Saturday, October 03, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part Three (93-90)

[Hey, yeah, it's back. Time to finish what I started. Previous entries are here and here.]

93. Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile
Nine Inch Nails - The FragileTrent Reznor's work has always been frustrating and uneven to me. That he managed to fill two complete discs with music not only listenable but jaw-droppingly amazing, then, is not just impressive, it's a goddamn miracle. The Fragile is the sound of a master studio craftsman branching out in every direction he can, as far out as he can, all at once. It's a little overwhelming at times, in fact -- the frequent sparse instrumentals serve as much-needed breathers. At least, some of them do: "Just Like You Imagined" starts quietly, but ends up pounding with more force than anything Reznor had constructed before, or since.

I guess it's technically a concept album, though I'm not sure I can parse what exactly that concept might be. Things start bad ("fuck the rest and stab it dead"), get worse ("it didn't turn out the way you wanted it, did it?"), and then bottom out entirely ("the closer I get, the worse it becomes"). But along the way, Trent finds himself reaching outward for the first time: "We're in This Together Now" is a wail of optimistic determination, and the title track ends with his repeated declaration that he "won't let you fall apart." All of which makes his eventual downfall on the album's final songs all the more tragic.

92. Elton John, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt CowboyIt isn't his most popular album, or his most epic, or his most experimental. But Captain Fantastic is my favorite Elton John record because it's the one with the most feeling. Bernie Taupin's lyrics aren't character sketches or vague, obtuse tone poems anymore -- these songs are fiercely autobiographical, telling the story of his and Elton's rise up to the top of the pop music world. And it's exactly the kind of raw, emotional experience you'd expect, tinged with just the right amounts of nostaliga, relief and regret.

It's also really angry, though Elton's sweet melodies and blast-to-the-rafters vocals can hide that. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" can sound, at first listen, to be a lighter-waving ballad; further analysis finds real bile in lines like "A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams/I'm strangled by your haunted social scene." And "Tower of Babel" -- Elton makes it appear to be a standard-issue pub rocker, but Bernie's there to say "See the letches crawl with the call girls under the table/Watch 'em dig their graves." But in the end, they can't look back in anger anymore -- "Curtains" brings the album to a close by addressing the listener directly, with the notion that "just like us, you must have had your once upon a time." Sometimes those childhood dreams and fairy tales do come true.

91. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys
Randy Newman - Good Old BoysSome satirists aim their jokes like sniper rifles. Some like machine guns. Randy Newman manages to do both at once somehow, eviscerating people on both sides of an argument. Take this album's opening track, "Rednecks." Listen to the lyrics. Now, exactly who is he making fun of? Southerners, for being racists? Northerners, for hypocritically mocking southerners for racism while clinging to racism themselves? Southerners, for hypocritically attacking northerners for making fun of them hypocritically? The listener, for laughing at either one of them? No, the joke is somehow on everyone, everywhere, all at the same time.

Newman's a master of this, and his gifts were at their peak on Good Old Boys, a loosely-constructed song suite about life in the American south. His bouncing rhythms and sweet piano melodies are a perfect place to hide the ugliness at the bottom of a story like "Back on My Feet Again," and his ochestra is the perfect accompaniment to the pain and anguish of "Louisiana 1927." He'd write better and more popular songs, and evetually win an Oscar for one, but he'd never again put together an album with quite the impact as Good Old Boys.

90. Peter Gabriel, Us
Peter Gabriel - UsGabriel reacted to the success of his breakthrough pop hit, So, in a rather surprising fashion: he scored a controversial film (The Passion of the Christ), and then didn't do anything else at all for six years. By the time 1992 rolled around, most of the momentum from hits like "Sledgehammer" and "In Your Eyes" had faded, and Us didn't really make the impact on the mainstream it should have. Which is a damn shame, because Us is a stunning collection of material that doesn't really sound like anything else.

It's an intensely lonely album, beginning with an extended plea to "Come Talk to Me," and continuing through the wreckage of failed relationships in "Love to Be Loved" and "Blood of Eden." "Steam" and "Kiss That Frog" lend some pep and humor, but "Washing of the Water" is arresting in its bald-faced anguish; "Digging in the Dirt" turns that sadness into a bipolar stomp through rage and misery. But through all of that, there's Gabriel's voice, and when he finally concludes on "Secret World" that "With no guilt and no shame, no sorrow or blame/Whatever it is, we are all the same," his happy ending seems more than earned.

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