Review Summary: the worst trip I've ever been on
On The Stage Names
, Will Sheff is speaking on behalf of rock music, not that it wanted him to. Sheff adores rock music and how it deviates into different forms; he visits folk renegades like Tim Hardin and rebuilds them in his own vision, and he covers madcap rockers like Big Star as if they totally got him. And yet rock music is still all a beautiful sham to him. On The Stage Names
, each line inflects summer and yet stifles sadly under the sun, which is incidentally exactly what the admission of “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” is about
: the shaking of the head that speaks the less cheerful truth- “on a sunny summer’s day, or, okay, an August night anyway
.” Here is the joy of a song at the front, the guitars blasting, with the trouble sadly sighing behind it. The question The Stage Names
seems to ask is which we love more.
As the first part of a double album with The Stand-Ins
, the lies on The Stage Names
are fresh in Sheff’s mind, reflected by him with his wicked perception and made clear in that quietly violent way that Sheff writes. The damning of art being just a punchline in the jittery opening track, for instance, presents the problems with rock music in the crystal clear way we might fall for it: “It’s just a house burning, but it’s not haunted” sounds, in itself, like another one of his pop lies, presented through a song with rises and falls and conventional instrumentation, and yet somehow offering a new analysis even through the same old. Sheff kind of has Stockholm Syndrome, which makes him such an incisive narrator. It’s the same on “Plus Ones,” which looks at so many rock touchstones and retorts to them like a list of dated, dishonest rules. To Tom Jones, “what’s new pussycat is you were once a lioness.” To R.E.M., “you would probably die before you shot up nine miles high.” Sheff treats music like another part of his life that has hurt him, and the result is an album wallowing through its homages, in the same way an album would speak of break-up or death.
And what takes me back about “Plus Ones” is how Sheff can construct my favourite song out of a hundred others. I’ve often argued that Sheff’s songs are so perfect because they transcend the “song” and make it yet another thing that can make or break a musician’s day. Music is the shi
tty thing Sheff comes home to and has to deal with, sometimes, and that’s how The Stage Names
treats it: a relationship he needs to have, but something he absolutely needs to talk about. His desperation comes bleeding out on this and its counterpart The Stand-Ins
, because music is nearly all he can talk about, and the ending is never quite neat.
It’s “John Allyn Smith Sails” I love to talk about though. The sense of pervading joy, even in the saddest moments, is part of rock music’s DNA, and this is something Sheff is brazenly aware of. “Sloop John B” is completely and utterly fu
cked up, but reinvented so that homesickness isn’t an illness. The Beach Boys treated it like a party, happy to get into a fight and wild enough to stay up all night. Trust Will Sheff to get it totally right even if we never wanted him to. He course-corrects the feeling from “I feel so broke up, I want to go home” as it closes off “John Allyn Smith Sails.” I think Sheff’s version is the same feeling- that unbridled joy, the impossibility of holding back- focused on the darkest avenues of one’s imagination, the ones we annex off and scold ourselves for bringing to the front. I can’t believe I thought that, etc. And then telling one’s self off for using ‘etc’, as goes the horrible conversation you have with the worst part of your brain. With all the crazy joy in his brain, Sheff just goes crazy: and so it gets the better of him, and there’s the final act of triumphant suicide in his version, as John Berryman’s death completely whittles away the sombre folk tale that introduces the last act. I like to think
that’s what “John Allyn Smith Sails” is, because you can separate it from his crushing sloop john B as it falls down on itself. Before that, it’s just the best introduction in music ever; not a song, nothing more than the three minutes of contemplating unhappily, and so very without joy. It’s the holding back
, and “Sloop John B” is the sloop john B. The song doesn’t explode until he announces: “my friends, I’m gone,” and then the real song begins. “John Allyn Smith Sails” is the sad list of reasons Berryman writes in his suicide note, and so it lists being upsettable and impressionable and poets that totally got him, but can’t help him. Because they are dead.
“My friends I’m gone,” then, is the satisfying of his justifications, and by that I mean: it’s the moment that lingers between the rationalising and the doing
. Sheff’s character has told enough at this point, and he’s ready for the joy. In his version of “Sloop John B,” there’s a summery smile, and Berryman’s death, even self-inflicted, is a flight into the sun rather than a fall from Washington Avenue. We may condemn the self-inflicted as criminals, but here, it’s a grand bank robbery. The trumpets signal his fanfare like a day under the sun with an everlasting Balkan jam; the drums propel forward like they can’t stop; the maddened one-man choir repeats Sheff’s chants to go home as if that home is on a cloud higher up than this one. Until its very ending, “Sloop John B” is a stubborn, never-ending celebration, even more than it was in Brian Wilson’s hands. Sheff understands the reckless happiness in the face of misery even better than that, when the fights are amplified even as they go unmentioned and the cries for home never leave one’s mind when that’s all you can journey towards.
And then there are those last ten seconds or so, in which we’re forced to watch the sad ending: the trumpets flail out pathetically and Sheff returns to his stumbling sadness. This is The Stage Names
through and through, from its shiny summertime riches to its sad sac rags. The album presents rock in the brightest of seasons, and then gets too honest and goes too far with its own celebration. Even with the same words as before used, it’s the repetition that bites. The lyrics no longer dance like a boast to Wilson that anything you can do, I can do better, and instead “I feel so broke up” is now a phrase dangling, moving slowly back and forth. The happiest celebration won’t soften the most devastating party comedown; this is suicide, and “Sloop John B” can’t cure that. It never tried to. “Sloop John B” became a myth, given harmonies and a hug, but Sheff never forgot what happened on the worst trip ever. Here it is, a homesick sea shanty at heart, and it can only end as badly as it says. So broke up, “John Allyn Smith Sails” circles back home. For Sheff’s poor old Berryman, it doesn’t solve a thing. The Stage Names
is gorgeous, notable for its summer sham marriage, but soul-crushingly sad when it performs its last, little beats. It’s Sheff writing on what all of us fall in love with and get hurt by most, and that’s music.