Months after a beloved flopped major-label release, the question about why it flopped is rarely as interesting as why you liked it in the first place. And of course Glasvegas is neither an unequivocal flop nor necessarily a flop at all. Maybe it will be one of those slow-burners, if Columbia decides they’re worth another round of promo. Which they likely will, because of course their flop status only exists outside the British Isles (OK, and Sweden). Trying to explain why bands hit (and register artistically) in the UK and flop in the US is beyond my grasp and a bigger topic than I’d take on here anyway, but I’m interested in why I love Glasvegas and why they seem to confound a good number of critics as well as the pop/alt public, and it seems to be the same answer, because in some ways it confounds me that I love it.
If you haven’t heard them, say their sound is triangulated by U2, Jesus & Mary Chain, and, um, Journey? Ringing-echoey guitars swathed in feedback murk, grounded by utterly funkless drums and riffs, and wide-open-mouthed vocals with hearts hanging off of both sleeves. And if the description is both a turnoff yet somehow intriguing, they don’t sound like anything that distinctive on first hearing, which figures — like it or hate it, they’re fairly complex (or muddled), not the kind of band that makes a great first impression.
Unless you know what to listen for, which I didn’t. I heard arena-ready U2 derivative, and expected to leave at that, until I read a review that made me realize I had to hear the one about the social worker (especially given the bad rep guidance counselors have been getting in song in recent years, specifically former daycare worker Kimya Dawson’s “Hold My Hand,” and Buffalo’s mom-led Wide Right’s “Royanne”). And indeed, the one where former footballer James Allan triumphiantly sings “My name is Geraldine I’m your social worker,” without a hint of irony — really, he’s crediting the social worker with saving lives, maybe his — is almost irresistible if “impassioned” is an adjective you value. But of course it’s generally more complicated than that — Glasvegas’s songs and sound, and people’s tastes. The alt-czars at pitchfork.com complain that Glasvegas have no “restraint.” Which is precisely what I love about them, and the only thing that could make their music work.
If there’s one thing I could complain about U2 is that they’ve always been too damn restrained — too rarely willing to let loose even when they make a show of it, too committed to their idea of positivity to allow much ugliness in their music, and usually too tasteful to find all the beauty at their disposal either.
If there’s one thing I could complain about Jesus & Mary Chain is that they’re too restrained too. Even their celebrated feedback always seemed more calculated than anarchic, their muted vocals and dark outlook generally suggest not a genuine animus against the world as it exists, but a level of discomfort within their own bodies.
Holding it in was never Journey’s problem, except that in fact they hold everything in. There must be real people in there somewhere, but beneath the grandeur, the apparent heartfelt generosity, there’s almost nothing there — “Don’t Stop Believin’” aside, what very few specifics their lyrics reveal sound deliberately false, and the music does its damndest to avoid leaving traces of where it’s been either. Which of course is how millions of fans of pop and what was once called AOR like it, and you don’t need Journey to prove that either.
But unlike all of the above, Glasvegas are utterly shameless. It helps that they choose meaty topics — the social worker savior, death of peers and parents, street fights avoided and street fights sought. But they don’t need them: ”It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry” is hardly a novel pop song concept, not the subject matter, not the sentiment, not the admission. But who the hell dares to put it that way? They’re begging for a slap in the face, but they’re so daunting that instead you just gawk so long you forget to blink. Which connects you to Glasvegas, because they’re unblinking — another forlorn number is called “Lonesome Swan,” and before I was even sold on them, the completely desperate “Stabbed,” entirely spoken, over Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” registered not as appalling mawk but as a garishly risky Work of Art. I mean, what the hell do you do with a terror-stricken “I’m gonna get stabbed” shifting into a last-ditch steel-yourself-up “You don’t wanna stab me. You don’t wanna stab me.”
Along with “Stabbed” and “Geraldine,” the other song that hit me the first time was “Daddy’s Gone.” Several plays in, I hear how Allan’s thought about what the loss of his father means to him now, what it might mean later, and how he lost before he lost him. But what struck me the first time was the way these born-in-the-’80s Scots take the bridge into doo-wop/”Little Darlin’” territory without intending or achieving parody or even distance — at times they do actually project that combination of angst and naivete that’s fueled much of the best teen-oriented rock & roll. And also the angst and naivete of a band whose naivete was often overlooked, if only because unlike all the other groups mentioned here, their music was so knowing: Nirvana. Because both band and vocalist were utterly fluid and enraged, a perfect fusion of punk and classic rock, with words that were hip and eloquent, it was easy to miss that part of the pain in Kurt Cobain’s yowls and murmurs were about an innocence he wished he hadn’t lost. It helps if you read the partly earned self-righteousness of the liner notes of Incesticide, or listen to that odds & sods album’s best song, “Sliver,” about how he was bored and ignored and loved by his family. “Gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home”…”I woke up in my mother’s arms.” How sappy, right?
U2-Jesus & Mary Chain-Journey-Nirvana. That’s a little bit more intriguing, no? Glasgow, meet Aberdeen.
Filed under: Glasvegas, Jesus & Mary Chain, Nirvana, U2 | 6 Comments
Tags: Glasvegas, Jesus & Mary Chain, Nirvana, U2