Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Tuned V. 1. No. 5: "Freeze the Saints," Stephen Malkmus

found on Stephen Malkmus’s Face the Truth (2005)

Tuned In:
The latest song stuck in my head opens as if it’s the theme song from Family or some other surprisingly angsty 1970s television fare (c’mon, you, too, had a Kristy McNichol thing if you were in high school the same era as me, admit it), all tinkly, sweet-scaled piano and a mild-mannered vocal from our hero, the known to be sarcastic Stephen Malkmus, who seems to mean it without any meanness here – he’s really singing, for chrissakes, which is more care then you’ve come to expect from him. Sure, the lyrics seem a bit all over the place, with the pleasantly empathetic “Well you are, yes you are so much like me” getting tinged with a bit of threat from its lead in “if you need the pain,” but the young man just sounds so nice. It’s totally one of those songs that turns you into an old person listening to the kids’ music, except this kid – who isn’t a kid anymore since he’s three CDs into a sadly slight solo career after leading the band of the ’90s Pavement - is sucking up and playing tunes even you, in your older, stuffier way, might like, but you do like it despite its obvious ingratiation (airy chick background vocals!), you sort of have to when he just drags out words like “mountains” to have enough syllables to fill out the melody like he cares about the contract a song bargains with its listener.

Then what else does he do but go into a guitar solo that just fiddles with the melody line he’s been singing, like a kid pushing the broccoli he’s not sure he wants to eat around his plate, knowing choking it down hinges on his chance for dessert, but also getting intrigued by how each slight broccoli shift spreads the no-doubt-made-from-Velveeta cheese sauce into curvy blurs and then his mom takes the plate away before he can get into any real trouble, that is the solo ends right when it might get interesting. Still, almost misbehaving leads our little Stephen into temptation, for the first lines out of the solo (this song is so simple it doesn’t even bother with a bridge) turn him potty mouth, since there’s no dessert for him anyway: “You said ‘done is good,’ but done well is so much fucking better.” You know how it is when not taking liberties makes you feel you can take some, for your parents, or the songwriting rules according to Porter, or the world, owes you something. As if a song to sing isn’t good enough for you.

Tuned Out:
It never is, though, is it. I’ve left out the refrain of the song, variations on “help me languish here,” which makes the sweetness particularly creepy, as if a melody is musical Xanax masking the reasons we need to freeze the saints in the first place (or is this merely an inverted anti-Eagles world where heaven freezes over?). Damn me for liking this song, for thinking Stephen Malkmus is my friend.

Reading the song is one thing, hearing Malkmus sing it another. He has a habit of slurring his words at times, especially when they can almost sound like other words (think of Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” when he repeats “career, career, career” at the end till it sounds like “Korea, Korea, Korea”). This is, of course, one of the great joys of music, the ways we can miss-hear it and make something new, from Lorrie Moore’s characters hearing the great Dylan line “the ants are my friends” to a person I used to know defanging Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death” by singing the line, “Let me ride on the waterbed one more time.” In “Freeze the Saints” Malkmus rolls “help me languish here” over into “help me language here,” which means bunches if you want it to, especially recalling Malkmus once insisted he was cribbing lyrics from John Ashbery. Then again, it was the far more straightforward poet William Stafford who used to say, “Of course it rhymes, all words rhyme because they sound more like each other than they sound like silence,” which just means trying to nail the positive ID on the meaning you mean ain’t going to be easy when all the suspects look suspiciously the same. Or maybe Malkmus wants to start a new school of Languish Poets.

Listen to a sample 30 seconds of “Freeze the Saints.”

1 Comments:

Blogger tom said...

Wow - that was amazing. And I just thought it was good song.

8:02 PM  

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