Posts Tagged ‘2010s’

No Doubt: Return of Saturn

An album listen. A rough record of my thoughts while listening.

Ex-Girlfriend: Guitar strings, then a driving beat. Smart, sharp, but romantic and vulnerable. So this album begins, with its mysteries to me when I first listened to it, a decade after it had come out. But it brought me back to when it came out, when Gwen Stefani and I (of similar age) were similarly looking at our futures. She had plans, me I had never really paid much attention to nailing things downand I suppose that’s what this album and lead-off song are all about, one person with a clear wish for settling down, the other not feeling as much urgency despite wanting the same thing. Here’s the bridge, a little of the whine of Tragic Kingdom when she’d enamored me with “I’m Just a Girl” and “Spiderwebs” in the mid-90s, just five years before this leap.

Simple Kind of Life: Super transition to this crunchy song. This is a new No Doubt and the band is going along with her lyrics, not ska-ing it up constantly, which made Tragic Kingdom a hit or miss. Gwen at her most vulnerable and honest. Who wouldn’t want just the simple kind of life? If we’d opted for that, would we be happier now, would we have been happier then? “I’m covered in shells,” I love that cryptic image. “Oh, I always was the one with all the love, you came along, I’m hunting you down / Like a sick domestic abuser looking for a fight,” I love those lines. She understands young love in its all its aspects. I love how she adds that “oh” between lines. Gorgeous layers of sound, drum fills, her voice at its finest. It’s all really simple enough, this song, but No Doubt had and never has surpassed it. How she turns over different modulations of the refrain at the end, “A simple kind of life….”

Bathwater: Notwithstanding the performance that brought me this song, cue up Sanjaya on AI, this one hangs with the previous two in a gorgeous hat trick. Comical, music hall, yet still touching and effective for all its ooky, okay gross, chorus image. Yes, we do really feel that way when in lovewe’d wash in their bathwater. In fact that may be the clearest sign of love, being more than willing to more than tolerate others’ bodily functions and fluids. Gwen is once again led down the primrose path, not thinking about the future, thinking through what dating this person would be like, would it come to anything, would it just work out somehow despite everything? The comical girl voice at the bridge, it’s junior high all over again. She’s almost tripping over the complex alliteration here, but it’s working as the song traipses to its final chorus. The little girl voice returns again as she relishes her wash in nostalgic disregard, like a kid with a serious crush.

Six Feet Under: The hat trick that starts the album ends, and this song’s alright, but nothing special, a return to the old No Doubt. Good beat, the melody and lyrics not quite up to the previous three. Would the album return to form or is this another case of a 50/50 album like Tragic Kingdom50/50 being what I call an album that is half great, half virtually skippable. There are a fair number of these even in the albums I’ve kept, and it shows how hard it is to make a great cover to cover album.

Magic’s In The Makeup: An instant return to the first three super songs, amazing! Her voice pretty again, sentiment open, vulnerable, trying to overcome her girlhood ways. “I’m a chameleon,” how fun to sing along with that. “Makeup’s all off, who am I, the magic’s in the make up, who am I?” What a chorus, what a chorus! (I always thought she was saying, “Makeup’s all wrong,” also good) The magic in the makeup on her face, the making stuff up in her mind about who she really is and what she really wants. What is her true make-up? Again, amazingly touching, and the chorus and voice and accompaniment all work together startlingly well. Lovely modulations of the lyrics and melody. “I wanna be the real thing,” and she wants the real thing when it comes to love and relation to the world as well.

Artificial Sweetener: Sister of the previous, a little more aggressive, more sexual. “The return of Saturn,” amazing to sing along with. The mystery of the phrase before I learned what it referred to. Still, not knowing exactly what it meant, there was a menace to it, fitting for the raw assessment of her life, the “second guessing,” and the artificiality of all she does and has done. “I’m only sure that I’m not sure.”

Marry Me: Another contemplative little tune, confessing again her humble, conventional side. I had this too, I have it, I never cried out to be an artist, but here I am in my current situation with those writerly dreams at least half my humble ambitions. Echoing her earlier self, teasing to remind us of her first hit song, beginning a verse singing “A girl in the world…” Echoing when she wasn’t thinking who would be the one to marry her, but proclaiming her grrrring independence in that song that grabbed me: “I’m Just a Girl.” Nothing wrong with wanting a conventional life and still freedom to choose our way, independent identity even in a close relationship. She is both the woman of “Marry Me” and “I’m Just A Girl,” and maybe that’s why everything seems askew in her experience of this world.

New: Immediately catchy, starting with the chorus. Caught up in the immediate rush of “different than the former,” has she abandoned the wishes of the previous slew of songs or is this new guy the one who will fix up the mess of wishes that has become her life?

Too Late: Churning guitar, then back to the wistful, whimsical Gwen, wanting to parade her new love from the previous song (apparently about her Bushy future and now past husbandthis song fittingly begins like a famous Bush song). Again “Fulfillment just adds fuel to the blaze,” hard to pick out, fun to sing, more alliteration. Her wordiness is fun on this album and she had it in Tragic Kingdom too. The butterfly lines, gorgeously described. Is it another relationship that will end without marriage, in sheer disappointment after initial fervor? She can’t get past the indifference that can come after lust is sated. It seems so. :(

Comforting Lie: Another wonderful melody for her to play her voice on. Great, frantic chorus. So fun to sing along with “Oh build a bomb and blow it away blow it away ” ending with a lovely guitar bit back to the verses. On and on and I would love it. And it seems the reationship of the previous few songs is gone in dramatic fashion, with a joy in blowing it up. Sort it out, toss it away, just give up, but she can’t decide…. “I’m feeling weak, yeah……” Amazing how the album keeps yielding such precious moments to feel and sing and revel in.

Suspension Without Suspense: Clever title and wonderful working through of the chorus, the story of her life and this album as she wrestles with finding what she really wants and falling into traps along the way. I’ve had a relationship or two or like this: “We get so far and then it just starts rewinding, and the same old song we’re playing it again, suspension without suspense, intention without intent.” I find myself singing this couplet often. We can’t get any further in this relationship, it’s stuck, it cannot build any higher, but I don’t want to lose it, why can’t things stay the same?

Staring Problem: Instant turn-off once one starts to notice it, and maybe starts skipping it, but why skip a weak tune on a top-tier album? I got over skipping it and kinda like it now. It has a goofy fun to it, especially with her little piped-in voice in the background of the break, itching to fight saying crazy stuff and that little girl voice joining her in the chorus, and then the shouts at the end. “Predisposed cat fighter.” Seems shorter than its 2:44 and the gamelan ending way cool, shades of my 1998 first experience of that music, not long before this album came out!

Home Now: Jam-type (well, Style Council and Crowded House too) beginning with station waiting room announcement voices, maybe she is hitting the road. Seems like the final song of the album, but it’s not. Only downside is the intervening of the old No Doubt and its a-melodic ska stuff in the break. It’s catchy and weird here, a semi-weakness of an awesome song. These last two songs again somehow return this album to genius. so well over half of the songs are top top tier with nearly all the others good to very good. “What you givin’ up for me, what shall I give up for you? I love the “shall.” Wondrous chorus, delayed: “If you lived here you’d be home now.” Sweet voice, driving chorus to the extreme with the layering and keyboard stabs, guitar lacing around the affair. Horns, “casual light days, part of the furniture,” guitar lacing again. Could go on another ten minutes musically, with more chorus please please.

Dark Blue: Enticing title and use of “dark blue” in the lyrics, giving a cosmic tone to Return of Saturn. Cool harpsichord, it’s too bad you’re so sad, “Unlike you I had it easy, you’re dark blue.” I never did catch that first phrase; I thought it was a garbled “moonlight blue.” Suburban, nice family me and Gwen vs. whoever she’s with and his dark blue past. Wanting to heal her loved one. So much love to give and no one to give to…

Piano Coda, Too Late: The Cardigans did this, Madness too in a way, but not so affecting as here. But here it lets her be alone with her thoughts, and I’m alone with mine.

As I said before, nothing else captures the feel of that time for me even though I didn’t know the album then. The late 90s, when I wound down grad school and found new work and then struggled subconsciously to settle down, trying to get over and get started with things that didn’t work out. Truly staggering. Time travel through one of the most important albums of my life.


Saturn from 1996 to 2000, by NASA Hubble









Read Full Post »

I sometimes stop to think how amazing it is that the words of Julius Caesar have survived history, that we can read his descriptions of his notorious and celebrated maneuvers in the Gallic frontiers and Roman power politics. Leonardo’s notebooks, a biography of a Byzantine emperor written by his daughter, the revelatory Records Written In Silence of a Korean noblewoman of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these have survived for us to relish as experiences of past thought and deed.

Listening to Mental Notes, the first album by Split Enz, it occurred to me that we might be listening Phil Judd’s experiences of bipolar disorder chiseled into a record groove. Judd was one of two lead songwriters and lyricists for the band at the time, the other being Tim Finn. The whole album from side one’s “Walking Down A Road,” “Under The Wheel,” “So Long For Now,” to side two’s “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Titus,” and “Spellbound,” to the last incessantly repeating groove of “Mental Notes” ringing in our ears and Judd’s head—suggest this notion. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but it’s an affecting lens through which to experience the album and the band’s early history, with guitarist Wally Wilkinson leaving the group due to agoraphobia, and Judd apparently so stressed from touring and the other travails of band membership that he started tearing his hair out—hence his baldness in the masterpiece “Sweet Dreams” video.

I’m not sure why this never occurred to me before. Look at their other early album names: Frenzy, Second Thoughts, Dizrythmia. All were recorded while Judd was with the band, or his influence still strongly felt, before Neil Finn (hard to imagine anyone saner) came to dominate the songwriting and image. Noel Crombie’s harlequinesque stagecraft always suggested clownishness, a fun, safe representation of insanity. But what it really shows is a jubilant, lip-smacking sugar pill of mental illness—Judd’s defiant lost-one’s-mindedness recorded on record and film.

And some of Split Enz’s earlier songs reveal the same: “For You” and “No Bother To Me,” which has seldom left my head these past couple of weeks:

It’s no bother for me to beg, I was sane
My eyes are red and my head’s in pain
It won’t hurt me to say what I mean
My throat is blistered but my hands are clean
And I’m just your long lost love and
I’d love you still but I’m not able
They won’t catch me if I can help it
Just hold me down if I have a fit
And I think I’ll be alright now
Say that I’ll be normal some day
Say that I’ll be normal some day
Say that I’ll be normal some day
Now they laugh and teach me how to pray


By good fortune, we have this video of the above song, preceded by my favorite of their performances on their catchiest of tunes, “Maybe.” The stage performance is as demented as they come; the transcription is muddled, like a filmstrip from its era, the ones we’d see in elementary school. What better luck in capturing the band’s depiction of mental illness?

The spirit lived on, notionally at least. Tim Finn was the more happy-go-lucky one, with the sweeter voice, as opposed to Judd’s bleating, which he was forced to re-record on at least one occasion (viz., the two versions of “Titus”). In “Without a Doubt,” “Haul Away,” and even the disturbing “Charlie,” Finn is depicting an approximation, an outside-looking-in, decorous view of depression, melancholy, violence, madness. The spirit remains to some extent, the viscera have fled.

Judd’s later efforts seem more medicated and strained, again portraying not embodying his edge of insanity. His group Schnell Fenster’s “Sleeping Mountain” is a great song, hinting at pent-up, uncontrollable energy, but it is his resurrection of the long ago demo’d “Play It Strange” on his 2014 album of the same name, that really captures that Mental Notes era. You can listen to, and purchase, that touching, masterful song here. It gives me great comfort in this time when I seem to play it strange down my own path, while the world goes its own strange way.


Cover of the album “Play It Strange” by Phil Judd. ©2014, Phil Judd and Bandcamp

Read Full Post »