“Wait a second—are you quoting your own lyrics?”
Yes, call me a narcissist or an egomaniac of the first degree, but I am guilty of this supposed faux pas. I quote my lyrics because writing them is a form of catharsis; I put a great deal of reflection into my lyrics, and sometimes struggle to understand what my subconscious is trying tell me. The process of composing helps me wrap my thoughts around large, unwieldy topics and align my feelings on a variety of issues.
Lyrics can often be obtuse—many of my favorite artists write quite cryptic words, and I’ve taken a great deal of influence from this style. Sometimes in obscuring an issue we can better measure our comprehension. I’m a huge fan of science fiction because when it’s done well, stories and characters serve as allegories that allow us to reconsider what we think we know and feel. In an age that feels a bit too literal and surface-friendly for my taste, this is very refreshing and necessary.
But sometimes we need to read about a film or a book after we finish it. Art can be too dense on a first or second take to properly comprehend. We know that something moved us, but we need some help in clarifying what exactly it was. When it comes to pop music, this is why the site Genius has been such a big hit.
Pop lyrics tend to get short shrift, and frankly I give them short shrift – I rarely pay attention to lyrics in pop music, and have found on many times that understanding the lyrics will actually diminish my gratification. (By contrast, many songs that have thoughtful, analytical lyrics tend to bore me on a musical level. Yeah, I’m a picky customer.)
So I’m not postulating that my lyrics are earth-shattering and will be remembered as fondly as Shakespeare’s sonnets, but inviting you to take a peak behind the curtain to see what inspired me. As we close out this VERY LONG YEAR and Libel moves onto bold, new material, I want to share how writing our 2016 album “Comfort in the Noise” helped me come to terms with the world around me as well as my aging self. I think you might relate to a good deal of it.
On the Album Title, “Comfort in the Noise”
We played around with a few ideas for the title:
- “Targeting the LCD” (as in “lowest common denominator”) to complement our previous LP’s cheeky title, “Music For Car Commercials.” The conventional wisdom of today suggests the best way to make money in entertainment is to pander to the lowest common denominator.
- “Calculated Misery,” a reference to how airlines determine how tortuous to make coach seating so you will upgrade. It seemed also a funny way to describe the process of making “sad bastard” music – how much planning goes into writing songs to bring you down. (Though we finished this long before Adele released her album “25,” I was amused at the behind-the-scenes stories about the songwriting – because she was now far more content in life, she really had to mine the pain and anguish that made “21” a huge hit.) Emotional manipulation isn’t limited to three-hankie movies.
- “Help Is on the Way” is the refrain from closing track “Elevator Button.” Years ago, I took a photograph with the perfect Instagram filter of a “Help Is on the Way” button in an elevator, and the image has stuck with me. The idea of being trapped in a small metal box with a blinking light telling you that help will arrive imminently reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” itself a study of existentialism. Help is never arriving, it’s always on the way. We live our lives expecting that promised land is around the corner, but do we ever find it?
However, because “Comfort in the Noise” is one of catchiest refrains on the album— “By now you know you know there’s comfort in the noise” from “Dead Air”—it earned the title spot. The phrase seemed to align with a central goal of mine in writing music: to find solid ground in our media-centric, hyper-distracted, chaotic yet rigid world.
At the same time, I believe this album is a bit noisier than previous efforts (with great thanks to new recruit Justin Gonzales and his penchant for crazy sounds), and I imagine anyone who enjoys Libel (and many of our post-hardcore and shoegaze influences) finds a great deal of comfort in noise.
We managed to get a few articles written about this one. Not just a description of gentrification (“Raze the tenements to make space / For luxury condos”; “Discount stores on every block / Replaced by yoga studios and cheese shops”), Migration Patterns also conveys the callousness of the gentrifiers (“A new playground for the young and moneyed”) and their half-hearted sympathy for the locals sent into exodus (“Our hearts go out to those displaced / It’s a disgrace / You don’t know how bad we feel).
As someone who moved into a freshly renovated (and super cheap—for my income level, anyway) apartment in Bushwick and then watched as rents rapidly ascended, lifelong residents bailed and the bars and restaurants that signal “urban renewal” moved in, I wanted to bring across both the ridiculous nature of gentrification as well as my disgust at my participation.
Race is casually referenced off the bat – “A great pale shadow casts down on the east” – because I wanted to focus on the class issues. However, musically I wanted to joke on white appropriation of black culture with a beat inspired by Washington, DC’s homegrown go-go style and the sing-song “rap” sections (which I intended to sound as white as possible).
But as the song notes towards the end, gentrification is a symptom of a much larger problem – wealth inequality and cost of living that’s raced ahead of wages and income for most of the population. This has led to an ugly cycle – before I was gentrifying Bushwick I was gentrifying Williamsburg. So is the ending refrain of “Pack it up / Move on down the line” a tactless taunt to rooted residents forced out by gentrification or a rallying cry for the next round?
“Word ain’t always as good as bond” sums it up well. “Not Invited” focuses on the prevalence of cronyism and how connections are more worthwhile than skill and talent (“Charm will only get you so far”), particularly in the arts. We may try to dismiss such claims by citing that “je ne sais quoi,” but the real question is, “Who do you know? / Who validates your ticket?”
A companion piece to older Libel track “Simulation,” “Simulacra” is a meditation on Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” and even directly quotes the text (“No reference, circumference / Only eminence grise”).
A rather obtuse piece referencing and even further obtuse piece, the basic idea is that symbols (simulacra) of ideas and beliefs have actually become more important than the ideas themselves. For example, one could argue the cross no longer represents Jesus’ preaching but Christianity, which is essentially the cross itself.
The the mask hides nothing—what we’re left with is the hyper-real. “What’s realer than real is not real at all / What’s realer than real’s nothing more than a façade.” But the song itself suggests that such a realization “will tear you asunder / So turn the lights off and leave the mask on.”
I’ve found Baudrillard fascinating for a long time—yes, since I saw “The Matrix” many years ago. His ideas are abstract, but quite fun to ponder and make for wonderful songwriting inspiration. Also referenced in this song: the sample is from David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” and the chorus line “Images are treacherous, it’s said” is a nod to Rene Magritte. (The Jaguar Club had a riff on this as well.)
This song serves dual purposes—both to mock the pandering idiocy of modern media, and note its addictive nature. The title itself sneers at 24-7 programing and content, where “Being informed has never been more subjective / Why pay for knowledge when entertainment’s so cheap?” The second verse takes on the pointlessness of horse-race politics (which fills up a lot of media dead air), noting the “Rules laid out by the suckers paying the rent”—that would be the corporations and aristocrats funding the programming and ultimately the politicians.
The bridge—or really the second chorus—makes the song personal by noting that there’s “comfort in the noise.” We’ve gotten so used to—even reliant—on this barrage of blathering that “silence is merely devastating.” Repeating the motif of turning it on and off that first appeared in “Not Invited,” a second refrain in the buildup suggests we’ve lost control over the beast and become dependent—“once you turn it on, it’s always staying on.” Modern media is not junk food, but an addictive drug.
This straightforward song (in both music and lyrics) suggests that the social mediascape has awakened our inner self-righteous trolls, and they have run rampant to little effect other than making us all look like a bunch of assholes. But rather than lecturing on the death of discourse, the chorus uses the most pithy of snark—“Hats off to you, mighty dragon slayer”—to admit that I’m part of the problem. The acrimony festering on the Internet is seeping into all parts of life, to everyone’s chagrin.
Hey boys and girls—do you like economics? “Bygones” is inspired by the austerity practices that have left huge swaths of the world’s population struggling in the wake of the Great Recession. (“And if you find our methods callow / We offer the choice to spit or swallow.”)
But it’s really focused on conservative and business-minded types that push such policies along with “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sloganeering aimed at those lazy, no-good poors. Of course, those some bloviators fail to see the advantages (ahem, privilege) that allowed them to rise high enough to condescend. Too many people (and nations) have bought into this bullshit at great cost to themselves.
Conservative economists preach a strict doctrine—“What’s written right can’t be wrong”—and write off failures as bygones, always finding some impractical or erroneous excuse for why their policies have tripped up… Or simply made the rich richer while smothering everyone else.
During the infamous Occupy Wall Street protests, I actually was working on Wall St. as an editor for Jim “Mad Money” Cramer. While I had my issues with the Occupied movement—namely its anarchic approach to organization when strong leadership could have pushed real change—I agreed with most of the principles.
So I was disturbed by what held me back from being a part of the protests: fear of losing the comfort of my job, my career. Not being able to pay off my debts or fund my musical projects. Survival was more important than standing up for what I believed. I hated myself for sitting on the sidelines and “bracing for the moment’s end.”
“Preoccupied” traces the rise of the Occupy movement while criticizing myself and people like me for being too meek to answer the call—“Enlightenment is knocking but the door’s been bolted shut / Inside we sit with our heads between our knees.”
In pop music, the majority of lyrics concern with the most basic of relationship tenets: I want you, I love you, I miss you, I’m sad because we’re not together anymore, you broke my heart.
How many ways can you rephrase the same old sentiments? Why not explore more interesting territory in relationships, such as the power plays involving sex? Each partner yearns for control in a relationship, and the simplest move can exploit the other’s attraction. It’s easy to lose yourself (and control) in lust.
So yes, “Frivolous” is a sex jam about partners vying for overarching control in a relationship via sexual maneuvers. And in the climatic section (see what I did there?), the two realize they are even; they’re both conqueror and conquered at the same time within their passion. Is the foreplay that leads here itself frivolous? It’s not clear.
“Arrogance of Youth”
“Mediocrity rises up.” Pretty much my general complaint about pop culture and a lot of art in general. You could argue this is a worldwide phenomenon that applies to workplaces, politics (though the election of Trump points to an immense dissatisfaction with mediocrity), etc., as illuminated by concepts like the Peter Principle, but for this song, let’s stick with pop culture. The bland and safe are celebrated by the masses and their creators financially rewarded.
On one hand this song is a lament about the cultural status quo, the consensus and the “popular canon,” something I’ve poked fun at since “We Sustain” (2009!). But on the other, it’s about growing up.
When people complain about “millennial traits” like selfishness and delusions of grandeur, I typically reply, “That just sounds like the arrogance of youth.” Thinking that because you’re fresh and untainted by the world, your ideas and output must be brilliant. You know better than everyone because you know nothing.
I feel like many of us 30-somethings have been through (and/or possibly are still going through) the process of recognizing that maybe we don’t what’s best for the world… Maybe we barely know what’s best for ourselves. That questioning yourself and your beliefs is not a negative thing; it’s essential for progressing.
In the end, the melody returns to the opening riff. The lyrics suggest that mediocrity has already flooded the valley and “the crops are done spoiled.” Am I saying that there’s no point in trying to change the humdrum cultural landscape? No, I think I’m saying (and definitely trying to sell myself on the idea) that there’s no point in caring.
Oy, the song no one wants to play, me included because the lyrics depress the hell out of me. “Elevator Button” is an appropriately melancholic ditty about the dystopian now: waiting for the train to take me to work and holding back all my anxieties about the future (“Circumventing heart attacks”); feeling helpless about economic concerns (“Capitalism has run amok”) that make me feel I’m caught in stasis.
And we return to would-be album title: “Help Is on the Way.” One day it will all get better. When? Uh… Where exactly is that Godot fellow we’re supposed to meet? The elevator even makes an intriguing analogy because it’s constantly traveling up and down, caught in its own cycle.
After a foray into escapism (“I gotta disengage”), I return to the opening lines but add the statement: “There’s gotta be something more.” When I wrote the line, I swore I was repeating myself. Eventually I realized I was referencing the old Alphabetical Order track, “Dress Up/Dress Down,” a song that critiqued how identities are bought and sold.
It’s a little weird thinking about “Elevator Button” Post-Trump because instead of feeling stuck in a cycle, I’m dreading how the cycle will be shook up. If anything, I feel more powerless now (which is what happens when you empower authoritarians). So at least there’s fodder for more lyrics and discussions to come…