*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I am not generally much of a lyrics-guy. I’d guess that for each high-end-lyricist on my 100 Fave Albums list, like The Replacements or Elvis Costello, there are twice as many lyrics-aren’t-really-the-point acts, like Van Halen, R.E.M., Jimi Hendrix or Belly. If lyrics are meaningful or clever that’s cool, but it’s not a characteristic I seek out in music. But in rare cases, like with “Freedom ’90,” the lyrics of a song are what draw me in. This is 100% the case with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I’m not an expert on the band, which has been around for thirty years, but I know that they’re basically one guy: John Darnielle. For years he released acoustic albums as The Mountain Goats that he recorded directly into his boombox. Eventually he got a band and toured extensively, and they’ve remained active, releasing two albums in 2020. I also know that people are usually in one of two camps regarding The Mountain Goats. Camp One is “Who are The Mountain Goats?” Camp Two is “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats.” I’m between camps. I like a lot of what I’ve heard, but for me a little goes a long way.
Darnielle is also a respected novelist, with a National Book Award nomination and a gig as National Book Award judge to his credit. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is actually a micro-short story set to music. In three brief verses it grabs you by the collar and shakes you up, then leaves you to think about the consequences in its coda.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say this: in the song, two (perhaps) Bevis and Butthead types are punished for dreaming a dream of death metal stardom. In the end, the fears of the adults come true, not because of the death metal, but because of the punishment. Darnielle weaves the story with minimal words. The (perhaps) shocking “Hail Satan!” coda speaks volumes in two words. The brilliance of it all is that the story doesn’t turn to violence or spectacle to make the point. But it definitely makes the point that children will carry with them the scars of childhood in ways we may never expect. (By the way – Martin Seay, in Believer, wrote about this song far more eloquently than I could!)
The music is just a scratchy recording of an acoustic guitar, with Darnielle’s thin voice over top. His nasally voice is, I think, the reason I’m not more into the band. But as this live version of the song shows, he is a very compelling performer. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has stuck with me since I first heard it 15 years ago. Just like a good novel should.
We Love the City. Hefner.
2000, Too Pure. Producer: Hefner.
IN A NUTSHELL: We Love the City, by relatively unknown British band Hefner, is a record of brilliant melodies that provide enough cover for leader Darren Hayman’s soul-baring lyrics that the listener doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Whether singing about sadness and loss or giddiness and love, or even politics or sex, the band will have you singing along with gusto, so you won’t be able to cry. And that’s what keeps me listening again and again.
The book contained several single-sentence declarations of happiness, such as “Happiness is having something to look forward to,” and “Happiness is waking up, looking at the clock and finding you have two hours left to sleep,” accompanied by drawings of the classic Peanuts crew: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, etc. Most of the statements described happiness very well to me, and made sense. But a Sad Song? It says right there, it’s “sad,” not “happy!” How can a sad song be happy? It was one of those weird, grown-up, inexplicable things that made no sense to young me, like my grandma’s claim that Coke was “too sweet.”
And now, as a weird grown-up, I have to say that I completely understand what Linus meant. (I also understand now that my grandma was a diabetic, which is why she drank that disgusting TaB cola.) Sad songs do make me – and many other people – happy. And it turns out that it’s not just because I’ve been clinically depressed at various times in my life, and it’s not because I’m generally unhappy or a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. I may be all those things, but the reason sad songs make me happy, it turns out, is, well, complicated. But it’s been shown to be more than a weird, grown-up contradiction.
Songwriters know the world loves to cry along to music, and they do their best to oblige. In the early 60s, songs about the death of young lovers, such as “Last Kiss” and “Leader of the Pack,” filled the airwaves. Known to record executives as “sickies,” these songs were churned out by people who thought young death was a hit-song formula. Although death is an easy way to jerk some tears, the formula for sad songs doesn’t have to include it. Country-Western songwriters probably understand the formula (if there is one) best; on Malcolm Gladwell’s terrific podcast “Revisionist History,” he makes the case that it’s because they write with a specificity that their pop/rock counterparts can’t match. He also posits that the 1980 George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which (spoiler-alert) IS about death, is the saddest song ever written. I heard it for the first time on that podcast in 2017, and I think he may be right. (Here is Alan Jackson singing the song at Jones’s funeral in 2013. Bring a tissue.)
Sad songs aren’t always due to the careful planning of the songwriter. Songs can be sad because of the time and place you experience them. For example, the Wings song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” while a bit wistful and downbeat at first, isn’t a particularly emotionally devastating song. However, I experienced it as a boy along with a significant accident in my family, and to this day I find it too sad, and I always turn it off. Similarly, and probably more bizarrely, I remember the fun Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations” playing on the car radio one summer day while driving to a Little League baseball game that was supposed to be the first game in which I’d play – and a sudden rainstorm washed out the game. I still have a tinge of sadness whenever I hear it. Also, songwriters’ lyrics aren’t always what gets you: one of my favorite sad songs, “Nwahulwana,” by Wazimba & Orchestra Marrabenta Star De Mocambique, is sung in a language I don’t even understand.
The thing is, aside from “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I’ll listen to, and enjoy, sad songs as much as any other songs – even though they can evoke chills and tingles and regretful memories, and sometimes bring tears to my eyes. Two of my favorite Beatles songs are “For No One” and “I’m So Tired,” two of their perhaps lesser-known sad breakup songs. Elton John’s 80s period wasn’t as interesting to me as his 70s stuff, but I’ll always stop to listen to “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” I love The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg’s knack for tugging heartstrings, whether it’s over unrequited love (“Within Your Reach“) or being a misfit (“Here Comes a Regular“). When Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell killed himself, his song “Seasons” revealed new depths of sadness, yet I’ll still listen to it regularly.
That being said, I certainly don’t set out to buy records that are sad. I like melody, guitar and drums. When those parts are there, I’m happy, and if some emotion can come along as well? That’s just icing on the cake. And Hefner checks all the boxes. They’re an indie band active in the UK around the turn of the millennium who never hit it big, but who did catch the ear of influential BBC DJ, John Peel. They never had any hits, but you don’t need hits to make my list – or to be well-loved by your fans. I still remember the first time I heard a Hefner song. In 2000, I was a new dad in a new city, and I met another new dad/new city guy named Jon. He’s an amazing guy who, apart from being a PhD in some kind of linguistics/robots/speech stuff, also publishes novels, plays in an original rock band, and has an amazing breadth of musical knowledge and appreciation. When I met him, he was also a DJ at a local radio station, and he gave me a cassette of one of his shows.
I listened in my car, driving to work, and the first song was this catchy, sunny melody that somehow seemed dark and desperate. It sounded like something from the late 70s, and the obviously British singer, despite a definite warble to his voice, had a confidence and earnestness that stood out. I thought it must be some established rock act that I’d always heard about yet never listened to, the type of artist that sells few records but has all the critics’ ears – like Nick Cave or The Soft Boys. By the time the singer was screaming at the end of the song, I had to know who it was! The band was Hefner. I fell hard for the band – as hard as bandleader Darren Hayman seems to fall for every woman in every song. I fell so hard that I eventually spent more on a single Hefner record than I’ve ever spend before or since, $40 for an import-only live album called Kick, Snare, Hats, Ride.
And that song I’d heard was “We Love the City.”
Up front I wrote about sad songs, but “We Love the City” isn’t sad in a “somebody died” kind of way, or with a “Someone Like You” directness. The sadness is revealed slowly, with singer/songwriter Darren Hayman first singing lyrics lamenting the London subways and his girlfriend’s distance. As a subtle guitar line begins to accompany him, he describes a love/hate relationship with London, then turns rather suddenly to a series of comparative adjectives (“I am intrigued, not merely curious,” etc.) before the source his despair is revealed – his realization that his girlfriend doesn’t really love him. The song has what I think of as a “classic Hefner buildup,” the band’s, and more specifically Hayman’s, specialty: slowly ramping up the intensity, verse-by-verse, until his emotions are laid bare. What saves it from being pathetic and embarrassing are the clever lyrics and – more importantly – the excellent melodies he writes. Every song is singalong catchy.
Take for example the song “Good Fruit.” I sang along to this song happily for a long time before I really listened closely and realized its lyrics describe a situation most any human can relate to: someone breaking up with you just when you thought the relationship was reaching a deeper level.
The song features Amelia Fletcher from another band I love, Heavenly, on vocals. It’s a simple song, using a subtle melodica, and it gets to its hooky verse quickly. Hayman has the look and sound of an unlucky-in-love schlub, careless with his heart, too eager to fall in love, and never embarrassed by his declarations. He imbues all these songs with such emotion, and when he sings “you should stick around/ to hear me hit the ground,” it’s clear that he’s not actually considering jumping off a building, but that his heart has been pushed off the ledge. I really connect with this song, maybe because I’ve felt this way in my life but always kept it to myself, so it’s good to hear somebody singing it and making it real.
But Hayman and the band aren’t depressive and mopey. They’re actually rather funny, as that video above shows, and as this video, featuring fake nudity (always funny), for a song from a different album shows. But what Malcolm Gladwell noted about Country & Western songs is true of Hefner: the songs’ lyrics have a specificity – details, observations – that provide an emotional impact. Take, for example, “Painting and Kissing,” which describes (in a very catchy, bouncy melody, of course) the typical fizzling of a short, intense relationship.
The song basically has two chords, and the opening scratchy guitar plays both of them. Hayman gets specific with his vocals immediately, stating her name (Linda), where she lives (Holloway Rd.), where they met (The Wig and Gown)… There’s an organ break between verses, and as he builds intensity with each verse, he throws in terrific phrases that present a clear image of him and the relationship. “After a week or two … she was my girlfriend/but I couldn’t call her my girlfriend.” “The first time she came to my house/she brought Chardonnay/ Now I buy Chardonnay.” All the while the exasperation in his voice increases, until “On March the 23rd” she dumps him. At 3:45 the song stops for Hayman to plead for her return, and then those damn two chords continue, mimicking the rut one’s emotions can fall into. It’s a simple, terrific song, and for anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of an unbalanced love equation (i.e., the person who cares too much) the song is right on target.
It’s not a sad song per se, it’s just one with emotion and feeling presented baldly in a way that’s not often heard in rock. And although most of the songs are from Hayman’s perspective, he can sing from a different perspective, as he does in “She Can’t Sleep No More,” a jaunty, country-sounding song with interesting guitar behind the vocals, that tells the story of a woman who let the right man get away.
He also uses his lyrical gifts to harshly, and quite humorously, skewer former British PM and foe of the common people Margaret Thatcher in “The Day That Thatcher Dies.”
It’s almost funky, for Hefner, with a kind of dance beat and horns. Children gleefully sing “Ding-Dong! The witch is dead!” as Hayman discusses his political growth. As with love or sadness or sex, Hayman is direct and emotional about his politics.
Hayman’s voice and singing style make him sound like he’s baring his soul on every single note. But if Hefner’s songs were simply needy, emotional exsanguinations, We Love the City would be horrible. What makes it work are the terrific melodies behind the words. Words are always secondary for me. But when they work well with the melody and the performance, it’s magic. Take, for example, “The Greedy Ugly People,” which bounces along just like a heart under new love’s spell.
Hayman sets himself and his new girlfriend apart, from those horrible folks who don’t understand love. It’s a lyrical us-against-the-world motif that draws the listener in, too: “I’m not a greedy, ugly person,” the listener says. “I know just what you mean!” A simple scratchy guitar opens the song. The verses and the chorus have a great melody, then a counter melody enters “Love don’t stop no wars …” which also sounds great. I also like guitar, and most of the songs have something interesting happening on guitar – like the little bit behind the vocals here, about one minute.
In the terrific “The Greater London Radio,” the music really supports Hayman’s words, creating a feeling of a chilly winter night, and adding horn flourishes at the end to signal his return to his love.
It’s regal and warm and the swirling organs create a symphony behind the vocals. It may be my favorite song on the album. Or perhaps my favorite song is the multi-part, Broadway-esque (and I can be a sucker for show tune-type songs) “The Cure For Evil.”
To be honest, whatever song I listen to is my favorite on this record – I love them all. But this song seems a step beyond the others. It eventually becomes a duet between Hayman and Fletcher, and this time it’s not just Hayman’s anxieties set to music, but also their impact on someone else. It starts with a simple piano phrase, and – as is typical – builds with each verse. He tries to explain that he’s a bit emotionally unwound, but that he’s growing and trying and at least aware of his own issues. There’s nice subtle guitar work, then at about 1:22, the song begins to bounce a bit and by 1:58 it hits its full stride. About 2:30 Fletcher (and a banjo!) enters. It marches along, horns enter, end then by 4:00 the big finale (with flute!) hits.
The band has an understanding of the emotional impact of music. I wasn’t really up on pop music taxonomy by the time this record came out, but perhaps they were an “Emo Band?” They don’t scream much, or wear makeup and black trench coats, but Hayman puts his feelings right out there, and I can empathize with all of them. Since they’re wrapped up in interesting sounds and great melodies, I can listen time after time. Linus was right: Happiness is a Sad Song. Or a Love Song. Or an Angry Song. As long as the melody’s catchy and the words are sincere.
“We Love the City”
“The Greedy Ugly People”
“Painting and Kissing”
“Hold Me Closer”
“The Greater London Radio”
“As Soon As You’re Ready”
“She Can’t Sleep No More”
“The Cure For Evil”
“The Day That Thatcher Dies”
“Your Head to Your Toes”