Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Guided Tour of Riot Act: B-sides and Outtakes

(A Guided Tour of Riot Act)
Riot Act is potentially a thematically ambiguous album. I hear it as a document of defeat, a response to a world that has broken the faith, optimism, and dogged determination that characterizes the rest of the catalogue. There are some potentially hopeful moments in the record but with only one clear exception (I Am Mine) I think they are songs where the singer is trying to convince himself that the old faith still holds, and he ultimately fails. The lyrics are potentially ambiguous, and reading a happy ending into Riot Act makes some sense given the band’s general take on these questions, but that’s not my interpretation, for a few reasons. Beyond just my particular take on the lyrics the cover art, the music, and eddie’s vocal delivery all speak in defense of Riot Act as an album written in retreat, rather than defiance. But the biggest support for my view is, I think, the exclusion of Down and Undone from the record. These are the only two unconditionally positive songs on the record—the moments of light missing from an otherwise dark album, and there is no reason not to include them if that was the message the band wanted us to take from Riot Act. In fact, the message doesn’t work without it. Without them the only clear moment of triumph is I am Mine, and that is buried in the middle of the album, a temporary moment where the swimmer’s head breaks the water before they start the slow drowning of the rest of the record. If I was tracking Riot Act to be a positive record I’d probably start, rather than finish the record, with All or None, which is so depressing as to be almost unlistenable, and get the down numbers (All or None, ½ Full, Ghost, Help Help, Cropduster, Thumbing My Way) out of the way and use Down as your pivotal transformation track, as the lyrics essentially tell the triumphant story that the band excluded from the record. It starts from the funk the singer disappears into at the end of Ghost, and while both are heavier, guitar driven songs, Ghost sounds like an engine dying whereas Down is the sound of it gunning back to life. The riff is infectious, the sound is rich, and the moment in the beginning where the band comes in after a few iterations of the riff (with the drum roll) is like shocking a heartbeat back into existence. Eddie has more enthusiasm here than on almost any other song on the album and he walks us through the dark journey he’s been on before he was able to reclaim his faith. Down. Fall by the wayside no getting out. Down. Cry me a river dried up and dammed. The names can be changed but the place is still the same. I am loaded. Told that all's for naught. Holds me down. He acknowledges the depths to which he’s fallen, the sense of feeling trapped, the utter lack of agency. He universalizes the experience (the names can be changed but the place is still the same), but he’s describing a place he’s been, rather than the place he is. The song continues with a command (one of the few, if only on the record). He demands that we rise, that we accept responsibility for, if not making the world, then changing it, and the act of engagement itself is the best cure for depression (think I’ll throw these pills away), and leaves us with his reminder that if he can ascend from his darkness than anyone can escape from theirs. The song ends with a moment of defiance, a refusal to surrender his light to the encroaching darkness, before the song finishes with Mike’s celebratory solo (more playful than cathartic, but clearly the sound of a person unbowed by the world around them. Undone backs away from the churning optimism of Down. It’s a less assertive song musically and vocally, the sound of someone maintaining themselves after a hard fought battle. The groove (this is musically one of my favorite moments in their catalogue) is more reflective and patient than Down, the lessons less immediate, more considered. The song begins with a homecoming, with the singer returning to a place of safety, comfort, love, and stability after a long time away, and Undone conveys that beautifully, that feeling of finally being able to exhale after a long, tense, moment The second verse tells us where the singer has been, his homeland occupied (exactly the right word to use although its power is diminished by the ‘corporations rule the day’ lyric which lacks any subtlety and is too much a cliché) and affirms his hope that none of this is permanent, that we can fight back, that having lost a battle does not mean you need to surrender the field, which the pendulum lyrics do a great job conveying (well you know the pendulum throws/farther out to the one side swinging/has to sweep back the other way). He has found his lost faith in his community and himself, enough that he is prepared to join the fight once again, sloughing off the hopeless depression that had left him paralyzed (summarizing Down in the bridge couplet ‘all this hope and nowhere to go/this is how I used to feel but no more). The chorus makes all of this clear. His use of the word Undone is well chosen. It is less that his world has been trampled and destroyed as much as it has been picked apart piece by piece, and we don’t need to put the entire thing back together at once. We can rebuild one battle at a time. It is precisely by moving the fight from an impossible need to create a utopia to a series of discrete engagements that we can move forward---the wave needs to build before it breaks, and we cannot construct it alone. If these songs were included in Riot Act I’d have a very different impression of the record, but I take their inclusion to be a sign that the band was not ready to reembrace their fighting faith. At least, not yet. They ran from the optimism of these songs, and if they were not willing to stand by it here I have a hard time teasing it out of the record as a whole. These songs can’t be on Riot Act because their inclusion means Riot Act is no longer Riot Act. This was not the story they wanted to tell Interestingly enough, Other Side could have done quite well on Riot Act. I don’t think it is a particularly good song and am glad they left it off, but it fits the record far better than either Down or Undone. It is one of the most miserably hopeless songs in their entire catalogue, with every lyric just digging the singer deeper into his whole. It is a song chronicling a near total collapse of joy, faith, meaning, and even agency, with the concluding image of the singer trapped in himself, begging for a way out that he knows he can’t provide himself.  That's Riot Act in a nutshell. There is no space for Down and Undone on a record like that. I am Mine works, but only insofar as it gives us a brief moment of hope that makes the subsequent decline all the more tragic
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   
B-Sides & Outtakes

Riot Act