Fred Durst: harbinger of perpetual adolescence

Songs about doing things “my way” or it being “my life” have been around forever. Most famously, Frank Sinatra sung about having no regrets, taking the blows and standing tall in 1969, although it was Paul Anka who wrote the words. It’s the most famous example of a popular song that looks back, hence its regular use at funerals; a monument to self-belief verging on arrogance.

To a person my age, it sounds foreign. It comes from an era in which Western popular culture had regained its self-confidence after the Second World War; a time of peace and love when the Beatles were still topping the charts, people were experimenting with new substances and nonconformist lifestyles, and counter-cultural self-expression was often faced with little more than sanguine paternalism.

No, when I think of songs entitled “My Way”, my thoughts turn instead to the peculiar genius of Fred Durst and his Limp Bizkit, the incorrigible scamps who took the impassioned, outward-looking, politically intellectual rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine and made it a vehicle for teenage angst.

“My Way” was released in the early days of 2001, the fourth single from the band’s third album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water. The album sold over a million copies in its first week in the US alone, and has since sold 20 million worldwide. In a conversation with friends earlier today, which prompted me to write this, it was remarked upon how, just prior to the invention of file-sharing on the internet, there was a weird lacuna when bands like this could somehow hit the heights. Somewhere between the grunge revolution of the early ’90s, the Britpop movement a few years later and the New Wave revival of the following decade, a Bermuda Triangle for musical and lyrical expression opened up – and Fred Durst charted a course straight into it.

The song itself is a perfect encapsulation of adolescent self-pity. Musically it’s vaguely competent and catchy in the kind of way that enables angry teenagers to connect immediately: simple soft/loud dynamics, crunching guitars and the kind of compressed, maxed-out production that made the new mp3 file format appear to have no effect on audio quality whatsoever.

But it’s the lyrics that really cook. If Sinatra was the old gent looking back on his life with contentment tinged with pride, Durst is providing the ammunition for the 13 year old kid whose parents won’t let him play video games. It’s the emotion today’s young professionals were raised on, and while I don’t subscribe to the well-trodden idea that the so-called “millennials” are all entitled, selfish narcissists, it helps to explain why their response to adversity can be somewhat impetuous.

Just one more fight
About your leadership
And I will straight up
Leave your shit
Cause I’ve had enough of this
And now I’m pissed

A Song for Saturday: Rae Morris – Skin

“Skin”, by Rae Morris, is a gorgeous, weary coo; a song that murmurs and flows like a river carving its way through soft sedimentary rock.

It’s the first track on the 23 year old’s debut album, Unguarded, released earlier this year; it’s also comfortably the best song on the record, which is something of a disappointment.

Although Morris’ voice is not much akin to Kate Bush’s, the confidence with which she gently unfolds the sounds on this cut is definitely reminiscent, as is the high-class, elegant, if somewhat self-consciously arty video, shot in monochrome and recalling “Running Up That Hill” in particular.

The tick tock of the music box at the beginning of this song may gradually be overtaken by increasingly authoritative piano and a drum track that ensures a constant sense of momentum, but it’s still there, buried deep in the mix. It creates the same feeling as I get from some of Bush’s work – the feeling that you have heard this somewhere before and that it was only necessary to jog your memory.

Lenine – Hoje Eu Quero Sair Só

Lenine is a Brazilian musician who, were there any justice, would be as well known across the world as any American or British singer/songwriter.

One of the best things about Lenine’s music is the way it blends traditional Brazilian forms with Western alternative influences. If only Anglophones were more receptive to lyrics sung in other tongues, they would find him incredibly accessible, but also noticeably innovative and markedly different.

My favourite song by him is Hoje Eu Quero Sair Só. This was on his first solo album, released in 1997, but still getting heavy airplay when I moved to Brazil as a 12 year old in early 2000.

Brazilian music is memorable on its own terms, but its effortless, relaxed sound often enables it to act as a suitable vehicle for lyrics that are sophisticated, emotional and surprisingly direct.

This song is a particularly good example of that phenomenon. It slinks up on you, driven by an acoustic guitar playing a repetitive set of chords in typical post-bossa nova style. If you listen carefully, that guitar is at the centre of the whole song and creates its insistent sound, even when all the bells and whistles of the (very late 90s) production have been added in.

And insistent is the right word for the lyrics as well. Lenine manages to create a sound in this song that exactly matches the desire expressed by its title (“Today I want to go out alone”). The lyrics tell the story of a relationship in which the war between intimacy and liberty is raging.

If you want to follow me, it’s not secure

You don’t want to lock me in a dark room

Sometimes it feels like we got tied up in knots

Today I want to go out alone

You won’t hit me at point-blank range

Come here, let me go, kiss me

Sometimes it feels like we got tied up in knots

Today I want to go out alone

This is a rough translation of the first couple of verses. As with many Portuguese phrases, the English language isn’t actually sufficient to capture the nuances; for example, I’ve chosen “tied up in knots” as a colloquial translation of “as vezes parece até que a gente deu nó”, but by doing so I’ve made it sound more negative than it seems intended to be in the song.

The sense of the song is deeply conflicted. The singer is expressing a need to go out alone where “alone” very definitely means “lacking another”. But he also keeps saying he’ll be back before long.

And then there’s the double-edged phrase “Vai ver se eu tô lá na esquina”. Literally this means “go and see if I’m on the corner”, but in Portuguese it’s a dismissive phrase which basically means “get lost”. Again, though, in this song it’s spun around or at least made more ambivalent by the following phrase “devo estar” – “I must be”.

The way the music is sinuously wrapped around this ambivalence, creating that great sub-tropical night-time feeling that embodies uncertainty, stillness, and the moonlight that calls you to the solitary street, makes this one of the greatest achievements of Lenine’s career and one of the finest introductions I can imagine to “MPB” – Musica Popular Brasileira.

A Song for Saturday: Bjork – Black Lake

I have a tenuous relationship with Bjork’s music. She released her ninth studio album, Vulnicura, meaning “Cure for Wounds” in January this year, and it’s certainly not a summery listen, but I’ve come to it late, so you’ll have to deal with this somewhat unseasonal choice.

The album is as conceptual as any of her previous work, dealing with the break-up of her long-term relationship with artist Matthew Barney. It is a work of deep emotional honesty and can be quite difficult to listen to at points. Thankfully the pain of the lyrics is matched by the beauty of the music, which signals at least a partial return to the “beats and strings” approach of her early albums, Debut and especially 1997’s Homogenic, which remains my favourite of hers.

(Incidentally, 1997 was probably the greatest single year for music since the 1970s.)

“Black Lake” is the dark heart of the album, which is so precisely linked to real-life events that many of the tracks have subtitles detailing the number of months before or after the break-up. 10 minutes long, it was written “two months after”, and bears the hallmarks of the stuttering beginnings of understanding and anger that swirl around at such a time.

The singer herself professes to be embarrassed by the track, and this quote sums up perfectly the feeling it creates as you listen to it:

It’s like, when you’re trying to express something and you sort of start, but then nothing comes out. You can maybe utter five words and then you’re just stuck in the pain. And the chords in-between, they sort of represent that. […] We called them “the freezes,” these moments between the verses. They’re longer than the verses, actually. It’s just that one emotion when you’re stuck. It is hard, but it’s also the only way to escape the pain, just going back and having another go, trying to make another verse.

The film made to accompany the music is also characteristically beautiful and overwrought in equal measure.

A Song for Saturday: Tom Paxton – On the Road from Srebrenica

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War. The death toll in Srebrenica was more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, gunned down by the Bosnian Serbs under the generalship of Ratko Mladic, who remains on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity, including the events at Srebrenica.

I have been fascinated and disturbed by the genocide at Srebrenica since my childhood. One of my earliest memories is watching news footage of the Bosnian war and the Siege of Sarajevo; I have a vivid memory of the smoke and flames billowing from the Parliament building, and the distinctive yellow block of the Holiday Inn, where most of the foreign media were based during the war.

Srebrenica has special resonance for me partly because of a song written by the American folk singer, Tom Paxton. We used to listen to Tom Paxton a lot when I was a child, and many of his songs were cutesy throwaways: zany treats like “Goin’ to the Zoo” and funny little vignettes such as “I Don’t Want a Bunny Wunny“, a musing upon President Jimmy Carter’s encounter with a vicious killer rabbit.

On the Road from Srebrenica, though, is Paxton at his most visceral, serious and human; a mournful retelling of the brutal violence meted out, through a series of disturbing images. The lyrics zoom in and out from individuals among the panicked thousands fleeing; they dwell on the sickening efficacy of the murder; they provide that mixture of awful dread and just enough humanity (in the carefully hopeful third verse) to sock you in the gut every time you listen to it.

Ok, it has some poetic licence: Paxton seems obsessed with the idea that the weather was cold, even though the massacre occurred in July, and Eastern European countries including Bosnia are generally very warm at that time of year. But the essential truth of the song can’t be denied.

It is a fitting memorial for one of the greatest blots on human history. It still astonishes me that this occurred in my lifetime.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js-wEJR0cM8]

A Song for Saturday: Van Morrison – Caravan

On the weekend when it was announced that Van the Man is becoming Sir Van, it’s only appropriate that this week’s Song for Saturday choice is one of his best cuts.

“Caravan” was originally to be found on my favourite Van Morrison album, Moondance. On that studio version, it’s contemplative, even louche; it sounds like a travelling song, rather than a rabble-rouser. There’s some wistful sounding orchestration, and the tempo is considered and moderate. Van sounds soulful but restrained and controlled – when he sings “turn it up – that’s enough” you feel that he means it. And the coda is insistent without ever losing that sense of control.

But I know the song better from the 1976 concert The Last Waltz, famously documented by Martin Scorsese as the farewell gig by The Band. You feel like even Van himself, a famously taciturn, even morose, performer – a malcontent in dark suits – was caught up in the heady atmosphere. The tempo is upbeat, with Levon Helm (one of my all-time favourite drummers, a man whose vocal chops meant he played for the song as well as anyone) driving it with his almost lyrical ride cymbal and hiccuping snare fills. Meanwhile Van’s there at the front, giving it everything, in a kind of weird purple jumpsuit that screams “it’s the 1970s”.

I love the anticipation of the instrumental section around the 3:20 mark. Robbie Robertson picks out a couple of rootsy licks and Van scats a bit. But then, he sings “turn it up” and the song is carried to another plane. The coda in this version is just relentless, building and building until it becomes overwhelming. Van kicks the air, descending into incoherence, and eventually drifts off the stage as if in a trance. You can feel the enjoyment of the entire Band, especially the glee on Robertson’s and Helm’s faces.

An appropriate way to celebrate a knighthood.

A Song for Saturday: Low – In Metal

This is a song for those who feel fragile on a Saturday.

Low are a band just weird enough never to be well-known, but accessible enough for anyone who really wants to listen. It’s claimed that they are the leaders of what came to be known as a subgenre called “slowcore”, although they hate that label. I just think of them as a really great minimalist rock band, one that writes songs that take time to creep up on you and steal your heart.

In Metal is the closing track on what I still think is their best album, 1999’s “Things We Lost In the Fire”. It’s a sprawling record, nearly an hour long – and at the pace Low play, it feels that long, although never dull. I saw them perform the whole album live at the Barbican in 2006, as part of the Don’t Look Back series, one of All Tomorrow’s Parties best innovations.

The song is about the child of the two founder members of Low, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and it even features recordings of the baby cooing, making the “tiny sounds” referred to in the first line. The lyrics are minimal enough to be quoted here in their entirety:

Filling holes with tiny sounds

Shining from the inside out

Picture of you where it began

In metal, in metal

Partly hate to see you grow

And just like your baby shoes

Wish I could keep your little body

In metal, in metal

In metal, in metal

In metal, in metal

The music is lovely and highlights the band’s gift for harmony, as well as showing what can be done with a broad dynamic range and a sense of momentum. But it’s among the most moving songs I can think of. I’m not a parent, but this song makes me feel like one. The sense of bittersweet emotion and love and care is almost overwhelming.