Monday, May 10, 2010

Untangling “Perfect Day"

I have always found the narrative to this song strange. It is called “Perfect Day,” and it describes what would be a very small, almost homely day in which the narrator—obviously out of place in such a situation—sees as a transcendent experience.

Instrumentally though, the song is bluish and melancholy with its minor-chord piano, its strings, and its horns. Similarly, the last lines of the chorus and the coda are odd, throwing the song into a kind of bizarre and schizophrenic confusion. This uncanny element though, is what elevates it beyond its purported humble and quotidian leanings.

Take the first verse—"Just a perfect day, drink sangria in the park. And then later, when it gets dark, we go home. Just a perfect day, feed animals in the zoo. Then later a movie too, and then home."

These are very small moments—very romantic, and in the urban sense, naturalistic. The green space of the park mixed with the “animals in the zoo.” It’s an obvious bucolic veneration of nature above unnatural urban space. Again, this is a very romantic conceit—I would love to have someone to drink sangria in the park with. And then the evening is capped off in the most conventional of ways, with a “movie…and then home.”

Then the chorus tells us that the perfection of such an experience is necessarily connected to the presence of a certain individual, something I think we all have felt: "Oh it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you. Oh such a perfect day." But then the confusion sets in—"You just keep me hanging on, you just keep me hanging on." These last lines are where the confusion really commences.

Why, after such a perfect day is the narrator felt to be kept hanging on? And why is the song delivered in the present tense, when obviously this transgression at the end of the chorus would lead us to believe that the perfect day ought to be in the past?

Obviously, the transcendence of such a day is intimately entwined with the person who it is spent with. But to end the chorus with the lament: "You just keep me hanging on," intimates that something melancholy is afoot.

That the perfection of the day stems from its difference from what is the normal experience of the narrator is key—he sings "You make me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good." That he is experiencing the perfect is obvious in the fleeting character of it, which has passed. In this way, it seems as if—tense aside—it is a song written from the point of view of the past. Though he sings it in the present tense, it is really meant to represent what has passed, and that the shock and trauma of the now is present in what has passed.

This song would be easy to unlock and boring if it was written in the past tense. If we transform the first verse from the present to the past tense, see how morose it becomes: "It was just a perfect day, we drank sangria in the park. And then later, when it got dark, we went home. It was just a perfect day, fed animals in the zoo. Then later we saw a movie too, and then went home."

Obviously it loses the poetry, but gains infinitely in melancholy. There is no mystery why. The past tense is the tense of loss, of death, of what has passed and cannot be reclaimed. The interesting part is that the song was written in the present tense but mixed with the strange menace of the coda: "You’re gonna reap just what you sow" four times.

Why this threatening coda? I think the more obvious question is why would such a melancholy minor-chord song—it has, I think, an am, dm, c#m, and f#m in it—be called “Perfect Day?” It is an obviously sad song, written in the elegiac style of a lament.

The answer I think is in this blurring of time, the idea that the song as it is narrated actually takes place in, whether it is real or imagined, the past. The coda is the present—"You’re gonna reap just what you sow." This statement comes only from the lips and pens of those who are wronged. One does not reap the good from what goodness they sowed; it is the voice of vengeance.

What is fascinating about this song then, is that it drags the past into the present, and the present into the past—which is, I think, the way most of us think, for the past is always with us. How else do we account for the strange temporal slippage of the chorus: "It's just a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you?" The present is obviously much more wide ranging and important in most of our minds, it is the heavier of the two. But the past is the deep source of melancholia that we all draw from which informs the present.

Why the song is so affecting though, is how quick, and with such hidden violence, it moves from transcendence to vengeance. From “you made me forget myself,” to “you’re gonna reap just what you sow.” There is no transitory reason for such a shift, it just moves, like life, from love to hate, from necessity to vengeance. It is irrational, melancholy, and sadly, true.

Beyond all this though, is another, more depressing reading. And that is the one that shows the confusion that is always with us when we are in the presence of a barely-known other. Those moments when we think we have embarked upon something together, and are in some sense deeply communicative. But really we are leagues away from each other. That terrible moment of misunderstanding can account for the slippage that is represented in this song. There is that terribly embarrassing moment when we believe an experience to be one thing, but to the other it is nothing. Between where one finds the sublime and the other the quotidian, may be the most melancholy space of all.


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Friday, May 07, 2010

(The Ressurection of) Notes From Underground

I'm going to try this again...

“Piazza, New York Catcher,” Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2003

I was planning on writing a long piece about this song, but it’s on hold because it just wasn’t going well. I used to think it was kind of a throwaway song, but I’ve grown quite fond of it. It reminds me of San Francisco, and it’s tangentially about baseball—my favorite diversion behind rock and roll. I can’t imagine writing a song with the refrain, “Rooney, Man U striker are you straight or are you gay,” but perhaps Stuart Murdoch likes baseball much more than I like soccer. I can’t think of another band titling a song similarly besides perhaps the Television Personalities. The lyrics are actually quite hard to untangle, the bit about “I will be your Ferdinand, and you my wayward girl,” is very strange, conjuring up images of the fifteenth century king of Spain and his daughter Joanna the Mad. It’s a very sweet song though, and if you, like me, ever become homesick or nostalgic for San Francisco’s filthy streets, it’s a nice melancholy complement.

“Lights are Changing,” The Bevis Frond, Triptych, 1988.

What a great fucking song. Although I try not to use these kinds of tropes, the Bevis Frond does close the circle between the Byrds and Guided by Voices, it’s not really a surprise that this song ended up being collected on the Children of Nuggets box set. It has the same cadence as the Byrds version of Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” but there’s none of that lacy twelve-string delicateness. It’s not exquisite or baroque, it’s just got more muscle than that. Mary Lou Lord does a preposterous cover that should be run from at all costs.

“Possession,” Elvis Costello, Get Happy, 1980

Oh, Declan…I can’t think of a larger figure who is more underrated than Elvis Costello. No one would say Dylan is underrated—if anything, he’s overrated—no one would say that Lou Reed, or Leonard Cohen, or the Stones, or the Beatles, or Michael Jackson, or the Who, or the Kinks, or any of that kind of shit is underrated. But Elvis Costello is huge, I know this because I remember my dad having an Elvis Costello tape (My Aim is True) when I was a kid, and if my dad had it, it was huge. He’s most likely a better songwriter than all those mentioned above, for his articulation of all the intense and terrible emotions that we go through in trying and failing at falling in love is surpassed by no one. If you have any doubts, listen to “Indoor Fireworks,” and “I Want You.” “Possession,” from 1980’s Get Happy, a kind of Stax-influenced record is not even the best track on it, that would be “New Amsterdam.” But with its relentless piano/organ hook, it’s impossible to put away. Plus Get Happy has twenty tracks on it—more bang for your buck than practically any other record.

“I Don’t Want Nobody, I Want You,” The Boyfriends, I’m in Love Today 7”, 1978

I actually just heard this song today, and this band is a bit of a mystery. I was trolling through youtube and came across it. From what I was able to gather, the Boyfriends—not to be confused with the American Boyfriends (more on that below)—was a band started by Pat Collier, the bassist of the Vibrators. They produced three singles and then disbanded. To me, that’s kind of the perfect story for a band, only singles, only a handful, and then disappear. “I Don’t Want Nobody, I Want You,” is not nearly as slick sounding as the Vibrators. It’s not as filthy or loose as the New York Dolls, but it is totally imprecise in the same kind of way. It does have these cute, touching lyrics enfolded into a kind of tough-sounding percussive punk song, and I’m not sure what I’ll think about it tomorrow, but I love it today.

P.S.: I got my information from here:

“Jealousy,” The Poppees, Jealousy/She’s Got It, I don’t know 1976

This song is insanely good. This is as good as power pop gets in its total revivalist phase, by which I mean not Big Star or the other bands who tried updating sixties pop into new and present forms, but those who just re-did the sixties. I don’t want that to sound insulting, because it’s just a straight fucking pop masterpiece. I first heard this band on a Bomp comp. The song was “If She Cries,” which is another hit, a song that is up there with the Records’ “Starry Eyes,” or the less corny moments of the Raspberries. But “Jealousy” is something different altogether. It’s big, from the floor tom intro to the hand claps. It’s definitely a better Beatles rip than anything done by either the Rutles, the Knickerbockers, or Barry and the Remains. I could listen to this song on repeat forever. Oh, and they shared members with a U.S. band called the Boyfriends, not the U.K. band mentioned above.

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