Today’s song, with that creeping pace, picks up well from the processional at the end of “Cable Hogue,” yesterday. Built to Spill seems to me to get into Pink Floyd territory on “Things Fall Apart,” and that’s probably one reason it spoke to me instantly. It’s got that “blissed on the edge of the abyss” feel that, well, just makes me feel right at home. And is that a horn solo or just some kind of keyboard sounding like one? And Doug Martsch—whose singing voice is always reminiscent of Neil Young—gets Gilmouresque on his guitar, though without the big lyrical intonations.
Built to Spill is a band my daughter Kajsa got into while away at college. Here and there on tapes she’d favor me with a track. We saw them live twice and the album of theirs I knew best—2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future—was rigorously ignored. So I spent some time at both concerts waiting to hear some chord progressions that would immediately lift me into enthusiastic familiarity. But that’s neither here nor there when October of 2009 rolled around—which is when There is No Enemy was released. By then I was battling much misery from a herniated disc and this was one of the albums I forever associate with that time. With a time of wallowing—both in good and bad ways—in the limitations of being me. Stuck in the time of my life, stuck with the condition my condition was in. Like that.
And so I found a quirky kind of consolation in today’s song. On the one hand, its first verse ends with “Alright, I’ll admit I was wrong”—which makes me think the song is about contrition, on some level. About owning up to one’s errors, most likely (as I applied it) with regard to some differences with some “other” or other. A musical mea culpa with perhaps metaphysical overtones, or underpinnings. “Froze in my mind, I believed it so long”—time to change vantage, let’s say.
But then the second verse is one of the strictest slapdowns I could ever imagine saying to anyone: Stay out of my nightmares, stay out of my dreams / You're not even welcome in my memories. Whoa. Get RIGHT OUT of my brain, you bastid. I ain’t gonna spare a fleeting thought for yer shit. Don’t want to be haunted by you (nightmares) or pining for you (dreams), or even having to reflect on where and when we did what we did. Fare thee well. Fuck off.
The second couplet of the verse is a bit self-reflective, and wryly so: When things are alright and I want what I've got / It's only momentarily thought. Basically saying: for a moment, now and then, things are alright, and when they are I want what I’ve got, my status quo suits me and we is all jes fine with it all. And indeed the song’s tune sounds placid, maybe even a bit sedated, and we can imagine that that “momentarily thought” generally comes via some substance or two. Like, why did I just now think about how pleasant it is to drink Guinness in the fall? When you’re sitting with a pint, mate, you may in fact want what you’ve got. Or you might want another—that you haven’t got. Fuck. (Though the second two lines could be saying that when the speaker is more or less content, then that part about staying out of my head is only a momentary thought—as opposed to a general condition.)
Then there’s a weird little bridge segment that engages in some kind of zero-sum zen, or something: If no one thinks of no one / Then no one believes in no one / And no one fucks with no one / When no one's afraid of no one. Groovy, dude. If I don’t think of you (or anyone) then I don’t believe in you (or anyone). Which is to say, if this is true of everyone, then no one believes in or thinks of anybody. Or nobody. And if no one is afraid of anybody, then there’s no need to fuck with (in the antagonistic sense) anyone. It’s not quite like saying we’re one big happy family, but it is a way of saying that negation brings peace. You can’t affect me because, you see, you don’t really exist.
Then comes the verse that plays out that enlightened nihilism into a statement of choice, of deciding what will be the banner one advances under, after all: “the meekness of love or the power of pride.” And that’s a well-chosen dichotomy because it’s pride that puts an end to love. Love is “meek” in the sense that one doesn’t demand or overstate one’s case with regard to the beloved. One gives in, one turns the other cheek, one says—as Janis says—“go ahead and take another piece of my heart, now, baby, you know you’ve got it if it makes you feel good, oh yes indeed.” Pride says, no. Not this time. I don’t need this shit. I’m better than this.
Then the very quotable couplet: It doesn't matter if you're good or smart / Goddamn it, things fall apart. And that, we may say, is that. I would say that being “good” equates with the meekness of love and being “smart” equates with the power of pride. But either way, things turn to shit. Entropy. Decline.
And in some ways that could be the end of the song. But the song is not without its sentimental side, and that’s what comes to the fore in the close, only to fall prey to the unwillingness to risk exposure or to have to make all that matters be a matter of words, those inexact and threadbare and traitorous tools: Let’s go for a walk, let’s go for a drive / Don’t know how to say “thanks for being alive.” Which, actually, is about all you have to say. There are many, many people I could say that to. But, as these posts show, there are also lots to whom I have to say “thanks for having been alive.” And I like the “walk/drive” thing because I like to go on solitary walks and drives and usually I’m with the music when I do. But walks and drives are also things you can do with people you like killing time with . . . and killing time is, perhaps, the best way of being alive.
Let’s go for a lifetime, let’s go for a fling—different dimensions we might say, but each plays its part. The big commitment, the brief intensity. Whichever you’ve got, you might have the momentary thought that it’s all you want. Good for you. And then “Don’t know how to say anything.” Maybe that’s “anything” final, or anything consoling, or anything memorable. Or anything at all.
Fade out, fade out