Sunday Pages: Spring Mix
Three genius tracks from Ben Folds, Lily Allen, and Fountains of Wayne
Democracy circles the drain. At least, that’s what the last five years have felt like. Trump’s tiny hands flushed the gilded toilet, a great wave knocked all this shit loose, and we all got swept up in the wake. We’re going round and round, hoping someone will scoop us up before the American experiment winds up in the irretrievable sewer. Yes, the plumbers have been notified, we’re told they’re working on the problem, but it’s hard to see much progress from the bottom of the bowl. I can’t get excited about Ali Alexander maybe cooperating or Don Junior sending seditious texts—not when Michigan terrorists roam free and statehouses in the former Confederate states have gone full fascist.
Seriously: where are we safe? Not in Texas or Oklahoma. Not in Lansing. Not at the Capitol. Not in our schools. Comedians are getting assaulted on stage at awards shows, on live TV. Will Ketanji Brown Jackson ever be able to let her guard down, in close quarters with Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh?
With all this mire and muck around us, it’s important to focus on the positive, to find joy where it can be had. If they destroy our spirit, the bad guys win! So for today’s “Sunday Pages,” I’m sharing three songs that I love—for the music, and also for the brilliant lyrics:
“Army,” Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, 1999.
I missed this when it came out, and only heard it for the first time a few years ago during a local radio station’s “Nineties at Noon” rock block. It immediately grabs you with one of the all-time great opening song lines:
Well, I thought about the army.
Dad said, “Son, you’re fucking high.”
The song is not about the army, but rather the narrator’s initial failures being in a band:
Grew a mustache and a mullet,
Got a job at Chick-fil-A.
Citing artistic differences,
The band broke up in May,
And in June reformed without me,
And they got a different name.
I nuked another grandma’s apple pie
And hung my head in shame.
“Army” is about failure, about shame, about procrastination, about rejection, about magical thinking, and about that miracle of miracles, unknown in the Olear house: a young man heeding his father’s sage advice.
“Everything’s Just Wonderful,” Lily Allen
Alright, Still, 2006
Lily Allen is foul-mouthed and funny, smart and sardonic, mixing cheery pop music with dark, sarcastic lyrics. She wrote “Everything’s Just Wonderful” when she was 21 years old. The title could not be more ironic. And she was 10-15 years early with the sentiment, because this opening feels like an anthem for Right Now:
Do you think
Is going mental?
It seems to me
Out of control
And it’s inevitable. . .
It seems to me
We’re on all fours,
Crawling on our knees.
Someone help us please.
This song also contains this bit of top-shelf genius:
I wanna be able to eat spaghetti Bolognese,
And not feel bad about it for days and days and days.
All the magazines,
They talk about weight loss:
If I buy those jeans,
I can look like Kate Moss.
Every time I hear this, I stop and marvel at the wordplay. In the history of pop music, there is no greater lyrical pairing than rhyming “weight loss” and “Kate Moss.” Permanent chef’s kiss, that.
“Bright Future in Sales,” Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003.
On Route 23 in Wayne, New Jersey, half an hour from where I grew up, was a store that sold birdbaths, lawn ornaments, and stone statues. It was called, somewhat ridiculously, Fountains of Wayne. Adam Schlesinger, who with Chris Collingwood formed a band in 1995, lived in nearby Montclair, and he bequeathed their outfit its opulent name.
These guys speak to me, because they combine catchy hooks with lyrics about growing up in the Tri-State Area. Utopia Parkway, the album preceding Welcome Interstate Managers, fully explores this idea. There is a song about going to the laser show at the planetarium—something every Pink Floyd fan from the suburbs did at least once.
I used to equate Fountains of Wayne with Weezer—they have a similar sound, a similar musical sensibility—but as I get older, I find the former much more durable than the latter. There is a pathos to the lyrics, a longing, something forever unrequited, that hits me every time. The narrator never gets the girl, never even has a chance, the whole enterprise is unthinkable.
In “Leave the Biker,” he begs: “Baby please: leave the biker, leaver the biker, break his heart.” The object of desire in “Hackensack,” whom he sees “talking to Christopher Walken / on my TV screen,” surely does not know he exists, even as he waits for her in the eponymous New Jersey town that she will never, ever return to. Despite the rollicking video for “Stacy’s Mom,” a Gen X Mrs. Robinson, the lyrics make clear that Stacy’s mom has no interest in the lovelorn narrator, other than as a lawn maintenance guy.
It’s not happening. It’s never happening. It never even had a shot at happening.
“Bright Future in Sales” applies that same fatalism to the workplace. Our narrator is young, drunk, and hopeless:
Sleeping on a planter at the Port Authority,
Waiting for my bus to come.
Seven scotch-and-sodas at the office party,
Now I don't remember where I’m from.
If those first two lines mean nothing to you, Dear Reader, then you have never lived in Hoboken, you have never just missed the 11:30pm bus, you have never had to wait around the bus terminal for half an hour for the next one because you don’t have enough money to take a cab. You have never plopped your drunk ass on the ground, leaned your sweaty head against the cool plastic planter, and nodded off. Ah, but I have, Dear Reader! I have!
The song continues:
I think I had a black wallet
In my back pocket,
With a bus ticket
And a picture of my baby inside.
And if I make it home alive,
I’m gonna get my shit together,
Cuz I can’t live like this forever.
You know I’ve come too far,
And I don’t wanna fail.
I got a new computer
And a bright future in sales.
Ben Folds and Lily Allen are still with us, thank god. But there will be no new Fountains of Wayne releases, because Adam Schlesinger died two years ago this month, one of the million American casualties of covid-19. Thus does harsh reality encroach on our musical escapes.
Dear Reader, I wish you a world where missing a bus back to New Jersey is the worst of your worries.
Photo credit: The cover of Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Lincoln’s Bible and I are now doing a live broadcast on Friday nights at 5pm Pacific, 8 pm Eastern. The show is called “The Five 8.” We discuss five topics for eight minutes each. Thanks to everyone who watched the first two episodes. You can catch future shows here.
I know Spotify sucks, but the YouTube versions of these songs have the swears bleeped out, and that won’t do. So I made a mix here:
Melancholic, yet comforting. Is that a strange reaction?
Just lovely Greg. You never let me down. Spot on every time. Can't wait to listen to podcast this morning.