On Trying to Be Emo/Not Trying to Be Emo Anymore

I have an unusual relationship with music. For a period of several years in my twenties, I didn't have any friends I could talk about music with. So it became something I listened to alone, mostly in my car. It was more of a companion than a set dressing. And as a result, I started to engage in a very specific, personal way with the songs I chose to listen to. To this day, I'm big into narrative and theme when it comes to music. That doesn't mean I only like songs if I think the lyrics are good. It just means that if I do like a song, I'm probably going to listen to its lyrics, and think about what kind of message they convey.

Which brings me to Say Anything, a band I've always had mixed feelings about but have to admit, when you get right down to it, have produced some of my absolute favorite songs. Max Bemis has a real knack for melody, and Say Anything songs often feature a kind of instrumental excess that rewards someone paying close attention to them (hi). Dig the way the verse chords are rarely played the same way in "Belt," for example, or the guitar licks that show up between lines on "Fed to Death." But then some of their songs are kind of...bad? Weirdly, I can think of a few, like "Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too" and "I Hate Everyone" whose melodies are extremely, and seemingly intentionally, reminiscent of playground taunts. And not much more fun to listen to. And the lyrics. Oh boy. Dude has a lyric-writing style that can perhaps best be described as "a lot." Sometimes the lines come across as actually pretty clever, if heightened ("I remained unrecognized in my hometown/ Beneath my monstrous gown/ Of feathery down" is a favorite of mine, from "Belt"), sometimes they sound like someone trying really, unnecessarily hard to be clever and not succeeding. So they've always been a hit-or-miss band for me, but I've listened to every album they've released anyway, because when they hit, they really hit. You don't forget the art that you scream along to in the car like that.

Say Anything just released a new album, called "Oliver Appropriate" (I kind of hate that title. Oliver is never even named in the songs! I'll get to that.) and along with it a lengthy essay on their website explaining that this is probably the last album they'll release. And you know what? I really like it. The whole album, which is the first time that's ever happened to me with a Say Anything release. Oliver Appropriate is a concept album written from the perspective of the "character" that ...Is a Real Boy, their debut album with a label, is also about. This album names him Oliver. In the essay, Max explains that all his other albums were more sincerely about himself, but I dunno, man. The perspective on ...Is a Real Boy is distinctive, sure, and I can easily accept that it is kind of a character or at least put-on, but I've smelled that perspective on every Say Anything release. "I Hate Everyone" from their self-titled release? That's gotta be Oliver. Anarchy, My Dear features a dang sequel song to the album closer from ...Is a Real Boy! Oliver's always been there, is what I'm saying. I won't accuse Max of fronting too hard, though, especially because he just did this excellent interview with Vulture wherein he cops to every similarity between Oliver and himself. But Oliver is also an excuse for Max to imagine himself as the worst person he could possibly be--particularly, according to that interview, in the emo band scene he had to tour in under the Say Anything banner.

I'd venture that imagining himself as a terrible villain focuses the songwriting on this album in a way that, to my ears, really pays off. Even the tendency to write schoolyard taunt jingles into his melodies sounds a lot better than it ever has to me before, when he does it on this album, in "Pink Snot." I guess there might be no use in trying to explain why one song sounds good to me and another doesn't, but I feel like, on "Pink Snot," the fact that the character singing the taunting melody is clearly the butt of the joke helps that melody work a lot better. He's not just singing that everyone else sucks. He's singing that they suck because they do drugs and he does drugs too.

Concept albums never really make any narrative sense. It's just really hard to pull off a long narrative in segments of three minutes of verse set to music. So I'm just going to post what Max says (in that big essay) the album is about, some of which was clear to me when I listened to it and some of which was not at all:

"The listener and I follow Oliver over the course of two days.   The first song kicks it off with Oliver waking up on a hungover Sunday in his filthy Bushwick apartment and follows him to a contrived dive bar where he meets the first boy he allows himself to fall in love with, again played by Karl, who expresses his role through vocal counterparts and his drumming.   Oliver, despite having a girlfriend he doesn’t really care about, ends up sleeping with Story Karl, which drives him nuts because he won’t truly accept that he could love a boy not as a joke or an expression of contrived “experimentation”.  Oliver just rejects Karl and treats him like another conquest.  After being fired the next day from his vague and boring job in marketing, he feels empty and thinks “maybe this boy is the answer” and  regrets his decision. He seeks out Karl, who he assumes will just love him back. Karl rejects him and tells him he’s actually sort of into another guy.  In a fit of rage, Oliver kills Karl, absconds to a San Francisco and drowns himself, tied to his lover’s corpse and a gigantic stone.   The album ends with Oliver’s ascension after death and his acceptance of what he’s done to himself,  Karl, and the world. I would like to think he is reborn and goes somewhere better and since I believe in the power of story, I believe this to be (fictionally) true, since I did write the damn thing."

The next line in the essay, incidentally, is: "….I know. I know. Silly and intense as usual. And creepy."

So what do I make of this? For one thing, it's kind of thrilling to hear a man sing about being bisexual in a pop song. Has that, like, ever happened before? It seems very new and original, and helped make the song "Send You Off" one of my favorites on the album. The other thing I think about it is that as overwrought as that story is, and as much as it plays into the "queer tragedy" thing I keep hearing so much about, it really sounds like a guy trying to come to grips with himself and grow up. Which is what makes the album ultimately pretty moving. On the song where Oliver apparently murders his boyfriend, incidentally, Max sings about being alone, and there are some guest vocals on this track. From a small child. Who asks, from what I can hear, if they sang their part all right at the end of the song. I haven't confirmed this, but it seems like that's probably Max's kid. A song about the most anti-loving, isolationist, immature feelings a person could have that's backed up by audio evidence of the singer being a father. That got me pretty good, I'll admit.

And let's talk about that fictional violence for a second, huh? You may notice that weird, tacked-on "after death" happy ending for Oliver in the description above. In the song where it happens, it manifests as a spoken-word section where Max narrates his character waking up in a bed, feeling drugged out, and the "you" who must be Story Karl, the boyfriend, is there. Oliver apologizes. Karl is weirded out by what Oliver says but kisses his cheek and then leaves. It really is specific enough to lend itself to an alternate interpretation of what happens in the album's story: maybe the whole thing where Oliver goes nuts and, according to the song lyrics, burns his dick off (really), slits Karl's throat, and buries them both under the Bay Bridge, is a drugged-out fantasy. Maybe Oliver just has a substance-induced break from reality and then wakes up in the hospital. Maybe, as that interviewer from Vulture says: "the harsher lines were sort of like the frustrated person’s flight of fancy, the thought of something they would never do. Sometimes a movie will show a quick cut of the main character doing something grotesque, something that’s clearly happening in their head, when the reality is that they never act on the impulse."

The Vulture guy is talking about older Say Anything songs when he says this, but Max's response is: "Yeah, completely." And anyway, if the murder scene is read as taking place in Oliver's head, that would explain both why Story Karl is so weirded out by his apology, and also apparently forgives him. And that's the way I like to engage with music. If the message at its face value doesn't work for me, I'll try to come up with something that doesn't invalidate that message, but makes it work better for me.* And I like to imagine that Oliver hurts himself more than anyone else, and has a chance to grow as a person and be happy. Just like to imagine the same opportunity for Max Bemis, and everyone else who helped make Say Anything so important to me. I'm really happy for him and them, I really like this album, and I'm ready for all of us to grow up and move on.

*I don't really fault Mr. Bemis from wanting to have Oliver die at the end of this album, though. As they say on Game of Thrones, "kill the boy."


Popular posts from this blog

Story Notes on "To My (Final) Girl"

Welcome, or How Kiki's Delivery Service Taught Me About Emotional Logic

Why Oh Why Can Some Books Be Read So Much More Quickly Than Others?