Revisiting the first few seasons of The Simpsons brings some surprises. While the first nine or so seasons are hilarious, the first three bring a lot of heavy emotion into play early on. In season one the family have to convince Homer not to commit suicide, and season 2 has some of the most upsetting moments of the show – Bart’s breakdown in ‘Bart Gets an F‘, Homer dealing with imminent death in ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish‘, and Grandpa gaining then losing a companion in ‘Old Money‘. Season 3 is a sort of transition into the golden era of the show, and as the straight-faced realism starts to give way the episodes get funnier, but are still rooted in morality. The fact that the show was doing this in the early 90s, before adult humour and mature themes became more prevalent in animation, is pretty damn brave. There’s no timidity in ‘Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington‘, and even when it seems to shy away from real satire, it does something special.
At first the structure this essay naturally took felt a little basic. I was approaching the concepts that interested me by making some notes re-watching key scenes and scanning the the script, but became aware that since I am exploring only one aspect of a deeply allegorical film full of complicated symbolism, I shouldn’t have to write about the whole film – and not in chronological order. However, By time I got into the second half of my analysis I realised that it had to be this way. I have deliberately (and with great restraint) not talked about scenes that didn’t have a direct relation with the topic, and yet still addressed most of the film in the same form. This works with Eyes Wide Shut, and little else, because of Kubrick’s ability to integrate theme and meaning into the structure of his movies. Essentially, this film is an essay itself, and so lends itself to the format: Points are introduced, explored, developed further, conclusions are made and questions are asked. A lesser film would have stopped at 90 minutes, and it still would have been brilliant. Instead, Kubrick examines the consequences of actions, even the hypothetical.
When Eyes Wide Shut starts, we are thrown into the midst of a long-term relationship – one that has given them a child, financial security, social events to attend, and the freedom to be open with each other. In what is a little surprising for a movie marketed as an “erotic thriller”, we see Alice undress and use the toilet while her husband dresses alongside her. We are seeing behind closed doors, but there’s still an adherence to expectation. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are putting on the costumes of high-class civility, but also becoming that which the audience expects the then real-life couple to be. The first conversation we see is as follows:
ALICE (looking in mirror)
How do I look?
You look great.
My hair okay?
You’re not even looking at it.
While it’s a fairly banal conversation, and one I’m sure many couples have had, in the context of the rest of the film it suggests something else. Plus, it’s Kubrick – nothing is superfluous. The perfection they seek is aesthetic, or rather they want to find satisfaction through dressing and acting like they have already have. In one sex scene, Alice turns away from her lover to look at their reflection in the mirror. While Alice’s beauty is frequently brought up by the people she meets, it’s Bill who is intent on appearing a certain way. He frequently uses money to solve problems, with a seemingly limitless amount of cash in his wallet at all times. It’s not just about getting his own way, but showing that he has resources, that the money doesn’t matter. It may be an interesting tactic to rip a hundred-dollar note in half, giving one half to the cab driver and promising the second to him if he waits, but it’s also an expression of his ego. You can see why Cruise was perfect for the part as his trademark grin follows this posturing. This is also applies to how often he shows people his Doctor’s ID, something that Kubrick always returns to. It’s another way he defines himself, a well-respected and well-paid job that he can use to stroke his ego, and tame his insecurities.
After 10 seasons and 114 episodes, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia turns ten years old this week. For a sitcom that follows the exploits of a group of depraved, horrible people, this is quite an achievement. Most descriptions fail to highlight what makes it such a smart and funny show, and had I been told that it’s about the offensive behaviour of a group of relatively wealthy white bar-owners, I would have never started watching. There’s an attention to detail that means these characters can be believable as human beings, even when they’re taking part in bizarre schemes motivated by outrageous beliefs. Every storyline is put into motion by each character’s egotism, greed and ignorance, and in return their failure to succeed or grow in any significant way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their unity is never solid – any of them would quickly drop another for personal gain, but they tend to realise that they need each other, simply because no one else will have them. While they rarely are adequately punished for their misdeeds, we see the destruction left in their wake. It’s a compelling indictment of those whose privilege allows them to operate on their own terms, and oppress anyone that they have power over, out of some misguided sense that they are the ones being wronged. It’s Always Sunny accomplishes the difficult task of making a show about awful people who never really change and have it still feel fresh ten years on.
Spoon are one of the most consistently well-reviewed bands of the last 20 years, evidenced by the review aggregator Metacritic ranking them as Top Overall Artist of the Decade at the end of 2009. Their popularity only started to swell when they stepped further away from the influence of Pixies and Pavement with 2002’s Kill The Moonlight. If KTM was the attention-grabbing mix of minimalist rock and psychedelic pop, Gimme Fiction is their statement of intention, and one that they capitalised on with the critically acclaimed Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga two years later. GF was the first Spoon album I bought, and so holds a special place for me as the record that introduced me to my favourite band. Ten years on from its release in 2005, I wanted to explore exactly why it was such a brilliant entry into their discography.
Gimme Fiction moves away from KTM‘s 35-minute propulsion with longer tracks that gestate, building to choruses before delaying that catharsis or not coming to one at all. That’s not to say any song outstays its welcome, as Spoon are just as succinct here as they need to be. Over the years they have perfected the song that’s not too short, coming across as an unexplored idea more than a song, and not so long as to be stumbling for a suitable ending. This is why Spoon are often praised for creating tightly-structured albums despite the fact that Britt Daniel describes his process as a development of ‘freeform moments’ before the ‘analytical part’ comes along. Drummer Jim Eno describes the album as a progression, one that is ‘a little thicker than Kill the Moonlight‘ […] there are still some stripped down songs, but there are multi-track guitars in there on some songs, making it more of a rock record’. While Spoon’s sound is usually over-simplified in reviews, it’s hard to pin down Gimme Fiction‘s place within their discography other than as this progression. Daniel states that his ideas come to him without any structure, and it’s only afterwards that he decides whether it fits the verse-bridge-chorus format, and approaching it in any other way ‘rarely works’. Most of the tracks on the album fit with this notion, but then the most popular tracks ‘Sister Jack’, ‘I Turn My Camera On’ and ‘I Summon You’, follow this structure precisely.
‘Was It You’ meanders around its central beat and bassline for five minutes, and is a prime example of the band moving away from the “safeness” of KTM‘s 3-minute drive. The vocals feel like they were added as backing to this centre – Daniel’s vocals even mimic the cadence of the bass drum at certain points. Samples of cut-off guitar riffs, keyboard feedback and other studio sounds drop in and out, almost as if Spoon decided to make a medley of the recording process. Much like ‘The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine and ‘I Turn My Camera On’, ‘Was It You?’ pairs up with ‘They Never Got You’, as rainfall and thunder carries over from the former before fading out over the first 30 seconds of the latter. Although its higher tempo is immediately recognisable, it almost feels like a continuation of the previous track – having a similar, though less effective, result as the jarring drop in Transference‘s ‘I Saw The Light’. While they take their turns wandering off, the bass, drums and both guitars work in unison to propel the song on, before the sudden transition into the intensely satisfying hand-clap outro.
The lyrics of ‘They Never Got You’ have taken on a whole new meaning for me after I listened to Britt interviewed on the Marc Maron podcast, where he described his childhood friends as people who ‘fancied ourselves sorta new-wave, and if you looked in any degree New-Wave, you were gonna get harassed’; the two primary groups at his school during this time were ‘cowboys and metal-heads […] I didn’t really fit in’. I always understood the repeated phrase of the title as one of simultaneous paranoia and victory – the idea that the narrator was never converted, caught, or otherwise ‘got’ by the powers-that-be, but never truly rebelled either. But thinking about it in terms of group dynamics and the need for belonging, it seems like ‘No I never got them and they never got me’ is really saying “they never understood me, and I never understood them”. Daniel has never shied away from talking about his childhood; the Kill The Moonlight song ‘Jonathan Fisk’ was about a kid who would beat him up at school, after all, and he was very open about it during the Marc Maron interview. He both expresses how he isolated himself from those groups (‘Cover the path to the heart / Don’t let those footholds start’), he also asks whether ‘You’ reacted differently – ‘Did it pay to play along’ and perform a role that was forced upon you? Was there something missing, ‘Did you think everyone knew / Something unclear to you?’ While songs of rebellion and feeling “different” are a-dime-a-dozen in Rock music, the way the song touches on these themes feels fresh and entirely relatable. Daniel himself describes the song as ‘more of a personal tune’, a song that successfully melds ‘some of that loneliness [of growing up]’ with a ‘groove/soul kind of a song’.
‘My Mathematical Mind’ is a deep piano-driven track that builds to a crescendo, one would have been brilliant as an album-opener if it wasn’t for the fact that Gimme Fiction has an even better intro, which I’ll talk about later. The sharp interjections of guitar, repetition of lines and stalling piano brings to mind a malfunctioning machine, one that Daniel’s voice rebels from, as if fighting for freedom from auditory mayhem. After paying close attention to the lyrics, it seems to me that it is a portrayal of someone struggling to reconcile a rational, logical understanding of people into a relationship. His analytical approach to the romance means he is constantly seeing ‘breaks’ in the affair, and ‘planning for the apocalypse’ of it all. The last verse seems to bring a wilful end to this attitude, with a declaration that ‘I’m gonna stop riding the brakes’; letting his irrational side take over a little, and stopping the cycle of bringing about the end of a relationship by focusing too much on its lifespan.
The final track on the album is ‘Merchants of Soul’, another example of deep piano notes driving the song. GF is the first album with Eric Harvey, who is listed in this album’s notes as the pianist, so it’s likely his inclusion helped shift the songs in this direction, while Daniel could focus on the more obscure sounds. Of all the tracks on Gimme Fiction, it’s the one that sounded the most like a song of Kill The Moonlight, with its simple piano and jolting beat. The lyrics are a little obscure, with possible references to drugs, though there is a motif which has turned up again in the titular track of their most recent album They Want My Soul – where some examples of “them” are ‘street preachers’ and ‘post-sermon socialites’. Both these lines are likely reflecting the divided religious upbringing Daniel had – his divorced mother and father being Catholic and Non-Denominational Protestant respectively. These merchants of soul are tied to the idea of religion selling itself, competing for dominance and ownership over his soul.
‘The Delicate Place’ is the most vocal-orientated song of the album, and one with the demo feel that characterized a lot of 2010’s Transference. While I like the song, there isn’t much to note other than it gives Britt a chance to do some interesting stuff with his voice, and that the song is bookended by studio talk – an effect that would continue in Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
‘The Infinite Pet’ is probably my least favourite on the album, though it has its own destabilising, malevolent tone that differentiates it from other tracks on the album, and makes it the second-creepiest song to KTM‘s ‘Paper Tiger’.
Gimme Fiction also began Spoon’s foray into soundtracks, with multiple tracks being used in movies and TV shows – ‘I Summon You’ was on Veronica Mars and Scrubs, ‘The Infinite Pet’ was in (500) Days of Summer, ‘Sister Jack’ turned up in Wedding Crashers while ‘I Turn My Camera On’ was on Friday Night Lights, Bones, and The Simpsons. A number of instrumental versions of tracks from this album also featured in the Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction, a soundtrack to which Britt Daniel contributed a few original songs to the score, collaborating with the hugely talented Brian Reitzell (who has written the score for all Sofia Coppola’s films). ‘Sister Jack’ and ‘I Turn My Camera On’ were the singles of the album, with the latter being the only Spoon single to get into the UK Singles Chart.
‘Sister Jack’ is probably the least complex and traditionally structured song on the album, which may be why Daniel has said that he isn’t particularly proud of or interested in. Despite this, it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the second single release. It’s an upbeat, summery Indie Rock ballad – but it’s the nostalgia that hits from the first line that makes it an all-time favourite of mine. ‘Always on the outside always looking in’ is reminiscent of the outcast narrative of ‘They Never Got You’, while the line ‘I was in this Drop-D metal band we called Requiem’ is funny and sentimental – and turned out to be true for Joshua Zarbo (Spoon’s bassist until Rob Pope took over in 2007). The music video doesn’t do much to expand on the meaning, but is worth the watch for how absurd it is at times (all their videos are available on their new website). The strange, echoing vocals that fade in and out during the instrumental are from sound effect CDs that they tampered with during recording, and one particular file that Daniel became interested in was ‘this long list of hip-hop phrases’.
The most well-known track on the album, and the arguably the most popular Spoon song to date, is ‘I Turn My Camera On’. While originally it was pitched as a more straight-edged Rock tune, apparently Spoon’s drummer Jim Eno ‘sent it into sort of this dance feel’. The band were going through ‘a pretty intense 1999 phase […] a big Revolver phase’, and it shows – the song feels like Prince remixed with a Beatles song at times. It’s definitely the straight-up coolest song they have recorded, it’s a confident, groovy song that lead to Spoon being described as having a “swagger” by journalists for the next 10 years. The music video is low definition, but probably the most aesthetically-minded one they’ve released, and about as obsessed with women’s legs and feet as a Tarantino movie.
‘The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine’, for me, is a less successful song in the vein of ‘Sister Jack’ – I like it, but when I’m the mood for it, I’ll probably opt for latter. The lyrics are wonderful though, a series of surreal images more than anything, it’s catchy and seems like it’s urging the listener to dance. However, it’s hard not to reconsider the meaning of the song after watching the video, which shows us the boring day job of a middle-aged man, before he lets loose in the evening, dressing up in drag and heading out to a club. It’s sweet, the title and the generally campy, theatrical language fitting it well.
The opening track, and my personal favourite, is ‘The Beast and Dragon, Adored’. It was named after a French tapestry called ‘Apocalypse: The Beast and Dragon are Adored’, which I believe is referencing The Apocalypse of Saint John. He said that he spotted the tapestry in an art book from the 50s, and the idea of apocalypse and monsters was in line with the way he was feeling at the time: ‘that was when the Iraq war was starting, and I was watching way too much CNN […] the world was feeling a little bit apocalyptic’. It was one of the last songs recorded for the album, and could have easily functioned as an ending to the album, as it’s full of small references to other songs on the record – ‘I summon you’ and ‘they never got you’ are name-checked, while ‘I been learning my scene’ is likely a reference to a similar line in ‘The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine’. It’s the most successful track on the album at reconciling the methodical drumming, apocalyptic piano, frenetic guitar and resolute bass that separated Gimme Fiction from its predecessor. Lyrically, it’s full of uncertainties (‘I been watching my friends move away’ / ‘I went to places unknown’) and a longing for connection (‘where you been for so long’ / ‘I summon my love back to me’). There is no real home for the narrator, all dominions ‘don’t come cheap’ or ‘just want you to leave’. The chorus, both in its language and its sound, saves the song from this place of doom. The sorrow of the verses is elevated by a ‘feelin” of ‘rock and roll’; there’s a resurgence in tempo and volume in the chorus, and it’s the catchiest part of the song. It’s heroic, even – to the point that I think that from the point Spoon eventually break up, this will be the song I will remember them by.
When Jim Eno was asked what sort of music Spoon plays, he said ‘It’s Rock n’ Roll, If I was going to characterise it a certain way, I’d say rock n’ roll, but we tend to try to use space quite a bit […] during the mixing we’ll try and strip it back down’. For me, ‘The Beast and Dragon, Adored’ is emblematic of this – a track about the uplifting nature of rock ‘n’ roll, and how it can pull the listener out of the apocalyptic view of the world that we can often fall into.
I got a feelin’ it don’t come cheap
I got a feelin’ oh and then it got to me
It took its time a-working into my soul
I got to believe it come from rock and roll
Believe it come from rock and roll