Eight years on from the death of Kurt Cobain and the eternally unrealisedpromise of Unplugged in New York, some young American musicians stilladdress imaginatively the problem of authenticity in popular music, tryingto identify what can be taken into the new century.
Most British musicmakers duck behind boyband retro-rock, most effectively promulgated byRobbie Williams (though his Sinatra essay seems a post-modern bridge toofar). Others emulate the frayed ends of American developments such asGarage and Jungle and Rap. We all owe a deep debt of gratitude to Ali G fordebunking the latter form of non-music.
But in America there arereal issues. Mainstream American rock’n'roll has roots not onlyin the blues/jazz of black Americans, but also in a strong country/westerntradition and the democratic process itself. Just take another look atWoodstock. It is this richness of fabric that led to After theGold Rush and Pet Sounds and Astral Weeks and Nirvana.
There are two significant strands to be considered: the lyrics and thesound. Unlike all else produced by Nirvana, the sound textures inUnplugged charted a future development which few musicians have triedto pursue, perhaps because it is difficult to be truly creative in modernwestern society, a culture that proclaims doctrinally that all creativityhas already reached its fulfilment. This is, after all, the meaning ofNirvana. A few grunge groups such as Pearl Jam stepped tentatively into theshoes of Unplugged. Mark Linkous’ Sparklehorse has been hailedby some as the authentic successor to Lou Reed and Neil Young. It boilsdown to what we understand by sound. We seek nuance, variation andoccasional surprise mixed up with a measure of predictability. In thetruest American tradition we have to get the words.
Pete Yorn’s album Music For The Morning After is likeable forthe rational way in which it addresses the issues confronting modern musicin crisis. The sound owes something to various post-Nirvana bands,including grunge groups and certainly sharing in the fortunes of someAmerican retros such as Weezer.
There are striking coups worthy of Lou Reed (Lose You or For Nancy) andtracks that develop the complex sound textures of The Velvet Underground(On Your Side). The plaintive twang of EZ reminds us of the early andearnest Neil Young. There is a comfortable rock’n'roll beat in two orthree of the tracks (notably Strange Condition). Life On A Chain beginswith a gravely, disjointed narrative that grounds the whole album in aspecifically American musical tradition – of loss and alienation and despair- both personal and universal.
However, the words let us down. Aside from one or two pungent foraysinto human emotion, even these not quite up to the love-lorn lyrics of the’50s/’60s, the sentiments are flat and largely arcane rather than accessible(as rock lyrics need to be). Consider: “Black is a cast, and two is acrowd, and gold rim is an answer” (Black) or “Pots and pans areindestructible. How do you respect your room? If you hadn’t gone tomorrow,you could have stayed on ’til June” (June) or “I never mind the way I hadto see ya, my working on a day show never explains why I see you and I feelyour pain” (Just Another) – you cannot be serious.
Pete Yorn writes allhis own words – or, more likely, they come to him as an adornment for therich sound textures he weaves. He needs a lyricist. Here he is, potentiallyat the cutting edge, and he is short of thoughts. This is tragic. Almostas tragic as Kurt Cobain blowing his brains out.