Remembering D. Boon

In “History Lesson – Part II” D. Boon said, “our band could be your life,” but I always misheard it as “punk rock could be your life.” I think that’s two ways of saying the same thing, anyway. D. Boon’s quote summed up an oft-misunderstood music genre that became a truly life-saving force for me. It could be my life in all senses of the word. It was my energy, my vitality, my existence, my legacy, my grounding mechanism, my savior.

 

And, while The Dwarves may have invented Rock n’ Roll, D. Boon practically invented punk rock. Real punk rock, at least. His blend of punk rock had everything: politics, literary allusions, humor, jazz and reggae influences, tearjerkers, anthems, those ear-catching bass lines that became so indicative of the genre, and above all, a lot of heart. D. Boon was a visionary that appeared exactly when he needed to, and was given the all the praise that he deserved, and he never let it go to his head. He just kept doing what he did best: making thought-provoking music and having a lot of fun doing it.

 

At the height of D. Boon’s career, he found himself sick, prone in the back of a van in Arizona on Interstate 10. The van was ran off the road, and Boon was ejected. He died instantly from a broken neck. D. Boon might as well have created the best and most varied music genre during his short time on this earth, and I know more than one person can say that they directly owe their lives to him. He truly was one of the best, in all aspects of the word.

The Genius of The Greatest Story Ever Told: Part 2

By Jackson Anderson

Introduction

We last looked at our favorite allusion-filled, Wasteland-esque concept album in early October. Suffice it to say it has been a fairly long interim period since we last got down to the nitty-gritty of  The Greatest Story Ever Told. To recap, the album in question is a concept album that presents itself as a fanciful circus production produced by Ferdinand Magellan, Gordon Shumway, and Ivan Nikolaevich, three figures of varying historical significance, all of which are members of the troupe known as The Lawrence Arms. Both the literal and metaphorical audience quickly finds out that this concept is a front to lure the metaphorical audience into a trap so that bassoonist/bassist Ferdinand Magellan/Brendan Kelly may vent his anger towards a miasma of unpleasantries and harpist/guitarist Ivan Nikolayevich/Chris McCaughan may similarly share his experiences of lost relationships and the depression that accompanies that. Key allusions include The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (this is the big one),  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot, Lao Tsu’s teachings, and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

 Alert The Audience! Or: Anachronisms Become More Apparent

Despite the ringmaster, the album’s artwork and presentation, and several of the album’s song titles, The Lawrence Arms do not keep themselves in the time period of the circus, or even make an effort to do so. If anything, they make several contemporaneous references that date the album as being solidly released in 2003, and “Alert The Audience!” is one of the best examples of this dating. “Alert The Audience!” is one of Brendan’s least aggressive tracks that features a mid to high tempo build, an infectious bass line, and more lyricism that serves to highlight what makes The Lawrence Arms the standard for intellectual lyrics in the punk scene, with Brendan even going so far as to inventing his own word.

Passive aggressive, confessing, repressive

Structurally uncertain, transparent, transgressive

I’ve stumbled into something and I don’t know what it is.

All I-beams, bolts and plaster, corners painted in piss.

Mistakes are the breaks that I’m cutting on me.

Fast down the hill, impossibly free.

Faster and faster, I’m running the gears.

My tears are streaming back into my ears.

My enemies I knew too well, they bickered amongst themselves.

I have a rule that I love to break.

It ends in tears, cursing, and shakes.

I’m a clown and I’m choking on blood, teeth, and tongue.

Fuck the spectators. Fuck the “he was so young.”

Fuck forced sympathy through lifeless glass eyes,

Povichian voyeurs drinking my cries.

Fuck faced trilobites waiting to die.

I can’t stand the humor, and I can’t stand the lies.

Brendan’s footnote indicates that the words in the first two lines either came from a psychological evaluation from his youth, or he’s making it up (the footnote lists both possibilities). Either way, they indicate Brendan’s frustration and disillusionment with societal functions, and his own personal uncertainty due to these functions. He goes into more specifics as to what the antecedent of this phrase is as the song progresses, repeating his disdain for the “spectators” or audience who eat up the pain of others with false sympathy. The “Povichian voyeurs” that Brendan is referring to here are the viewers of the Maury Povich show, a tabloid talk show hosted by the eponymous Maury Povich that often deals with teenage pregnancy, sexual infidelity, and paternity test results. In Brendan’s footnotes he expresses his disgust for the show, and calls it “one of the saddest displays of how low human beings are ready and willing to sink in the name of money” (Footnote 3 Alert the Audience!)  Here, Brendan furthers the pre-established theme of his disgust against his captive audience, and his belief that humans exploit their fellows for entertainment, reiterating the usage of the word “clown” to describe himself. Again, Brendan circumvents the circus aesthetic by making references to contemporaneous media, but keeps the concept in sight with the title of his song and the reappearance of more audio sampling strangeness. Instead of a ringmaster, we the hauntingly mocking laughter of children at the outro, which doesn’t necessarily make one immediately think “circus!” but does have audio distortion similar to that of the ringmaster to make it sound like it is coming out of a phonograph, which suggests to me that these laughing children are members of The Lawrence Arms’ nonexistent (as opposed to their existent) captive audience.

 Fireflies Or: Chris Becomes Increasingly Self-Destructive

After “Alert the Audience!” we get a seamless transition into “Fireflies,” another Chris song that is, in my opinion, flawless. Not only does Chris return to and reinforce his theme of bittersweet nostalgic lost relationships in his lyricism, but he also shows off his mastery of his instrument in his songwriting. In a song song of obsessive focusing on past events, Chris uses the same musical motifs over and over again to show his own obsessiveness, and this subtle attention to detail in his songwriting blows my mind.

Invisible. Inviting visions linger.

This swirl of smoke looks like her slender body.

I see everything in frames now. Golden gilded.

Rippled edges wave goodnight.

Lightsleeper. What’s keeping you from waking?

This shallow stare has said it all.

Your cold dark face reminds me of the night we learned to smoke.

Fireflies at our lips.

Thirty seven years until I show my face again.

Steal this moment. Make it worth saving.

Choke down the clouds that cloud your head now.

It would make my gloomy day.

Whoever you are you’ve stayed far away for too long.

The clocks are flipping on their backs.

Don’t stay too late. I’ll fizzle and fade.

A statue of stoned beliefs.

A monument to monumental dying thoughts.

Let the currents take us where they will.

From this hill I can see the world unfold before me.

I’m brooding over broken nights.

I break each sentence like a limb.

This is my exit.

I storm out stage left.

It’ll feel like I left you so long ago.

These arms will bleed. I’ll be waiting.

I’ll be waiting with wishful elation.

Lightsleeper, you could make my gloomy day.

Make this moment worth saving.

While “Fireflies” is an amazing song in its own right, the true brilliance of the track becomes apparent when it is examined in the context of The Greatest Story Ever Told in its entirety. The idea of memories as clouds of smoke that are emblematized as fireflies to add a fairytale-like air of childlike wonder to these past events recalls earlier imagery of fire that was introduced in “The Raw and Searing Flesh” and “Drunken Mouth Kitchen Smile” that keep in line with the idea of memories as a burning, ephemeral sort of entity, while at the same time calling back to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita –from which Chris takes his pseudonym, Ivan Nikolayevich, as well as some of the titles and lines in his songs– in regards to that author threatening to burn early manuscripts of the text. We also have some pretty clever word play which is usually more up Brendan’s alley –“A statue of stoned beliefs. / A monument to monumental dying thoughts.” In Chris’s footnote he says he learned to smoke under a statue of Abraham Lincoln. He learned how to get stoned under a stone monument, and had monumental dying thoughts under it. Pretty neat, huh? In “Fireflies” we also get the first inklings of how destructive and harmful these memories are for Chris in the line “these arms will bleed,” which he will eventually return to later on in the album in “The Revisionist.” Chris also references the circus aesthetic with the lines “This is my exit / I storm out stage left” while simultaneously referencing his career. His footnote indicates that he prefers the left side of the stage when he performs, and only stands in other areas in “bizarre occasions” (Footnote 3 Fireflies). To me this seemingly throwaway footnote reveals that Chris is leaving his comfort zone in “Fireflies”in order to perform and share with the world the agony of his nostalgia. As “Fireflies” fades out we have the return of the ringmaster who says “We are the clowns clowns, only here to entertain… [unintelligible]… fireflies circle like a flame that’s never burned so high” referencing Chris’s burning motif and bringing us back to the circus aesthetic.

As a side note, I have to say that I am both fascinated and frustrated by my discovery of this ringmaster. He is never mentioned at all in the liner notes, I have been unable to track down any reference to him in any interview with The Lawrence Arms, –or anywhere, be it on the Internet or otherwise; it seems that for whatever reason I have been the only person to be bothered by this character– and yet he is undoubtedly and unequivocally present in multiple songs in the album. The audio filter that The Lawrence Arms have put over what I believe to be Neil’s voice makes what he is saying very difficult to understand, and without a script I am forced to leave out large portions of his dialogue, but he so concretely and importantly links the faux circus aesthetic and the pop-punk album about the futility of relationships and the feelings of disgust at America’s depersonalized voyeurism that I feel I must keep mentioning him. The ringmaster directly references the song he is in and reiterates the theme of flames in The Greatest Story Ever Told which, at the juncture in which he mentions it, really begins to become apparent as a matter of importance. This is especially important when Brendan immediately begins with similarly destructive and burning imagery in his song “The March of the Elephants.”

In “Fireflies” Chris first introduces the most dark and sinister theme in The Greatest Story Ever Told –a theme that most fans of The Lawrence Arms interpret as not being present in Chris’s songwriting: self-harm. If you recall back to when I first attempted this sort of analysis, it was of an as of yet to be talked about track on this very album, the pivotal “The Revisionist”  in which I claimed the song was about self-harm, not drugs. I’ll get to that in the next installment of this series (so, likely months from when this is read) as it’s a few tracks away from “Fireflies,” but this is by no means a novel push for me. The Lawrence Arms themselves also appear to have got fed up with their fans’ selective interpretations (although can you blame them when they themselves say “The Revisionist is about ‘getting stoned?’) as three years after the release of The Greatest Story Ever Told their drastically different album Oh Calcutta! features the aptly named “Cut It Up” starring the chorus “Cut it up, cut it up / Until the pain goes away, until the pain goes away. / Cut it up, cut it up, cut it up / Until the pain goes away, until the pain goes away.” It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer. “Fireflies” itself is far from overt, but when you look at the lines word for word, I would argue Chris is pretty clear in what he is doing. “These arms will bleed.” It’s only half a line, but when surrounded with the depressing tone and vernacular of the three songs preceding it, and especially the three songs following it, it paints a picture of blood flowing from the wrists at Chris’s own impetus. Depression leading to self-harm is a logical progression, and additionally explains some of Chris’s perceived melodrama in his tone. When we get to “The Revisionist” this theme of self-harm will be revisited.

To preempt the argument that I know will be postulated, yes, “Cut It Up” does feature Brendan most prominently on vocals. That doesn’t mean it’s a Brendan song, though. Oh! Calcutta! has the distinction of being the sole The Lawrence Arms album where Brendan and Chris decided to take their lead vocal duties simultaneously. They both sing over each other in a clashing dissonance that many find off-putting, although Brendan is adamant that it is their best effort to date. As a consequence of this, it is often difficult to tell who is meant to be the lead vocalist in what track. There are three tracks where it is clear that Chris is the head-honcho, although that is mostly due to the absence of Brendan. Brendan’s shrill and unusual voice is more ear-catching for better or for worse, and he isn’t necessarily supposed to be the lead vocalist on any other track on Oh! Calcutta! The idea on that record was for both of them to share the duties. With this in mind, Chris and Brendan pooled their songwriting talents together and collaborated with the lyrics for their songs. So, who had the history of songs about self-harm? Chris McCaughan.

The March of the Elephants Or: Brendan Becomes an Animal

Ever the masters of juxtaposition, after the longest and gentlest song on the album we have the shortest and angriest. “The March of the Elephants” is a one minute twenty-eight second explosion of frustration and disgust. “The March of Elephants” is a departure from Brendan’s usual roast of his captive audience, and marks the point on The Greatest Story Ever Told where he turns towards a more introspective tone.

This cistern burns

With the sisters who learn

That certainty burns with a fist.

The cyst of this growth is a hope

(Against hope)

That I loathe, and steel myself to resist.

I am an animal unprepared.

A club in a drawer full of silverware.

I’m under there and breathily holding.

Her underwear is deserving a scolding.

Disgrace is the color of red that you’re looking for.

I’ll be wearing that working connivence store.

Oh.

Fuck all the garbage in unforgiven piles.

The landfills stretch out for ten thousand miles.

The cities wear a badge that differentiates

But it’s the same exact shit that the dirt and sea hate.

I am an animal, unprepared.

Brendan keeps up the energy and antipathy that is present in his earlier songs, but turns towards himself and away from his captive audience. He also takes a page out of Chris’s book and begins to incorporate burning imagery into his songs. In his footnotes Brendan pokes fun at his own metaphors, posing the duality of misplaced youth and “raw meat and kitchen utensils” (Footnote 1 The March of the Elephants).

Interestingly enough all three of the song’s other footnotes are bogus allusions to various mediums, none of which actually exist. Brendan claims Red Scare Industries employee Tobias “Toby” Jeg was the author of a piece called “The Luddite” written in 1941, and that Abigail Horton (sic.) wrote a play called “The Colors of Disgrace” in 1961. I don’t think there’s much to be gleaned from pointing this out other than appreciating the clever lengths Brendan goes to in messing with people.

Of course, Brendan’s anger isn’t only at himself in “March of the Elephants.” Ever the home-grown, true-to-heart punk rocker, Brendan has problems with The Man and society. I don’t blame him. Feeling trapped in low-level, underpaying convenience store jobs in a big city that claims to be oh-so-different from all the others while looking more or less the same as its compatriotes is a troubling and disheartening experience being expressed here. That being said, it seems to be shouted more at the sky rather than his captive audience. In fact, other than the title, “March of the Elephants” is one of the songs most removed from the aesthetic on the album. Or is it? “I am an animal unprepared.” Brendan undergoes a transformation here from clown to circus animal in which he will remain for a few songs. Feeling degraded to the point to such a point that an object of classist and racist mocking was not enough, Brendan now compares himself to something that would be near-universally seen as lesser: an animal. If we want to make a slight leap in logic and talk in terms of the circus aesthetic –and link this transformation to the song’s seemingly unrelated title– we can conclude that Brendan is comparing himself to a circus elephant. Mistreated, taken from birth to perform for others (and, in turn, losing their youth), lacking the ability to move up in the world, and possessing the intelligence to be discontented and depressed with their situation, a circus elephant is quite the apt analogy for Brendan’s woes.

 

Chapter 13: The Hero Appears Or: The Odd One Out (Kind Of)

This song is the biggest enigma on the album for me. Nearly every song on The Greatest Story Ever Told can be categorized into either a: Chris nostalgically reminiscing about the pain in his life or b: Brendan angrily railing against his captive audience or whoever will listen on account of the (then) current state of affairs. “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears”… doesn’t. It also so directly references The Master and Margarita, taking its name from the chapter in the book of the same name. Chris wears this on his sleeve, proudly announcing this in his footnote. As you and I both know, Chris takes his pseudonym from a character in that book. All signs point to some sort of climax in this song. It’s not bad. It’s even essential to the album, but it also feels distant in a way. Let’s take a crack at it.

The well went dry. The blood thinned out.

I scraped through a thousand layers of paint like years.

The secret’s in. Congested grins sigh.

I’m trying to find places to breathe now.

If this were a book I’d call this song the final chapter.

If you read it you’d be laughing.

If it could end right now the last lines would be…

My body jolted in and out of stolen soundwaves.

The world expands or shrinks on any given Monday…

Tuesday evening dyes a room blue.

Friday’s window has it’s own view.

If this were a book I’d call this song the final chapter.

If you read it you’d be laughing.

If it could end right now the last lines would be…

Good friend, how loud do you want life to

Shout her answers in your ear?

Streetlights are streaming by on stiff necks.

Connected blurs brand the design of things.

Keep on counting then, or maybe hold your breath.

I’m trying to exhale you softly.

Don’t be so vain. I’m not impressed in past tense.

I don’t do impressions.

The blood has dried. Now I can wash my hands with tears you cried.

If you could frame this feeling

At night it would whisper to me.

Good friend, how loud do you want life to

Shout her answers in your ear?

Good friend, how loud do you want life to

Shout her answers in your ear?

The Lawrence Arms have never constrained themselves to typical songwriting convention. They don’t care about typical AABA patterns. They don’t care about having repeating choruses. They don’t care about having a clear chorus or catchy hooks. They just do what they want to do. Normally I love this. In fact, I love this in this song, as well. I just don’t know what the chorus is for this song. I don’t even know if it has one in the conventional sense. There are two repeated lines that are both hooky and catchy such that I am unable to decide which one (if either) was meant to be designated as a chorus. Chris probably didn’t even think about it. Why do I even bring this up? In punk songwriting, –that is, songwriting where the goal isn’t to be played on the radio– choruses often serve to highlight the most important or main themes in a song. So the question arises: is the emphasis in this song Chris (or the narrator) asking his good friend how loud they want life to short her answers in their ear, or the musings that if this song were a book the narrator would call this song the final chapter (if the person the song was addressed to –presumably the good friend– read it, they would be laughing), and if it could end right now the last lines would be… various things? This question is further complicated by the fact that chorus a is encompassed in chorus b.

 

I want to take the easy way out and go with chorus b. It fits the album better. It’s more melancholic. It’s more depressing, more nostalgic, and even a little self-loathing. The song wouldn’t be that out of place with chorus b as its focus. But I can’t ignore the fact that chorus a could be the song’s intended chorus, and the fact that those lines are in there no matter what the intention was. “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears” is the only song where Chris addresses someone else (besides “The Revisionist;” we’ll get to that later,) and his aphoristic advice seems strangely out of place. Even when Chris acknowledges other people in his other songs, the focus is always on him. I love the guy, but he loves to talk about himself. His bit of folksy wisdom comes out of nowhere, and never reappears. What does it mean? My first inclination was that it meant “There are some things that you can’t know the answer to,” but, upon further reflection it seems to be more along the lines of, “You have an obvious path, take it.” This second phrasing is classic Chris McCaughan. From Ghost Stories to Apathy and Exhaustion to Cocktails & Dreams to Buttsweat and Tears (notice the inconsistency in how The Lawrence Arms use ampersands) Chris loves to talk about his life of inaction and failure to do anything. In an interesting change of pace, Chris seems to be giving himself a pep talk here, encouraging him to go out there and simply do. Who does that sound like? It’s appropriate, the literary-obsessed lyricist taking an omnipotent and authorial persona in this song. Maybe it fits better than I realized.

 

Hesitation Station Or: The Angry Heartbreaker

This one is kind of amazing. I’ve always said Brendan is a master at marrying together the puerile and the pulchritudinous. I think “Hesitation Station” might be his best example of that. The song is angry, bitter, and juvenile, but it’s also heart-breaking, authentic, and thought-provoking.

Hesitation was the station I used to get on at.

Now it’s asshole (sic.) Can you picture that?

“Fuck you”s and “them”s have fucked me up.

An idiot who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Oh shit! Oh fuck! It’s dicks to suck.

Well, bend down, I’ll pucker up.

Take a chill pill lover, or you’re gonna explode.

Take two of these too and you’ll find that I know…

That what you learned on your trip to the zoo is

That animals do what animals do.

What a great way to die. What a sad way to cry.

You’ll tell me “I love you” and I’ll know it’s a lie.

What a great way to die, what a sad way to cry.

You’ll tell me you love me…

And I’ll know it’s a lie.

Brendan starts off with quite the expletive-ridden barrage of angsty insults and regrets, some of which don’t even make sense. I can’t picture an emotion equated to a train station’s asshole; I don’t know about you. Like “Chapter 13: The Hero Appears,” “Hesitation Station” has a bit of atypical narrative for The Greatest Story Ever Told. The second verse (Take a chill pill… animals do) is, in my interpretation, the narrator talking to Brendan, while the rest of the song is Brendan’s first-person narration. It’s a little bizarre and jarring to have a shift in narration like this in a song, where it’s difficult to distinguish different voices because of, well, the fact that every character literally has Brendan’s voice, but once one looks at the words, it comes together. In Brendan’s usual manner of bullcrap footnote attribution, he claims he co-opted the line “animals do what animals do” from some nonexistent author. Luckily for Brendan, and, luckily for us, he is able to tell us what he meant by this line while maintaining his aloof everyman persona, divorcing himself of any accusations of pretentiousness. Brendan says, “On the subject of the human capacity for evil and seemingly chaotic actions, Mindes writes ‘animals will do as they do. We shall do as we do'” (Footnote 2 Hesitation Station).

Recall back to a few moments ago when I said “‘March of the Elephants’ is one of the songs most removed from the aesthetic on The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Notice how I didn’t say the most removed. That’s because “Hesitation Station” doesn’t really have anything to do with a circus at all. It is the only Brendan song that doesn’t reference the concept in some way. There isn’t a single word besides animal –which only very loosely ties it to the theme– that links it to the aesthetic. If we do treat the circus elephants mentioned in “March of the Elephants” as the same animals that do what they do in “Hesitation Station” (of which Brendan is one) we can make the conclusion that Brendan is claiming the abhorrent societal conditions imposed upon him have led him to be the embittered and vulgar animal you see before you. We even see a touch of Chris McCaughanesque idless regret in the song title and opening line in the cause of this angst and anger.

And then there’s the second verse. Unlike “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” it is very so much not like the first. It’s just… sad. It’s depressing. Brendan almost beats Chris at his own game, here. While I do love all the intricacies and subtleties of language, particularly that of the English language, simplicity is an oft-forgotten art. There’s not a lot up for interpretation as to what Brendan meant here. Someone told him they loved him, he knew it was a lie, it made him cry, and it made him want to die. The anguished lover is one of the most classic and familiar tales to ever to be told, and it will surely be reiterated and expanded upon until the end of time. Everyone has experience with it some shape or form. Brendan doesn’t really try to romanticize it or tell you how you should feel about it, he just tells it like it is. I think it’s pretty effective, especially juxtaposed to the emotional explosion of rage that precedes it.

Outrance

This one took, frankly, a lot longer than I would have liked it to. The Greatest Story Ever Told sat on my desk gathering dust for weeks. Then I would write a bit. Then it would sit on my desk gathering dust. Then I would write a bit. Repeat ad nauseum. This middle section was definitely the meatiest and longest part of the album, so fear not, the next part is surely to come quicker. The remaining four songs (five if you count the outro) also make up the best conclusion to any album period. They save the best for last. Hopefully by this point I have convinced at least someone to go out and buy this record. It deserves to be heard.

Why I Let Cody Destroy Me

By Jackson Anderson

A dog chews on a mannequin’s head. A pencil lightly touches the tender edges of the worn paper. College kids high on LSD run from campus security. I get lost in the intricate designs. I think my entire life could be that sketch book. He compares Kanye West to John Steinbeck. She’s got a fake I.D. They absent-mindedly picks one of my long hairs off of my jacket. I get lost in the subtlety of the gesture. He remarks how good it feels to be felt. He knows that you still don’t believe in yourself at eighteen. All I believe in is the person sitting next to me.

 

Two separate series of events, and yet they are completely married in my mind. One is Joyce Manor’s dorky yet subtly profound pop-punk album Cody. The other is a memory that I struggle between calling my fondest or that which brings me the most pain. I can’t think of one without the other, and yet, one definitely came first. Cody was released on October 7th, 2016, a good three months after the memory was created. The two ideas are still inseparable in my mind ever since Cody was created.

 

I think a lot of it is on account of the album’s short length. Clocking in at just over twenty-four minutes, it’s just as fleeting as the memory. As soon as I get invested, it’s gone. During the after-album silence, I have time to reflect on all the similarities. As has it has always been with Joyce Manor, their songs aren’t the pinnacle of lyrical songwriting, but the emotional reactions they are able to elicit are second to none. It’s the emotions that I remember strongly, and that is what destroys me.

 

It happens during “Stairs” whether I’m engaging in active listening or passive listening. The song is so strong that it demands the listener’s attention whether they feel like giving it or not. The slow long song on the fast quick album would stand out no matter what, and the maturity and vulnerability from a typically immature and surface-level band still manages to give me goosebumps after my spins increase into the forties and fifties. A complete reliance on another person, a complete devotion to that person, the belief that that person is the purest and best thing in the world, and the wish to shield that person from all the world’s evils, it’s a powerful and evocative statement. It reminds me of when I was thinking those things, and it destroys me.

 

Then “This Song Is A Mess But So Am I” closes out the album. Of course, I’m always a mess by that point, too. I’m mad at myself for putting myself through Cody again. I’m mad at Joyce Manor for being so good at what they do. I’m mad at everyone who contributed to the circumstances that led to the creation of the memory. I’m mad at the person in the memory. And Barry is right there with me. “Just wanna sleep away the hour. Blinded by the light. This song is a mess but so am I. Beneath the soda stream, where you begin to dream. When you said, ‘Nothing’s new’ made fucking zero sense from you.”

 

And it’s over. Twenty-four minutes of great music. Twenty-four minutes of ear-candy. Twenty-four minutes of concentrated emotion that wrecks me every time. At this point I usually look at the lyric sheet that came with the vinyl. I look at all the similarities. The naive insouciance of it all, the start-off-happy-and-get-sad progression, the self-doubt, and, above all, the love. The truth is, there’s too much to name. If I tried, I could probably find connections between a lot of memories and a lot of albums. For whatever reason, I seem to have found all between this particular memory and this particular album.

 

So why do I keep doing it if it hurts so much? Because Cody is a great album, it’s a beautiful memory, and sometimes I just need to cry. I don’t think I could appreciate either as much without the other. It’s a combination between the same infatuation I –and other people, might I add– have with heart-wrenching plays, movies, books, videogames of similar nature and the emotional equivalent of exercising. It’s a pain that hurts so good. It also ensures that I’ll never forget that memory that I mustn’t forget, even if at times I wish I could. Cody makes me stronger, and I know I’ll be thankful it was there to ensure that I remembered.

Remembering Brandon Carlisle

Sometimes I take myself things too seriously. Sometimes I spend my days dour faced and unsmiling, not permitting myself to find humor in the aspects of life in which I should. I have found that laughter truly is one of the best medicines, and that is often something that I deprive myself of. I don’t tend to watch comedies. I don’t tend to read the funnies. I don’t have any comedians that I particularly enjoy. I spend too much of my time dedicated to the pretentious notion of “higher” forms of art and expression, and I needed someone to tell me how much of a folly prospect that was. That someone took the form of Teenage Bottlerocket.

 

For a turgid punk rock connoisseur such as myself, Teenage Bottlerocket proved to be an interesting anomaly during my initial exploration of the genre. They were nearly ubiquitously loved, and yet I couldn’t pin down the reason why. Their songs weren’t deep, and none seemed to affect me in the manner that my favorite artists did. All of their album covers were color variations of a skull crossed with bottlerockets. They frequently sung about pop culture, mocked the punk scene, told completely implausible songs, and, above all else, sang about girls. Ironically enough, Teenage Bottlerocket’s unabashed juvenility became more heartening to me as I grew older.

 

It was their 2014 release, Tales From Wyoming, that really did it for me. Track four opens with the by then characteristic power chord structure that Teenage Bottlerocket love to use, and was a cheesy ballad about the international phenomenon known as Minecraft. For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a gigantically successful videogame made by Swedish developers Mojang in which players build and mine in a cuboid 3-D world. The fact that there was a punk band making music about minecraft in 2014 brought an intense feeling of happiness and warmth to me. Teenage Bottlerocket had always seemed like they had taken the punk ideology to heart in the best way: they wrote songs about what they wanted to write songs about, and they were passionate about doing it. Whether it be Top Gun, Minecraft, or Burger King, the four boys from Wyoming were just if not more impassioned than their politically-tinted contemporaries.

 

While I did turn to bands with depressing subject matter when I felt truly depressed because I wanted to feel that empathy link, Teenage Bottlerocket became the best way to feel happy, and fun. Fun is usually an adjective and not an emotion, but the combination of enjoyment with their tenacity and energy made getting up every day that much easier. There just isn’t much to analyze in a song about a guy getting whiplash because he headbanged too hard, but the campiness of said song is exactly what made me love it so much.

 

On November 3, 2015, Teenage Bottlerocket’s drummer and founding member, Brandon Carlisle was found in a coma in his appartment. Three days later he passed away. Brandon was the perfect embodiment of everything that was and still is great about Teenage Bottlerocket, his friendly, optimistic enthusiasm, (Brandon would frequently, sometimes to the chagrin of some of his fans, count off in a loud and ostentatious manner at the beginning of nearly every Teenage Bottlerocket song) his dedication to and his love for his music, (I remember a live showing of the band where his brother and frontman Ray Carlisle introduced him simply by sticking his arm out and making a drumming motion to showcase the endurance required to be a drummer), and, above all, his love for fun. Brandon is dearly missed, and even after a year has passed his loss is still felt deeply.

“I Just Want You to Know” by Off With Their Heads (acoustic) / Update

By Jackson Anderson

It’s been a while, nearly two weeks. I have six posts sitting in the purgatorial limbo of my “draft” section that will probably never see the light of day. To be honest, I haven’t worked on any of them since the last time I published something. That being said, if anything, I’ve thought about music even more than I usually do, and it has hindered my ability to create something on this website. It was once said that if a painter never painted anything that they didn’t want to they would never create anything. I am stuck in a similar rut. I desperately want to continue my series on The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I am also worried about giving the album its proper dues. In short, I’m still alive, and I’m still thinking about music.

 

2016 has thus far had a mystical quality about it where nearly every release has been the respective artist’s best work of the decade. To hinder my own melodrama, I’d say without a doubt it has been the best year in music since 2012. A plethora of big names in the scene –as well as newcomers– have come out of the woodwork with something to share with the world, and the vast majority of it has been great. It seems like every week there is a new release that is a contender for album of the year. The most recent one of these types of releases is Off With Their Heads’ acoustic album Won’t Be Missed, which I had no idea was even in production. It landed with an unceremonious thud in my new releases section of various music-related social media, and I tepidly went to see what Minnesota’s best band about being depressed had to offer.

 

The first discovery happened before I even began listening. It seemed odd to me that so many tracks on this new album weren’t new at all, but had already been released. I wondered if they were alternate versions, or if Off With Their Heads were re-releasing old tracks, something the band had been known to do. This inquiry was quickly put to rest as I hit play, and I was greeted by the sound of an acoustic guitar. Oh, it’s one of those. As a self-professed sucker for the acoustic track, acoustic albums have always been hit and miss for me. One of the great things about acoustic tracks in punk is that they change up the formula of so many punk songs, and dedicating an entire album to what is supposed to be different kind of defeats the purpose. That being said, it’s not unheard of for punk bands to release good acoustic albums, and there are plenty of folk-punk bands where almost all of their songs are acoustic and they don’t suffer from that at all. I was still sceptical as I began my listening, because Off With Their Heads were the definition of the in-your-face sort of “aggro” pop-punk.

 

Suffice it to say, my cynicism was unjustified. Off With Their Heads killed it, as they always do. Their discography remains spotless. My second major discovery was that Won’t Be Missed managed to be a thoroughly unique and refreshing experience despite the fact that almost half of the songs were acoustic versions of previously released (and typically well-known) Off With Their Heads tracks. One of their old staples, “I Just Want You to Know,” particularly stood out to me, and I think I actually prefer their new acoustic version to their old fast and electric version. Either way, Off With Their Heads are definitely the best Off With Their Heads cover band. The song in question goes a little like this:

 

I don’t want you to be worried now.

And I don’t want you to lose sleep.

And I don’t want you to be concerned about me.

So please don’t be.

I don’t want you to check up on me.

Because I don’t want you to see

Everything that I’ve become

It makes me seem, seem so weak

I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed

It’s so unnecessary

Take all the time that you need for yourself

To see the things I see

I don’t want you to write me letters

I’m so tired that I can’t read

I don’t want you to give me advice

Just close your eyes and listen to me.

I just want you to know that I think about you all the time.

You’re always on my mind.

I would never let anyone hurt you, with me by your side

You’re safe as long as I’m alive. (x2)

 

Off With Their Heads are –and have always been– one of the best bands at conveying emotion. All of their songs are very cerebral and intimate, and, as I have said before, I think acoustic songs are one of the best mediums to portray this. Obviously, that’s not the only way to do it, as Off With Their Heads themselves are a testament to, but the efficacy of the new acoustic version of “I Just Want You To Know” didn’t help me change my mind. If anything, I think the slower and lighter nature of acoustic tracks suites the song’s build better, and allows the listener to focus on what is going inside vocalist Ryan Young’s head unimpeded. I’m not trying to discredit the other members of Off With Their Heads, or instrumentalists in general; music would be poetry if it was just lyrics on a page, but Off With Their Heads’ repertoire is particularly well suited to their new foray.

 

The third verse (and the second verse, in part) in “I Just Want You to Know” hits on a particularly interesting and topical point that has been discussed at length recently at my school’s Ally Club, the topic of empathy. An overwhelmingly expressed belief was that more often than not people wish to be listened to rather than lectured to, and that a truer way to express empathy is to understand that people are different and thus sometimes it is impossible to truly understand them, leaving the best option being impartial observation and alliance rather than directed input or advice.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Off With Their Heads song without a tear-jerker moment, and if I said that chorus didn’t promote the danger of tears, I’d be lying.

 

Link to the In Desolation Version

Link to the Won’t be Missed Version (the version I discussed today)

“I Am Like John Cusack…” by We Are The Union or: Hearing What You Want to Hear

By Jackson Anderson

I’ve fallen into a nice little groove of discussing songs that I really like. When I first started this blog I wrote about some fairly weird and unexpected songs from bands like Weezer and Suicidal Tendencies. I have nothing against those songs, bands, or even my articles, but in finding my voice I cast a wide net in which it took a while for me to start discussing the songs and bands that I had really wanted to for years. Eventually, The Lawrence Arms and Captain, We’re Sinking got their time in the limelight and Elway and The Wonder Years proved to be newer bands that possessed an equal wealth of musical genius for me to tap into as my long-time favorite bands. Today, I’m going to write about a song that I’ve only heard once, the first time being earlier today.

 

 

We Are The Union fit perfectly into the type of music that I listen to. I don’t have to worry about the image that I have created being harmed in any way, so that’s no skin off my back. If we want to shove them into some sub-genre, we’d probably put them in the cosy cubby of ska-punk, alongside bands such as Less Than Jake, Slapstick, and Reel Big Fish. They’re fairly poppy, upbeat, and feature a horn section, but they also have that bit of zesty rancor seen in skacore bands such as The Suicide Machines and Operation Ivy. After name dropping Slapstick and Operation Ivy, I have solidified myself as safely within the confines of my favorite genre, and I can continue on with this article safely knowing that the bit of luck that was the finding of this particular track happened to occur within my comfort zone.

 

The funny thing about interpretation is that it lends itself so well to the narcissistic nature of mankind that it can at times be an almost pointless endeavour. That was quite an assertion that I just made. A lesson that I have had to learn is that people tend to be concerned first and foremost with themselves in every situation. I find this to be an alleviating notion. As I have discussed at length before, I suffer from anxiety disorder I tend to hyperfocus on others opinions of myself. What I have come to realize of the years is that most people don’t even notice that I struggle to order food at restaurants or that I can never start conversations. They also are never putting as much thought into the strange idiosyncratic details of the life of Jackson Anderson as I am. They are turning their attention towards themselves, and as a consequence, I have free reign to be inpercibibly awkward all the time.

 

Another fascinating consequence of the self-centered nature of humanity is that people tend to subconsciously link anything without a clear answer to their own lives. I will demonstrate this by linking this to something in my own life. In my creative writing class this year, we have done quite a bit of poem workshops. One of the things that we typically do is go around the class with any given poem and have each student say what they think the poem is about. What I have learned by observing and participating in this process is that what people believe a piece of literature to be about and what the author intends a piece of literature to be about can be very different things. Sometimes this can be a consequence of a vague or hard to understand poem, or sometimes a reader’s own personal biases can so strongly affect their worldview that their interpretation can become comically warped. Conveniently, I can use myself as an example twice to save my fellow students any potential analysis of their own biases. Also, it is far easier for me to know what I know.

 

One poem concerned a girl’s desire to quite literally become a giraffe. Looking beyond the literal, I declared this poem to be a protest piece that was raging against the machine, speaking on society’s imposition of what one can and cannot do and the destruction of dreams. At one point I said, and I quote, that the poem was “very punk rock.” I was quite surprised, and even a little embarrassed when my peer revealed that the poem was literal to a tee, and that my classmate had, indeed, wanted to be a giraffe as a small child, even going so far as desiring to have surgery performed so that she could become her favorite animal. I realized that it was likely my own personal biases and experiences that led to my unique interpretation of this poem. It should fairly obvious that I enjoy punk rock, and I tend to enjoy sharing my love for it with the general population. I subconsciously projected my love for protest and the punk attitude that I hold so dearly as well as my own personal grudge against parental figures telling people what their children cannot do (not my own, thankfully) onto the parental figures presented in the poem. In another poem in the same class, I found myself projecting once again. This time, I grant myself more leniency due to the fact that the poem was incredibly verbose and difficult to understand. It involved a lot of biological vocabulary and the personification of soap bubbles. I failed to even pick up on soap being the main object in the poem, and took it to be a biological deconstruction of humanity. I interpreted it to be a droning nihilistic piece that separated the humanlike qualities of humanity, and that its purport was to declare that humans were all “dust in the wind in the end, anyway.” I’ve talked about nihilism before , and while I don’t subscribe to that particular line of thinking, I must admit that I do find specific aspects of it to be appealing. I was also feeling a bit melancholic that day, and I found it easy to ascribe depressing overtones to a poem that was in actuality describing the process of the creation of soap. In the end, the student revealed the poem to be literally about soap, and it’s fleeting beauty. It had nothing to do with humanity, and I was, once again, projecting. Interestingly enough, with this particular poem nobody –including the teacher– picked up on what the author had intended to share, and everyone had a fairly unique interpretation of what was an interesting and well-written poem about everything by factor of being about soap.

 

To eventually go to the song titles “I Am Like John Cusack…” by We Are The Union I have found that this same experienced-based linking can occur in songs as well. As someone who listens particularly closely to all songs and whose mind races on account of my constant worry, the web of connections between my life and songs is vast and constantly expanding. Today, I found myself adding to this web in a startlingly easy fashion and I came to another realization: parallels are incredibly easy to find when you are looking for them.

 Been awhile since I thought about you
I was so young and stupid then
Stuck with my head between my hands, stuck with my head between my
But these days everything reminds me
Of the times that I regret
I wish that I could forget the past, wish I could forget it

I would never lie to you
I would never lie to you
It’s nice to know that you don’t feel the same way
Feel the way I do

I tried to set the record straight
It was too little and too late
Those words you spoke just cut right through
All I ever wanted was someone to acknowledge me
But now I know the truth
That I don’t exist to you

Since I guess it would kill to call me
Or pretend to even care
I’ll drown myself in a new scene
I’ll drown myself in a new scene
This is me moving on without you
This is the last time I’ll be there
I know you never loved me
I know you never loved me

I would never lie to you
I would never lie to you
It’s nice to know that you don’t feel the same way
Feel the way I do

I tried to set the record straight
It was too little and too late
Those words you spoke just cut right through
All I ever wanted was someone to acknowledge me
But now I know the truth
That I don’t exist to you

And every time I think about you
I think about how I have nothing

Every time I think about you (I tried to set the record straight)
I think of how I have nothing (It was too little and too late)
Every time I think about you (But now I, now I know the truth)
I think of how I have nothing (That I don’t, don’t exist to you)

The way that I actually happened upon this song was my weekly Spotify Discover playlist, –which I usually ignore because I’m too good for that– but this week I chose to listen to one song, this song in particular, because its title was quirky enough that I figured it had to be good. As I continued to perpetuate the orgcore tradition of non sequitur song titles, I discovered that “I am Like John Cusack…” is like was actually a pretty good song. I even began to find things in the song that spoke to me! What I’m going to talk about today, however, are things that don’t speak to me, how the song doesn’t really apply to me. Being eighteen years old, I don’t have the requisite amount of years on this earth to have developed the hindsight that We Are The Union are talking about in their first verse. I have also lived in Cottonwood Heights, Utah for my entire life. I have gone to the same school for my entire life. I have lived in the same house for my entire life. I have almost never changed a scene. These new scenes that We Are The Union drowned themselves in are a fairly foreign concept to me. Everything else in this song is so comprehensible to me that it is like I am feeling it. It’s funny how easy it is for intense feelings to be brought to the surface by so many mediums. That’s another story, though.

Link To The Song, because it’s been a while.

The Genius of The Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told Part 1:

By Jackson Anderson

Introduction

I’m finally doing it. I was going to write a songwriter spotlight for Chris McCaughan, and I realized that I needed to finally sit down and just get it all out. It was time that I began to tackle The Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told.

When I was a sixteen, a sophomore in highschool, I sat in the study hall listening to The Greatest Story Ever Told with near exclusivity. It had the perfect length and cadence for my studying practice, and it was during the period of my punk cambrian explosion. I was attempting to expand my musical horizon as vastly as possible, with the caveat being that it was restricted to one genre, albeit that genre being the broadest genre in music. The Lawrence Arms are –and have been since their inception– a band with a strong cult following. Their fans are dedicated; they know the band’s discography, they go to every obscure basement show, they are aware of each band member’s history and obscure side project. They were intimidating to get into, but the manic relaxation, that intriguing dichotomy, that was The Greatest Story Ever Told kept me coming back to them every study hall. I wasn’t really paying attention to the music that much, but the album became my number one most listened to album of all time before I even decided that I so much as liked The Lawrence Arms.

Perhaps subconsciously, or maybe even via unintentional subliminal gaslighting, The Lawrence Arms began to slowly make their way up my list of bands that I liked; my journey of punk discovery was also very much a journey of self-discovery. Their album had been played so much that of course they had to have been on my mind. Eventually, I began to realize the important thing about punk music was that you couldn’t just passively listen to it, you had to ask yourself why the artist was creating the art. The Lawrence Arms were some of the most complex and expressive artists in this facet, and also some of the most mysterious. The liner notes for The Greatest Story Ever Told are incredibly detailed, and they are also complete hogwash. Band members claim to take inspiration from completely fictitious artists, and each band member takes on a different historical pseudonym, one of which is a reference to the cheesy 90’s sitcom ALF and is appropo of exactly nothing. Another, however, is the name of a character from The Master and Margarita, a novel by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, who proved to be part of the genius from which guitarist and songwriter Chris McCaughan tapped in his portion of the album.

Let’s talk about this word “genius” for a minute, here. A recent bit of academic insight that has been imparted unto me from my creative writing teacher is that the word genius does not necessarily denote that one is a Stephen Hawking-esque brainiac. In fact, genius can be a very humbling word for artists, being synonymous with the word “muse” meaning that the genius of The Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told –a phrase with which I’m sure you’re familiar as it is the title– is to discuss what went into the production of my favorite album, justify that position and hopefully give some insight into why it is so important to me. I do think that The Lawrence Arms are geniuses, but I also think that the album is a product of a genius. That genius may be the three men that wrote the album, the influences that they take inspiration from, and any assumptions that I have made that have projected the particular allure onto The Greatest Story Ever Told that I find so appealing. With that preamble out of the way, let’s start actually talking about the music.

The Lawrence Arms Go To The Circus

The Greatest Story Ever Told is a concept album, a term that I drop like it’s a hot brick, that does not have much to do with the thematic or lyrical quality of the record, but has a lot to do with its presentation. When your fresh pressing of The Greatest Story Ever Told arrives in the mail, you see the album cover presented like an advertisement for a circus. The travelling circus in question is presented by The Lawrence Arms, made up of Gordon Shumway, a friendly alien that lives with a suburban American family in the 90s, Ferdinand Magellan, a sixteenth century Portuguese explorer who was first to circumnavigate the globe, and Ivan Nikolayevich, a young poet from the classic work of Russian literature The Master and Margarita. Pictured are three grizzled Great-War era heroic figures, none of whom are the men that The Lawrence Arms take their pseudonyms from. Decorated around the sides of the poster are scenes from the anticipated travelling show, depicting marching elephants, wild trapeze artists, and dancing horses among other things. The name of this ostentatiously presented travelling show? Shumway, Magellan, and Nikolayevich have the gaul to promise it will be The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Lawrence Arms’ record label owner, (and famous punk musician in his own right) Fat Mike, was not a fan of the schtick when he first saw it (and, to my knowledge, still isn’t) but allowed the trio to do what they wanted to do.

I went out and purchased a physical copy of The Greatest Story Ever Told to finally get my hands on the actual record, and, more importantly, the oh-so-precious liner notes. My findings were just as fruitful as I had hoped. The ambiance is equal parts fantastic circus and equal parts three punk musicians joking and poking fun at their friends and fans. They list themselves (and by themselves I mean Gordon Shumway, Ivan Nikolayevich, and Ferdinand Magellan) as playing the Vibraslap, Harp and Lyre, and Bassoon respectively. The only time the actual human beings behind The Greatest Story Ever Told are revealed can be found under the “Additional Musicians” section which has a lot going on in it, and reads as following: “Rob Kellenberger, Christopher McCaughan, John Gater, Sanavin Hennessy, Bronson Finehot, Matthew Allison, Brendan Kelly, Chester A. Arthur, Mark Lynn Baker, Ezra Pound, Pete Anna, Ian Siering.”

Allow me to briefly explain every name on this list. Rob Kellenberger is a percussionist that played with drummer Neil Hennessy in the band Colossal and is an actual additional musician. Christopher McCaughan is only an additional musician in the sense that he is the alter ego of Ivan Nikolayevich, being The Lawrence Arms’s own guitarist and vocalist. John Gater is a British archaeological geophysicist, and his inclusion as an additional musician is pure nonsense. Sanavin Hennesy is a not so subtle allusion to the band’s actual drummer, Neil Hennessy, and the alter ego of Gordon Shumway. From what I could dig up, the name Bronson Finehot has never been possessed by anyone of note, and is more nonsense. Matthew Allison produced and mixed the record, but wasn’t really a musician. His inclusion in the additional musician category can be interpreted either as a way of giving thanks for his instrumental part in the production of the record, or as a little bit of piss taking. I think it’s some of both categories. Brendan Kelly is The Lawrence Arms’s actual bassist and vocalist, and the altar ego of Ferdinand Magellan. Chester A. Arthur was the twenty-first President of the United States, most famous for succeeding the assassinated president James Garfield. His inclusion is somewhat of an untruth. Mark Lynn Baker is another nonsense name, but Mark Linn-Baker is an actor and director most famous for his portrayal of Benjy Stone in My Favourite Year. He was not an additional musician in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Ezra Pound was the famed expatriate American poet and critic, whose inclusion in the additional musician section is likely a way of citing him as inspiration for the album, but he was not in fact an actual musician featured in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Pete Anna is a Chicago-based musician most famous for playing trumpet in the band Slapstick alongside Brendan Kelly, and is an actual additional musician. Finally, we have Ian Siering, another very slight misspelling of a famous person’s name. Ian Ziering is an American actor most famous for his role as Steve Sanders in Beverly Hills. 

So what does this very confusing and convoluted additional musician section mean? We have the three actual band members cited as additional musicians, keeping up with the facade that Gordon Shumway, Ferdinand Magellan, and Ivan Nikolayevich are the ones actually putting on the show, yet we have evidence that this is in fact not a circus production, but an album. Of course, The Greatest Story Ever Told is an album, and at some point we have to get to the music. The Lawrence Arms ease us into this by slowly sprinkling in themselves into the album. They simultaneously show the absurdity of both the travelling circus that they are emulating, and the fact that they are emulating it in the form of a punk rock album by putting in completely fictitious persons and famous people right alongside real additional musicians.

The additional musicians section is also the last thing on The Greatest Story Ever Told before the lyric sheets, so that means The Lawrence Arms are ready for us to begin to actually listen to the album itself!

“Introduction (The Ramblin’ Boys Of Pleasure Sing The Hobo Clown Chorus)”Or: The Lawrence Arms Immediately Shatter The Illusion

With the scene set for an exciting and adventurous night out at the circus, our listener eagerly dawns their listening medium of choice, and dives into the record, expecting a fanciful atmosphere of merriment and wonder.  Then, they are greeted with this:

I’m a clown

only here to entertain

All the clowns

only here to entertain

All the clowns

only here to entertain

Brendan Kelly groggily coughs to clear his throat before launching into his raspy chorus. Chris McCaughan strums up on the acoustic guitar, and a beer can can be heard opening as Chris and Neil join in on the vocal part. The listener thinks, “what the hell is going on?” After all the gaudy advertising and showmanship, the first taste of the album we get is intentionally low production quality, off-key singing, and a short, melancholic chorus. What is the song about, anyway? My interpretation is that The Lawrence Arms are doing their own version of an interpretive dance that many artists find themselves performing. They even expand upon this on another one of their songs, “Intransit,”which wasn’t released until their compilation album Cocktails & Dreams in 2005. The struggle that The Lawrence Arms find themselves going through is that they put so much of themselves out through their art, and then nobody takes the time to appreciate it, wanting simply to be entertained by the artist, or, put more dismally, clowns. A more well-known example of this happening in a song is “Hey Ya!” by Outkast.

The thing is, the listener doesn’t have time to consider the implication of observing or listening to the art but not appreciating or interpreting the art for all that it is and contains, because the introduction is only twenty-seven seconds long. They barely have time for the shock due to the unexpected direction of the chorus to take in before The Lawrence Arms begin their first proper song.

“The Raw and Searing Flesh” Or: Chris Lures Us In And The Concept Expands

Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly are two of the best songwriters in the world. I truly believe that. In the entire collectivity that is the delicate and complicated process of combining literary skills together with a deep understanding of the vast and complex plane of music theory, Chris and Brendan are both masters at their craft. What truly makes them special, however, is when they are together. They still write their own individual songs, but the juxtaposition of their separate skills is what really makes The Lawrence Arms my favorite band, and The Greatest Story Ever Told my favorite album in particular. As talented lifelong musicians, The Lawrence Arms is not the only act either songwriter has on their resume, but I find that all of their solo acts and side projects are lacking in the simple fact that they are missing their other half. The Lawrence Arms’ drummer, Neil Hennessy, the oft-unmentioned (at least by me, fans definitely talk a lot about him due to his friendly demeanor, impeccable technique, and good looks) third member of the band, always seems to tag along with either of his compatriots in their various misadventures, being the percussionist for Brendan’s projects The Falcon as well as Brendan Kelly and The Wandering Birds and Chris’s Sundowner.

First up on the docket to showcase his songwriting chops on The Greatest Story Ever Told (not counting the intro, which I believe was written by Brendan) is Chris, the master of songs of elegiac nostalgia. “The Raw And Searing Flesh” is a bittersweet song about lost love, and Chris has the emotions of regret and wistfulness down to a science, at least in regards to how they can be expressed, felt, and discussed.

I never want to see you in the raw and searing flesh.

I don’t ever want to hear you singing softly to the dead.

I never want to feel your skin running warm along my side.

I don’t ever want to sink that way again. It would be easier to die.

To die.

Im tending the pyres of my frustration.

Burning leaves on on buried dreams.

Kneeling in to rake the ashes.

I’m embering. You’re smoldered out.

My hands are free. My lungs are proud.

Your forgiveness is a fading fiction.

These flames have never burned so high.

I won’t be staring in your eyes.

I’m trying hard not to remember.

The way the smoke drifted through the air.

We’ll all be dead come November.

Four months out of every year.

I won’t be staring in your eyes.

“Oh,” our listener mutters out, “the other guy is like that, too.” What happened to the circus?! Aside from a picture of a wildebeest goring an African tribesman (which doesn’t really have that much to do with the circus either, but I guess it keeps in line with the 1800s colonial aesthetic) on the lyric sheet, “The Raw and Searing Flesh” has nothing to do with the circus at all. Luckily, this theme will persist through the album, fret not that The Lawrence Arms abandon it after one song. They just momentarily put it on hold.

Wait a minute wait a minute. Stop the presses. I was wrong. “The Raw and Searing Flesh” has a very obvious connection to the album’s concept that I can’t believe I missed, and I was lucky to have noticed before I published this article. I think it appropriate not to go back and edit over my mistake, because it shows the burgeoning complexity that The Greatest Story Ever Told possesses, and how many little details there are going on, so much so that even someone attempting to closely study the album can miss something fairly obvious. When I set out to write about The Greatest Story Ever Told, this small detail was one of the things that linked everything together in such an appealing and subtle way such that it gave me enough intrigue to dive in and explore the album to the extent that I am doing right now, and share my discoveries with the world. What is this “thing” that I have been so vaguely dancing around? The ringmaster. I nearly forgot about the ringmaster because he isn’t mentioned in any of the liner notes, not on any wikipedia page, not on any fan site; you have to actually listen to the song to notice him. He is very clearly there when you listen to the song. After the second “to die,” Chris falls away and there is an interlude where the ringmaster comes out over megaphone, saying the following: “[unintelligible] whole wide world. This is the time in the place. [unintelligible] On with the show!” Half of his speech is drowned out by both Brendan’s bass and, more importantly to the aesthetic of the album, the cheering of the crowd. This will very important when we begin to talk about the song “On With The Show” in which Brendan expresses his discontent for the audience, and his sense of dehumanization at their behest. We will go into this in greater detail in a few minutes.

What we establish in “The Raw and Searing Flesh” is the dichotomy between Chris and Brendan. To put it in simple terms, Brendan is mad and Chris is sad. They both touch on similar themes throughout the album, but if we distill their respective songwriting patterns down to three letter words that rhyme, that is what we get. Chris carries through his songwriting a profound feeling of regret. In describing the experience of love, he wishes that it never occurred in the first place, declaring it “easier to die” because of the pain he felt upon its loss. In “the raw and searing flesh” we have a lot of imagery associated with fire. “ashes, pyres, burning, embering, smoldered flames, smoke.” Remember fire in regards to Chris’s songwriting. It will come back, and it will be important later. Fire is associated with destruction and death, and here Chris is using it to liken the loss of his his love (as in the emotion, not his lover, key distinction) as a part of himself dying in the process.

“On With The Show” Or: Brendan Tells Us The Answer In The First Ten Minutes

As we move on to track number three we switch the mic over to Brendan and we quickly establish a simple alternation between him and Chris, an alternation that The Lawrence Arms had never prior or since replicated that I always have found wistfully looking back on as the perfect balance. Sometimes, the simplest of schemas can be the best-fitting. This is definitely the case in The Greatest Story Ever Told, where we switch back and forth between Chris’s melancholy and Brendan’s mania. “On With The Show” is fast, angry, and takes no prisoners.

Telephone, telephone

What did you scream into your telephone, telephone?

What did you scream into your telephone, telephone?

I’m a shit stain slave with a grind of my own.

I work day and night, less respect than a juggalo.

I’m prying on the outside and frozen in the center.

I’m telling you to watch out for my temper.

‘Cause you won’t like me when I’m angry.

You’ll see banners everywhere.

The street where I’m from in the town where I live

Is now barely even there.

I haven’t had fun in what seems like years.

I had a thumbs up for you, but it was caught in the gears.

These tears are just onion eyes, this heart is just broken.

This body is a break room where the burnouts are smoking.

I’m a clown, I’m just here to entertain.

Tear me up and stuff me down the drain.

Brendan complicates the circus aesthetic quite a bit here. We have an obvious reference to the album’s concept in the title. We have the repetition of the clown chorus’ verse in the penultimate line of the song, and, as we will later find out, when the clown chorus makes their reappearance they will borrow from this song. The purpose bizarre clown chorus also becomes more clear after “On With The Show.” The circus aesthetic is a front to gather a captive audience, and an opportunity to really let them have it. At the same time, we have very obvious references to contemporary life that ground the song as decidedly made in 2003, and not the mid to late 1800s. Brendan references juggalos. For a definition of this interesting member of society, I’ll use his own. “Juggalo -A fan of the (ahem) band, Insane Clown Posse often refer to his/her  (almost always him) self as a ‘Juggalo.’ They paint their faces, spray soda on each other, and respect the music of ICP and consequently get very little respect themselves” (Footnote 2. On With The Show.) He also references pop culture with the line “you won’t like me when I’m angry” alluding to The Incredible Hulk (which, by the way, is an amazing line, when followed up with “You’ll see banners everywhere.” The Hulk’s name is Bruce Banner. Brendan is a master of wordplay of this sort.) The song also opens with an obvious dating invention of the telephone, which, while it did exist during the time of the circus, was quite different then and the telephone that Brendan is talking about is clearly of the modern variety.

So, The Greatest Story Ever Told begins to take shape. It isn’t an actual travelling circus in the 1800s, but a production of a travelling circus in the 1800s. The Lawrence Arms are using this aesthetic to their advantage and are able to fuel their songwriting. Brendan is able to use the image of circus clowns to talk about the disgust he feels at performing for the sake of people’s enjoyment, and how that makes him feel used. The title of the song, “On With The Show,” takes on a much more tongue-in-cheek air to it when one realizes this. The circus has started and the performers are not there for the audience, they are there to alienate them. The song is a big middle finger towards those who are there to see the circus production, waiting for the clowns to make a fool of themselves on stage, Brendan garnering equal respect as a juggalo. An important caveat here to make is that I don’t think Brendan is alienating his fans. The fans of The Lawrence Arms are not those that would go to the circus, that expect them to perform as freaks. The fans of The Lawrence Arms buy the record and analyze it, and understand all that they are saying. The people that Brendan are calling out are those that brazenly treat performers with little regard for their craft; not viewing them as people, but only as an object, not even giving their art the respect that it deserves.

“Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile” Or: Chris’s Love Life Is A Circus

This is an interesting one. This song used to be by far and a way my least favorite song on The Greatest Story Ever Told, but it really has grown on me. It has really impressive lyricism, it furthers the concept in a nice and subtle way, and the liner notes show how much thought went into the song’s creation. An interesting disclaimer before I continue, because it is semi-pertinent to this song: I am punctuating the lyrics as The Lawrence Arms do in their lyric sheets, which is not grammatically correct, ending every line in a full stop, but if that’s the way they do it, that’s how I’m going to do it. Here it is:

Concerning confrontations.

This is a shy and quiet morning.

The sleeping dogs awoke last night.

The thunder scares them stiff eyed.

Exorcise your exorcisms.

Anchor down. Raise the sail.

Autumn night stay soft and cool.

Come morning light I’ll be gone.

Spectators are tired of watching.

They’re filling out the big top doors.

I’m buried in the smell of circus.

Those dark clouds are rolling in.

Drunken mouth. Kitchen smile.

Please summon me softly to sleep.

We never talk. We only speak.

Today I’ve seen a dragon on the ripped up worn out arm rest.

Stay back this skin is laced with sticks of dynamite.

I’ll be burned out like a shooting star.

A thousand pretty lights assail these sinking feelings.

I should be on trial for everything I haven’t done.

More elegiac regret! There isn’t much nostalgia in this song, with the entirety of it carrying a tone of lament, but Chris very much so continues with the theme of him talking about deeply personal experiences, and using colorful metaphors as he does it. The song seems to be about a conflicted, unhappy relationship and about how Chris deals with the aftermath. The drunken mouth kitchen smile is the inciting incident, and the rest of the song is dealing with the aftereffects. We have the obvious allusion to the album’s concept in the feeling of spectators voyeuristically peering into his unhappiness, and eventually losing interest, which is not so subtly juxtaposed with the smell of circus incase you missed it. The end of the song is an explosion (pun most certainly intended) of metaphors conceived from Laozi and Kafka (or so Chris claims, one of his liner notes is most certainly him messing with his fans in which he claims Laozi saw a dragon in an armchair, and the other explains how Laozi was believed to be conceived from a shooting star, which is true.) He claims the last line is a “pretentious foray into existentialism”  (Footnote 4 Drunkmouth Kitchensmile.) Ever-modest, I think Chris’s obfuscation of his own genius in his footnotes is him poking fun at how much thought and effort went into this song, downplaying how effective his metaphors are at explaining the hurt, frustration, and guilt he experiences in this relationship.

Clocking in at over 4000 words, I think this is a good place to end part 1. I always loped these first three songs (and the intro) into a section I so tactfully refer to as “the beginning of the album,” so I think this is as good a place as any to finally show that this project (which has been in production for well over two weeks) actually is happening.