Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: Help Help

(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)


Help Help continues the final run of social commentary on the album after the inward turn running from I Am Mine through You Are, and although this is one of the weaker stretches of the record (which is a shame since it is thematically so important) Help Help is fairly strong song and one of the more interesting musical pieces on Riot Act.

Musically the song is perfect for what it is trying to do. Help Help is a musical breakdown—not an emotional breakdown as much as a loss of certainty and stability, the collapse of everything familiar and dependable into a frantic, swirling, sinister existence in which we lack any touchstones, any way to ground ourselves and rebuild---it’s all movement and collapse with no base.

The song starts out peaceful enough, but everything is slightly off kilter, like it’s about to fall apart even though on the surface everything seems fine. I really like the guitar effects coloring the song during the verses, which remind me of a perverted and demented bird song in this fake pastoral scene. It all builds nicely to the chorus—there isn’t a complete juxtaposition since the observer in the song knows that things are wrong and isn’t totally surprised when things fall apart—it’s like a logical conclusion rather than a break. Matt and Mike deserve some special credit for their performances in this one—matt keeps everything off balance during the verse and mike does some really great work, in the chorus especially, but you have to listen to hear it. Nothing stands out here by design—the singer is so lost, so confused, that nothing has any clarity anymore.

Eddie’s vocals play nicely into this setup, as they share the same basic distortion as the music, the veneer of peace and calm built on unstable foundations. The vocal melody is pleasant enough, the lyrics are clam, yet you know that something’s wrong—that it is all an illusion. Usually Eddie conveys this in his lyrics or his delivery—here they do it through the distortion effects, and the break from past practices makes it more striking. It is a nuanced and textured song, but it isn’t very subtle.

Lyrically Jeff (like Stone) is usually hit or miss, but Help Help works, given the songs intentions. The lyrics reflect the complete and total alienation of the subject. He no longer wants to fight. He no longer wants to resist. He wants the storybook. He wants the lies. He wants to go along with everyone else into this pleasant lies, easy answers, and attractive illusions that the rest of his country has embraced. It’s far better to surrender then to resist alone.

Understood this way there are two ways to interpret the ‘help me’ cry in the chorus. He’s asking to be saved from himself (help me to stop thinking these nasty unpatriotic, un-American thoughts—make me just like you) and to be saved from the illusions and the lies (help me to stop believing the story, give me the strength to keep thinking the things that I’m told are unpatriotic and un-American since in these circumstances they represent the truer, higher form of patriotism that others are so easily threatened by).

It’s telling then, that the song ultimately abandons the help me chorus for the outro—there is a moment of clarity, or rejection, in the bridge—a recognition that the story is dangerously seductive, grounded as it is in hate and fear, emotions that are always easier than love and courage, and that this is no way for people to live. The song builds to a frantic conclusion musically as he tries to claw his way out of the illusion—rejecting politics of fear and division (the man they call my enemy I’ve seen his eyes he looks just like me…a mirror---referring to Muslims, his fellow Americans, or anyone with whom we share a common humanity). People with power so often use the idea of division and difference to prevent those they wish to rule to build the bridges and bonds of solidarity that are capable of resisting that power.

Help Help culminates with a desperate attempt to grasp at that truth (clearer…clearer…not my enemy…not my enemy…) but since this is Riot Act, and ultimately a document of defeat, there is no resolution. As with almost every song on this record the subject knows the truth, but sometimes knowing the truth is enough. The clarity isn’t enough to overcome all the forces working to beat it down. It can’t overcome the confusion and alienation. It’s a false catharsis, like the painting The Scream. The subject can rage against the way we’re divided against each other but he can’t put the pieces back together at the end, just like the subject of The Scream can yell all he wants without actually putting the picture back into focus. At best it gives him the personal clarity needed to level the accusations in Bushleaguer, but it is a private enlightenment, nothing that we can build on.

This is, I think, what Eddie is trying to get at with Green Disease, but in the end it lacks the immediacy of a World Wide Suicide, the bite of a Comatose or a Do the Evolution, the righteousness of Grievance, the sympathy of Insignificance, or the wisdom of Marker. Green Disease is certainly an earnest song, but in the end (because of the music perhaps) it is a little too petulant and maybe a little too obvious to pull it off.

Can't Keep
Save You
Love Boat Captain
I Am Mine
Thumbing My Way
You Are
Get Right
Green Disease
Help Help
1/2 Full
All Or None