April 28th, 2014
RECAP OF THE PROBLEM
Quite some time ago, when I had more time on my hands, I wrote a piece about irony in response to an NYTimes article I’d read about “hipsters”. The Times article was about what supposedly makes these millenial bohemians tick, and how irony-addled they all are. The piece’s arguments: hipsters are something new, the things they obsess over are largely nonsense, and most fatuous in my opinion: we must exterminate the pestilential irony with which their every act and utterance crawls (wildly paraphrasing mind you).
I disagreed. The article’s arguments felt facile, and the assumptions they were based on over-general. It all felt like another knee-jerk, a-historical over-reaction to the non-problem of irony. My take was that some measure of irony is normal; people on the cultural cutting edge and the people who think they are) are normal, and always around, generation after generation, whether they’re “bohos” “beats” or “hipsters”; and some of what they do & make is bullshit, and a lot of what they do & say and create is A-OK.
At the time, I wanted to write further on the subject, in particular cite two modern art-works, the 2012 film “The Comedy” and the 2013 Heidecker & Wood album “Starting From Nowhere”, both involving one of my favorite comedy artists, Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric fame. I wanted to explore how those works depict or employ irony in ways I find refreshing, inspiring & at times confounding. But my rebuttal to the Times piece was long enough already, so I let it go for a while.
For quite a goddamned while actually.
So. Irony in the early two thousand teens, part two. Let’s just jump right into it:
Heidecker & Wood are comedian, musician, composer & actor Tim Heidecker, & his long-time creative partner, multi-instrumentalist, co-composer and producer Davin Wood. And they made a damned fine record with “Starting From Nowhere” — but a peculiar one, a record so subtly parodic & sneakily piss-taking that you’d be forgiven if you heard it several times and just dismissed it as a hazy, pillowy, finely-wrought, ultra-catchy lost gem of the early to mid 70s that could comfortably sit next to LPs by Seals & Crofts, Steely Dan, Bread, Kenny Loggins, Hall & Oates, Jackson Browne, & the like.
Musically, it is that lost 70s gem. To a T. Sincere homage. Every chord pattern, bridge, modulation, synth line, guitar solo, multi-tracked vocal and song-suite tempo change on this record belongs on someone’s record player 35 years ago. Take “Life On the Road”, with those mellow keys, that yearning soft-rock exposition, those plaintive horns, & that ambitious multi-part structure so reminiscent of 70s prog excursions in works by Kansas, Styx, REO Speedwagon, et. al:
Life On the Road from the LP “Starting From Nowhere”
But lyrically? All laffs. No big obvious guffawing punchlines, nothing Ween-like, up-front stupid (this coming from a big Ween fan), but rather a rich pleasurable undercurrent of snicker resulting from the song’s juxtaposition of earnest, passionate music with slightly askew text — & the ironies produced as a result. Just read a bit of this song’s lyrics: “Is there anybody out there tonight / under the spotlight light”; or better yet: “Oh I thought giving autographs would be better somehow / Who’d have thought that signing my name would cause me such pain?” Dig the bathos blast of the latter, & check that verbal flub of “spotlight light”, making the singer’s boo-hooing even more foolish from the get-go.
As the song progresses, so does its ridiculous build up of victim-angst, and to top it off, it mixes messages hilariously, stating of life on the road that “you can take it / Or you can let it go”, but also begging to be released from that very same life (“Please let me go home now”), as if the narrator was imprisoned up there, forced to perform, agonizing. It’s an outstanding send-up of the classic “Woe is me, I’m a touring beloved star paid to sing about my life and travel and I’m lonely and tragic!” song template (Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”, Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” being two of countless examples of this genre). Contrast this with Tenacious D’s terrific parody of the same song type — “The Road”: while D’s is a very good, “fuck”-splattered gag, it’s blunt & blatant, whereas Heidecker & Wood’s goof is a different kind of funny, relying on musical earnestness, a vocal delivery of tenderness & conviction, and a sentimental text that metes out punch-lines in very careful, subtle sprinkles.
It’s only those occasional subtle comedic “gives” that change the complexion of each song, and cause the rest of the lyrics to be seen in an entirely different light. Another example is “Weatherman,” where the uncertain, moody tone and subdued vocal delivery, combined with lyrical hints that some auto accident has or will occurred, set up the listener for Serious Events, or at least some trite wistful narrative of fate and the circle of life or some other pablum you’d find on a Jackson Browne record. Gradually, however — and with a certain kind of deep dawning pleasure if you like this kind of irono-sincere-comedic flavor — you realize the song is about nothing. The narrator is told by a tow-truck driver that “he might need some stitches”, that’s it. The chorus is four lines of pitch-perfect 70s nonsense+sentimentality. Nothing occurs in the song, and that’s the brilliant fun of it.
As another example, take the first cut, “Cross Country Skiing” — a Simon & Garfunkel-esque dreamy ode to hittin’ the slopes early, with coffee in the belly and trail mix at the ready. A nature-loving granola ode that sounds and feels completely on point, with lyrics that aren’t poetic, or unusual, but so banal as to lull the listener into accepting that the song exists as sincere 70s syrup, and can therefore be retired to background music, like most pop. Until the last few lines, that is. That’s when the narrator veers away from his friends and flies off a hill to his (implied) disaster. This last bit is so carefully managed musically and lyrically that it’s easy to miss how hilarious it all is, coinciding as it does with a well-timed opening up of the vocals and dramatic chord change that totally overshadows the dark lyrical turn that the song has taken. These last lyrics are careful not to overstate things, and conclude in era-appropriate pseudo-mysticism: “Cross country skiing / Watch out those hills are coming fast / Sliding down the hillside / These skis weren’t made for this / To fly, boy from now on / Let the river be your guide”.
If you decide not to interpret this closing stanza as a death or serious mishap, then the song is *still* outstanding comedically because of its absolute banality (just as with “Weatherman”): the beauty of the chorus and the dramatic turns the melody takes near the end absolutely at odds with this worthless tale of a morning skiing dad who hits the slopes and has a bumpy ride on a hill. Tremendous.
The whole record does this, lulls you into expecting total sincerity with its lovely production, its emotional vocal & instrumental delivery, & the tone of its lyrics, all of which evoke an era of heart-on-sleeve, singer-songwriter openness. What rich fertile soil-bed for irony. Song after song deploying its little wink with masterful control.
Some might see “Starting From Nowhere” as just mean-spirited pranking, “gotcha” comedy designed to trick listeners who aren’t in on the joke. But I don’t see it as mean-spirited. It isn’t satire — it isn’t lampooning its subject. It isn’t taking the 70s sound to task — clearly the creators here love that era and re-create perfectly with great enthusiasm. What it’s doing is far more complex — song by song it is setting up a convention, an expected outcome, and then defying that outcome in a way that you the listener can either decide is a mean prank, or a pretty great comedic and musical achievement you can laugh right along with (I obviously choose & suggest the latter).
Not everyone wants this kind of music of course. This record by itself ruined the 70s sound for my girlfriend. Hell, every time I pop in any well-produced & earnestly played rock/folk/pop reminiscent of “Starting From Nowhere”, she assumes that it’s another Heidecker & Wood-esque gag, & that I’m trying to test whether she “gets it” or not. She brought up a good point too, related to her reaction — if I play this for my mom, say, or someone not used meta/self-aware comic productions like Wiseau’s The Room, and that person takes it at face value, and then argues with me when I tell her “nope, sorry, a comedian was involved and each song’s lyrics are meant as a gag”, and that person feels stupid afterwards, what does that say about the creators of the album?
I can’t blame her for her reaction and for this line of reasoning. I can understand the person who hears this record without any prior knowledge of the band or personnel involved (such as my girlfriend), or of the recent interest in goofing on the era’s sound (see the hilarious Yacht Rock), could take it all at face value, having no impulse to close-study lyrics and choruses to find those little Easter eggs of irony that unravel the veneer of sincerity in each tune (I call this the “Imagine” effect — a music so well-wrought that its text is ignored, or presumed to be just as lovely & simple as the melody, just as in the case of Lennon’s song, or a song like “Born in the U.S.A” for instance). I can understand those who think it’s kind of lame what Heidecker and Wood have done here, kind of manipulative. Mischief music, just out to trip us up. Debatably it’s the kind of artwork only a morally bankrupt culture in decay could produce — pastiche, parody, an unhealthy mutant crossbreed of emotionalism and gag.
But I don’t see it that way. I don’t believe any malice is intended. I believe they were sincerely amusing themselves and inviting their core audience — hence keeping Heidecker as part of the band name — to laugh with them at each of these preposterous songs and, most importantly, preposterous narrators (each song has a well-defined farcical narrator set up to slip & fall on his ass). I praise this record for its artistry and careful control of its effects: to simultaneously move the listener and wink with him. It’s sentimental and it’s fully self-aware, full of heart, but also detached and chuckling. I admire how it produces in me these conflicting responses, & I know this comes from nothing but well-planned, well-wrought, gifted architecture.
So why make music like this?
When I first heard this record, I knew pretty much what to expect, being a big Heidecker & Tim & Eric fan, & being accustomed to how he & Eric Wareheim mix grossout comic mode with tragic/sincere mode in some of their works — most notably in Father & Son, which has passages of sincere acting existing alongside passages of stupid buffoonery to unique, vaguely unsettling comic effect.
But I was still left thinking: Why? Why try so damned hard with the production and craft and solos and exquisite melodies, if the text is so empty and nudgy? Why do it? Why not stick to making earnest music through and through, or maybe do it more Tenacious D or Ween style, where everything is clear doofiness from the first chord?
The answer is because you can. And because by doing so you can produce new kinds of reactions in people, create neat complex conditions where self-aware laughs chime right alongside confusingly direct emotional responses (in this case the sincerity coming almost entirely from the music, since after a listen makes clear the joke of each song’s text, one can no longer take any noun or verb in the record at face value — & that’s assuming you go into the record ‘blind’ to Heidecker’s wiles).
There’s value in an art like this, art that can occupy these kinds of modes simultaneously. It’s bizzare & Frankenstein-like, but art should have no boundaries, and all flavors & modes and means of expression should be explored & combined & permuted. Tragic-Comic, Comic-Tragic, romance-horror-spy-porno-comic, whatever. Try it all. Mix it all up. That’s life anyway isn’t it? Nudges and giggles sometimes right on the heels of fear, pain and love. It doesn’t mean the end of sincerity. It’s just play.
Another question this record provoked in me: “What will people 300 years from now think when they find this in a time capsule? What will aliens think?” Before I answer that, consider this: how different is “Start From Nowhere” from some of Brian Wilson’s latter day efforts? I don’t mean musically, I only mean with regards to the text. The same innocence-to-the-point-of-the-childlike (think “Grandest Canyon”), the same purity of outlook bordering on the gently lunatic. Take Wilson’s 1988 self-titled solo record, where Wilson (whom I love dearly as a composer and singer mind you) comes off like more of a pie-eyed minstrel than ever before, musing about the world with holy-fool simplicity in a way that he gets a complete pass on because, well, people believe he’s not bullshitting. People trust he’s not milking his aura for cash, that he really does believe the world is as he writes about it.
Or consider a guy like Daniel Johnston, who writes about his subjects with unsophisticated, black & white naiveté, but who also gets a pass since he’s mentally challenged, traumatized, and writes very fine melodies (again, a composer I love, even while I cringe at some of his lyrics). The innocent, tender way both these composers write about the world is precious & rare to me, but if I’d never heard of either guy, and was told later some comedic mastermind was behind both, pretending to that level of unusual open-heartedness, I wouldn’t blink an eye at the prospect. I’d think: “Damn. Well done. Weird project, but well done.”
Seen in this light, it’s easy for me to imagine that the aforementioned future race, unearthing “Heidecker & Wood” from post-apocalyptic rubble, might take every lyric at face value, as the product of some Johnston/Wilson type open-hearted, slightly unhinged songwriter. Even “Wedding Song”, where the earnest-to-the-point-of-stalker narrator wants to wed a woman he just met. Even “Grandest Canyon”, with its outstanding lines of stupid: “Something about it makes me feel so small” (perhaps the fact that it’s a canyon?), and “Maybe a canyon’s just a canyon / And a man is just a man / And a canyon and a man can live in peace / And share this beautiful land.” And yes, even these showstoppers from closer “Christmas Suite” could conceivably be seen as real utterances by some tragically innocent halfwit melodic wunderkind:
“Children are the makers of our destiny
Children are our future too
Children are the key to the universe
Children come from me and you
Christmas lights are shining through the nighttime
Shining on the children too
Children lights are shining on the children
Lights from Christmas shine all nighttime
Christmas lights are shining on the nighttime
Shining on the choo-choo too
Shiny, shiny, shiny like a choo-choo”
Context is everything — knowing Heidecker to be a comedian is the only way we can be sure that we’re not meant to open our hearts too much to this music. And, with that in mind, I’m arguably too biased to write this piece, given I knew of Heidecker prior to listening to this — I wish I could have heard this without that prior knowledge. (On that note, I’m actually glad he didn’t use a pseudonym for this project & thereby obscure his involvement, because this record would have then gone the rounds with all sorts of tired “Is it fake? Is it real” type hand-wringing, and I think people would have either taken it as absolute earnestness – some lost 70s nugget – or as the opus of some secret prankster. By revealing his identity he forces the listener to always consider the shimmering curtain of Heidecker & Wood’s sophisticated music in conjunction with the welcoming, inviting laffs muffled behind it. Neither negates the other. All must be held in the mind and meditated on and accepted.)
”Starting From Nowhere” is a fucking solid record. Its impact is steeped in irony, and every bar claims sincerity while grandly winking. But that doesn’t mean it’s soulless, or empty, or symptomatic of an unhealthily-ironic age. There’s a place for this kind of comedic art in all eras and times. What it offers is special: an outstanding musical homage to an era, and a record you can sing to & laugh at and come back to even when the gags have been revealed, because the melodies and riffs are just that good, and because it’s distinctly pleasurable to be moved by something while at the same time being detached enough from it to laugh at it.
I’ll close with one of my favorite music-related quotes, one that has very direct bearing on everything I’ve been trying to say in this piece:
“Nothing is capable of being well set to music, that is not nonsense.”
Joseph Addison, from “The Spectator”, no.18 (1711)
p.s. I never got around to “The Comedy”. Shit. Next time.
For more about Heidecker & Wood, please check out their site & listen to their music here.
For more about Tim Heidecker, please check out his Tumblr.
For more about Tim & Eric, please check out clips from their projects & shows their site.