Four months ago I launched a newsletter, for which you can sign up—for free!—right here. Today, I’m posting a few of my favorite entries across the newsletter’s initial run: We’ll discuss Rilo Kiley, Coheed and Cambria, and Lisa Loeb. Let’s get to it.
The Execution of All Things isn’t the first or only record to open with a bait-and-switch mix that comes in low, tricking you into turning up your stereo, only for you to get blown away when the proper levels finally kick in.1 But it may be the only one that has the courage to see the bit through for more than three and a half minutes.
As memorable as that long-delayed subito forte is, “The Good That Won’t Come Out” would be a great song even without production chicanery. A childishly simple beat allows for minimalistic bass and guitar tracks to feel robust. And for all the praise I’m about to heap on Jenny Lewis, it’s a real achievement that the song’s opening riff—da dun-dun DAH-dun, da dun-dun DAH-dun—is arguably its most memorable signature.
About Jenny Lewis, though. If you don’t already place her on your highest tier of songwriters, reading and listening to “The Good That Won’t Come Out” ought to correct that oversight. Her performance here is fantastic—her understated, sarcastic and conversationally self-deprecating tone is perfectly married to the song’s lyrical content, amplifying the qualities of both. And those lyrics? Well, the song’s second verse captures the dual shame of hiding who you are not only from strangers but from yourself as well as any lyric I’ve encountered:
I do this thing where I think I’m real sick / but I won’t go to the doctor to find out about it / ‘cause they make you stay real still in a real small space / as they chart up your insides and put them on display / they’d see all of it, all of me, all of it
All of it, all of me, all of it. That’s the fear, isn’t it? Like a poisoned dart, that line. A few lines later, Lewis suggests exactly the type of solution that you’d expect from a narrator who sees themselves as failed and broken: “I think I’ll go out and embarrass myself / by getting drunk and falling down in the street.” It’s an escape, I suppose, and not the most severe, as we’ll see. But the line that sticks in my brain the most, maybe because of the content, maybe because of the metaphor chosen, comes in the abbreviated final verse:
Let’s talk about all our friends who lost the war / and all the novels that have yet to be written about them.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who knew a thing or two about losing friends to war, once said that he preferred applicability to allegory because the former allowed the reader a freedom to find their own meaning. He wasn’t talking about lyrics but he might as well have been.2 The internet believes that Lewis was talking about suicides there—that’s a hell of a war to lose—and maybe that’s true. But the lyric is so well written that it doesn’t matter what the line meant to Lewis because it’s perfectly framed to be whatever I need it to be for me. Of course, I’m not going to tell you what that meaning is, not yet, because then you’d see all of it, all of me, all of it.
- I’m pretty sure this little trick led to me blowing out the speakers in my stereo the first time I listened to Kenna’s New Sacred Cow. Cool.
- A Google search came up empty so I’m declaring myself the first person to compare Jenny Lewis to J.R.R. Tolkien. This is, I’m sure, the content you come here for.
As some bands age they become parodies of themselves, a problem that Coheed and Cambria can never have because, since their inception, the band has been too ridiculous to parody.1 For the better part of two decades, Coheed songs have been telling the story of … honestly, I’m not quite sure. A massive intergalactic war, maybe? Nine albums in and I still have no idea what this story is about but I sure as shit know it’s being told because Coheed songs are riddled with lyrics and spoken word snippets like this:
It begins with them but ends with me, their son, Vaxis.
Do you have a lot of questions? I have a lot of questions. What is “it”? Who is “them”? What is a Vaxis and why would anyone be named that? This very short line, the first from “The Dark Sentencer,” invites an awful lot of speculation. The song provides no answers.2
Coheed has been doing this for the better part of two decades, writing epic songs that are filled with a bunch of weird non-sequiturs that have been peppered with unexplained character names and inexplicable capitalization that can only be denoting Proper Nouns. It’s all so ridiculous that, at this point, it’s comforting. “Sure, Claudio,” I think as I fire up some prog-rock whose allure is in riffs and harmonies and a general sense of audible size rather than any literary pretensions, “Tell me all about the Fence and the Keywork and the Afterman and whatever else. Sing me some hot nonsense like, ‘It’s been my pleasure to serve your disease.’ Regale me with b-movie dialogue like, ‘Kiss your lover with that mouth, you fucking monster?’ Give me a song that’s almost eight minutes long because it has the courage to ask, ‘What if we had another bridge? What if we played that entire section again for no reason?’”
And then Coheed does all of those things and, really, it’s fantastic.
The lead single3 from 2018’s The Unheavenly Creatures, “The Dark Sentencer” is a refined version of all those elements that make Coheed great. It’s got a gang chant, a huge chorus, multiple false endings and near-constant riffing. The song’s self-awareness is evident as it closes out with a two-word refrain: “Welcome home!” Claudio loudly singing the name of Coheed’s biggest commercial success is the most obvious fan service this side of a J.J. Abrams Star4 movie and it doubles as an admission that this song is exactly what a lot of people, yours truly included, want from Coheed. For two decades I’ve been eating this shit up. It really is home.
- For a parallel that would surely be horrifying to Claudio and Co., we can turn to failed mail-order steak magnate Donald Trump, whose presidency and persona were so utterly preposterous that their most substantial parody over the last half-decade was “Alec Baldwin making a face.”
- In fairness, the Genius entry for this song does tell us that, “‘Them’ refers to the album’s primary characters: Creature and Sister Spider, also known as the Unheavenly Creatures.” I sincerely appreciate someone taking the time to define a pronoun by using a series of proper nouns that also require explanation, only to provide none.
- I can’t be alone in wishing that they had kept the single artwork as the final album cover. I see you, fellow Hydrox Death Star stans.
- Take your pick: Trek or Wars.
There were six of us in the basement at first. It was a party, so far as a half-dozen high schoolers aimlessly lounging around an adult-free house is a party. The others were drinking vodka sodas; they would haphazardly pour water into the depleted fifth and replace it in the liquor cabinet before we left in the morning. I wasn’t drinking. It would be several years before I did, and that self-imposed isolation felt not only important but like an apt metaphor for my social circumstances. It was, although not quite in the way I imagined at the time.
When the couple that had brought us all together disappeared upstairs, we third-through-sixth wheels idled away the hours with the kind of awkward, meandering conversation that only unfamiliar teenagers can have. I don’t remember a single word spoken that night, but I vividly remember the uncomfortable juxtaposition of socialization and isolated, existential dread that I felt.
It was the last Saturday night of summer. That Monday, my senior year of high school would start. I was miserable, not for any particular reason, but because I was naive and lonely, because my privileged childhood had left me with no real understanding of what life after high school would be like. What I knew of the world, I knew from movies and songs that told me that these were supposed to be the best years of my life. But there I was, stone sober, once again unable to make a connection with the people who should have been my peers. If this was as good as it was going to get, then why wouldn’t I be miserable?
Driving home on Sunday morning, I listened to “Falling in Love” on repeat. (Being very into Lisa Loeb was both in opposition to, and perfectly in keeping with, my punk rock-adjacent aesthetic.) The song is beautiful and cinematic. It tells its story exquisitely, but I was too inexperienced to understand that story as I wound through suburbia, making my way to even more suburbia. Listening to “Falling in Love” then, I understood only its longing sadness and the simplest interpretation of its lyrics. I wanted a gray sky made romantic and I thought that the poetry of the song’s chorus—“the time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love”—was an inescapable, predestined curse of tragedy.
“Falling in Love” spoke to the fear inside of me, the voice that cautioned against attempting any emotional intimacy, that wanted to stay distant to protect against being hurt. It reinforced my worst social habits, allowing me to feel superior for holding myself above the tawdriness of “high school romance” while simultaneously wallowing in self-pity as I worried that the absence of any such romance in my life would doom me to a loveless existence. But I misunderstood “Falling in Love.”
I didn’t appreciate then that Loeb’s narrator goes back into the world, hurt, of course, but looking once again for love. I didn’t understand that the past is not a perfect indicator of the future, that as we grow and change and live, we have the capacity to steer the course of our lives towards where we want them to go. I couldn’t see that, with effort and purpose, it’s possible to build healthy connections and a life in which each day is better than the last for a long, long time.
But that was then.