Song Reviews: The Cure, Nirvana

“Carnage Visors” is The Cure’s shockingly long (27 minutes!) “soundtrack tour film” song from the 1981 album Faith,unheard by me. Some confessions:

1.   I don’t know much about The Cure;

2.   I’ve not heard much of the band’s music;

3.   I’m not sure that, on the basis of “Carnage Visors,” I’ll be delving into The Cure’s catalog anytime soon.

   It’s interesting they titled this as a “soundtrack,” as I can easily envision it as the warm-up song prior to the band taking the stage. Otherwise, the song does have a fascinating cinematic atmosphere to it. It’s almost like Pink Floyd as reimagined by Ennio Morricone, who scored such ominous classics as Once Upon a Time in the Westand The Thing. We’re kept waiting for Henry Fonda to show up as the Bad Guy, or for the Thing to materialize out of the guts of a dog or a winter storm. It’s a heavy, dark piece, a true instrumental that invites the listener to envision a world that either doesn’t exist or existed long ago.

Put another way, it’s the kind of song that a programmer could put into an elaborate video game. It coasts along, helping tell a story full of existential doubt, neither growing more exciting as it goes along but never quite settling into dullness. Though it describes a pattern, it never grows monotonous, by which I mean there’s enough nuance and subtlety to keep us involved. I can as easily imagine a gunslinger riding into a dusty town as I can a long drive down a nighttime highway, following the white line to nowhere.

That’s probably what the song was best designed for: easing the listener into a zoned-out state of contemplation. (I can only imagine what it’s like when you’re stoned.) I dig instrumentals, especially those with a cinematic vibe, and “Carnage Visors” definitely fits that mold. But it is not for everyone. Once you get the gist of it, you either buckle in for the ride or turn your attention to the laundry. I stuck around and found the song growing on me long after. (To that end, I also listened to some other instrumentals on the extended version of Faith, including “Doubt,” “Drowning,” and “The Holy Hour.” I find these mood pieces creepy but not without interest.)

A song I chose for review was “Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana, off the band’s final album, In Utero. Not the easiest listen. Kurt Cobain intended the follow-up disc to Nevermind to be less polished than that album, which annoyed him with its radio-ready sheen (something no one else seemed to mind). This song exemplifies Cobain’s disregard for the mainstream, which Nirvana had, by that point, become. (“Rape Me” is another example.) I think of “Scentless” as a house on fire, or a horror movie, or both. His shrieking vocals are truly hair-raising. The lyrics seem to address someone who exploits human scent (a recurring theme for Cobain). If its author intended to create a nasty, nerve-jangling piece of music, he succeeded.

BUT, as a unit, Nirvana takes rock musicianship to a whole new level with this track. The guitars are crunching, snarling, and Krist Novaselic’s bass provides a solid floor for Cobain’s impassioned (and deeply sarcastic) wailing. Then we have Dave Grohl’s thunderous drums, which approach Led Zeppelin-era Valhalla. One might be dismissive of Cobain’s drug-fueled rage, but there is no denying the talent of this gone-too-soon power trio. Nirvana never gave a fuck about Top 40 radio, something you could never say about Bon Jovi. Guess that explains why no one listens to Bon Jovi anymore.

“The Salt Wound Routine,” Thirteen Senses

“The Salt Wound Routine” by Thirteen Senses is an odd track, full of melancholy and longing, but for who or what, it is hard to say. The lyrics seem to reach out to someone gone or lost, or to reminisce about old times or a way of life past, but it’s a bit like closing my hand on air. The meaning seems to escape me.

It’s something of an epic with multiple instrumental parts, yearning, searching and reaching in ways that remind me of both U2 and Coldplay. Yet, Thirteen Senses doesn’t sound explicitly like either of those groups. (The singer’s silky smooth, airy vocal hits neither the highs of Bono’s falsetto or reaches the barroom floor of his best crooning.) I can hear inspiration from “Where the Streets Have No Name” on this track, or maybe a little bit of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Or I could go another direction and hear “The Scientist” by Coldplay, or perhaps the ghosts of “Yellow” or even “Fix You.”

Wisely, “Salt Wound” doesn’t go quite as big as any of those songs, maintaining an intimacy that works better as the lyrics marry ordinary scenes to wistful emotions. I like the enigmatic nature of many of the lines, like, “It’s a number I can see,” and “could prison cells be in my brain.” It’s definitely up to the listener to decide what these images add up to. I would like to feel compelled by it, but after two or three listens, it’s still more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. The U2 songs (particularly “Streets”) are big and elastic in meaning, but are driven by two big power cells: The Edge’s chiming guitar, and Adam Clayton’s propulsive bass, which combine to create cinematic pictures. Thirteen Senses has a wide-angle orchestral sound, but to me it still needs the visceral punch a great guitarist brings. I guess in other words, I want it to have more of a defining characteristic. I want to feel more than I do, and I think primarily that is because I don’t know what the song is ultimately about.

That said … any song that immediately warrants comparison to “Where the Streets Have No Name” has something going for it. I’ll be checking out more of Thirteen Senses’ work.

“The Great Below,” Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails released The Fragile in 1999. Not unlike its 1989 release, Pretty Hate Machine, I found it stunningly bleak and depressing, a hate machine indeed, aimed at anything one might find worthwhile or redeemable about life itself. I bought the album simply because it had a song called “Starfuckers, Inc.”

I knew better than to trifle with NIN. My encounter with Pretty Hate Machine had not ended well. I had been commuting to work one morning, playing the cassette tape in the car, and became convinced I had a stowaway in the back seat. Terrified, I threw the tape out the window. Litter much? No, not since then. But my curiosity with NIN terminated with the unsettling sensation that a hostile spiritual entity had manifested itself in my car.

I guess you could say that’s the power of Trent Reznor’s music. It might make you do crazy things. Which is exactly why I do not generally listen to NIN. It’s powerful stuff. I would say that it is the emotional and spiritual opposite of U2 music. Rather than be encouraged to feel pride in the name of love or enjoy a beautiful day, Pretty Hate Machine made me want to ram a car down the throat of a young coworker of mine. (The song that inspired this fantasy? Yep. “Head Like a Hole.”) I thought she had it coming to her, and I thought Trent Reznor had the right idea. I remember playing that song over and over one rainy night, filled with seething hatred for this coworker of mine (she was stealing from the petty cash box at work, despite the advantage of being, y’know, the boss’s daughter). But then I realized the music itself was having an unhealthy effect on me, and I declined the car-through-the-plate-glass-window invitation, which I lay strictly at the feet of Reznor.

So, with that in mind, I approached the next song challenge, “The Great Below,” on The Fragile, with some caution. I played it loud, in the car, with one door open, just to let in some fresh air. It had been 20 years since I last heard The Fragile and did not know what was in store for me. Perhaps as predicted, it is a song about self-termination. Though quietly atmospheric, awash in foggy synths and a quiet yet sinister bass line, the song contains the same hostility that is the hallmark of NIN. Its character stands upon a cliff, waiting for a hope that will never come, considering the abyss below. The waves will make him disappear, something he wants desperately to happen. Will he jump? Will he commit the ultimate act of self-destruction?

With no hope on the horizon, and the music quietly but firmly urging him on, he does, indeed, decide to take the final plunge, to “take his place in the great below.” The song conjures up images of a bleak underwater world, gray and black, and a murky depth that swallows all hope, choking the light off at the source. Maybe 40 or 50 fathoms deep. Drowning, suffocating. Down where even the waves make no sound, where all is stillness and oblivion.

Musically, it’s an impressive song. The lyrics suggest all I’ve told above, and that’s not even considering all the symbolism, or all the references, that Reznor works into them. His vocal is another slithering, insinuating whisper that sometimes threatens to rise into a scream. It is a song of waiting, of building up courage, of taking that last step into nothing. It is, shall we say, everything we expect from a NIN song — anti-life, anti-hope. But it is not anti-art. The will to self-terminate is not illegitimate, nor is it outside the realm of the artist to consider. “The Great Below” might be depressing, but it does force us to think about such things as, well, the end, and how we will face it. Aren’t we all looking at taking our place in the great below? Will we face it with courage? Will we embrace it? These are the ideas Reznor asks us to consider, and he does so with restraint on this song (as opposed to getting us to consider flat-out murder). I might not sit around my house at night, sipping beer and playing “The Great Below,” but I’ll recognize its artistic merit, yes.

“Shackled,” Vertical Horizon

1999 was one of the more important eras of my life and I relied on music to get through it. I remember Vertical Horizon’s song “Everything You Want” getting heavy radio play that summer but had largely forgotten about it in the years (decades) since. I encountered the song again while looking up another song by Vertical Horizon, “Shackled,” which sounded familiar to me but in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Oh, yeah. “Shackled” was done by the band that did “Everything You Want.”

“Shackled” must be the ballad-type song on the album (which I am playing in its entirety now). It does fit the mold of a tormented lover plotting, struggling to break free of the shackles (see what I did there?) of a bad relationship. I can easily hear it played acoustic in front of an earnest crowd of lighter-waving acolytes, but that kind of scene went out with the Nineties, so opportunity missed.

If I sound snarky, it’s a little bit because the song got to me on a personal level. I could actually relate to some of the lyrical content, which seeks to turn the tables on the overbearing, potentially abusive, definitely manipulative partner in the equation. The song has plenty of guitar power and grit, and sounds authentic, like something the author lived through and translated into an arena-ready rock song. I appreciate that the song expands across several minutes and has two really crunchy, 90s-y guitar solos (I especially like the one at the outro). The song never descends into condescension but retains its defiant attitude all the way to the end.

Outside of the two singles off the album Everything You Want (including “You’re a God,” which also prompted me to crank the vol Back in the Day), I don’t know that much about Vertical Horizon, so a new band to explore. “Shackled” is pretty good but somehow I don’t think it’s close to being their best song.

“America,” Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Greatest Hits” was the first rock cassette tape I ever owned and I played the hell out of it in the summer of 1983, the summer I got into rock music. I ended up memorizing just about every song on the album. I don’t know what my folks thought about it, as S&G was THE premier act of THEIR generation. I was coming along just as Survivor was ruling the airwaves with “Eye of the Tiger.” But I knew good music and great lyrics when confronted by them.

“America” is one of their most touching songs. Like almost anyone interested in American folk songs or American music in general, I love it. It’s so deceptively simple, personal, and intimate. The vocals are captivating; Paul Simon sounds as if he is seeing just to you. Their lilting, fragile intonations strike just the right tone of youthful innocence, even wistfulness. I’d forgotten how deep a chord this song strikes with me.

It’s wonderfully visual, especially the midsection, where the lyrics describe the people on the bus. The man in the gabardine suit whose bowtie is really a camera? That’s genius-level writing right there, as good as anything The Beatles ever wrote in the same period. In fact, I’d say S&G might have been the U.S. equivalent to The Beatles, in that they captured the same period of history and became the voice of a generation.

You can almost smell the Sixties on this song. It’s not psychedelic, but it is hopeful, and questing, and charmingly folksy. Sure, I can smell the marijuana smoke on this tune, but that’s just the scene, man. The song is a road trip in search of the soul of America, but instead, the lyricist comes up with only a handful of images, reeling off names of cities (Saginaw, Pittsburgh, decidedly unmusical names), ending with an air of desperation, or perhaps just mild disappointment.

The lovers are on a quest, observant journalists with a sense of humor. We sense they are at the beginning stages of their relationship, and that perhaps by the time the song was written, they had already broken up, moved on to other lives, other lovers, other situations. The song is a wistful memory, a longing for a simpler time when the possibilities seemed endless. Cathy comes across as a strong character, an anchor for the singer, who ends up feeling “empty and aching” for no reason. His point of view has widened by the end to accept (as all adults must) that everyone is looking for America, even all the people stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike. In a way, the lyricist and Cathy have left childhood behind, and face an ambivalent future in which all quests merge into one, and the original thought with which we departed on our journey has faded into a vision of faceless anonymity.

It’s a brilliant song, one that encourages me to dig deeper into the rest of the 1968 album, Bookends.

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