Angst vs. Acceptance: Easing Midlife Malaise with Indie Rock
Desperate Bicycles, a '70s punk act largely known for its boastful autonomy when it came to releasing music, isn't a group I typically turn to when in need of clarity and counsel. I mean, these are guys that wrote songs titled "I Am Nine" and "A Can of Lemonade." Profundity is really not their thing.
Anyway, on my birthday earlier this month, I revisited the Desps' 1980 track, "It's Somebody's Birthday Today." "He tells himself today," frontman Danny Wigley sings, "It's just another day/It's not a special day." I tell you, nothing rings in your 37th year on this rock quite like a pop song teeming with self-loathing, weariness, and despair.
That night, my dad called to wish me a happy birthday. He heard the din of unruly children in the background and asked if I had a chance to sit down and quietly ruminate on my nearly four decades of living. We both laughed. "It all goes by so fast," he told me. He paused and then, as if remembering just how old I am and that middle age has already brought me to this very conclusion -- that life seems to move at the velocity of a speeding comet -- he asked, "Doesn't it all go by so fast?"
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Middle age is all about grappling with contradictions. Big, hairy, audacious contradictions. You feel panicked and trapped, like you've been duct-taped and stuffed into the trunk of a car, yet you're fully aware that your circumstances are primarily the result of choices you have made. You envy the young, but also believe their mere existence to be exhausting. You gaze affectionately at the past, yet long to keep moving forward with more direction. You admire artists like Amy Winehouse and her reverence for the classics, yet similarly don't understand what all the beehived, cat-eyed fuss is about.
In my 20s, I was enamored with how two beloved artists verbalized middle-age angst. In Joy Division's "Insight," Ian Curtis (then 22) sings, "Yeah we wasted our time/We didn't really have time/But I remember when we were young." In Orange Juice's "Breakfast Time," Edwyn Collins (also in his early 20s) sounds similarly anguished, crying "Oh, how I wish I was young again" over and over. But at 37, it feels so spurious. Curtis' distress plays a bit too theatrical; Collins sounds extracampy. Today, I understand that the approach to 40 is more complicated than how the pair articulated. Or that your laments aren't as forthright. (Or that maybe neither artist was even singing from the perspective of someone standing on the precipice of middle age.)
What I crave is an artist who has taken note of how this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows, and then opts to slam his foot on the brake, roll down the window, and pop his head out to study the scenery. Even if the scenery is New Jersey: In the past 25 years, no one has done a more masterful job of slowing down enough to detail middle age's triumphs, pratfalls, and other assorted bullshit than a pair of Garden State tandems: Yo La Tengo, on 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and the Wrens, on 2003's The Meadowlands.
Ira Kaplan was twice as old as Curtis and Collins when And Then Nothing was released. This is crucial. He was aware of midlife malaise, what it feels like to walk through life consciously unconscious. And Then Nothing's songs -- carefully assembled from lolling guitar heavy on the reverb, droning organs as soft as uncut grass, Kaplan's near-whisper vocals, and percussion as downy as the comforter on your bed -- play like adult lullabies. They rock you to sleep even while you go about your day.
Lyrically, And Then Nothing can be a trifle bleak. "Everyday" flirts with the idea that when examined as a whole, your life is eventful and full of meaning, but when broken down into tiny, daily bits, there are long stretches of monotony, deflation, and waiting in drive-through lines. "Last Days of Disco" is about isolation and the desire to be released from it: "And the song said 'Don't be lonely/It makes me lonely/I hear it and I'm lonely more and more."
But for the most part, And Then Nothing's lyrics are personal conversations between Kaplan and wife/bandmate Georgia Hubley. "Our Way to Fall" is the pair reminiscing about their first moments of courtship. "The Crying of Lot G" and "From Black to Blue" portray the strife typical of intersecting lives, though the words of our adversaries are never heated. The bittersweet "Tears in Your Eyes" is Hubley throwing her arms around Kaplan and rescuing him from his self-doubt: "Although you don't believe me, you are strong." It's all so guarded and fly-on-the-wall private; you feel like nervously clearing your throat to make them aware of your presence.
And Then Nothing is essentially about acceptance -- acceptance of the notion that comfort and conflict go hand-in-hand and that while our middle-age journey may be profoundly exhausting, in the end, it's also thoroughly profound.
Meanwhile, The Meadowlands is about refusal. The Wrens' white-trash narrators are in a perpetual state of disbelief regarding how they've been left at the end of life's driveway. Rubbished by break-ups, dead-end jobs, and bad drugs, they perpetually ask "How did I get here?" to half-listening strangers on nearby bar stools. But what transforms songs like "The House That Guilt Built" ("And I'm nowhere near/What I dreamed I'd be/I can't believe/What life has done to me") and "Everyone Chooses Sides" ("A year in the Meadowlands/Bored and rural-poor, lord, at 35, right?") from woe-is-me dross to genuine middle-age anthems is not simply how tangible the anger and bitterness is, but how this anger and bitterness won't ever rescue them from being trapped by economics and ennui. Hell, there's not even a shred of pride over gutting it out in their hometown (for some of the Wrens, that would be Ocean City) while countless others evacuated.
While And Then Nothing's lyrics feel like conversations, the words on The Meadowlands are more raw and immediate, like angry rehearsals in front of a bedroom mirror, the jilted practicing tomorrow's diatribe for his ex. From "Happy": "I've wasted on/Can't figure out/What happened to us/I won't count on you anymore"; then later, "I wanted you/But I'm over that now/I'm so sick of you and what we went through."
The album's crowning achievement may be "This Boy is Exhausted," a biographical number that details how a quartet of Jersey guys in their mid-to-late-30s, complete with spotty resumes and shady backgrounds, seeks financial and spiritual salvation in music. But in keeping with The Meadowlands' thematic approach, our boys ultimately won't ever be bailed out. Because even when you write as if your words are eternal, everything you create can still be forgotten and ignored.
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On the night of my birthday, I smoked a fat Romeo y Julieta on our back stoop. The scene could have been the one depicted on the cover of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out: a suburban home, a suburban yard, a suburban soul staring heavenward. We live on the sharp curve of a busy street; from our stoop I can see the blinking yellow light that implores drivers to slow down. During my smoke that evening, not a single person did. No one put their foot on the brake -- they all went by so fast.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.