too much typing—since 2003


a rush of wonder this spell we're under might last

I would have thought it extremely unlikely, with so many songs in my collection to choose from, that I'd be able to name any one song as a favorite - but "I've Made Enough Friends" by the Wrens, from their second album Secaucus, would come close. As a love song, it is square in the center of pop music history - and equally apt, for a rock song, it's about sex. And just as studies have shown that the ideal face is apparently some sort of composite face (judging from subjects' clear preference for a face generated by averaging multiple faces, with the more faces averaged, the higher the score), some measure of typicality probably adds some needed ballast to a song, even if that typicality is weighted, of course, toward the center of your particular tastes (it's your favorite, after all), not just anybody's. But what makes the song for me is how much more than typical it is, and how many different ways it achieves those more-than-typical ends.

The song begins with a quiet, shuddery organ playing a skeletal introduction. In a common Wrens trick, that bit sounds as if it's left over from an earlier overdub session for the track, or even from a different song, yet somehow the fact that both sonically and musically it's slightly out of place (the chord sequence it outlines is consonant with, but not a part of, the song proper) makes a certain degree of sense, sort of a musical ghost making its presence felt. (In fact it wafts Eno-like through the background of the whole song.) The real song begins with a prototypical Wrens guitar part, one of their cracked-plate filigree dissonant patterns that might be painful at high volume but here, more quiet, evokes fragility. A second, more textured guitar shadows that part in sometimes dissonant figures as Charles Bissell's vocal enters. A tentative, teasing lead guitar line is woven between the vocal phrases. But the description of these parts cannot capture what their working together achieves. What really makes the music of the song work, though, is Jerry McDonald's wonderfully musical and varied percussion playing. Using maracas, tambourine, and triangle in addition to the usual kit, McDonald's parts in isolation give the song a structural arc oscillating from quiet to loud, sparse to intense, not in a simple linear fashion, but in escalating intensities, each tentative push backing down again but returning, more determined and certain than before. Kevin Whelan's bass tends to work subtly to reinforce the percussion in the song's quieter moments, but it plays a countermelody as the song's energy is amped up. The Wrens tend to use discord as a textural and emotional agent; for example, rather than crank up the guitar, they add vocal harmonies, and each iteration of the song's key musical phrase finds them piling thicker, higher, more discordant harmonies, until the final repetition hammers away at a nearly Stravinsky-like chord (it's an off-minor thirteenth with a drained fifth, I think).

And then there's the lyrics. At first, they seem merely to be the best-ever description in song of those moments when two people know, without having to say, that they'll be sleeping together for the first time. Bissell (I'm assuming he wrote these lyrics) has a wonderful, short-story writer's eye for the telling detail. In the opening lines, for example ("brush your shoulder with an offhand gesture / I'm holding your stare: invite me upstairs / we look for reasons to stand closer, touching"), there's the narrator's hyperawareness of the part he plays: a gesture isn't really "offhand" if one knows about it, but of course it needs to seem that way. And then there's the trying to will the other person to read your mind, playfully delivered with some wordplay, and again the gesture at roleplaying: both are looking for reasons to stand closer, as if desire can't be enough. Of course, the musical tension of starting, stepping back, starting, stopping again is echoed in the lyrics, as is the mounting erotic tension between the two lovers-to-be, as if the space surrounding their bodies must be handled like nitroglycerin.

But what makes this song kill me, even beyond its best-of-breed description of pre-sexual tension, is the heartbreaking knife-twist of the last two lines: "we're too hoping, our years are showing and fast / but we're too desperate, too soon investing, another lesson I'll pass." And wickedly, these lyrics are placed at the musical climax of the song: okay, using musical structure to parallel the cresting of erotic arousal is an old trick (hell, classical sonata form arguably did so), but these lines - coming right after the only-too-apt "a rush of wonder this charm we're under might last" - place a crashing, and crushing, self-awareness and desperation right atop that musical climax. There's no honeymoon, no cuddling; both of our lovers rolled over and lit cigarettes, knowing (or being unable to accept) that this isn't it, that everything else was a "charm," a "spell." Of course, if you do think that, you will feel that, and you probably will be just as desperate as this song's narrator.

The Wrens' great subject, I'd argue (see The Meadowlands for further proof), is male self-doubt: in particular and in recent years, the way a man might disdain social standards of success but still question whether he's all he could or should be, in the absence of any other clearly defined notions of career, family, and so forth. Secaucus is full of such tales: relationships pursued when maybe they shouldn't be, or not pursued when maybe they should be, or neglected out of indecision and uncertainty which category they fall into. (Liz Phair might provide the female equivalent of this perspective. Hey: they're both single now, right? Charles, meet Liz - Liz, Charles...) On the one hand, we want to believe there's a certain integrity in going one's own way, in, say, choosing to make art instead of money. That's probably easy when you're twenty - but when you're nearing forty, you're working a temp job, you're still single and living with a couple of other single guys, and you're playing in a rock band: is that still okay? How old can you be and still be "the best 17-year-old ever" (to quote another Wrens song, "Everyone Choose Sides") and not feel that you're fooling yourself? My answer, at least as far as the Wrens are concerned, and insofar as we read such lyrics autobiographically: who's given more people more pleasure, the Wrens or some investment banker somewhere? I know I know the answer to that.

It's not really an answer, of course. Most rock lyrics are content to live in their own world, a world in which integrity and intensity are enough. And one reason rock has trouble growing up, the reason it often turns to restaurant-background public-radio mush once its artists hit their thirties, is that outside of the rock world, integrity and intensity are never enough - or at least (at most), they don't feel that way, except to the utterly clueless. (And the charm of such cluelessness has a rather limited shelflife.) The painfulness of compromise, and its necessity, and the attempt to reconcile the needs and pleasure of creativity with rock-bottom practicality, would seem to make an excellent subject for rock: in many ways, they're the more complex, grown-up variant of yr usual teen/post-teen angst that has fueled so many great rock songs. But it's that complexity, uncertainty (read: inability to be distilled into a very sharp marketing hook) that make such an approach, uncompromising in its grappling with necessary compromises, so hard for record companies to embrace. (Cue well-worn Wrens record company woes story...)

When The Meadowlands was released, the lyric that was initially most heartbreaking to me wasn't even on the album: it was the line "I won't ever give up" that was omitted from that album's version of "This Boy Is Exhausted." (It was there on early demos and on a version of the song that appeared on a Drive-In Records compilation called You'll Never Eat Fast Food Again.) As inevitable as it might sometimes seem, giving up in the face of bad necessity never feels good, and the erasure of that note of hope meant more to me than it probably did to the band (for all I know, they just decided the guitar part was heard to better advantage without being doubled by the vocal line). And it was immensely fulfilling, seeing the Wrens live several months ago, to see how gratified they were by fans' response to The Meadowlands and to the show. While its spell lasts, music can let us believe all sorts of impossible things (before breakfast, even). And even if its rush of wonder is, inevitably, temporary, it would be drastically more so if we were unable to believe, even for a while, that it might last.

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