By Jackson Anderson
The last track on an album is always the most important. Having lame or unmemorable last songs is a surefire way to ruin a good album. I can think of a very specific instance of an album I recently listened to that I loved right up until the last track, which was a crappy, out of tune acoustic track that ended so abruptly that I wondered if Spotify had crashed. I like to keep it positive, so I’m not going to name and shame this band, but, come on guys, if you were going to stick this thing in your album you can’t have it as the last track. The album closer is the last song you hear when you listen to an album; it’s what you remember. Whenever I listen to this unnamed album the last thing I hear is a noticeable voice crack and a strange, unsatisfying ending to a song. It’s like a bad desert ruining an entire meal.
On the other hand, the album closer is an incredible opportunity for musicians to make their art as good as it can possibly be. There are a lot of good album closers out there, because musicians know how important it is to ensure the last track is up to snuff, but the truly memorable ones aren’t just good; they’re great. Like a good season finale on TV or last chapter in a book, a memorable album closer can create a very satisfying end to an album that leaves the listener with that feeling of awe. It gives them that goosebump-riddled feeling of frisson due to the intensity of what they have just experienced, and it fills their passing thoughts and troubles their sleep schedule.
One of the things that always impresses me in an album closer is a little bit of cohesiveness. Album closers that resolve a tension introduced earlier on in the album are those that stick with me and fully take advantage of the fact that they are what they are. A closer to an album rarely tends to be a single, but it also tends to be one of the most revered tracks on the album that directly addresses that it is not a song alone in a vacuum, but a song that is published alongside a specific number of specific tracks at a specific time. I very easily fall into the line of thinking that every album is a concept album, but whether artists intend it or not songs on albums tend to be related as they were written over a related period of time by a related group of people. This relationship is often amplified by the fact that bands (at least those that I listen to) tend to have only one or two songwriters, and as multifaceted and talented as they may be, common threads emerge, and all albums end up having some sort of cohesiveness or recurring themes going on in them. It’s not like there is anything wrong with this; these recurring threads and cohesiveness in albums is exactly why they are my preferred means of consuming music. Good albums feel like seeing a movie or reading a book or watching a TV show or playing a videogame with a nice story; it’s a united storytelling experience with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is conflict, development, and resolution. Resolution is always a particularly satisfying thing to experience, and music is in and of itself a very sensory and emotional oriented experience, so what better way to address the resolution than an album closer?
The album art to Elway’s Better Whenever is quickly becoming a familiar face around here, and for good reason. The album deserves discussion. It perfectly fits this article, which is probably why it’s here. It’s one of those albums that isn’t really a concept album, but still is very cohesive and possesses all the good characteristics of any story in the form of conflict (or tension), development, and resolution. We get to learn a lot about the character of our songwriter, Tim Browne, a guy who you might remember from a songwriter spotlight, and if you’re anything like me, you become quite invested in his little story. “Better Whenever,” the title track that is not to be confused with the album (I may have to eventually talk about title tracks, so much to do, so much to do) lays out the conflict. Tim Browne is an unsure and insecure man that feels the need for others to validate his lifestyle. He loves being in an obscure punk rock band, but he does it more for the people than for the sake of being in an obscure punk rock band, or, you know, making music. He feels the need to “hemorrhage his neuroses out” with his loved ones lest he bottle it all up inside and become depressed and stagnant. He can’t deal with his problems on his own. There’s a couple lines from the song that I feel the need to point out when we eventually get to the album closer. They are: “When I get down I need you here ’cause there’s a demon, there’s a desert, there’s a fear,” and “Have another drink with me, we’ll toast to our obscurity.”
There’s so much going on in Better Whenever, but I’ll leave a broader analysis to another day. This album has one of the absolute best final tracks period. It starts off with a depressing recollection of the album’s events, as Tim is taking inventory over lost loves and wasted days. We even get a nice little reference to Leavetaking, Elway’s previous album that can be simply summed up as a love story and a trip to Chicago, and then, in the chorus, we begin to get our resolution. I’ll post the lyrics first because I feel like I can’t leave anything out.
These passing trucks can be my swan song
And you’ll insist I’ve done it so wrong
But living through my losses makes the world so much less daunting
I’ve got nothing left to fear but fear itself
It’s triumphant, a storybook ending about the evermoving vagrant. It seems to evoke the old saying “Not all who wander are lost.” It’s great, if you buy into that sappy crap. After a guitar solo, Tim brings the listener back to reality.That line about fearing fear, it’s significant. Fear is pretty scary. With his voice starting at barely above a whisper, we get the last verse of the album.
Fear is an empty glass in an empty bar
Opposite the girl you’ll never have
She asks if I ever feel like I’ll disappear
Well, I’ve been battling my irrelevance for years
So have another drink with me
We’ll toast to our obscurity
Stagger, medicate, repeat
‘Til our youth blinks out forever
We’re back at “Better Whenever.” The fear that he was talking about, it’s loneliness, it’s irrelevance, it’s obscurity. He’s come to terms with it. He is an undistinguished, wisened drunk in a punk rock band that only some kid in Utah cares about, and he’s fine with it. He’s fine with toasting to his obscurity with anyone now. That’s what he’s going to do until his youth blinks out forever. The ending to Better Whenever has always given me an intense feeling of satisfaction, and evokes the imagery of the hardened western hero riding off into the sunset. It’s the modern, pedestrian version of the western ballad, but I find myself finding a lot more in common with Tim Browne than Rooster Cogburn. The bow that is nicely tied onto the story of the former also has the added layer of cynical realism that makes it much easier to swallow. I’m not a huge fan of endings where everything goes almost too well, but this one strikes the balance just right.
I had a hard time coming up with a second example. What I’m talking about is extremely prevalent, but I either felt like I didn’t know enough about the album to go into as much detail as I did with Better Whenever, or the album closer was a just a good song, but lacked that oh-so-precious cohesiveness that I was looking for. I began to look through my music catalogue with increasing desperation, hoping that I could fudge one of my favorite album closers to fit my narrative, when I realized that the answer was hiding under my nose the whole time. When I listen to The Lawrence Arms’ Metropole I listen to the deluxe edition, so I get three extra tracks, lucky me. The price I have to pay for this privilege is that I sacrifice the status of “October Blood” as an album closer. It very clearly was meant to be that way, and I found that out fairly early on in my listening, but I wasn’t looking at the fourth track from the end in my search. Luckily, my favorite band is here to bail me out again and save the day with their incredible lyricism and musical prowess.
The Lawrence Arms have been labeled at times, an immature band. While I could not disagree more, they don’t make it easy for themselves when they write songs about masturbation and have EPs titled Buttsweat and Tears. With Metropole, The Lawrence Arms try and divorce any sense of immaturity –while still writing songs about masturbation– and deliver a record that is much more cerebral, introspective, and softer (both sonically and thematically, getting old will do that to you) than their previous efforts. Well, at least Brendan does, Chris always did that to some extent at least.
Metropole is actually probably the most proper, dictionary definition of bookends storytelling that you’re going to get. The album opens exactly as it ends with the phrase, “I was born and I died, and just a moment went by.” In the opening song, “Chilean District,” this is put through a lowpass filter to make it quieter and subdued, and serves as a strange sort of future echo before the album really gets going. This phrase –deliberately chosen I’m sure– is a short and terse description of what Metropole is about: regret and getting old. The album can really be boiled down to just that. It’s hard to adequately express my fondness for this album, –I could say I really like it with a high number of reallys– so I’ll just say that my favorite band has seven albums and five of them are so good that it’s not worth comparing other music to them. This album is on that list. I could go into detail about how exactly it is that The Lawrence Arms express their feelings of aging regret, but, again, that’s another story for another time.
After roughly thirty-one minutes, the listener arrives at the twelfth and final track, “October Blood.” It’s the only album closer that Chris McCaughan has ever got in The Lawrence Arms, and he kills it (in a good way.) He sums up how fast life happens, and how a life goes past in a single moment. He looks over his past as a song and a brother, he takes inventory of his travels, and ruminates on why he has done what he has done over his life. This song also takes perhaps the best advantage of a unique quality to album closers: silence. This is a bit ironic considering a deluxe edition was made for Metropole, which instantly spoils the cadence. Or maybe it’s not because you get silence either way. I haven’t decided yet. Either way, it’s beautiful. When Chris says “I was born and I died, and just a moment when by,” for the last time, the song doesn’t end even after the last guitar chord, bass stroke, and drum beat have all played. A woefully underrepresented instrument in punk music, the piano, plays a short melody, and after that fades out, there is ten seconds of water running, then the sound of an audience clapping, and then, finally five seconds of silence.
Often, I have asked myself, “What does this mean?” This is a hard question to answer because The Lawrence Arms is a band that never does anything without careful deliberation, and will never answer the question truthfully. They’re weird like that. They are brilliant artists and musicians that pour their heart and soul into their work, and are incredibly reticent to give away the answer. They also just like to mess with people. Their liner notes for The Greatest Story Ever Told, for instance, are filled with references to non-existent artists as the source for their inspiration for writing some of their songs. The benefit for this general failure to address what their music actually means is that I can take a stab at it without having to worry about being proved wrong.
My interpretation of this bizarre ending bit to Metropole is that it is a bit of meta-commentary. Everyone in The Lawrence Arms is a lifelong musician, and it’s all they ever have been. They come alive on the stage, when they play their music, and that is when they tell the stories of their lives to the world. At first, I thought it a bit self-aggrandizing to include clapping and cheering in “Chilean District” and “October Blood,” but when I realized the bookend component to it (and when I remembered the fact that The Lawrence Arms aren’t that famous or well-known) it seemed more likely it was a comment on the album itself. They are born and killed as their stories are told in the album, and they are resurrected every time Metropole is given another spin. It’s a sort of subtle fourth-wall breaking that works because it never actually says, “Hey look at me I’m a musician playing music in an album.” It resolves the fears introduced about aging and being unable to accomplish enough in life by immortalizing The Lawrence Arms in the form of music. The act of telling the story is a part of the story, and “October Blood” is when the listener is clued in on it.