Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Dissident


(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
Dissident follows with Glorified G in its surface attempt to lighten the feel of the record. There are some crunchy twisted guitars underneath, but the part of Dissident that people remember musically is the arms to the sky soloing. It sounds cathartic and liberating, although since this begins the song it isn't quite clear what we’re being liberated from. The music slows its pace and gathers strength during the verses, providing background for what is hopefully a weighty struggle justifying the freedom found during the chorus. Musically the verses actually do a pretty excellent job prepping the chorus. You can hear the musical muscles drawing in breath and waiting to elevate the chorus and outro that dominate the song. Really every other part of the song feels like an afterthought. Dissident, ½ Full, and Red Mosquito always struck me as musically similar, although ½ Full and especially Red Mosquito sound like more involved songs with more independent moments. Even the bridge here, perhaps the best part of the song in terms of its music, spends its time clenching its teeth and exorcising its ghosts to justify revisiting the chorus one final time. It seems pretty clear that everything in Dissident is designed to take the listener back to Mike’s ringing notes and their promise of clarity, of a better world being born.

Lyrically this song is telling a different story, however, and like Glorified G the listener has to decide whether or not the contrast between musical and lyrical themes is intentional, or just poor writing. Like Glorified G I think it is intentional and like Glorified G I think the final product doesn’t quite match up to its ambitions. The problem with Glorified G is that Eddie rarely does sarcasm all that well. Some people exude too much good will to pull it off. It seems beneath him---almost inappropriate. Eddie’s pain sounds so raw on these early records precisely because he’s both made himself vulnerable and open in his desire for love and meaning, and some of it hits so hard because there is a warmth to his voice that generates so much sympathy and empathy. Glorified G seems almost unbecoming.

The problem with Dissident is similar to the problem with Alive. If Eddie is actually telling the story he claims to be telling it is far too thin to be effective. A first glance at the lyrics make this a story of regret and betrayal. Some nameless political protester (a dissident) shows up, hunted and wounded, at a nameless woman’s house. She takes him in although she’s conflicted. She wants to help. She’s looking for meaning and a part of her almost certainly agrees with whatever this unknown cause is. But at a critical moment she panics. She fears commitment, and the risk and vulnerability involved, and she turns him in. She lives the rest of her life regretting it. Eddie’s tone is interesting. Although the woman is a coward, he refuses to judge her for her weakness. Dissident is tragic, but it is tragic because it recognizes human weakness, not human wickedness. Eddie’s vocal performance reflects that. Although he has ample opportunities to sneer, his voice is full of forgiveness and tinged with a recognition of the inevitability he rages against. The main character is a woman is in some ways somewhat surprising since it conforms to gender stereotypes (a woman is nurturing but irresolute), although this is softened by Eddie’s sympathy for our all too human limitation, our inability to put ourselves at risk to do the right thing. There’s also no reason to think that a male character in this song would have done the right thing, so perhaps it is a woman because he thinks the listener is less likely to judge, and unlike Glorified G, Dissident is looking to mourn something lost, not judge something present.

Still, as far as stories go this has almost no details, no reason to really care for any of the people involved. There’s nothing very concrete here. No jukebox details like we get in insignificance that suddenly make the people involved real and make you worry about what’s happening to them. Eddie is normally quite good at that, which means either Dissident is lazy songwriting or there’s something else going on here.

Instead , like so much of Vs., this is a song about himself, and by extension all of us. Do we have the courage of our convictions? Will we rise when we’re called upon? Most of us won’t. Escape is never the safest path but it’s the one we all choose. Safety over risk, Concession over confrontation. In the interests of security we risk the chance to live a life of meaning. This is the great insight of Thomas Hobbes—that all our other ambitions, dreams, and values play second fiddle to our desire to just be safe. But there is warning here. Once the moment passes we regret it. The life we’ve preserved loses its flavor. Although there are ghosts in the bridge of Dissident these ghosts are just as likely ghosts of our own making—the spirits of missed opportunities and lingering regrets. 

And so Dissident sounds the way it sounds because it’s meant to inspire, to help us steel ourselves so the next time we are forced to choose between our principles and our security we will have the strength to do the right thing, to recognize that what seems safe and easy now comes at too high a price, and the security that it brings is an illusion because it costs us the very thing we’re concerned about losing in the first place—our integrity, our sense of self, our souls. If you look at the song this way it is easy to see the past battles about videos and self-promotion and the upcoming struggle with Ticketmaster. Dissident is Vs. anticipating the themes of Vitalogy refracted through the music of Ten. It’s potentially a very interesting song in that regard. Unfortunately the music is just a little too repetitive, and other than the intriguing ‘escape is never the safest path/place’ few striking lyrics to give the song the depth and substance it needs to really make its point effectively.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town