1. I play songs in endless loops. When a song is new to me, and there’s something about it that kills me, I’ll listen to it in an auto-repeat delirium for days on end. When they invented the repeat button on the CD player, my life was changed irrevocably (as were the lives of every roommate I’ve had since). I’m not sure when this started or why I do it. I know that, in part, I’m trying to learn the song’s language, and sometimes that doesn’t come quickly. I’ve never been adept at new languages-I feel like I’m reaching into the math quadrant of my head, adesolate and unforgiving place-and music sometimes hides there. So I study songs, try to break them down, find their order. And this takes time.
It started when I was around 11 and just getting exposed to non-Top 40 radio. There was a time shortly before when I thought that Billy Joel was the world’s foremost music-maker, that Crystal Gayle was right behind him, and that what Rush were playing, because it was louder than Billy Joel and Crystal Gayle, was punk.
Then I turned 12. At which point I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting in my friend Ben’s living room in his crazy, creaking, old red farmhouse, listening to his older brother’s records and, more important, to his brother’s friend Frank’s records. Did you ever know Frank? Frank was so fucking suave. His records, though, made no sense. I didn’t even know how to listen to them, didn’t even know if they were music. New Order and Gang of Four didn’t sound like music. They sounded like math.
I know R.E.M. and Talking Heads don’t seem like bands that would be so difficult to get your head around, but at the time, the stuttering and spare structure of a song like “Don’t Worry About the Government” was bewildering. These albums were rough-edged, with nothing like the production values common at the time. What might now sound familiar in early R.E.M. was utterly baffling in 1983. You couldn’t understand one damned word Michael Stipe was singing, and there were no clear hooks or guitar solos or bridges or anything. There was no candy. Billy Joel knew candy. The Beach Boys knew candy. But these new people didn’t have any candy. Or they had candy, but it was a much more subtle brand of candy-barley pops, maybe.
Or black licorice. I have no idea and should have stated this upfront: I have no clue what I’m talking about. I don’t know what a bridge is, and I don’t know how to play a guitar, or how to tell when someone’s playing the bass really well, or when someone is a good drummer, or just who is history’s best rock-flute player. I don’t know how to describe a guitar sound that I like, and I still don’t understand why Neutral Milk Hotel have not been given a chance to run the world, or at least Eastern Europe.
I do know that after many years of trying, I’ve only gotten worse at parsing new music. As I write this, I’m in the middle of my 23rd consecutive play of the Thrills album, So Much for the City. This isn’t the most jarringly complicated music, but it’s new to me and doesn’t sound enough like anything I can file quickly in any familiar part of my head. But with the Thrills, as with anything worth leaving in your CD player until you understand it, there’s something right away. Usually, it’s some little hook or the singer’s voice or a lyrical phrase. With the Thrills-who are from Ireland but sing pretty much only about California and sound as if they were raised on the Santa Cruz boardwalk-it’s how the singer, in “Big Sur,” says “hanging around.” That’s it. I was bought and sold right there. Every time this happens I think-you think-Holy Jesus, these people are describing your blood, or tracing the history of your people, or telling your fortune. The sound is your new best friend. Or even better, the new sound is your new favorite color, a color that didn’t exist before, a color created-aha!-by that band. The best music makes new colors, and the reason we have such a hard time describing music is because there aren’t even words for the colors we’re hearing. How the hell would you talk about music full of colors that have no name?
2.The rest of this piece is about Kings of Leon and driving around Somerset. I was doing that a few months ago, driving around Somerset, which is a county in England. First I was in London, and then I wanted to leave for the coast to see what the water looked like, so my companion and I rented a car, got on the highway-or whatever it was; two lanes most of the way-and drove there in a rented car that smelled of old fruit.
Did you know that England is not such a big place? London is of course on the right side of that proud island nation, and I stupidly assumed it would take at least six hours to hit the water on the left. But it was more like three. Three hours! That means you could drive to the top of the country in about seven. Seven! You can’t even get top to bottom in Illinois in seven hours. I have tried that and failed.
At a rest stop halfway between London and Somerset, we stopped to get food and look at people. The people were large, as are most people at rest stops the world over. Our rental car had a CD player, but we packed no CDs; luckily, this rest stop, in addition to offering strange rides for small children, had a convenience store withsodas, Kylie Minogue calendars-true-and a rack of CDs for sale. The prices were murder-something like $120 a CD, I think, but my math is not good-so we bought only two: a Beach Boys collection and the debut by Kings of Leon.
I want to say that this album has the best title conceived in my lifetime. The nine runner-up spots are all occupied by Guided byVoices, but No. 1 is Youth & Young Manhood by Kings of Leon-it’s so bold and plain that it could only have been begotten without guile by people who wouldn’t know why anyone would find it funny. It’s unaffected and sincere, as is the album, which is one of the chief reasons I think this, right now, is the best period in the last 15 years for people who like music made with guitars and drums and voices.
A week before this U.K. trip, I had one of those mind-crushing conversations with a friend who thought-who always thinks-everything is less good now than it once was. My friend, and people like him, need to be beaten with clubs, subdued, and then caged and poked with broom handles. I don’t even know why I’m bothering to give this bastard, who never shaves his neck, the benefit of my brilliant argumentative skills. His and his ilk’s pessimism is never a reflection on the actual state of the world or of any art form, but more often a mirror of their own decaying bodies and brains. They look back fondly on some time when they weren’t secreting so many gases and liquids, when they didn’t scare small children, when they could dance in public without looking epileptic. But are they actually paying attention now, to the changing world? Are they open to it; are they actually trying to enjoy new things but somehow failing? No, no, no. They close their ears and eyes, and they bitch about better days. There is legislation making its way through the House of Representatives that would require the removal, via carnivorous birds, of these people’s tongues, and I support this legislation wholeheartedly.
Maybe these people are just lazy. Maybe they need a Frank. My new Frank, my hander-down of music that he’s found and that I pluck like low-hanging fruit, is my younger brother, who after many years of receiving the great bountiful benefit of my taste and expertise is now my primary lifeline to all that is good and new. His hand-me-ups are the reason I knew to buy Kings of Leon, and the reason I believe that they should be, as a group but functioning as one, elected governor of Tennessee. And that the Detroit Cobras should be put in charge of NASA and all current and future international space stations. And that the Libertines and the Elected should replace the royal families of Norway and Denmark. And that Desaparecidos should be given unlimited access to all the world’s high-speed trains and monorails and to as much gold bullion as they can carry.
3. So we played Youth & Young Manhood about 11 times in the course of that three-hour drive from London to coastal Wales and ten more on the way back to the London airport. This is one of the best and most American albums the U.S. has produced in years, and there’s nothing as good as listening to something so American while driving through the English countryside. The English countryside really looks the way the English countryside is supposed to look. It’s tidy, the roads are narrow, the greens are very green, and the roadsides aren’t polluted with billboards and gas stations. There are stone walls and pubs with names like the Thirsty Lion Killer and the Tipsy Barmaid. It’s all so neat and just-so that when you put on Kings of Leon, you feel like you’re defiling everything you pass, that the sloppiness ofthe sound and Caleb’s growly, scatty voice will somehow erode the landscape like a quick-moving glacier or an inland monsoon. You picture the band, the three Followill brothers-Caleb, Nathan, Jared-and their cousin Matthew, you see their long filthy hair and their mustaches, and their aura is so specific to a time and place in America that you want to drop them all on England’s pristine green countryside like a big, round, ugly American culture bomb.
The Followills and their videos look like they were made in the ’70s. The videos are grainy and clumsy, or are designed to look that way. They appear to have been filmed at a low-budget KOA campground in Tennessee. Everyone’s in T-shirts and bad jeans worn without smirks. The extras look like poor kids and fast kids, the kind who wear their shorts too high and tight with striped tube socks under their Walgreens-bought sandals. I have been to these types of campgrounds-not pretty, not clean, the Porta Potties stinking of lime and feces-and these campgrounds are Kings of Leon, and Kings of Leon are these campgrounds. Kings of Leon are two-door muscle cars and Piggly Wigglies and racist uncles and upholstery that stinks of smoke and signs on the inside of junior-high locker doors that say Cocaine Adds Life because that’s such a badass naughty pun.
Kings of Leon are motorboats on crowded lakes and waterskiing in cutoffs and hiding Milwaukee’s Best in the forest, in the snow, in January, because your parents caught on that you were keeping cases in the fridge in the garage. Kings of Leon are knowing a guy in juvie and having a cousin who’s been in jail twice. And that cousin, by the way, the one with the burns all over his right forearm-nothing interesting, just an accident with coffee-that cousin, Terry, would love Kings of Leon if he gave them a chance. You would, Terry. No, Terry, there aren’t any guitar solos or power ballads, but otherwise you have got to understand these guys, you have to own these guys, my man! No, Terry, they don’t really sound like the Strokes meet the Allman Brothers. Anyone who says they sound like the Allman Brothers is nuts. Would a member of Kings of Leon marry Cher? I just don’t think so, my incarcerated friend. Kings of Leon are the real deal, and I can’t describe them any better because it’s starting to seem like math, and this, as you know, causes me pain. Just listen to them a few dozen times-you have the time, I think-and you’ll know of what I speak.
I have no ending for this column. You know what was a pretty good movie? Tron.