Critics Poll 27 — Results

Vexed, fuming, had it up to here.

Dateline 1991. Playing in the background: “Can I Kick It?”, the first Tribe song I ever heard. So polite, so laid-back and crowd-participatory, so jazzy and skilled, so confident, so redolent of the new New York we were trying to create. Here was my first encounter with a friendly character we’d all come to know very well over the next few years–Q-Tip, who was, even then, cool and composed, intellectually nimble and completely in charge of the operation. Phife was the junior partner, the little brother, and hadn’t found his feet yet; nevertheless, he came up with one of the song’s most memorable lines. Midway through the second verse, he directs a plaintive request toward a guy who probably wasn’t listening to very much rap music:

Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?

Phife, then just barely free of his teen years, gave voice to a feeling that many New Yorkers of all ages had. We hoped that many of the troubles afflicting the city — racial dissension, economic inequality, gentrification, incivility, disappearing greenspace — might be eased if an African-American were to helm the municipal government. Police might tread lighter; neighbors might be more cooperative; a black face in a position of civic prominence might undercut some of the cruel assumptions about nonwhite leadership that were then (and still) ambient. All of that was present in Phife’s delivery. He had none of the strategic reserve and artful detachment that was already his partner’s hallmark. Phife sounded guileless — so straightforward and wide open to the possibilities of the future that it was hard not to be a little scared for him. What would happen when this wishful kid encountered reality? Would he still think that bureaucratic functionaries would be doing us all a really big favor by assuming authority?

Ten years and hundreds of hip-hop quotables later, A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom for a farewell concert. Q-Tip hadn’t changed very much, but Phife was a different character altogether. He’d become a battle rapper; a lyrical samurai with a bottomless grab bag of clever rhymes and pop-culture references at his disposal. His voice, too, had set and hardened like old wood. He’d grown into the role of the Five Foot Assassin: the Tribe’s lethal counterpuncher and no-nonsense connection to street wisdom. The four-man crew — for Jarobi had come along to be part of the big goodbye– was still promoting The Love Movement, but they did some of the old favorites too. And when Phife came to that second verse of “Can I Kick It?:, I recall he did an edit on the fly:

Mr. Dinkins was a fucked-up mayor.

No further elaboration, nothing specific about what made him change his outlook, no implication that he had a partisan agenda or ax to grind; nothing but cold-eyed disillusionment. Just like Phife, we’d all lived through the Dinkins years, and we’d learned that if it was as easy as electing a black man to an administrative position and waiting while he worked his magic, our problems would have been over long ago. But they weren’t, and Phife, who’d long since lost his patience with bullshit and smoke-blowing, had become constitutionally incapable of rapping to mislead or obscure. If he’d come to the conclusion that David Dinkins was a fucked up mayor, well, that’s what he was going to say, no more and no less.

The Tribe split up. Q-Tip did solo sets, starred in Poetic Justice, produced and arranged and networked, and assumed the role of Secretary of Something-or-Other in Kanye West’s cabinet. Phife got sick. The man who called himself “the funky diabetic” — and famously boasted that he drank so much soda that they called him Dr. Pepper — exacerbated his disease. He did manage to get out one album of his own–its lead single, “Flawless”, attacked Q-Tip’s blatant showbiz moves. The tension between the precise, ambitious, stylish Tip and the earthy, combative, unglamorous Phife made the sporadic Tribe reunions fascinating to watch. It also seemed to guarantee that they’d never be able to hang together in the studio long enough to make another album.

Malik “Phife” Taylor, as you know good and damn well, is no longer with us. 2016 was loaded with music-star death; Phife’s might have been the saddest of all because it felt so avoidable. Hip-hop loved him, his friends loved him, Jarobi loved him enough to move to Atlanta to cook for him, his wife loved him enough to give him one of her kidneys. All of that affection and respect couldn’t save him, and he went to his grave at 45 — even for a reluctant celebrity carrying the heavy mantle of Queens hip-hop and burdened with the expectations that always accompany early success, that’s way too young.

The death of Phife is one of the two major topics on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s surprise-released sixth full-length and a handy winner of our 27th annual Poll. The other is the pitiful state of American civil society and the not-unrelated question of generational transition in hip-hop: how do elder statesmen get the new kids to carry on their values without appearing schoolmarmish? Q-Tip sprinkles sugar and praises star pupils (Kendrick and J. Cole, natch); he cultivates a performance of understanding and wags an olive branch. Unwilling to get with the program and eager to fall back on his core competency, Phife just wants to battle. These mumble-rap kids are easy pickings; should they show up to the fight, which is unlikely given their assumed cowardice, the Madman Malik stands ready to administer a lyrical beatdown. Diplomacy was never his thing.

Neither was mysticism. On the album’s tear-jerking second half, Tip and his associates reanimate their dead friend through rhyme: sometimes they deliver encomiums and testimonials, sometimes they imagine him at peace with “no more worries”, and sometimes they adopt his character and use his leftover verses and catchphrases and bow bow woof woofs. Realist and materialist that he was, it is hard to imagine Phife having time for any of this. His experience, as he makes manifest in his own rhymes, was one of pain. Show business, for him, was a thin veneer and one liable to rip at the slightest pressure. Behind it was the poet, operating cushion-free, confronting a big world and his own problems with his fists balled up.

As for the deft-as-ever Q-Tip, he fights the suspicion that the slow-motion destruction of his partner is an analog for the slow-motion destruction of the country. On the political songs that start the album, he sounds braced for the worst, frayed, neurotic, occasionally shattered, unwilling to summon the breezy confidence that characterized his delivery in the early 1990s. Most of We Got It was written and recorded in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Tip, who pointedly rhymes about the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way”, expected Americans to regain their senses. We were dancing close to the brink, yes, but we’d be spared the full cataclysm.

Phife wasn’t so hopeful. He had harder words for those who thought we could joke or entertain our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. His snarling verse on “Conrad, Tokyo”:

Trump and the SNL Hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no time for comedy/Blood clot you doing, bullshit you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined.

As innocently and optimistically as he delivered the Dinkins line?, that’s how angry and defeated he sounds on “Conrad”. This is how Phife Dawg went out — with no illusions about the mess we’ve made or our capacity to clean it up, convinced of our collective complicity, and realistic about his own self-destructive behavior. Heroes or saviors weren’t coming; if there were any consequential decisions left to be made, we were surely going to choose the wrong option. Because he took the world on its own ugly terms, and because he kept his defenses down, courageously and heroically and in the name of good, concise writing, he was able to get straight to the point with no filigree and no excuses. His story ended in tragedy. Ours hasn’t just yet, but we’re sure as heck heading that way — and if it does and he was around for it, he’d have said so. He’d have rhymed about the rope on the way to the gallows. It’s the only way he knew how to play the game.

Q-Tip is one of the great musicians in hip-hop history. Phife, for all his talents, was no such thing. But the prospect of A Tribe Called Quest without Phife’s participation is absurd — his distinctive sensibility and perspective was always essential to the project. Q-Tip was the leavening, Phife was the astringent; they went together and reinforced each other, and now that the Madman Malik is lost to him, his former partner will never find another collaborator who complements him anywhere near as well. They grew up together and developed interlocking skills; now Tip is a free radical, but he’ll never truly be home again. Word has it he’s got a solo album coming this year. It’ll be good, I’m sure, but it won’t win this Poll or any other. By the timeWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service came out, Phife was already long gone, which made it an elegy, a glance in the rear view mirror in a year of loss where everything worthy seemed to turn to sand in our hands. From the moment of its release, it was a reminder of something, and somebody, gone forever — and a memento of a brutal fight that the good guys lost.

Your albums of 2016, plus points:

  • 1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (381)
  • 2. David Bowie — Blackstar (304)
  • 3. Mitski — Puberty 2 (252)
  • 4. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial (238)
  • 5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker (235)

Gosh, that’s a grim Top 5. Guess it suits these sad times. Also, our regular voters are far older now than they were when we started this exercise, and our results reflect this. Since 2016 forced everybody to confront mortality, the high body count is not that much of a surprise. That said, the other two albums here are all about the late-teenage predicament, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten where we came from. I’ve noticed that aging individuals often accompany their principled disengagement from new music with a complementary detachment from the concerns of young people. Even though we’re no longer young people ourselves, that hasn’t happened to us yet. I hope it never will.

  • 6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo (232)
  • 7. Solange — A Seat At The Table (230)
  • 8. Frank Ocean — Blonde (188)
  • 8. Anderson.Paak — Malibu (188)
  • 8. Drake — Views (188)

There are more black faces on this list than there often are. Not just ours; almost all of the mainstream end-of-year lists are similarly skewed toward megastatement records made by people of color. The average African-American pop star has become an unabashed critical favorite and cultural luminary, and how different this feels from the years of my youth when MTV was Michael Jackson and the seven thousand dwarves. Part of this is due to the stars themselves: the Knowles sisters, meticulous footnoters and chroniclers and students of history that they are, do make sure to engage in contemporary societal debate in a way that Whitney Houston didn’t, or couldn’t. No knock on Whitney; you know I love her. Even if she’d wanted to, the music industry would never have allowed her to make an album like Lemonade or A Seat At The Table. The major-statement records that critics then loved were exercises in cultural mediation, if not outright appropriation: Peter Gabriel’s stuff, and Paul Simon, and Sting. Hip-hop changed all of that. Now when old rock stars like U2, Coldplay or Green Day attempt to protest, or engage with current affairs, or ride the zeitgeist, there’s always a whiff of Broadway schtick about it. We don’t trust it. We don’t feel like they’re entitled to their critique in the same way that Kendrick is.

But before we all pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness, I’d like to point something out that wasn’t always true. After David Bowie — who had been living on Lafayette Street in Soho for years –you’ve got to go all the way down to #23 to find the next non-North American artist on this list. Again, that’s not just us: pop artists from the upper part of the Western Hemisphere are monopolizing critical attention. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to the upheaval that’s currently happening in America. It is now our civic responsibility to concentrate on homegrown debates, and the parlous condition of our inner cities, and babies are dying in Detroit and hey, those European rappers aren’t any good anyway, right? Wait, there are musicians in Mexico?

I, too, love American pop stars best. Of course I do: I’m as ugly an American as you’ll ever see. But I also recall that in the heyday of Blur I used to write a column called British Inversion, and that I once followed musical developments on the Continent. I don’t anymore, not really, and I’m not alone. Consider it another manifestation of the sharp inward turn that we’ve taken together. I fear we’ve exchanged one big blind spot for another.

  • 11. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book (185)
  • 12. Beyonce — Lemonade (181)
  • 13. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger (164)
  • 14. Noname — Telefone (161)
  • 15. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution (159)

That said, the major developments in 2016 pop were welcome ones. With varying degrees of success — but an extremely high level of commitment and enthusiasm right across the board –nonwhite female artists attempted to seize the means of aesthetic production and tell their personal stories without the usual mediation from the boys. This happened in the industry’s most celebrated quarters, as Beyonce, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys all helmed personal-statement records that, at the very least, attempted to create the illusion of artistic autonomy. It happened in the great American mid-level, where college rock acts (Mitski), upper-middlebrow jazzbo entertainers (Esperanza Spalding), and Downtown rock-chuckers (Xenia Rubinos) sang feminist fightin’ words and made their identity politics explicit. Most importantly, it happened in the trenches. Independent artists like Noname and Jamila Woods (#44 on this Poll; ought to be muuuuuuch higher) dispensed with the intermediaries and uploaded their music straight to Soundcloud. This allowed them to be as gently incendiary as they wanted to be; Woods’s HEAVN was, in its quiet way, the year’s most militant album and its most concentrated application of black girl magic; Telefone is a more personal set but one absolutely grounded in her experiences on the South Side of Chicago.

Of course there were many men, some of whom are melanin-deficient, involved in the making of all of this music; Solange’s for-us-by-us anthem credits Dave Longstreth, for Pete’s sake. That doesn’t invalidate any of the critiques advanced by these projects or make me any less certain that we’ve got something cooking here. Not all of these albums are hip-hop per se, but they use its accumulative logic and confrontational methods to make art that totally rejects the sort of grotesque objecthood that is usually a girl’s lot in show business. Hip-hop has often refused to accommodate female perspectives, but this year, I watched some of that long-frozen resistance begin to thaw — I mean, if you, rap fan, couldn’t respect Lemonade (or HEAVN, or “Diddy Bop”) for what it was, there’s a pretty decent chance you weren’t just sexist but also a little dense. There are no coincidences in American culture — it’s far too garish for that — and in 2016 we all had to watch a woman with a long resume get humiliated by a guy who probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Alas it remains a man’s man’s man’s world, and the music industry is very much part of that world. The women with the wisdom rarely get to lead the way: they’ve always had to scramble and compromise and cut corners to find their places in it. So while you’re mourning the disfigurement of your country and plotting your resistance, save a prayer for Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae, and Maplewood’s own Ms. Hill, who died, over and over, in public, for our sins.

  • 16. Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow (149)
  • 17. Pinegrove — Cardinal (141)
  • 18. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are (140)
  • 19. Okkervil River — Away (137)
  • 20. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat (135)

It’s also encouraging to me that many of these artists — Jamila Woods and Noname and the rest of your World Champion Chicago SoX — released their music for free via streaming services. Local heroes Pinegrove had the  Cardinal  tracks up for grabs on Bandcamp for awhile; I believe they’re asking for seven bucks now, but if you’re a cheapskate, you can always direct your browser to YouTube. Barring some kind of corporate conglomeration disaster that, given the mutability and slipperiness of digital files, probably wouldn’t affect pop music very much anyway, this right here is the wave of the future and the death knell for Apple’s dominance. Because when you can distribute files straight from a streaming site, why bother with iTunes? Rather than muck around with a library/database that has always felt to me like a grey administrative chore, I’ve taken to going to Soundcloud and streaming albums directly. If I’m on my bicycle or walking around town and I want music, there’s really no need to make a playlist: Saba’s album is right there for me, and all I’ve got to do is press start. This would have developed even if Chance the Rapper hadn’t made giving music away seem cool, but Chance’s selfless example has accelerated the process — and also demonstrated that it’d never stop anybody from becoming a mainstream star; I mean, turn on your TV, he’s doing Kit-Kat commercials now. His momma was dead on when she called him culture.

  • 21. Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death (134)
  • 22. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition (132)
  • 23. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (130)
  • 24. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost (125)
  • 25. Weezer — White Album (117)
  • 26. Bob Mould — Patch The Sky (114)
  • 26. Drive-By Truckers — American Band (114)
  • 28. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound (111)
  • 28. Moor Mother — Fetish Bones (111)
  • 30. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid (109)

You may recall that Okkervil River nosed out  Yeezus to take the 2013 Poll. Three years later, Will Sheff’s outfit didn’t do as well; in fact, this was the first time Okkervil polled lower than their friends in Shearwater. Kanye West lost some ground, too — after nearly winning in 2013 and finishing second in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he slides a bit to sixth place. As we’ll see in a few days, this was the year that Kanye’s antics (if you even want to call them that) went over the line and began to affect your assessment of his music. Frank Ocean, author of the year’s most polarizing album, slid a little too. Tegan And Sara gave back some of the ground they gained with  Heartthrob; Danny Brown continued his incremental descent down Poll mountain; despite my many attempts to stamp out the menace, Radiohead still persists, down a bit but squarely in the Top 30. Damn weed-b-gone never works.

So who, then, is on the way up? Many older artists, strange to say. A Tribe Called Quest did win this poll before, but it was 1991 and we were still doing it on the placemats at Syd’s diner in Millburn. Even people I think of as long-time regulars hadn’t had an opportunity to vote for the Tribe before. You did like Bowie’s Next Day enough to put it in the Top 5, but Blackstar drew an even more enthusiastic response. Interestingly, Stranger To Stranger  is Paul Simon’s best finish on a Critics Poll — had we been doing this in ’86, he might very well have won, but none of his post-Graceland releases have come close. Weezer, Bob Mould, and Aesop Rock continued their steady ascents in the league tables; by the time they’re 90, they’ll probably win one of these things each. Don’t laugh: Chuck Berry has a new album coming out soon. Won’t be surprising at all if I vote for it.

  • 31. Lucy Dacus — No Burden (108)
  • 32. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years (106)
  • 33. Angel Olsen — My Woman (103)
  • 34. Shirley Collins — Lodestar (94)
  • 35. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered (93)
  • 36. Kevin Devine — Instigator (91)
  • 37. Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing (88)
  • 38. Britta Phillips — Luck Or Magic (87)
  • 39. Rihanna — Anti (86)
  • 40. Trash Can Sinatras — Wild Pendulum (82)

Okay, that’s a wrap for today! Back tomorrow with the singles list, and an essay about a misapprehension that’s screwing with our understanding of contemporary pop. Thanks again for reading and playing, and please stay safe out there.

Other albums getting #1 votes

  • Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die
  • Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream
  • Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
  • Jeremy Bible — Music For Black Holes
  • Mikey Erg — Boys And Girls And Tentative Decisions
  • Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
  • Nice As Fuck — Nice As Fuck
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
  • Norah Jones — Day Breaks
  • Noura Mint Seymali — Arbina
  • NxWorries — Yes, Lawd
  • Savages — Adore Life
  • School Of Seven Bells — SVIIB
  • St. Lenox — Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
  • Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  • Teleman — Brilliant Sanity
  • The Rolling Stones — Blue & Lonesome
  • Tim Heidecker — In Glendale
  • TUNS —TUNS

 

 

 

Trembling Blue Stars — Alive To Every Smile

41FBDZK28ALAct: Trembling Blue Stars

Title: Alive To Every Smile

Year: 2001

Format: Ten song LP.

From: London. That’s rainy suburban London, mind you — the London where the architecture is monotonously pretty, and a double-decker bus splashes muddy water all over your trousers.

Genre/style: There’s good reason to call Trembling Blue Stars a tweepop band, and foremost among them is the reverence in which the band is held by the twee and heartbroken. If you yourself are an indiepop fan who has been dumped by a girlfriend or boyfriend and now suffer from the pains of unrequited love (not to mention being pure at heart), it’s a good chance you already have several TBS albums in your collection. If you aren’t, you probably have no idea who I’m writing about today. While the band’s tonal resemblance to the Lucksmiths is minimal, Trembling Blue Stars fits in with twee indiepop because it really can’t be placed anywhere else. This stuff could be confused with Air Supply if you weren’t listening closely, and I suspect the same could be said about many of the most melodramatic indiepop records made in the ’90s and ’00s. Yet many of the best-known tweepop bands get by with slapdash declarations of romantic longing, skeletal arrangements, and questionable chopsmanship. That’s not what Trembling Blue Stars does. Even the Field Mice — that’s the band TBS evolved from — were much better at their instruments than their peers were, and their records were meticulously recorded and produced to a sheen that’s liable to make a punk rock fan gag. So: heartbroken enough to spend album after album dwelling on it, but not too distraught not to obsess over the drum and synthesizer sounds. Just like Air Supply.

Key contributors: The main perpetrator here is Robert Wratten, who is kind of a test case: just how lovelorn can a songwriter be? How long can a band sustain the same even, doleful, wrist-slitting tone? Wratten is to mournful heartbreak as Wiz Khalifa is to marijuana. Better yet, Wratten is to heartbreak as the Insane Clown Posse is to Faygo: like a juggalo of sadness, he sprays the stuff all over you. You don’t come to this music to dodge what he’s got. You come to be showered in it. Camera Obscura once called an indiepop album My Maudlin Career, and this would also be a good name for Robert Wratten’s biography. If you’re the type of music listener who is attracted to extremes, you’ll want to check out Trembling Blue Stars just to experience how morose popular music can get. The sage Elton John told you that sad songs say so much; Wratten is the man who proved him indisputably right, and kept on proving him right until everybody cried uncle. He turned on the tap in 1987, and whether he’s called the project Northern Picture Library, The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars, or one of the other names he’s used, it’s always been the same. He’s fixed his stories of romantic desperation to six-string shimmer, sweep synthesizer pads, and occasional techno beats, and sung it all in the stupefied but unsurprised mumble of a chess club president who’d just seen his former girlfriend in the arms of the football captain. Other Trembling Blue Stars albums cut Wratten’s misery with female vocals mixed to emphasize the woman’s unattainability; Aberdeen’s Beth Arzy and Annemari Davies (who we’ll get to shortly) both sweeten Alive To Every Smile a bit, but more than anything else in a pretty big catalog, this one is the bandleader’s show. The other major force on this record is producer Ian Catt, who is probably best known for his work with St. Etienne, an electropop act that has never been properly appreciated in the States. Catt has fitted Wratten with various shades of melancholy since the days of the Field Mice. Occasionally he’s been accused of overproduction, as if the whole purpose of his job wasn’t to get everything to shimmer, swoon, and ache by all means (and by all overdubs) necessary. Lucky for Wratten, Catt is a shimmer, swoon, and ache specialist, and he’s never let his pal down. That means that Trembling Blue Stars albums rise and fall on the strength of Wratten’s writing, and his ability to sustain and focus his peculiar vision.

Who put this out? Sub Pop. By 2001, the label had more or less completed its transition from an outfit that backed the likes of the Screaming Trees to an outfit that backed the likes of the Shins. Still, memories of Kurt Cobain howling from the muddy banks of the Wishkah don’t fade so easily, and TBS’s jump to Sub Pop at the turn of the millennium was accompanied by a mild jolt of cognitive dissonance. (St. Etienne made a similar leap from an indiepop label to Sub Pop around the same time.) Broken By Whispers, the Trembling Blue Stars album that preceded Alive To Every Smile, was the first Wratten project to be released through Sub Pop, and I recall it got a pretty nice push from the imprint. For a shining afternoon, it seemed possible that TBS could gain the same sort of foothold in the States that Belle & Sebastian had. Back home in the U.K., Wratten was still working with Shinkansen, the successor label to Sarah Records, a quasi-legendary operation that put out albums that sounded exactly like what you’d expect to get from a label called Sarah Records. Picture a girl named Sarah with a hair clip and a bicycle with a bell and a basket, and a tear-stained love letter in the front pocket of an argyle sweater. Go on, give her an ice cream cone for good measure. The Field Mice are sometimes described as the quintessential Sarah act, yet Wratten’s understanding of classic pop architecture set the band apart from the very beginning. Those interested in further study might make an investment in Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?, an exhaustive compilation that inspired ten thousand cupcake pop bands, at least fifty of which I played synthesizers for.

What had happened to the act before the release of this set? The Field Mice were followed by the slightly more electronic Northern Picture Library, followed by the slightly less electronic first Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly more electronic second Trembling Blue Stars album, followed by the slightly less electronic third Trembling Blue Stars album. To complain that these records all sound the same is to miss the point utterly. It’s monomania that Wratten is chronicling. He required an aesthetic to match his obsession. The early history of Trembling Blue Stars is one run-on journal entry that begins in a blue funk and descends further into despondency from there. The first album is a clutch of fresh breakup songs, and they’re redolent with not-so-secret fresh breakup hope: somehow the tectonic plates will reverse and the dawn will break and the girl will come running back with mascara a little smudged from weeping but no worse for the wear. By the time of Broken By Whispers, Wratten’s faith was shot to pieces, and he’d arrived at the conclusion that even if he managed to land the girl he was fixated on, she’d changed so much since the breakup that the rekindled relationship would be worthless. “The person you were, I know you’re not her, she’s gone away,” he sighs on “She Just Couldn’t Stay.” All is lost, all is shitty, nothing on the horizon but the dreary procession of loveless days. The one-two gutpunch of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes” that concludes Whispers could be the most depressing ten minutes in the history of recorded music. Here Wratten has resigned himself to a life of misery and meaninglessness; the breakup he still can’t make sense of has put a hole in the hull, and the ship is destined to limp around a torpid sea until it finally goes down. In its fatalism, many wounded indiepop kids found this romantic. Some of us, God help us, even found it sexy.

What obstructions to appreciation did this album face? This brings us to the one leading fact that even casual fans know about Trembling Blue Stars: Robert Wratten wrote many, and quite possibly all, of these confessional, excoriating, self-pitying early songs about his bandmate Annemari Davies. TBS was initially designed as a vehicle for Wratten to express his devastation about the breakup. In case there was any ambiguity, he put a picture of Davies on the cover of the second album. What’s remarkable about this is that for the first two albums at least, Davies remained in the band, and continued contributing to Trembling Blue Stars until the very end of the project. (Those must have been some rehearsals.) If this had happened between, say, Beyonce and Jay Z, there’d be an industry devoted to unpacking the nuances and dynamics of the lyrics; since it’s indiepop, we’ve got to satisfy ourselves with occasional weblog posts. Davies does not seem like the sort who kisses and tells, and interest in the vagaries of Wratten’s romantic life has waned, so we’ve got the albums to go on, and that’s about it. In any event, there’s something deeply sadomasochistic about this arrangement — although even at the time it was hard to tell who the masochist was. It is instructive to know that as twee as the handle sounds, “trembling blue stars” is actually a phrase pinched from The Story of O. To indiepop fans nursing their own wounds and resentments, it was something of a relief to realize that no matter how pathetic they felt about their own love lives, Wratten was willing to be even more pathetic, and in public. Here was a man who didn’t even have the stones to throw the girl who’d dumped him out of his band. As good a songwriter and wordsmith as he is — and he is — it is indisputable that Trembling Blue Stars owed much of its prominence within indiepop to the soap opera at the heart of the project. Wratten, a calculating musician, was willing to capitalize on his own emotionally dysfunctional life story. Yet by the time of Alive To Every Smile, this had become something of a problem. Never mind that there was nowhere to go after the desolation of “Sleep” and “Dark Eyes;” he was beginning to be known as the guy who couldn’t stop writing about getting dumped. Now, as pop brands go, that’s a pretty good one, but like all pop brands, it’s confining. Since there’s not much sonic differentiation between TBS album, it was easy to assume that Alive To Every Smile was more of the same. Just about every reviewer jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Sad Man Wratten was at it again. Only he wasn’t; not really. Because unless there’s a dimension to the Davies story that he hasn’t chosen to overshare, this time around, he’s writing about somebody else.

What makes the words on this album notable? Right off the bat, Wratten signaled that this was going to be a different trip. “Under Lock And Key”, the kickoff song, opens like this: “You’ve got to stop fucking her up, you’ve got to grow up.” Let’s examine both halves of this uncharacteristically profane (by Trembling Blue Stars standards) note to self. Wratten hadn’t ever been too concerned with growing up before, and that’s because he presented his heartbreak as an apocalypse that had forever halted the hands of the clock. Yet here he was hinting that he knew there was something adolescent about the position he’d taken on the first three Trembling Blue Stars albums — and in Northern Picture Library and the Field Mice, too. I hope you realize that I’m not being pejorative in any way by calling Wratten juvenile. If my girlfriend were to dump me, I’d throw a tantrum so whiny and immature that every DYFS agent in town would be forced to storm my house. Even if I’ve never lived through the unpleasant things Wratten sings about on Her Handwriting, I can sympathize with the extent of his meltdown. Sometimes the only justifiable reaction is a toddler’s reaction, and there’s no sense in dressing it up in sophisticated b.s.; that’s why “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, as laughable as it is, goes straight to our souls. Anyway, that’s not the Robert Wratten we’re getting here. We’re getting a version of Wratten who understands that the meter is running, and that love affairs are pierced through the core by time’s arrow along with everything else. With it comes another realization: the narrator is just as responsible for the turmoil as the object of his affection is. On Alive To Every Smile, Wratten plays the perpetrator, not the victim. He’s no less soft-spoken than he ever was, but now he’s unashamed to admit that he’s as driven by the sexual imperative as any frathouse mook: “I wanted her so bad, you see,” he explains, flat-footedly, on the album’s centerpiece, “I just wouldn’t stop at anything”. Desire, on Alive To Every Smile, is a force that prompts people to behave impetuously and irresponsibly, and the more Wratten’s protagonist tells himself he’s doing wrong, the harder it becomes for him to locate his virtue. The woman he’s after is probably married, certainly off-limits, and tempted to play with fire. The main character begins the story as a would-be tweepop lothario interrogating his own morally compromised position, plunges into the deep end of the pool anyway, and discovers the water is a lot hotter than he expected it to be. By the end of the album, she’s taking the train back to the life she knows, and he’s the disbelieving, heartbroken schmuck on the platform talking to himself. So, yes, the result isn’t so far removed from what you’d get on other Trembling Blue Stars projects. The crucial difference is that this time Wratten knows that he’s been an active participant in his own emotional demolition. This is a grownup’s realization, Alive To Every Smile is a grownup story, and as every grownup knows, but every pop song attempts to mystify, an affair is always a tragedy. In order to make the ultimate album about what it’s like to be in the midst of one — because that’s what we’ve got here — it takes an experienced tragedian, one painfully familiar with the dynamics of self-deception. “I think love should come with madness,” sings Wratten on “Maybe After All,” and this preference stands as an implicit critique of the girl he’s chosen to seduce: she’s not going to go utterly crazy with him and sacrifice everything, and he knows it, but he’s already gathered too much momentum to stop himself from going over the edge of the cliff. “When we see a chance to be loved,” he sings on “With Every Story” in a prompt that sums up all of his work, but especially this album, “who knows what we’re capable of?” Now, Robert Wratten’s lyrics are often called diaristic, and it’s possible that Alive To Every Smile is just as autobiographical as the first three TBS albums. He may have actually picked up and fallen for a married woman, she may have refused to ditch her husband, and this set may be at least as epistolary as Here, My Dear. Those still interested in Wratten’s personal story will no doubt notice that the writer has appended a mysterious set of initials to the lyrics printed in the CD booklet. Me, I think it’s more significant that Wratten chose to include printed lyrics in the first place. This is the only Trembling Blue Stars album that comes with the poetry attached, and I do not believe that this is just the residue of Sub Pop’s art design department. Wratten is particularly proud of this set, and he wants to make sure you notice how succinct and epigrammatic they are, how economically the story is advanced, and how each image has been carefully seared into the lines to reinforce the narrator’s move from ambivalence to rhapsodic abandon to destabilization to stupefaction. “It’s the rest of our lives — that’s all we’re making a difference to!,” he sings on “Ammunition,” in a typically sympathetic but histrionic closing argument. Apparently she’s unmoved. Or, more likely, her idea of the value of the rest of her life differs sharply from his, and she’s calculated that she’s got more to lose than he does. He believes surviving isn’t everything; she doesn’t want to be drowned. Tough luck, Bobby.

What makes the music on this album notable? It was the canny Tim Benton of Baxendale who, on “Music For Girls,” implicitly called for solidarity between fans of lovelorn tweepop, delicate dance music, and every other form of art that the chavs can’t stand. Since we’re all facing the same beatdown from the same fraternity brother on the same cultural playground, a missing link between Belle & Sebastian and the Pet Shop Boys shouldn’t be that difficult to find, right? Benton wanted Baxendale to be that missing link; Ian Catt probably felt the same way about St. Etienne. Trouble is, no matter what Robert Smith and Bernard Sumner were able to accomplish in the ’80s, it is brutally hard to mope and dance at the same time. Brood and dance, maybe, or indulge in glorious self-pity while kicking at the pricks. But true heartrending tweepop has little relationship to the booty. (Please oh please be a pal and don’t bring up “Stillness Is The Move”.) Ironically, Robert Wratten, King Mouse himself, is the practitioner who’s come the closest to a genuine fusion. Some of this is probably accidental; while he’s got his heart in the house music experiments on the Lips That Taste Of Tears album, I think they’re there to evoke the psychic destabilization of the disco and, only distantly after that, to get you to shake it. Since it’s basically a concept set about putting trouble where there wasn’t any, Alive To Every Smile steps back a bit from the dancefloor and privileges mood over motion. There are more achingly slooooooow Christopher Cross ballads here than Wratten usually foists on his listeners, which is not to say that they aren’t really good Christopher Cross ballads. The exception is the slightest song on the set, and the only one that doesn’t really advance the story — “St. Paul’s Cathedral at Night,” a reverie with a comedown-phase techno pulse and a breathy vocal sample. Like “ABBA on the Jukebox,” an earlier song, “St. Paul’s” consists of Wratten flagellating himself with strands of memory; thus, the music needs to simultaneously sting and feel dreamlike. He pulls it off, but the ambience comes at the cost of the album’s forward momentum. Other experiments work better. Album closer “Little Gunshots” is semi-bossa nova, which ought to be a farce but works brilliantly instead by sucking every breath of equatorial breeze from its dessicated version of tropicalia. “Here All Day” extends Wratten’s fascination with fatalistic early-’60s pop ballads; “Under Lock And Key” sets the tone with mildly distorted drums and guitar and a marginally rougher vocal approach than anything TBS had yet attempted. It all serves to anticipate, echo, offset, or frame Wratten’s Fifth Symphony: “The Ghost Of An Unkissed Kiss.” Here is the maestro of lovelorn excess in rosy overdrive, layering guitar track upon guitar track (natch, one is even backward), saturating the frequency spectrum with organ, synth, and backing vox, mixing machine beats with live drums, and letting the whole shebang run for four-and-a-half minutes of indiepop glory. In case one melodic hook wasn’t sufficient, Wratten baits the fly-trap with a second, and then a third, and then a fourth, with each one steady enough to support a song on its own. The composition couldn’t be any more assured, but the motivation is frantic: if Wratten can just make the song catchy enough, irresistible enough, the girl will get tangled up in it like a kitten in a ball of yarn, and he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye again. In years of playing indiepop, I’ve never seen it work out that way, but our best songwriters go right on trying. As romantic fallacies go, it’s one of the most fruitful.

Dealbreakers? Wratten’s voice is something of an office-worker grumble, and it can sound downright comical when paired with the gigantic arrangements of songs like “Unkissed Kiss.” No matter what the band does, or how many glossy six-string and backing vocal tracks he overdubs, he always sounds like a sad sack, and you may occasionally tempted to slap some sense, or some animation, into him. (This said, Leonard Cohen has gotten away with the same thing for decades.) On other albums, Davies and Arzy brighten things up with lead vocals of their own, but this one is his narrative masterpiece, and he holds center stage for nearly an hour, only breaking the soliloquy for long sections of guitar wash. If you haven’t warmed up to him by the fourth song, there’s a good chance this isn’t for you. I am also aware that there are those who still believe male pop singers ought to behave on record like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, and others who are moved to write thinkpieces about the bothersome sociocultural implications of the twee aesthetic, and others with a reasonable distaste for the act of kissing and telling. If you fall into one of these categories, you will certainly pitch Alive To Every Smile out the window. Pop-rock did get rather wimpy and passive-aggressive in the ’00s, and there certainly is a time and a place for Motorhead. But if you want to argue, and some do, that Robert Wratten’s beleaguered, poetic diary entries constitute illegitimate rock practice, I can’t hang with you there. Heartbreak is as essential subject for American popular songwriters as Cadillacs and blue balls. As Fleetwood Mac, or Kanye West, might tell you, if you’re going to indulge yourself, you may as well take it to the limit.

What happened to the act after this? Wratten followed up Alive To Every Smile with the only dud in his discography: The Seven Autumn Flowers, which wasted a great TBS handle and a beautiful cover image on soporific, unmotivated, second-rate material. The exception is the terrific lead single “Helen Reddy,” sung by Arzy, which is probably about the same affair that consumed Wratten on the prior set. Seven Autumn Flowers would be the last Wratten project to get a decent, albeit indie-sized, push in the States (it was released by Hoboken’s own Bar/None); its failure to expand the Trembling Blue Stars audience probably threw the last shovelful of dirt on Smile. In America at least, tweepop moved on to other heroes, and it seemed likely that we wouldn’t be getting any more installments of the Adventures of Robert Wratten. As it turned out, the old fox had one last trick to play. The Last Holy Writer, released in 2007, broadened the arrangements, varied the tempos and the beats, and let a few rays peek through the clouds. A few songs were, in longstanding indiepop tradition, gay-affirmative; “A Statue to Wilde,” the seven-minute closer, manages to be gorgeous and also make a political statement, and if you think that’s easy, try to come up with another song you can say the same thing about. The presence of topical verse demonstrates that Wratten had stepped out of the confessional, at least momentarily — and when he does sing about himself, as on “November Starlings,” he’s provisionally content. He remains willing to put a chorus like this one, from “Idyllwild,” in Arzy’s mouth: “Life was so open then/now it’s closing in/one by one our dreams have disappeared.” Yet for the first time, it seems possible that Wratten is singing about another character, and that means a substantial difference in tone. Trembling Blue Stars retired from live performance after briefly supporting Holy Writer; Fast Trains And Telegraph Wires (is Wratten good at titles or what?) followed, almost as an afterthought, a few years later. It’s a good album and a fine end-note, but it played like a reiteration of past glories. In America, it sunk without a ripple.

Will this album ever receive its propers? Tweepop posterity, lusting after youth in strict conformity with the stereotype, tends to overrate the Field Mice and underrate Trembling Blue Stars. That’s when people are thinking of Robert Wratten at all, which happens all too infrequently. The grand, glossy arrangements that he and Catt favored have gone out of style;  the Pains of Being Pure At Heart — an obvious bunch of Wratten fans — are more inclined to run their mixes through nasty-ass distortion. Consider that the latest Pains album has been slated because Kip Berman has cleaned up the sound and made something not unlike a mid-’90s TBS set, and you begin to realize the problems that the Wratten revival faces. The Field Mice stand to be rediscovered first, and with it the story of Sarah Records and the doomed Wratten-Davies romance. Thus, even if Americans get hip to Robert Wratten in the future — not at all a likely thing — Alive to Every Smile is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Wratten probably won’t be able to call attention to his narrative masterpiece without getting back on the road and playing songs from it — preferably “Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss,” but “Little Gunshots” and “Under Lock and Key” are likely to intrigue pop fans, too. Luckily, Wratten appears to have unretired again: there’s a Facebook page for a new project called Lightning in a Twilight Hour, which I can’t believe wasn’t already the name of a Trembling Blue Stars song. I’ll be the first in line at the record store, if there were still record stores that stocked this stuff, or if there were still record stores, which there hardly are, but you know what I mean.

 

Tris McCall: tris@trismccall.net