another in a series of insane musical comparisons

For the first time in way, way too long, I was listening today to Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run. First thing I thought: why did I ever think this wasn’t a fantastic album? Second, and odder thought: as I was listening to “Jet” (which is a brilliant pop song) I suddenly found myself thinking of Stephen Malkmus. Now, vocally there’s almost no similarity; musically, while Malkmus sometimes draws from classic ’70s rock and ’60s psych (both of which, of course, McCartney had a hand in originating), the emphasis is very different…but what struck me is that the critical darts hurled McCartney’s way in the seventies had much to do with the way he failed to fit with then-emerging rock-critical orthodoxy: his lyrics were rarely either deeply meaningful (or attempting same), knottily allusive, or at all self-important, and he seemed pretty unconcerned with being profound. Plus – I mean, Linda McCartney playing keyboards? She wasn’t even a musician! (Of course, within a couple of years, had Paul been a young punk, Linda’s non-musician status would have been a plus…Paul was ahead of the curve there.) But the reason I found myself thinking of Malkmus during “Jet” in particular was a certain insouciance, an off-kilter tendency toward little private jokes, and the way the lyrics seem to point toward some sort of heavier subject matter but then turn that very pointing into a sort of joking parody. That seems Malkmus-like to me: a couple of lines in “Jet” gesture at the British class system…but they’re so vague and joking that any kind of idea refuses to gain traction. Coupled with that are goofy lines like “I thought the major…wass a lady…sufferagette!” – I spelled the last word wrong intentionally to get the extra syllable McCartney adds: you can almost hear him cracking up at the goofy pronunciation…kind of like Malkmus riffing on “career! career! Korea!” in “Cut Your Hair” – or that “the only lonely place was on the moon.” Malkmus’s word salad tends a bit more toward the recherché (a word that’s much more likely to appear in one of his songs than in McCartney’s) but he too seems content to riff on associations and sound (compare “jet”/”suffragette”) rather than worry meaning to a shred.

So in the seventies, the peak of Rolling Stone high critical seriousness, McCartney’s work was dismissed as fluffy, meaningless, pop pap…whereas in the nineties and uh-ohs, Malkmus gets branded with “irony” – which, although not necessarily as critical as “fluffy” was, is still off-base – in that it implies an emotional standpoint either critical or above-it-all, and most often there’s little evidence in Malkmus’s work to suggest either perspective. I mean, when you write a set of lines like “You are a gardenia pressed in the campaign journal in the rucksack of an Afrikaaner candidate for mild reform” (from “Gardenia”), the “point,” if there is one, seems more to be a joke at extending a metaphoric comparison far past its breaking point in terms of specificity – not some sort of withering critique of, I dunno, Afrikaaner candidates for mild reform, or mild reform, or the pressing of gardenias.

Next up: why Tori Amos is just like The Kingsmen. Or maybe Leonard Cohen. I’m not sure.


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