Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
If we were to come up with a taxonomy of ways people praise music, a lot of the categories would surely focus on some extramusical rupture the record caused. It had a huge cultural impact or markedly affected one’s life. “John Coltrane and Miles Davis changed jazz forever.” “Slanted and Enchanted changed my life.” By these standards, The Men, and their recent record Open Your Heart, are doomed. There is not a place in the pantheon for putting out a pretty good record that doesn’t exactly follow a well-trodden path but drunkenly stumbles along it much the same, save for a few surprises.
But there’s something strange, from a sociological vantage, about music culture’s (and especially rockwriter culture’s) implicit claim that the worth of every record you listen to is predicated on how “life-changing” it is. To figure out what The Men are really up to, it’s worth realizing that punk rock and its derivatives in many ways have become a folk music. Musicians and scene participants frame what they do in terms of upholding a tradition. And even in the Internet-era, when precocious listeners can and do obtain much of their music knowledge through a written source, punk rock is still passed down in part through oral tradition or firsthand experience: house shows, independent art spaces that double as venues, older siblings and friends relaying stories about legendary bands who have since floated into the ether, etc.
This is not to denigrate punk qua folk music, or folk music generally, by insinuating that they are static scenes; on the contrary, folk musics in general are constantly in flux, even if their dynamism is perhaps subtler than the market-driven churning that animates pop music.
The Men, then, are maybe best viewed as folk musicians: engaged in both upholding and modifying a tradition as they see fit. Open Your Heart finds them shifting their catalogue of influences, which on Leave Home was a broad swath of fairly abrasive independent rock music—i.e., far more than what is actually tagged as “indie rock.” Most notably, here they ditch the more abrasive workouts (e.g., Leave Home’s AmRep-ish “L.A.D.O.C.H.” or the paranoid, Wipers-y “Bataille”) in favor of a similarly variegated palette with a wider range of moods. “Turn It Around” has the distortion, tempo and production of a record Maximumrocknroll might review, but the riff is an E-F#-A progression more common to soul-stompers and, oddly, New Order’s “Age of Consent.” “Turn” bleeds immediately into “Animal,” which bears a striking resemblance to fellow P4k-approved punks Fucked Up: major-key bastardized Krautrock with oddly-placid female vocals complementing the diaphragmatic male ones. Even “Country Song” is pacific with its languid Link Wray riffing.
But these less damaged (and somewhat disappointing—more on that later) cuts are overshadowed by a return to the familiar desperation of past records. And when The Men do their thing—viz., setting the controls for your amygdalae and hitting the gas—they are remarkably good. “Open Your Heart” melds sulky folk-rock chords to Motörhead-ed rhythm section in a note-perfect Dinosaur Jr. homage (the vocals even sound like a mix of Lou Barlow and J Mascis). The lyrics (“even if she says ‘no’, I won’t let go”) border on chauvinist, or at least creepy—problematic but par for the course. “Cube” finally rips into some of the straightforward Eric-Gaffney-goes-metal that made Leave Home the snarling record it was. “Ex-Dreams” thrashes around in the same righteous-nervous nexus as Daydream Nation.
Their less-aggro sound, though accountable for the record’s opening misfire, works in places. “Candy” is the kind of sheepish, jaded drunkard’s tale that populates Silkworm and Replacements records. This represents the apex of The Men as folk musicians: It’s nothing you haven’t heard before and yet it’s effortlessly affecting (at least to disaffected, young white men, who for better or worse are likely much of The Men’s audence.) As Chuck Klosterman once characterized Paul Westerberg’s work, it’s universal and personal at once.
But still, the record’s greatest flaw is a lack of drama or dynamism; at times, neither lyrics nor music creates any sort of tension-release buildup. Such a lack is not necessarily bad, especially for a band that is apparently conversant with several experimental musics. Some of the most interesting and fruitful “currents” of 20th century music— twelve-tone music, minimalism, free jazz, “noise,” strands of house and techno—are based around a static or nonexistent tonal center, and thus by-and-large eschew traditional tension-release harmony. But The Men are ultimately a punk group borrowing from experimental traditions (and those traditions’ popularizers, like Sonic Youth), and their appeal is largely visceral, not conceptual. Their miscues fail on their own terms; rock music is generally an interactive music but it’s difficult to figure out what The Men were envisioning as far as listener response to these songs goes.
The first three tracks work well enough: jubilant Spacemen 3 major-key drone-rock (x2) and wistful blues-rock. But they don’t have much tension or drama. For a band in a tradition in which communion with the audience is of paramount importance, there are neither lyrics to sing along with nor heartpumping riffs to get behind—the lyrics and melodies don’t seem to have all that much semantic content. Again, this is not damning, since non-dynamism is not necessarily boring but can conversely be absorbing or meditative. John Cage once said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for [longer and longer]. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Unfortunately, it turns out that the reverse is also true—if something is immersive and expansive after an hour, like “Country Song” might be, it’s rather dull if you cut it to four minutes.
That said, I want these songs to work. Open Your Heart, with nearly every song, represents a step in a new sonic direction for The Men, even though their guiding philosophy—the heat-fusion of blocks of influences with the confidence of seasoned record collectors—remains the same. But I get lost in the first three or four songs, even as they represent advances in the band’s sonic craft. Meanwhile, other songs are imbued with one of rock music’s persistent and deeply conservative elements: the drive towards cocooning oneself in “sound and fury” or towards an ahistorical use of loud music as a kickback against change. Whether it’s misogynist lyrics and imagery, or the rockist sneer at synths and computers in music (which seems to animate a small chunk of Open Your Heart’s favorable reviews), there’s a long and ugly reactionary streak running through even the most ostensibly rebellious currents of rock music. At the same time, I don’t expect rock music to present point-programs for social change—“I’m fucked up, things are fucked up” can, in the right context, be a powerful statement about the world and one’s place in it. At this point in music history, basic rock conventions have all but lost their novelty. Of course, a common, well-worn palette is one of the foundations of folk music—but in place of novelty, successful folk music substitutes communication and storytelling. The challenge is for rock to communicate something. To me, “baby girl, I wanna see you when you try so hard / go down / turn in it around” (“Turn it Around”) doesn’t meet that criterion.
And I say this loving, for example, Black Flag’s final few albums, which are chock full of similarly backwards outrage. The key difference is that it’s much easier to historicize Black Flag’s rage—they were self-sufficient, furious anarchists who threw their lives into the pursuit of genuinely new sonic territory. In William Carlos Williams’ phrase, they were “mirror[s] to this modernity,” a reflection of the painful process of social change accompanying rapid industrial development. An all-out fury at existing society is bound to catch some regrettable targets.
The Men project no such image or ethos; they are dudes who know a lot about rock music and are really good at playing it. But they seem comfortable in the fact that they are not revolutionaries, musical or otherwise, happily resigned to the fact that they “hear the radio play and don’t care that it’s not [us.]” This makes, for example, the sort of boogie-woogie-influenced, testosterone-addled screams of “Animal” feels less like the unfortunate debris of a drive to shake the world’s foundations and more like a deliberate step backwards. When they sing “there are no mirrors here, I am who I am” on the title track, it sounds like a statement of purpose, in light of the WCW line. The Men are a folk group, and a rock band, with all that those histories entail. They are best when they tap into the spirit of folk music—a constant changing and updating, a conversation with the world (as a part of it).
In a small way, their dalliance with “softer” music like shoegaze represents a response to the changing world (even if that territory has been explored by punk groups before). But these experiments remain lackluster—hackneyed music, dumbed-down lyrics (even if intentionally so)—especially compared to the discerning syntheses they’ve wrung out of a narrower set of influences in the past. There is something to be admired in their willingness to step out of the few genre boundaries they still acknowledge. But they are more relevant, more engaging, when they’re writing screeds and namechecking Continental philosophers than when they step out of the punk tradition. Still, let’s hold out for a synthesis of their experimental tendency with the calculated cool of their most successful efforts thus far.