Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vs.: Rats


(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
Rats is perhaps the only mistracked song on Vs. It is cast in the same broad mold of vague social commentary as the middle of the record, aiming for a target so big that the result ends up being less impressive than something more narrow, more tightly focused, less defensive and reactive. The end of Vs. is meant to be revelatory. Rearviewmirror, Small Town, Leash, and Indifference are the epiphanies that sharpen and clarify the confused and fluctuating world the previous songs attempt to define and critique. If Rats was more precise you could make the case that the newfound sense of certainty and purpose, of vision, achieved in Rearview Mirror makes the observations in Rats possible, but they’re not any more insightful than anything that’s come before. Nor is Rats necessary as a cooldown after the intensity of Rearview Mirror, since the two songs that follow are a gentle acoustic number and a joyful rave.

This isn’t to say that Rats is a bad song. It’s pretty good. It’s just that it works more effectively as a stand alone song than it does as a part of a record, given its placement. It ends up being a speed bump in the middle of an extended 4 song climax, instead of helping to pave the road that leads there.

There is a playfulness to Rats that is actually fairly charming. It’s written in the same sarcastic mold as Glorified G, but you’re left with the sense that it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously. The music helps here, but the key is Eddie. The music in Glorified G sets a light and sunny backyard bbq mood, but Eddie is so clearly out to draw blood that it undermines the fun. Rats actually starts out trying to sound more dark and foreboding, but you can almost see everyone smiling in the darkness, Eddie included, as they construct the song. Everyone’s tongues are kept much more firmly in cheek. The bassline is ever so slightly whimsical, implying deep and heavy thoughts refracted through something playful, and the accents at 9, 12, and 15 seconds give the opening a Cheshire cat grin. Eddie plays his part, growling out his verses with a survivors grit and wisdom, climaxing with an over the top melodramatic chorus and urgent, striving guitars. It would be easy to take all this as authentic if not for the playful funkiness of the music, especially the solo in the bridge. It’s playing at being bad ass while knowing that it’s not, like a child trying on its parents clothes and grinning at itself in the mirror. The song culminates with its grinding two minute outro (with what has got to be the longest fadeout on any PJ record) that once again feels like its winking at itself, almost mocking the sound and fury of the earlier songs. That’s part of Rats’ problem. Vs. is such an overserious record that it’s hard to fit in something this mischievous.

Lyrically the song seems like a bit of misfire. The gimmick is clever, but Eddie doesn’t quite pull it off. Tom Waits has a similar song called Army Ants where he spends three minutes cataloging unusual characteristics of various bugs and insects. The song is strangely hypnotic, and so the songs final reveal, when Waits admits that he’s been talking about humans all along, is clever and amusingly shocking (Perhaps you've encountered some of these insects in your communities, displaying both their predatory and defense characteristics, while imbedded within the walls of flesh and passing for, what is most commonly recognized... as human.) Eddie is going for something similar here (although this song predates Army Ants). The lyrics catalog all the terrible things some awful species does to its own members (a sense of cannibalism, that it’s not just that these people do bad things, but that they do it to their own kind, pervades the song and makes everything seem even more sordid). Most of the lyrics are pretty good (‘they don’t push, don’t crowd, congregate until they’re much too loud’ flows really nicely, ‘fuck to procreate til’ they are dead, drink the blood of their so called best friend’ sounds shocking without sounding cheap. ‘Bare their gums when they moan and squeak, lick the dirt off a larger one’s feet’ sounds sufficiently pathetic, and ‘starve the poor so they can be well fed, line their holes with the dead ones bread’ comes across as a real crime. On the other hand, the nicely delivered lyric about the pack mentality in the chorus ‘they don’t’ scurry when something bigger comes their way, don’t’ pack themselves together and run as one’ is undermined by the ‘don’t shit where they’re not supposed to’ lyric which sounds more like it’s trying to shock than genuinely shocking. And the opening lyrics just don’t quite make sense. ‘They don’t eat, don’t sleep, they don’t’ feed, they don’t seethe’ seems off. Why are eating and sleeping bad, and what does seething have to do with that? These lines shouldn’t be deal breakers, and I suppose they’re not. But the rest of the song isn’t quite as clever as it has to be to support the weight of weaker lyrics.

The ‘Ben, the two of us need look no more’ reference is just odd. Ben was an early 70s horror movie (a sequel to Willard, which was about killer rats). The main character befriends Ben, the leader of a pack of telepathic rats. Ben keeps the boy company and acts as his friend while he confronts the problems of childhood bullying and illness. Eventually most of the pack is destroyed and the movie ends with the main character nursing Ben back to health. It sounds like a really weird movie (I’ve never seen it), but it’s remembered mostly for the fact that Michael Jackson wrote an incongruously sweet song about it that outlasted the film. I suppose, echoing the ‘I’d rather be with an animal’ theme from earlier in the record, that the singer needs to look for comfort in odd places since humanity is so disgusting, but this is a little too obscure to be effective.

The biggest problem is that the song doesn’t feel like it leads to any great revelation. If the song wasn’t called rats the ‘bombshell’ moment when you realize that Eddie is condemning humanity as somehow inferior to rats would have more power. The revelation at the end of Army Ants is genuinely shocking, and enjoyable for the unexpected surprise. You know precisely from the very beginning where Eddie is going with this, and since the song can’t rely on its twist ending the rest of the song needs to justify the lyrical conceit, and it can’t quite pull it off. It’s not that what comes before is bad. It’s pretty good and the song is pretty fun. But it also has no real meaningful impact. It aims at a target that’s too big, the playfulness seems slightly out of place. Rats doesn’t know quite what kind of song it wants to be, and maybe that’s how you can justify its place on the record. The band doesn’t know quite who it is yet, either.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town