sexuality as a dominance game. Whereas most crimes are committed for the sake of some other goal, rape is unique in that it is its own motivation. Rapists rape because they enjoy rape specifically and not sex. Therefore, the only solution is dissolution – the concept of sexuality that leads to rape must be eradicated from the collective psyche of humanity. This is why the activist assertion is that rape is not a type of sex but is rather sexualized violence. It’s also why rape “prevention” ““tips”” are so offensive: they presume that the concept has a right to exist.

Back on topic, this ideological malformation also applies to love. Love is supposed to be the thing that transcends physical reality, so we only understand love in terms of affirmation. The adjective that goes with the word “love” is “eternal” (one more example of affirmation-only ideology is the assumption that divorce is always a bad thing). But as anyone with any actual experience knows (which is everyone, as long as they’re honest with themselves), love doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. It doesn’t just have rough spots, it has sharp edges. And sometimes it fucks things up bad enough that it has to be destroyed.

Obviously, affirmation itself isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, as the ability to transform the world into more than it is, it’s one of the great powers of humanity. But it has a necessary counterpart: negation, the power to annihilate things that have lost their right to exist. Together, affirmation and negation are the powers that we as humans use to create the kind of world we want to live in. We decide what deserves to be preserved and what has to die. The problem is that we live in a society that denies the validity of negation. This is done out of fear, which is understandable, because negation really is scary. It requires accepting that some mistakes cannot be undone, that it is possible to lose important things forever, and that everything that currently exists is going to die. But these things have to be accepted, because without the power of negation we’re facing the universe unarmed, carrying a shield but not a sword. As one more example, addressing global warming requires destroying the current means of production. We like to talk about the “positive” ways of addressing the problem: new inventions, green jobs, and “alternative” sources of energy. But because we’re facing a tipping point, there will eventually be no acceptable level of carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels inherently contain way more energy than any possible alternative, we actually are going to have to lower our levels of production, which is the one concept that capitalism absolutely cannot abide. This might end up being humanity’s final paradox: without the power of negation, we’re all going to die.

This whole dynamic is summed up very concisely when the album sets up its situation on “Lonely You”: “What once was always, on its knees, screaming ‘never, never’.” The inherent contradiction in something that “once was always” demonstrates the limits of affirmation. We can pretend, for a time, that the things we love will last forever, but even the luckiest of us will eventually face the final curtain.  Once ideation hits the ground – when it’s “on its knees” – reality has to be dealt with. And sometimes the result is horrific enough the only appropriate action is negation – to scream “never.”

Maybe this all sounds depressing, which is another reason why people don’t like to think about it, but it’s affirmation that’s tragic, because it can never really work. Negation can. Eternity is an illusion, but oblivion is real. What this means is that negation can actually offer a kind of inverted salvation. On “I’m Not Going,” this turns out to be the real answer.

Tonally, this is by far the most depressing song on the album. The slow, insistent rhythm and desperate vocals shroud it with the sorrow of a funeral march, and the lyrics back this up with a determined advance into the darkness. The cosmology of the song is established right at the beginning: “This is a wicked world, full of crooks and fools and kings.” This is notably comprehensive: the evil in the world consists not only of malicious people, but also people who don’t know what they’re doing, and people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. And by identifying herself with this complete strain of wickedness, the singer leaves herself without any escape. She can’t position herself as an innocent victim or a principled rebel – whatever evil is in the world is also a part of her. The result is that, when she finds herself in the midst of catastrophe, she has no defense. She can’t claim she doesn’t deserve it, and she has no possible action other than hopeless acceptance. “I roll with the thunder, take me under, wait for god to call.” This line is another Discipline + Desire callback, this time to the defiant “When It Happens”: “I was listening in on phone calls to ‘god’ / I was laughing to myself because I know there’s no one home.” The singer’s desperation here is such that she’s down to relying on the one thing that she knows can’t save her.

And in the face of all this, the the very un-chorus-like chorus is as simple as it can possibly be: “no, I’m not going down.” It’s precisely the overwhelming negativity of the song that makes it a radical statement of hope. As the black sky is met with defiance, screams harden themselves into cries of strength, and the singer finds the power to shine alone in hell. This is the power of negation, the ability to eradicate the possibility of defeat, and its raw force does not require reliance on anything. This is also the note on which the album ends: “I’m not nothing.” This seems like a pathetic understatement, but it’s enough. You can accept that you were wrong about everything, admit your faults, face the destruction of what’s most important to you, and still refuse to go down. You usually can’t win, but you can always not lose.

This is also essentially what we saw on “At Any Moment”: negation can be a source of hope. The fact that everything is temporary means you’re never completely trapped. And this is why we can’t allow ourselves to surrender to “positive thinking” and relinquish the power of negation. The insistence on affirmation also has a political motive: certain people would prefer it if we were only capable of devoting ourselves uncritically to things that already exist, as this would limit our options to either compliance or despair. Imagination, and hence desire, is essentially an act of negation: it denies the present state of reality in favor of something that doesn’t exist, which is why negation is our only defense against benevolent totalitarianism. We can’t live without devoting ourselves to something, but we have to accept that nothing is really going to last, and learn to live with the expectation of catastrophe. And when devotion inevitably turns poisonous, we have to be willing to excise it. We have to hold back this last card, because there’s going to come a day when it’s the only one we have to play.

“Severely Yours” is the thematic inverse of everything else on the album – instead of a song about heartbreak with desire burning in the background, it’s a song about very explicit desire haunted by implicit tragedy. This is backed up by the vocals, which are less aggressive and more conventionally sexy, but with a wistful undercurrent that maintains the thread of sorrow. That doesn’t make this a mushy love song, though; in fact, it interrogates power dynamics through an emphasis on dominance and submission, illuminating the the inherent political dimension of relationships that is otherwise obscured by the album’s raw emotion.

The key to this song lies at the intersection of its submissiveness and its swaggering confidence. It gets down on its knees immediately, and from there the whole thing takes place on the floor. The singer states her intent directly, with a single line that says both “I want you to hurt me” and “I want you to fuck me.” This whole situation presents a very conventional picture of female desire as wanting to be the object of someone else’s actions, which is what makes it so obvious that it’s a trap.

The chorus provides the first clue to the song’s true nature: “he could be mine, he could be my god” (it’s only here and on “Deborah” where the subject of the song is specifically male, which both emphasizes the gendered aspect and makes the target more specific than the usual universal “you”). Repeating a line and extending it like this is pretty standard songwriting; it’s at least as elemental as “be my, be my baby.” So because it sounds so natural, it’s easy to miss that these two lines are exact opposites. The whole “I’m yours” angle is about as cliched as it gets, but, as the title indicates, “Severely Yours” takes it seriously. If someone is “yours,” that means you own them, but if someone is “your god,” that means they own you. A later repetition of the chorus doubles this dynamic up again by inverting the line to “I could be your god,” and the end of the song conflates everything together by layering all of these lines on top of each other. (The lack of capitalization on “god” has added significance here, as it indicates that the concept is being used in the general sense and not the specifically Christian and therefore patriarchal sense. Also, the hypothetical phrasing shows that the role of “god” here is both optional and temporary.)

Of course, in terms of dominance, this is all blatantly contradictory. Mutual dominance is not an intelligible concept, and that’s the point: relationships are inherently mutual, and they shouldn’t be understood in terms of dominance. The BDSM imagery brings this point into sharp relief, because consensual BDSM makes it obvious that what something looks like isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual dynamics at play. It’s sort of a BDSM truism that the sub is the one with the real power, since it’s the sub’s limits that define the scope of the action, and, despite appearances, what the dom is actually doing is fulfilling the sub’s desires. This isn’t because it’s a “game,” though, it’s because this is a more accurate picture of reality than the one that we usually use to understand dominance. Dominance is typically presented as an act of will, by which one affects others while remaining untouched. But this is a fantasy; there’s no such thing as being “untouched” in a purely physical existence. Any act, in addition to its affect on the target, imposes constraints on the actor. Accordingly, submission is not necessarily failure or even weakness. It can be a means of self-defense, and it can be a weapon.

Taking the song as a whole, the complete situation – two people acting as each other’s “gods,” while also annihilating each other – is more complicated than simple boy/girl dominance, and it’s also more realistic. In fact, the transition from apparent stereotype to complex reality demonstrates that situations which are presented to us as confirmation of easy archetypes are in fact no such thing, that we’re being lied to. Nobody ever has absolute power, and the inherent mutuality of the physical universe means there are always tools at hand to work with. This also drains the venom from the paradox of intimacy: the way to exercise real devotion while maintaining the force of your own will is to belong to someone else, but to do it severely.

This is not a narrow conclusion – it applies to power dynamics generally. Power dynamics pervade everything, from our most abstract institutions to our most intimate relationships, but this does not mean that we’re doomed to live in a world at war with itself. On the contrary, while it does mean that we’re never safe and things are never easy, it also means we’re never truly under anyone’s thumb. Things like having money or holding an official position of authority or being a man are not absolute strengths; everything has a second edge (this is what the term “toxic masculinity” refers to). I’m certainly not eliding the fact that there are real power differentials that really do kill people, but on the level of technique, we’re all on equal footing. Anyone can be outmatched, in any situation, at any moment.

In 1984, O’Brien claims that the only way to know you have power over someone is to inflict pain on them. This is based on the assumption that pain is something absolutely unwanted by everyone in all situations. But this is not true; the basis of non-violent protest, for example, is to deliberately subject yourself to suffering in order to claim the moral high ground. And not only is it not true of pain, it’s not true of anything. Humans are not utility droids; we have complicated relationships with physical reality, and our desires are not straightforward. What this means is that there is no such thing as absolute dominance. Dominance is not the infliction of one’s will on the world, it is a specific, contingent type of interaction with the world, just as writing is not the direct transmission of pure ideas but rather the interaction of ideas with the social medium of language. And, just as the act of writing something down can reveal things that you didn’t realize you were aware of, the act of dominance can restrict the actor as much as the acted upon. When you interact with the world, the world interacts back.

This even applies to the basic predator/prey relationship: predators that become too effective will end up destroying themselves by driving their food source to extinction. In our modern jungle, the same is true of capitalism. If capitalism actually worked the way it claimed to – if everyone really had to pay equal value for everything they acquired – it would be completely untenable. Capitalists would be unable to extract profits, and workers would become so boxed in that they’d have no choice but to rebel. (It’s worth remembering that this is what Marx predicted would happen. It’s actually because he took capitalism at face value that he ended up being wrong; his mistake was putting too much trust in the system.) In truth, capitalism is completely dependent on public goods, and the more it enforces its ability to marketize everything, the weaker it becomes. Thus, the key to capitalism’s ubiquity is its incompleteness; the reason it’s able to cast such a wide net is because it’s full of holes. The same is true even of god itself. Though portrayed as an absolute force, the strength of the god-concept actually lies in how ill-defined it is; the fecundity of a religion such as Christianity follows from its flexibility. It finds adherents in people as far apart as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, all because the relationship between humans and god is not one-way. The saying “if god did not exist, we would have to invent him” does not go far enough: even if god really did exist, we would still have invented him.

In other words, power is a liability as much as it is an advantage. This is why asymmetric warfare is possible. As perhaps a more relatable example, owning a smartphone doesn’t simply allow you to do more things, it changes your relationship to the world. You might, for example, fail to research your destination on a trip on the assumption that your navigation app will take care of it, and thereby end up getting lost because you had an extremely powerful navigation tool at your disposal. It’s not just that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, it’s that having a hammer at all necessarily creates an orientation towards nails.

And yet, everything in society is based on the illusion of power; every formal institution is organized based on who’s the boss of who. Indeed, our entire conception of civilization rests on the notion that it represents our “dominion” over the world, that it’s our escape from the “state of nature.” Yet it’s obvious that civilization introduces as much danger as it averts. The only reason earthquakes are capable of killing people is because we have lots of giant buildings around to crush us. And of course there are the more explicit maladies we’ve gifted ourselves with, including stress-induced neuroses, nuclear fallout, “collateral damage” in warfare, and suicide. Oh, and global warming, which is poised to make a rather persuasive argument that humanity remains within reach of the red claw of nature.

In case anyone’s thinking something stupid at this point, I’m no kind of primitivist. This argument refutes romantic savagery as thoroughly as it does technological utopianism. Earthquakes can destroy buildings, but only because there is something there to destroy. It’s better to be alive now than is was at any time in the past, and that will continue to be the case until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all, and that’s why it’s actually going to be a bad thing when that happens. Rejecting progress for fear of backlash is like cutting off your head to spite your face.

We all have our moments when we feel like humanity doesn’t deserve to exist, but to seriously entertain this impulse is to uncritically embrace nihilism. To keep harping on global warming (since it’s really the one topic that can never be harped on enough), you’ll occasionally encounter soothsayers pontificating that, after humanity is gone, nature will be able to “heal itself” and another species will get the chance to “not fuck things up like we did.” This is actually worse than nihilism; it’s a denial of everything good that’s ever happened. Without humanity, it doesn’t matter what happens to “nature”; the state of reality can only be said to be good or bad in relation to beings with the ability to care about it. If we all really do end up struck by stray bullets and drowned in stagnant water, then guess what: it was worth it.

Though it’s somewhat understandable that people would feel this way, since the concept for dealing with this whole situation doesn’t really exist anymore. That concept is tragedy. You can tell the concept is gone because the word has devolved, like an old shell abandoned by its hermit crab, to meaning little more than “sad thing.” In truth, a tragedy is a situation in which a hero is destroyed by her own virtues, and the point of it is that sometimes(/often/always), bad endings are morally necessary, because the only way to avoid them is to destroy the good that caused them in the first place – to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The other way you can tell that the concept is dead is that almost all mainstream stories, whether action or romance, are ones where the protagonist “overcomes” their flaws in order to earn a “happy” ending. It should be obvious that violence never results in a definitive resolution, but it’s equally true that love is never “happily ever after.” The only purity is in death.

By refusing to accept this, we also refuse to accept our moral responsibilities. With the assumption that we’re “good people” who “mean well,” we consider ourselves virtuous not as the result of our actions but in spite of them. America had the opportunity to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center with the understanding that all the act really proved was that America had something worth destroying, to look at the people who thought that petty slaughter would be enough to shake our faith in ourselves and say nice fucking try. Instead, we immediately proved them right by going bug-eyed and frothy and basically committing ourselves to fucking everything up for the foreseeable future (I mean, worse than we already were). The thing that should never be forgotten is that history’s greatest superpower basically threw a fucking tantrum.

It’s easy to run the numbers and conclude that America is the greatest force for evil in the world in just a sheer mathematical sense, but, just as assuming that America is the “good guy” doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s also not enough to regard America’s actions as “villainous,” as though “defeating” it would fix anything. Just as it is with everything else in the world, America’s crimes are the result of real strengths, and its successes are imbued with failure. It’s because America is nominally founded on ideals of equality and liberty that we have to constantly invent new methodologies of oppression. It’s because we’re committed to open discourse that we end up smothering ourselves in stifling noise. It’s because we conceive of ourselves as a “city on a hill” that we constantly try to bomb everyone else into recognizing that. It’s by impoverishing the rest of the world that we’ve given ordinary Americans the opportunity to achieve the kind of greatness that genuinely enriches humanity. There’s no contradiction in taking our merits and turning them around to attack the very faults that caused them in the first place; in fact, that’s the only thing that actually makes any sense. America must be understood as a tragedy.

The culmination of all this is that there’s no culmination. American Tragic finalizes its commitment to existing in the never ending circles of reality by rejecting the convenience of a comfortable conclusion. The album is structured to make it seem like it ends prematurely – the B-side only has four tracks on it, with “Seraph” as the inconclusive closer. It’s the loudest track on the whole thing, so it almost violently forecloses on any expectation of a peaceful denouement. And like everything else on the album, it’s all drama and no resolution. It’s not even really a climax, it’s all buildup until the abrupt ending, where the last line cuts off mid-roar, leaving only a fading echo. The text that would normally constitute the climax is compressed into a spoken-word rant and submerged into the background – the only time on the album when the vocals are deliberately buried.

And yet, the album does finally arrive in a different place from where it started. “Seraph” is entirely in the first person, lacking the I/you dynamic that characterizes every other song on the album (except for “I’m Not Going,” which is the same idea taken from the opposite perspective), suggesting that the exorcism may finally have worked. But the place arrived at isn’t an ending or a stopping point, it’s a nexus connecting the trauma of the past to the uncertainty of the future. Because, despite its forcefulness, this song is still uncertain – the singer “can’t tell” whether she’s still whole or not. But she does know where she stands: she refuses to let go of her passion, and she’s going to endure. The only sensible response to tragedy is redoubled engagement. This is why her final resolution is to “replenish” herself with “youthful lusting.” After everything’s been poisoned, she goes right back to the well.

It’s also why this album begins and ends with fire. We live in a society that’s constantly trying to freeze people. In fact, we’ve got a good number of rich fucks who literally think they can freeze their severed heads and wake up in magical robot paradise. Even if cryonics worked, though, it would still constitute abandonment of the world that actually exists – it would still be suicide. The tendency to respond to suffering and danger with retreat and denial is what this album stands in opposition to: “they wanna lock me in, iced and wrapped in moonlight satin, kept but never seen.”

This tendency is the result of a deep mistake. It’s based on the idea that the world is something that we have to be protected from, that the point of civilization is to build a big wall around ourselves so that the bad things can’t get in. Cosmologically speaking, it’s the idea that evil has the force of truth and that the light is a mere temporary defense. But the darkness of the universe is actually nothing; everything that exists is contained within the flame of life, and that includes suffering and hatred as much as creativity and love. To fear being burnt, then, is to fear the light itself – to fear life. “Positive” people who think the goal of life is to minimize conflict are liars; seekers of truth are necessarily “negative”: they are engaged with the horrors of reality. This is the final reclamation of the ultimate cliche: the light of the human spirit really does endure, not as a cold glow that remains still amidst the turbulence of existence, but as a white-hot flame that consumes as it empowers. We can only tend to it by embracing peril alongside pleasure, keeping our hearts open and our claws sharp, and refusing the easy escape of eternity. Reality doesn’t have corners, and it doesn’t have simple answers or convenient resolutions. It does have violent transgressions.

Humans are supposed to learn

do_not_enterColleen Green’s latest album is called I Want to Grow Up, and she’s not kidding. In addition to the fact that it’s a big step forward in terms of both songwriting and content, this is an inspiring, harrowing, exhilarating record that takes the promise of its title and runs with it. But what makes it a real achievement is that, while it may be a surprise, it’s not a departure; it’s an informed extension of her previous work.

For a while, Green’s M.O. was pretty straightforward: drum machine, Ramones guitars, breathy stoner vocals. It’s the kind of music that very much conveys the impression of one person working alone in a bedroom. But her songwriting skill is more then enough to overcome the novelty effect; the apparent simplicity of her approach is just disarming enough to draw you in for a serious engagement. Her previous album, Sock it to Me, brought this approach to its zenith.


The album starts off with a bunch of songs that are relationship-obsessed to a literally unbelievable degree. The opener, “Only One,” hits you right away with its ridiculous chorus: “oh yeah, uh huh, oh god, I really love my boyfriend.” The simplicity almost temps you into taking it at face value, but nobody’s that naive. It’s so over the top that it sort of commands you to figure out what’s really going on. And in fact, a little attention to the lyrics makes things perfectly clear:

My boyfriend is the best

He always knows just what to say to make me less depressed

Oh, uh, that’s nice . . .

And when he tells me that he wants only me

I get so dizzy I stop breathing his love totally kills me

Yeah. What’s happening here isn’t cute; it’s an expose of the viciousness embedded in society’s saccharine conception of relationships. The pop angle is entirely deliberate: this is what you should be hearing in every clueless radio love song.

That’s also why the masking of these songs’ true intent is deliberate. One of the reasons the post-Ramones “wall of sound” effect became ubiquitous is that it’s actually really versatile. It can be used to emphasize the vocals by placing them against a solid backdrop, or it can conceal them by smothering them in the haze. The softness of Green’s singing voice makes this effect even more pronounced. Here, both things happen: the happy choruses come across loud and clear, and you then have to dig for the buried verses to get the full picture. The effect is to portray a situation where the obvious surface meaning contradicts what’s really going on.

This continues through “Darkest Eyes,” which similarly starts off cute:

My boyfriend’s got the darkest eyes you’ve ever seen

Darker than midnight on Halloween

Then gets unnerving:

I tell him every day he’s the only one I wanna see

And his eyes look right through me

And finally settles on scary:

There’s no better way to keep appearances preserved

A razor to an optical nerve

This all makes the double meaning of the album’s title painfully clear:

When you say you love me

You know it’s music to me

And then you sock it to me

But this isn’t generic criticism. It’s coming from a particular perspective, which is what the second half of the album illuminates.

The appropriately dramatic transition starts with “Heavy Shit,” which isn’t just about, you know, what it says in the title, but specifically deals with the process of becoming informed of the fact that there are more serious things going on than your own relationship drama. Of course, as previously, the naivete here is feigned. It’s making the point that this is something that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis, that we are dealing with it, even though what seems like escapism.

“Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” takes a turn towards theory. Despite the title, the song is not actually about relationships; it’s about the simultaneous loathing and longing we all feel toward the concept of normalcy (“doesn’t everyone, sometimes?”). “Normal” girls are “like the ones on TV,” i.e. they don’t exist. But that doesn’t stop people from acting as though normalcy was a real thing, from doing what they think everyone else thinks they’re supposed to do.

The catch is that you can’t just reject the script; if everyone else is operating under a certain set of assumptions, rejecting those assumptions means giving up on relating to anyone else. In relationship terms, it means giving up on love. Humanity’s highest value, the thing that’s supposed to transcend everything, is actually completely dependent on the mundane conditions of everyday life.

And this is where we start to get a handle on the album’s perspective. It’s looking at things as an engaged outsider, someone who’s nobody’s fool but has to play the fool in order to get along. She’s not willing to give up on love for the sake of consistency; she genuinely desires things she knows are ridiculous. This perspective is what creates the album’s odd duality of naivete and incisiveness.

Despite being the second to last song, “Taxi Driver” is the album’s core. It’s the song that finally provides a solid standpoint from which everything else can be understood.

I wanna be a taxi driver

That’s assuredly the career for me

The kind of job I could have forever

I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody

Of course, this doesn’t make sense; a taxi driver obviously does have to talk to people all the time. That’s why it’s a fantasy. And the fact that someone fantasizes about not having to talk to people means they’re an introvert, and that, finally, is what motivates the album’s approach: the tension between selfhood and social pressure. But this comes with the understanding that social pressure isn’t just a bad influence that you can push away, it’s a real thing that actually allows you to engage with other people. So the fact that it’s one or the other is actually an impossible choice.

The complicating factor here is that we don’t really have a social script that allows women to be introverts. It isn’t just relationships, either, it’s everything. Women are consistently expected to be emotional managers and to put their own needs second in all areas of life, and this makes it impossible for someone who doesn’t define themselves by their relationships with others to both engage with society and maintain their own identity. And this isn’t something you can just reject, either, unless you’re willing to give up on actually being able to relate to other people, at all. The lyrics finally break the metaphor in order to make the situation explicit: “sometimes I think I’m better off alone.”

And it’s on this dispiriting note that the album ends. Not only does “Taxi Driver” seem to conclude that selfhood necessitates loneliness, but the closer, “Number One,” makes an even more disturbing concession. (I was surprised to find out that this song is a cover, since it bookends the album so perfectly. I also wouldn’t have thought it to have been written by a man.) Here, the singer seems to weigh the scales and come to the conclusion that her only option is to give up her own self-definition. She resigns herself to accepting second place in her own life.

Luckily, this is a blatant contradiction. You can’t really write music about how you’re not expressing yourself. And the fact that this music is clearly written and performed primarily by one person heightens the contradiction. Even if the situation really is intractable, her response to it is still her own.

But this sort of approach ultimately amounts to wallowing; there’s never really nothing you can do. It’s important not be be naive, but cynicism is not an excuse for inaction. Accepting that you still have to do your best even though you know you’ll never be able to get what you want is part of what it means to grow up.


And that’s why I Want to Grow Up starts off with a bang. Not only has the sound been fleshed out with a full band, but the singsong pop vocals have been replaced with a wordier style and more varied delivery. This has contradictory effects: the fuller sound makes the songs feel more open and less claustrophobic, but the ambling, drawn-out lyrics have a very personal, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The album begins very officially, with the title track belting out an unmistakable statement of intent. There’s not much room to misunderstand what’s going on this time. This, along with the new style, makes it seem like the album is starting out by clearing the slate.

But straightforward doesn’t mean simplistic. The signer is not “resigning” herself to responsibility, she’s realizing that she needs to be responsible in order to get the things she actually wants. Despite the more open tone, there’s still a level of irony here. Just as Sock it to Me pretends to be a bunch of simplistic pop sings, a lot of the stuff on this album cues an “obvious” reading of the subject matter that is actually being subverted. For example, the singer here says “I’ve had my fun” and “I think I need a schedule,” but the reason for this is that she’s “sick of always being bored.” This contradiction deliberately problematizes the standard framing of “immaturity” as reckless hedonism and “adulthood” as boring responsibility. The truth is that neither of these constructions holds up: being responsible for something that matters is not boring, and hedonism actually sucks.

The rest of the album follows through on this complication. The direct follow-up to the title track is the two-part “Things That Are Bad for Me.” The first part takes the commitment and moves forward with a strong, steady rhythm that gives it a sense of surefootedness. The bold, wordy lyrics contain everything necessary to pull off a plan of self-improvement: “rid myself of toxicity,” “start listening to my own advice,” “change when things are going wrong.” The catch is that everything here is presented as obvious; the singer already knows what she has to do, so there shouldn’t be a problem. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” And yet.

The second part brutally transitions into the exact opposite: pure, useless self-pity. The transition between the two songs is instantaneous but unmistakable, like suddenly seeing the world through a negative filter. Downshifting from upbeat to slow and plodding, the second part falls from the heights of optimism and crashes straight into the gutter: “I wanna get fucked up, I don’t care how.”

The two-part song structure brilliantly illustrates the fundamental connection between these two perspectives. It isn’t just that we sometimes (always) fail to live up to our ideals, it’s that the very act of attempting to do so is what causes us to fail. It’s precisely the anxiety of knowing what we have to do that freaks us out so bad that we plunge back into our worst habits – things that we know are bad for us. “Kick another habit, find another replacement.”

But the negativity here actually goes deeper than that. Specifically, it goes deeper than love.

In addition to being really, really amazing, this song is the black hole at the center of this album. It’s a revelation of the album’s motivating anxieties, the things that you specifically attempt to avoid by talking about other, easier stuff instead. The simple rhythm and solid, engaging bass line create a undercurrent of tension that colors the soft vocals, turning their normally detached quality into an engaged fearfulness. This gives the lyrics the powerful sense of an internal monologue, making it seem like they really are coming from the part of yourself that you try to ignore.

The lyrics really run the gamut, imparting a sort of panic attack aspect, but they center around the fear of intimacy. This is more than just psychological, it’s grounded in material conditions: the social constructions that forcibly organize our lives and the hard limits of biology. The knowledge of all this impossibility adds up to a paralyzing fear. The lyrics specifically contrast actual death with the inherent self-negation of intimacy to make the point that the latter is worse, that some of us would rather die than let go of ourselves.

Unfortunately, there’s a solution: “remove the brain and leave the body in charge.” If the problem is that intimacy can’t be reconciled with selfhood, then the self doesn’t need to be involved at all. We can take a purely functional approach to relationships – and to everything else. We can interact with others on a purely “scientific” basis: accept their inputs and provide the correct outputs. We can act out our roles, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, and do all the things that normal people are supposed to do, and none of it has to affect our actual selves in any way. From a certain perspective, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

And despite the psychological aspect, there’s ultimately nothing idiosyncratic about this. It’s precisely where we’re going as a society. We’re rapidly gaining the ability to manage our lives and interactions to a degree that makes spontaneity untenable. It’s become so easy to just “follow the data” that we don’t even bother trying to figure things out anymore. As an obvious and appropriately banal example, we can talk with a straight face about how a piece of “content” is going to “perform” totally irrespective of what (if anything) it’s actually about. We’ve given up on meaning and settled for efficacy. We’re all functionalists now.

The horrifying line that opens this song makes it seem like a shocking departure, but it’s actually saying the same thing we saw earlier in “Only One,” it’s just no longer cute. Thus, it’s crucial to understand that this song is an outlier only in terms of intensity; it’s coming from the same place as everything else. In the same way, many of the songs on I Want to Grow Up reprise the themes of Sock it to Me from a different angle.

Most obviously, “Wild One” is a callback to the first album’s focus on relationships (the form of the title is the same as the bookends from Sock it to Me). In keeping with the “new beginning” theme of the opener, this song seems to be saying goodbye to that old approach in order to start moving forward. But the tone is largely regretful; it doesn’t imply a clean break. The singer hasn’t actually moved on, she just doesn’t have any choice other than to give up.

What this means is that the relationship angle hasn’t actually been let go. It’s been sublimated; it’s part of what this album is talking about. It notably comes up in both parts of “Things That Are Bad for Me.” In Part I, as part of the song’s positive affirmations, “the first thing I’ll do is get away and stay from you,” and in Part II, as part of the bad habits the singer regresses to, “I really wish you were here right now.” There aren’t two separate issues here, there’s one situation.

The focus on introversion from “Taxi Driver” returns on “TV” and “Pay Attention,” which are ironically the most accessible and fun songs on the album. The contrast on “Pay Attention” is particularly hilarious: it’s extremely upbeat, practically a party song, but it’s about not being able to hold up your end of a conversation. And the irony here is significant: both songs act cute when they’re actually deeply negative. Not only that, but the negativity is explicitly banal. The big promises articulated in the opener end up being ground down by the pettiest possible forces.

“TV” is a reverse feint. Everything about it cues an ironic reading; it deliberately buys in to every cliche about TV’s vapidity. The singer uses TV as a substitute for social interaction, comforts herself with it because it’s “easier than being with somebody else,” and can only relate to other people by mediating those relationships through TV. But none of this is the point, because the song isn’t actually about TV. The lyrics use the word “TV,” but they never actually say anything about it; it’s all “I” statements about the singer’s emotional state. This is why the ironic reading is wrong: like the rest of the album, this song is completely straightforward. By refusing any sort of defensive posture, the song takes the “debate” over TV out of the realm of moral hyperventilating and overwrought theory and brings it back to the personal level, where it should have been in the first place.

And this is why the banality of the subject matter is intentional, because it provides an important grounding to the emotional content. “Pay Attention” in particular is about small talk, which is literally the most banal thing. But the problem wth banality is precisely that you can’t just ignore it, it’s stuff that you actually have to deal with. Part of getting serious means working on the basics – the very basics. Sometimes you really do have to make a conscious effort just to pay attention, even when it seems like it’s “just as well” if you don’t bother.

The longing for normalcy from “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” is picked up by “Some People,” which again takes a more theoretical stance. It has a focus on superficiality that recalls the terrible conclusion of “Deeper Than Love”: everything would be fine if we could just get over ourselves and do what we’re supposed to. This is why all the details mentioned in the song are, again, totally banal: it’s a way to “fit in” without compromising anything about your real self, to do things “empirically.” If the introvert’s paradox is that holding on too strongly to your sense of self allows the outside world to define you as it pleases, then the resolution is to strategically give in to the world’s demands while keeping your self-definition to yourself.

But what motivates the wistful quality of the song (as well as the sarcastic dig implied by the title) is that acting this way is obviously impossible. This provides a sort of failsafe: it’s actually really hard to do what seems like really basic stuff to fit in when that stuff goes against your self-conception. If we accept that this sort of “empiricism” is one of the great dangers of our time, then the intransigence of the self, the very thing that makes our desires seem impossible to fulfill, becomes a sort of saving grace.

Finally, “Grind My Teeth” takes “Heavy Shit” and makes it even heavier. Actually, this results in an odd inversion: the title of “Heavy Shit” is partially a joke; it’s denotatively serious while referring to the fact that the song itself is kind of goofy, while “Grind My Teeth” takes a seemingly cutesy title and turns it into serious fucking business. The thrashy sections at the beginning and end of the song are connected by a slow-burning middle that creates a deeply unnerving tension through the apocalyptic imagery of a destroyed human face.

More to the point, this song actually connects the dots. It starts off by providing what seems like an easy interpretive out:

Can’t help but picture you with

Someone other than me

Such a sickening image

It makes me grind my teeth

Then the dramatic tempo shift presages a refocusing of the subject matter:

Fragile teeth bear the pressure

Of a generation failing

Which confirms, if you hadn’t already noticed, that nothing here is escapist or self-pitying, it’s all borne out of a deep concern for the present situation. Finally, the hard-rocking beginning is reprised at the end, but with the content shift intact:

They wanna wire my brain

And try to control me

The sad fate of my planet

It makes me grind my teeth

This construction explicitly links the relationship angle to serious concerns about the world, spinning the breadth of subjects on both albums into a single tight braid. The buried anxieties from “Deeper Than Love” are what motivate the behaviors described in all the other songs, and the reason all of this matters is because it actually determines the fate of humanity. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush, the cause of global warming is patriarchy. A man beating his wife is the same thing as a robber baron dumping pollutants into a river. It’s not just that our relationships are central to our experience as human beings, it’s that the way we conceptualize relationships is the same as the way we conceptualize all of our other issues, from everything as big as the physical planet to as small as our subjective selves. This, for example, is why the banal subject matter of “Pay Attention” actually matters: how do you expect to do anything about the state of the world when you can’t even handle one person?

And this is when Colleen Green plays the ace up her sleeve. The real surprise is that the album ends on a note of unambiguous, inspiring optimism in “Whatever I Want.” The seemingly bratty title is important for the contrast it draws. The first and last tracks on this album are both based on childish statements – caring about what counts as “adult” is a characteristic of children; wanting to grow up demonstrates that you’re not there yet – but again, the standard framing for this is wrong: “growing up” doesn’t mean giving up on what you want, it means doing what you want for real. Just as the album begins with a conventional sentiment employed in an unconventional way, so does the ending take a seemingly petty perspective and turn it into something deeply mature. It brushes off the anxiety and insecurity of the rest of the album for a cool, clear statement of purpose. Amazingly, after an exhaustive description of why there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done, the conclusion is that what we can actually do is anything.

But this shouldn’t be a surprise, because we’ve already seen that the strength of the self really is all it’s cracked up to be. There really is “no reason to conform” and no obligation to “take advice from fools.” There’s ultimately no such thing as compromise; with our everyday actions, we continually create the situation that we have to live with. This is the fundamental insight that opens up the possibility of transcendence: “the world I live in’s a design of my own.” Being an adult means accepting this responsibility. And “now, more than ever before,” this is the necessary response to an irresponsible society, one that pretends to be sober and serious, but is in fact run by children.

Are you terrified now?

Way to Go is the first full-length album from Survival Guide. You’d probably call it an electronic pop album, but the connotations of both of those terms are misleading. Contrary to the typical “layers of buzzing sounds” aesthetic that the term “electronic” brings to mind, this is a very precise album. It’s not quite minimalist, there are actually a lot of neat effects, but each one makes a specific contribution to the tone of each song, the production is careful and balanced, and many of the songs make powerful use of empty space. As for being a pop album, while the songs are generally short, have simple structures, and borrow from a variety of styles, there’s a pervasive sense of seriousness and urgency that prevents any of it from feeling ephemeral. The overall tone is actually really dark, more in the subtle shadowy sense than the oppressive industrial sense, contrasted by vocals that are both crystal clear and bright as day.

The cohesiveness of the album is what takes it from “impressive” to “serious business.” While the songs use a lot of different styles and tones, it’s not just for fun (I mean, it’s also for fun); it creates a progression of ideas that allows the album to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time (the songs are mostly of standard pop length, but the overall directness and economy give the album a bit of a punk impact). The sequencing, including precise and occasionally surprising transitions, builds an emotional and thematic arc over the course of the album, culminating in a harrowing climax.

The pop angle is also partially subverted, in that the contrast between the inviting song structures and the sober tone makes the whole thing feel kind of unnerving. In fact, it’s more than that; many of the songs are not just ambiguous but outright two-faced. This is apparent right from the title, which, first of all, is kind of overly general and not really evocative, starting things off on unsteady footing. Furthermore, “way to go” is commonly a sarcastic expression, which immediately presents a central uncertainty: is this supposed to be encouraging or insulting?

The other thing the title refers to is death.


“Ugly Side” opens the album with a burst of noise. This is sort of the opposite of setting the tone: it’s a reminder to watch out. The title is, of course, another hint at the album’s two-faced nature, and the song itself carries it though. The combination a strong beat in the foreground and a nervous guitar line in the background gives it an inside-out feeling, with a sort of deranged piano melody completing the atmosphere of uncertainty. The lyrics start out soft and gradually dive into the depths. Each verse feels innocuous at the start, but before long there’s “garbage in tow” and “poison that spreads.”

The other thing about the title is that it means business; we’re not talking about something cute here. The song has a pretty standard “opening single” feel if you’re not paying too much attention, but in fact this only conceals how serious the song really is. The chorus is the exact opposite of uplifting. It’s a passionately delivered statement of hopeless desperation. In particular, it includes a very smart inversion in the line “I can’t shake-shake-shake.” By taking a standard pop song filler line and turning it on its head, the standard pop music theme of liberation through physicality is also inverted; here, not only is the problem something that can’t be shaken off, its physical nature is precisely what makes it intractable. This is emphasized by the aforementioned physical descriptors in the lyrics, as well as the fact that the singer doesn’t have a “shield” to protect herself.

As a whole, the song is neither fully hopeless nor particularly uplifting. The uncertainty builds to a tense, open-ended climax:

Closing my eyes makes me kind of nervous

You’re nearby; I can feel it

I will not succumb to whatever it is you’re trying to make of me

This declaration, though powerful, is ultimately a statement of mere resistance, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album. The alternate version of the chorus drives it home with a sharp, repeated “I can’t.” Victory is not an option.

“Prohibition” goes in for denial, or “how solve your problems using alcohol.” It’s a slow song, but a lopsided, double-time drum line gives it an insistent sense of momentum, pushing into a dense, reverberating haze through which the vocals “whisper how things should be.” Fittingly, it’s the most opaque song on the album, but the horror-movie atmosphere never lets it get comfortable. “The screams are in the distance, but their hearts are pounding loud.” Of course, as the title implies, this isn’t going to work out. Halfway though, the haze breaks, that voice in the background that’s been saying “run, run, run, run” is suddenly right behind you, and there’s nowhere to hide.

“So Super Slow” breaks things open with a direct assault on complacency and obliviousness. The lyrics are a series of direct accusations, carried forward by a hard, straight-ahead rhythm. The delivery is aggressive but also precise, making the underlying rage feel justified. The accusations are contrasted with the singer’s own situation: “I put it on the line and you don’t care.” While this seems like an admission of failure on her part, it actually ends up strengthening her argument. A line like “I made you breakfast, you never showed up” should come across as pathetic; the rational conclusion would be that she shouldn’t have wasted her time. But the framing turns this completely around: it’s precisely because breakfast is made that you’re obligated to show up. The song takes a radically naive approach to the problem of devotion by coming at it from the other side. Instead of waiting to find something that’s worth devoting herself to, the singer commits herself in advance, and then uses that commitment to impose a moral obligation on everyone else to catch up, to make themselves worthy of her efforts. This is a particularly provocative approach in an age of complete information, where we know all the options and they all seem like dead ends.

Yet, while the song uses rock aggressiveness to make its point, it’s not really that much of a rock song. Despite the insistent vocals and the driving beat, the guitar plays coy in the background, leaving the verses mostly empty. The contrast between the vocals and the emptiness, leading into the wrathful anti-siren-song of the chorus, perfectly conveys the feeling of shouting into a void, which is exactly the situation. If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what’s going on, how is exhorting them going to help? The situation in the song is necessarily futile; if you’re in the position of having to yell at someone like this, it’s because you’re out of real options. In this sense, the song’s aggressiveness actually starts to backfire. It’s hard to say things like “you’re doing a terrible job of sticking to my plan” without sounding a little unhinged. Even the one line in the song that would normally read as genuine encouragement, “don’t say you can’t because I know you can,” comes across as domineering.

“So Super Slow” transitions smoothly into its exact mirror image: the supremely chill, discoesque “Get Your Don’t.” The singer’s position is reversed; now she’s the one targeted by devotion, but here it’s an obsession that she calmly rebuffs. What’s enthralling about this song is, ironically, the way it creates distance. The title, of course, is deliberately obfuscatory; despite being a direct quote, the impression that it conveys is exactly backwards. The music pulls you in with a smooth synth line, but the cold tone and mangled chorus keep you at arm’s length, as well as just stating directly: “don’t get your hopes up.” Even the dance break is awkward enough to be off-putting. The vocals pick up but also recede into the background, like it’s a party and you’re not invited.

This song is a great example of how the album uses its electronic effects for good instead of for evil. The verses play it cool, supporting the lyrics and allowing them to clearly make their statement, while the chorus brings out the synthetic droning to push you back, a physical manifestation the theme of the song. The dance break kicks it up into a high, oscillating warble that sticks to the back of your head, gives you a second of calmness to refocus, and then carries it through to the end, leaving you with an ominous feeling that this isn’t over.

The very fact that the song expresses itself so well is actually its own contradiction. It’s so much fun that it ultimately fails as a blowoff. After all, getting your hopes up is kind of the point of music. This is acknowledged by the sharpest line on the album: “You hope these words are the key to your own personal mystery.” Clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, who hasn’t been there? As with “So Super Slow,” this song implies its own futility; the fact that you’re telling someone not to get their hopes up means it’s already too late – and doing so with a song is only going to make things worse. In particular, “it’ll hurt worse on the way down” comes off less like a warning and more like a prophecy.

By this point things are tied in a bit of a knot. These are two contradictory songs addressing the same subject matter, and they each contradict themselves. But the songs aren’t exact opposites; by using negativity to close off the bad options on either side, but leaving space between them, they imply a correct path. For instance, one of the singer’s accusations in “So Super Slow” is that “you’ve got it easy, I’ve been studying,” while in “Get Your Don’t”, she warns not to “jump ahead and read the end before you start.” These lines are actually making the same point: you can’t be complacent, but you also can’t expect to get everything at once. You have to put in the effort to do things the right way, even without knowing how it’s all going to work out.

There’s another hint in the careful line that “Get Your Don’t” traces through its subject matter. The singer refuses to “bare her soul,” choosing instead to “keep [her] gold armor on.” But as the confidence of the delivery makes clear, this isn’t about giving up. It’s an argument that active artifice (it’s specifically gold armor) is not just healthier but better than basic emotional rawness. In terms of popular music, it isn’t just that perfect authenticity is impossible to ask of any performer, it’s also bad for the listener. It’s a con; it makes it seem like you’re getting something you’re not. There’s no such thing as an unmediated experience. Since everything has to go through the veil of subjectivity, pretending like you’re directly conveying your raw emotions is a lie, and it ends up making for worse communication. What’s required, for both the performer and the listener, is to work through the necessary complications rather than to pretend like they don’t exist.

So, despite the overall negative focus of everything so far, it feels like we’re getting somewhere, and “January Shock” picks up on that feeling. It begins with a jarring transition from fading synths to rising acoustic guitar, emphasizing the song’s anomalous position on the album. It’s right in the middle, and it’s the one song that actually feels bright and open; compared to the rest of the album, it’s like the break of day. It seems, at first, to be responding to the negativity of the first half of the album with a message of hope. We’ve all got problems, but “it’s not the end,” and you can always count on the fact that “the sun will rise again.” Unfortunately, this song also has an ugly side.

The first verse is a series of sarcastic statements mocking the sort of excuses that justify a fatalistic outlook. This is simple enough at first, but by the end of the verse it gets a little too real, particularly with the line “love is useless when I die.” It’s true that this isn’t an excuse, but it’s still kind of serious business. The second verse is more straightforwardly vicious, hammering home the point that fatalism ends up becoming its own justification. But it does this by compounding the problem: if “you blew it all in the last seven years” because you “thought you were safe,” then yeah, you’re kind of throwing yourself a pity party, but you’re also actually fucked. When the singer rejects this defeatist attitude with a blithe “not sorry now,” she’s washing her hands of the problem without actually resolving it.

The fact that the lyrics in the verses are actually fairly cruel is the first clue that something’s wrong, but cruelty isn’t really the problem. The arguments are still valid, and the kind of attitude they’re addressing deserves at least a little harshness. The problem is that the verses recontextualize the chorus. If the problem is that you’re stuck in a situation where it seems like nothing is going to work out, then the fact that the world is going to keep moving on without you doesn’t help; it makes things worse. With this in mind, the exultation of the chorus starts to feel a little disturbing. The thundering drums and soaring vocals rise up and tower over you, shining with an imposing brightness as terrible as daybreak itself. It’s not a promise, it’s a threat.

In particular, with the subject of death having been broached, the chorus acts as a reminder of what the actual endpoint of the sun rising over and over again is. Rather than offering reassurance, this brings the first side of the album to a unsettling conclusion. Identifying your problems and making plans doesn’t actually affect the implacability of reality. You can’t control your circumstances, especially not the circumstance of being a temporary physical object. Thus, rejecting fatalism seems to come at the cost of hope; the fact that you have to do something doesn’t imply any possibility of success. This new problem sets up the second half of the album, where the self-assured nature of the first half begins to fade, the pop sheen diminishes, and the negativity turns inward.

“Nowhere Anywhere” begins the process by creating a parallel structure between its two verses that brings two perspectives face to face. The song’s clanging guitar and insistent staccato rhythm create a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the confrontation feel tense and personal. Furthermore, the song anchors itself in specific locations and uses physical objects to provide evocative details, bringing the album down to a more mundane level.

The first verse builds an atmosphere of alienation, starting with the first use of third-person perspective on the album (“he” is literally the first word), and continuing through a series of oppressive physical details. The setting is, in fact, an office building, which is about as alienating as it gets. Furthermore, the lyrics never manage to reach inside to the actual perspective of the subject. “He looks in the mirror, nothing is clear, where’s he taking it from here?” We can tell what’s going on, but what “he” is actually thinking and feeling about the situation remains a mystery.

The second verse sets up the contrast immediately: “I have a hard time wanting to help.” Not only has the perspective shifted, but the focus is now on the singer’s feelings and desires. The setting shifts to the domestic, emphasizing the personal while staying grounded in reality. The physical details are now considered in relation to the singer’s viewpoint and actions, as things that people use rather than as mere objects. The most direct example of the difference is the way that doors are referred to in both verses. In the first, “the locks are turning, doors in the hall, there’s no way out.” A door here is merely a physical obstacle that closes off space, regardless of whether any actual humans are present (or care). In the second verse, the singer won’t “open the door, no matter who for.” Here, not only is the focus on the decision being made, but the importance of the door is in its social context: it’s a threshold that brings people together, or, as in this case, keeps them apart.

And that’s exactly what happens. The parallel construction highlights the failure of the two perspectives to connect, and it also implies the singer’s acceptance of her share of the responsibility. Her target may be hopeless, but regardless of the situation, she’s the one making the decision to disengage. There’s ultimately no point in blaming someone else for your inability to get through to them. No matter how frustrating other people’s failures are, all you can really control is yourself. There are hard limits on our ability to ever really get inside someone else’s head, and sometimes there’s not really anywhere to go from there. Thus, the conclusion is that “we’re two brick walls.” It’s not just that the singer has run into a wall, but the frustration has caused her to turn away herself. The song’s anticlimax is finalized with an abrupt ending, and this sense of resignation leads into the album’s darkest hour.

The inward turn continues with the deeply introspective “One to One.” A dirge-like keyboard presides over a jittery rhythm and repetitive, brooding lyrics. The previously accusatory “you” turns in on itself in lines that start out as accusations but resolve into personal failures: “you put it all on me,” “turn on the light but I can’t see,” and especially, “what do you want from me?” The tone is entirely desperate. The negativity seems to be taking its toll; the singer has tried everything, and she’s at the end of her rope. The vocals are alternately rushed and plaintive, overlaid with a heavy sense of dread, suggesting nothing so much as an impending nervous breakdown.

Which doesn’t happen. Just as the desperation reaches its peak, the song drops off into nothingness. A few scattered notes and beats barely hold the line. And just as everything seems to fade, it all comes roaring back. The piano surges and the vocals build to a final cry of, despite everything, strength. There is, finally, a line that can’t be breached. Even under the weight of everything, it turns out there’s still one viable option – a forced draw. “Say whatever you want to say, it’s always one to one in this game.”

The title track carries this strength forward, though it might not seem that way at first. Its tone is mournful; the soft, choppy vocals are suffused with pain. Lines like “friendly fire, it never ends” are presented without any kind of resolution or even consolation; they’re just the way things are. The fact that people who care about you are going to hurt you isn’t something that can be changed or even really addressed. Even when the song says that the “only way to move is forward,” is doesn’t feel encouraging, it feels like a lament. It isn’t the “only way” in the moral sense, but in the physical sense: it’s literally the only possibility. This is underscored by the marching band-like drums that accompany the chorus. A march isn’t really “encouragement,” it’s forced forward movement. The chorus even drifts off before finishing the title, as though lacking the strength to continue. This isn’t a song providing motivation to move forward, it’s a grim acceptance of the fact that moving forward the only thing you can actually do.

But grim acceptance is actually the song’s positive conclusion. “Way to Go” pulls the same trick as “January Shock,” but in reverse, and harder. It’s here that the album actually retracts its commitment to ambiguity: the contradictory nature of this song doesn’t offer two competing interpretations; the contradictions resolve into one deeper interpretation, the only one that works. Despite how deeply sorrowful the song is, and despite everything the album’s been through up to this point, it can’t be interpreted as a funeral march. “A voice in my head says stand up and be brave.” This doesn’t really amount to encouragement, it’s just a fact, but it’s one place, at least, where you know you can stand, even when you’re on your own. The album has finally arrived at a reliable source of strength: the paradoxical strength of active, considered acceptance. The song insists on this interpretation, less because there’s any compelling reason to than because it’s the only way.

And that might have been a nice ending, but there’s still the issue of whether it’s actually possible to accept the unacceptable. “Shrouded in Steel” is where the terror that’s been lurking in the subtext the entire time finally breaks loose.

This song is actually kind of off-putting at first. It starts out painfully raw: dramatic vocals that barely establish a meter are accompanied only by storm noises and a few guitar twangs, and it stays this way long enough for it to get uncomfortable. It starts off seeming like kind of an overwrought torch song; the first appearance of the chorus – “I was unaware of the pain involved, and I’m a little scared of emotions so strong” – comes across as almost embarrassingly naive.

But by the second verse, the fear starts to seem justified. “There’s no telling fire what to do, and metal can go straight through.” It’s even punctuated with a gunshot to make sure you get the message. The real subject here is the intersection of love and death – the fact that the extent of your devotion is precisely the extent of the universe’s ability to destroy you. In which case, it turns out there really is something to be afraid of.

The title comes from the line “your heart’s not shrouded in steel,” meaning not protected. But that’s not what the word “shrouded” means – it means “concealed.” It means that you can’t hide from your own humanity, your own emotions. The fact that you’re “unshrouded” means that you’re constantly exposed to the fundamental brutality of existence, and that everything you think and feel is on the chopping block. The flipside is that a “shroud” is also what covers a corpse; the fact that you’re not shrouded also means that you’re not dead yet.

After the first half of the song establishes its raw emotional basis, the second half kicks things into gear. The guitar wakes up, and a low, driving beat propels the song forward. The helplessness of the first half transforms into a hard determination that pushes itself through mounting agony. But what’s most important isn’t the change, it’s the continuity. The chorus stays the same, becoming more haunting with each repetition. It stops feeling naive and starts feeling like a radical understatement. The maelstrom of emotions continues to build, reaching the limits of tolerability with the line “it scares me a bit too much to know that someday it’s all going to end.”

Am I being clear about the fact that this song is completely incredible? The power and emotion in the singing here is unbelievable. It would be otherworldly if it weren’t for the fact that it also feels deeply real. You can actually feel the “chill spread fast and deadly,” it actually feels like “cutting away.” The whole thing builds up this incomprehensible amount of emotion while staying sharp and focused and engaging. I think maybe I’m being a little too reserved here. You really need to listen to this thing.

So, okay: this song is about death, and this is what crystallizes the entire album. It’s what makes all of this matter: both the fact that we only have one shot at this and the fact that there’s only one conclusion. And through all of it, we really have nothing more to go on than our own dread. There’s nothing approaching an answer here; that country is going to stay undiscovered.

“Shrouded in Steel” is a pure cry of torment; it not only doesn’t but can’t provide any kind of resolution. It puts everything right on the surface, leaving nowhere to hide. It could be read as an expression of nihilism, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible. Music is transient by nature; performing a song is a commitment to expressing meaning in the face of oblivion. More than that, it’s impossible to actually be a nihilist, because you have to make some kind of decision based on some kind of values (choosing to do nothing is just as much of a decision as anything else). The only way to go is forward. And it’s totally impossible to express nihilism in a song, that is, an intentionally constructed artistic object that conveys emotions. This is why the “nihilism” of punk resulted in an explosion of creativity: it wasn’t actually nihilism; it was actually a revolution of values.

So, if the existence of art is the ultimate argument against nihilism, then the subtext of this song is the fact that it exists at all. It proves that even this amount of pain can’t force a surrender. The point isn’t that the pain is “worth it,” it just exists, it’s part of a deal whose terms have already been decided. But what also exists is the other half of the deal: the fact that we have to keep moving forward in time and making decisions. And this is where finding strength in acceptance stops looking like quite such a raw deal, because one of the things that you have to accept is that nihilism, and consequently any other form of philosophical surrender, is physically impossible. The universe is actually on your side on this one. The final repetition of the chorus echoes out with a piercing intensity, not as a lament, but as a commitment: to accept what’s certain and what’s unknowable, to keep suffering and being afraid, and to keep moving forward.

With the earth having been thoroughly scorched, the closer, “Remembered in a Song,” is necessarily desolate. The suffering hasn’t gone anywhere; the slow, effortful delivery evidences the weight that’s still being carried. But in the context of everything that’s led here, the deep melancholy of the song doesn’t feel maudlin. It’s a clear-eyed, determined gaze into the future – a future that’s not dark.