Friday, 6 February 2009
Say Anything - ...Is A Real Boy (2004)
And the record begins with a song of rebellion...
This was the album, along with Set Your Goals' "Mutiny!", that was largely responsible for being the catalyst of my belated love affair with Pop Punk. It has several gateway qualities that make it perfectly approachable for someone who would normally flinch at the mention of Pop Punk: musically, it's very varied and bursting with awesome ideas, be it the Weezer-esque pop of 'Every Man Has a Molly', the splashes of synth on 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat', the shuffle of 'Alive With the Glory of Love' or the quasi-hardcore of 'Belt' and 'An Orgy of Critics'. Every song bears enough toe-tapping hooks to embed themselves in your brain from the first listen, but the album contains a lot of depth for such an unapologetically 'pop' album. The thing is, it's Max Bernis' lyrics that really make ...Is A Real Boy such a classic: bursting with wit, humour and painfully relatable verses, the words to these thirteen songs present us with a glimpse into the labyrinthine mess that is the young male psyche - if you've heard the album Alopecia by Why?, I could easily draw a lot of parallels between the two records in terms of lyrical content.
Well, okay, maybe not the average male psyche. Bernis has a history of serious mental problems: anxiety issues, bipolar disorder, drug abuse: the whole shebang. The very intro to the record makes this clear to us immediately: a recording of a conversation he held with his producer reveals the following admission: "I have to record the spoken word introduction to the record. It's only a few lines, but I'm having anxiety about it." Bernis initially intended the record to be a preposterously ambitious concept album complete with script and characters, with the focus being on "the artistic struggle, the fact that every creative person has this sick ambition to affect some sort of change in society with their art, to be more than just a guy in a band or a poet or a sculptor." However, the pressure of recording the album saw Bernis buckle, having a nervous breakdown and ending up spending weeks in an institution. ...Is A Real Boy is the band's second attempt at the album, this time with no over-ambitious script or narration: just a bunch of magnificent songs filled with poignant and often bitter ruminations that can sometimes get uncomfortably honest, touching on themes like artistry, people and their frustrating character flaws, drugs, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. If Rivers Cuomo was less happy-go-lucky and a hell of a lot more neurotic, this would be the album that he'd write.
Okay, let's get the sex part of it out of the way first, because this is Bernis we're talking about and this is something that preoccupies him a hell of a lot. One thing I love about Max Bernis is that, unlike many other songwriters, he doesn't try to give off the impression that he's any more enlightened or morally likeable than the next person. On the contrary, he's all too willing to expose his dirty flaws and ugly but sometimes scarily familiar thought patterns. 'Spidersong' is probably the most obvious example here: addressing (probably trying to seduce) a woman, it hints at a guilty conscience, the narrator very aware that he only wants sex while also aware that, meanwhile, she seeks affection. He treats it like a twisted game, manipulating her to his own ends, only to lazily declare that his heart's not in it, going in a few verses from this:
no more promises
i have made them before
and broken them
give me the go ahead
and i'll undress myself for you
if you're at all interested
i am cool
too cool to call you
far too stoned to leave my bed
i'll write this song to win your kiss
but stay asleep instead.
The song 'Every Man Has a Molly', one of the most instantly accessible songs on the album, a neurotic anthem that deals with an ex-girlfriend of his that broke up with him "over the revealing nature of the songs". It addresses the clash between his love life and his self-image as an artist, sarcastically pointing out the attention-seeking nature of the songwriter: "Molly Connolly ruined my life/I thought the world should know". The song has one of the most awesome lines in the album: "You god damn kids had best be gracious with the merch money you spend/Because for you I won’t ever have rough sex with Molly Connolly again". I mean, come on, that's funny stuff.
'Woe' similarly deals with the artistry/sex issue. Its opening lines sort of sum up the album: "All the words in my mouth/that the scene deemed unworthy of letting out/banded together to form a makeshift militia/and burrowed bloodily through my tongue and my teeth". These words are messy, unpleasant and certainly not all smiles and sunshine. One verse deals with his guilt and frustration with the fact that he is used for sex "most likely because of [his] band". The line "I can't get laid in this town without these pointy fucking shoes/my feet are so black and blue and so are you" is kind of a comment on the ridiculous way that people go all out to try and impress the opposite sex, night after night. The final half of this song is a more general expression of his frustration with the hypocrisy of his surroudings, and his desire to escape and surpass his environment which bogs him down. The last line, "I'm still the optimist, though it is hard/when all you want to be is in a dream" gets me every time.
Other songs obviously deal with this theme too: 'The Writhing South' is a rumination on lust, while 'Alive With the Glory of Love' appears at first to be a perfectly catchy love song but reveals itself to actually be a much darker story about a couple in love and "screw[ing] away the day" while in hiding during the holocaust.
'The Futile', an especially strong track, is a full-on doom-and-gloom fit of nihilism. Max states his mantra ("Eat, sleep, fuck and flee; in four words that's me") lamenting the futility of everyday life while declaring:
love! i shall not love
yet i’ll still sing about it
hope it covers the ocean in slime
the drama and drool
i’m leaking the blood of a fool
But just when you thought that Bernis had a totally fucked up perspective on sexuality and love, he goes ahead and writes a song like 'I Want to Know Your Plans', which is pretty simply just a really sweet, honest and gently humorous love song with no fancy trimmings or catches.
Some songs are, essentially, calling out various aspects of society on their bullshit. 'Belt', for example, is a rebellious statement about the music industry and an expression of Bernis' frustration with modern society. Meanwhile, 'Admit It!!!', the album closer, is a brilliant and very funny rant about hipster culture and the self-righteousness and hypocrisy that goes with it, ending the record on a rousing high note with the declaration "I'm proud of my life and the things that I have done/Proud of myself and the loner I've become/You're free to whine, it will not get you far/I do just fine, my car and my guitar".
My favourite track on the album is definitely 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat'. Over some really gorgeous pop production, Max writes a pretty much perfect set of lyrics that deal with the inevitability, predictability and unpreventable nature of various characters' personal flaws, essentially saying that these problems are a part of some people and are often so deep-seated that trying to change them is useless. The imagery is all fantastic and, brilliantly, can be taken either literally or metaphorically without changing the message of the song in any way. All of these characters have their own little repetitious flaws, from sexual dependancy to chronic laziness and tragic artistry, and the narrator feels that he can't do anything to change them, even seeing himself in these characters he's conjured. The final build of musical intensity accompanies a double-verse one-two punch that really hits close to home and sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it:
i watch my neighbor’s son play
with his shotgun in the street
i think i’ll blaze all day and marvel
at the mass of food i eat
it’s strange, i’m skinny when i’m standing
but i’m buddha when i sit
and if i’m truly so enlightened
why’d i waste your time on it?
as i look back at countless crossroads
and the middle where i stay
right up the beaten path to boredom
where the fakest fucks get laid
by the faux-finest finds it’s been that way
god damn you, how you stay
with every scummy, crummy hour
of the scummy, crummy day.
these are my friends
this is who they have been for always
these are my days
this is how they stay.
One word of warning: ...Is A Real Boy is an incredible album, one that I end up finding myself listening to quite a lot in periods of cynicism and frustration, but you won't find much in the way of enlightening Zen in it. Max Bernis' mind is full of ugly knots and dark corners - this album is simply a brilliant exploration of those knots, and one that might find you doing a similar bit of introspection. But do go ahead and give it a listen, because it's a real ear-opener that gets better with every listen and every read through the lyric sheet. I consider it a damn near perfect record.
Say Anything - ...Is A Real Boy