PERMANENT RECORDS: AND A VIOLET WHINING SOUND
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change.
43. THE SISTERS OF MERCY - VISION THING (1990)
Personnel: Andrew Eldritch, vocals & guitars; Tim Bricheno, guitars; Andrew Bruhn, guitars; Tony James, bass; Maggie Reilly, backing vocals; Doktor Avalanche, drum machine
Producer: Andrew Eldritch, except "More" co-produced by Jim Steinman /Label: Elektra
Sometimes, I can't help but look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking. What was it about some piece of art that thrilled me so much back then that I can't see now?
Time and again, I've reexamined some beloved entertainment and been baffled by my own youthful lack of taste. It's made me rather distrustful of nostalgia. The nostalgia that stays in memory, that remains a mental state, is one thing; the nostalgia that actually sees a person go back over something from their past in search of the original feeling it gave them, however, is dangerous. A much vaunted "for instance" in this case is my well-known hatred of all things Star Wars. The aghast who hear this opinion usually assume this is some willfully contrary pose I have adopted as some kind of elitist snob, a counter-hipster. I am somewhat to blame for that reaction, since I do rather enjoy eliciting it, but it actually has no basis. I was a huge Star Wars fan, just like every other kid my age. My shoplifting career consisted primarily of pinching Return of the Jedi figures from Montgomery Ward's, and my friends and I did a dramatic reading of the Marvel Comics adaptation on audio tape, each of us playing multiple characters. I was an absolute nerd.
Then when was in 11th grade, after several years of not seeing the films, my buddy Tom Stevens hosted a screening of the trilogy at his home. What I saw in my living room appalled me. These were truly ghastly films. While I understand the adventure story archetypes George Lucas is dealing in and why it likely fired me up as a child, I can never grab hold of that fire again unless I can wipe my memory of the poor filmmaking that set it alight.
Recently, a Sisters of Mercy tour was announced, and it's going to stop by Portland. While I know people who are stoked to go to this show, I have beggared off. It's been sixteen years since Andrew Eldritch released Vision Thing, and while I hear his scattered performances over the years have been good, I just can't seem to get behind the romance of supporting a musician who allegedly only crawls out of his hovel to support a long-rumored drug habit, much less one who has spent over a decade doing absolutely nothing new creatively.
But then, I started to wonder, what if I was going to miss something? I saw the Sisters in 1991, and it was a truly spectacular spectacle, a day-long event in Irvine, California, with Lush and Danielle Dax opening. I remember it vividly, both for the performance and for the day. I stupidly showed up alone and sat in my seat reading Goethe's Faust in an obvious show of pretension. Sadly, that attracted the wrong element, and the scene was so humorous to me, I adapted it for Cut My Hair, when Mason gets assaulted by a drunk in NoWay Home for reading Kafka.
Would it be that good again, or would the whole dry ice and trench coat thing that I thought was so cool as a college student just annoy me now? Dig if you will a picture, of me down front, coughing and waving away the smoke from the smoke machine. "Does it have to be so heavy? A boy can't breathe in here!"
In an attempt to answer this question, I pulled out Vision Thing. I loved that record when it came out. It was one of the first CDs I bought, having gotten my first player that Christmas. It was when CDs still came in those long cardboard boxes, and I would tack them up on my wall. I loved the big, loud guitars, and the nihilistic poetry of the lyrics. I always thought the guys on the back looked a bit naff--long haired, shirtless, sunglasses? Gimme a break!--but Eldritch was one cool, dark motherfucker. He was goddamn Neo long before there was ever a Matrix.
Unfortunately, nostalgia has bit me on the ass again. I hate to use "cartoony" as a pejorative, but Vision Thing is cartoony. It's exaggerated, overdone, and often too silly for words.
Things start off okay. The title track is still a fantastic album opener, with its jigsaw guitar and Eldritch's righteous growl. The song is an indictment of the first Bush tyranny, a hodgepodge of nonsensical phrases from the elder George that seem to have lost none of their hollow relevancy with Junior in the big chair. The bitterness and anger that comes out in the chant of "another motherfucker in a motorcade" still curls my lip.
Ditto for "Ribbons," a cut-and-paste meditation on desire, both in a positive, lusty sense and the broken emotion of rejection. It's summed up perfectly in the line "she looked good in ribbons," with its double meaning. Is she wearing those ribbons, or are we imagining this little heartbreaker cut to shreds, like the "flowers on the razor wire"? Eldritch's repeated croaks of "Incoming!" have a familiar ring to any person who has ever had someone in their life who simultaneously fills them with love and dread. I used to crank "Ribbons" to full volume and stalk around my dorm room screaming along. In fact, in another curious connection to my writing, I tried experimenting with fractured prose at the time, writing a short story called "The Wait Man." It began its life with constant mental interjections from its main character, including references to bombs and shouts of "Incoming!" The story opened--once more, obvious pretension--with a super long quote from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents about the pain a human experiences, and then a very short quote from "I Was Wrong," the last song on Vision Thing: "pain looks great on other people/ that's what they're for." I'll admit, I still quote that line often.
Things begin to lose shape on track 3, though. "Detonation Boulevard" may start off with a bluesy twang, but it quickly tosses us into the chug-chug heavy metal that will characterize the rest of the album. In the chorus, when a voice hisses "bang bang" and it's filtered to sound like a gunshot in a vacuum, I will freely admit that there were plenty of times where I mimed a gun with my fingers and bang-banged along, a thought that reddens the cheeks now. Even more embarrassing is how clever and poetic I thought the following song, "Something Fast," was. "You can stand all night/ at a red light anywhere in town/ hailing maries left and right/ but none of them slow down." Did you see what he did there? He took the image of a taxi and he made it religious! How scandalous, how daring...how trite. Man, if this is what passed as good imagery for me, no wonder I used to write such daft poetry.
Up next is a shallow triptych of the album's singles: the nearly identical "When You Don't See Me" and "Dr. Jeep" and the big radio hit, "More." This was always my least favorite section of the album, as I thought these were the weakest of the eight songs. "When You Don't See Me" is full of cliché sentiment, "Dr. Jeep" feels unfinished, and "More" was always overblown. I didn't know who Jim Steinman was then, but now it all makes sense: Eldritch hired the guy who wrote songs for Meatloaf! Suckage guaranteed!
It's also telling that the bass player for this period of the band was Tony James, the man behind Sigue Sigue Sputnik. There is nothing more plastic than Sigue Sigue--but at least on their albums it was intentional.
There is some redemption to be had on the aforementioned "I Was Wrong." Everyone steps back, letting an acoustic guitar do the bulk of the work, matching the most straightforward lyrics of Eldritch's career. It's a simple narrative about betrayal and fighting for the strength to stand alone. "I can love my fellow man/ but I'm damned if I'll love yours." Vocally, Eldritch keeps the dramatics to a minimum. His final insistence of his self-belief is both impassioned and possibly overly insistent because he's still trying to convince himself. How refreshing to hear a modicum of doubt after so much bravado. I can't help but ask where this kind of thing is on the rest of the album. The Vision Thing title becomes an ironic albatross, since all that has preceded "I Was Wrong" is the sound of a band that has almost completely lost sight of what they're doing.
So, in the end, what did I gain from my little walk down memory lane? Not much, really. My feelings are about as mixed now as when I started the experiment. Yes, those five songs I no longer care for do have that dreaded air of cartoonishness bloating them beyond all proportion, but even as I am slagging them off, there are stray sparks here and there where I do make the old connections. Even if I don't exactly feel it, I am reminded of the intensity of my adolescent need for loud rushes of sound, and I feel a little guilty poo-pooing the disc too harshly when at one time I got so much out of it. Perhaps the key to growing older, really, is understanding that. What worked in the past may have lost its effectiveness, but that doesn't make the old me wrong. Certainly if more fogies like me remembered that, they might not be so down on younger generations for indulging in what works for them. Nostalgia isn't meant to transport us back like some sort of emotional time machine, it's just meant to keep us on track by helping us remember where we've been.
I still won't go see the band in concert. I think that would put the nail in the coffin a little too deeply--which is far too goth a sentiment for this old fart to stomach. Some boys wander by mistake, and some know when to stay home. Know what I mean, in a cheeky reference kind of way?
Andrew Eldritch c.2005
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Current Soundtrack: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Current Mood: blah
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich