Despite a career now spanning three decades and as many bands, Doug McLean basically does one kind of song and generally does it very well. His main ‘90s gig, the Bonaduces (he did simultaneous duty in Painted Thin), made fast, buzzing punk-pop songs in what might have been easily described as a prototypically scrappy Ramones/Buzzcocks mode, were it not for McLean’s uncommonly ambitious lyrical content. The Democracy of Sleep, the band’s second and final release from 1998, in particular, was startlingly mature in its insights into the fears that plague youth in its initial dawning of awareness of mortality, lending songs with titles like “I Nominate My Kitten for the King of the Dead” and “The Second Annual National Depression Awareness Day Sleepover Party” a gravity that any of the era’s Green Day wannabes would have eschewed for cheap jokes.
If McLean’s current outfit, the Paperbacks, differs in any way from the Bonaduces, the variation lies solely in the music. Where his old band sprinted through his songs with heedless energy, the Paperbacks languish in them, guitars now chiming instead of hollering, the music now spacious and unobtrusive in backing McLean’s boyishly earnest vocals, rather than constantly threatening to obscure them under the music’s punkish blare. Content-wise, however, the band’s previous two albums—An Episode of Sparrows (2003) and An Illusion Against Death (2007)—read like natural extensions of the stories begun on the earlier band’s records. Their perspectives on their favored topics—death, grieving, fear, the occasional dash of youthful romantic longing or political fury—both remain and grow somewhat deeper and more weathered by age, right along with the tone of their music.
For Lit From Within, the third Paperbacks album, McLean and company actually manage to throw their listeners a bit of a curveball, though it is one that has little to do with the band’s solidly uniform musical or lyrical content. Instead, Lit From Within is a double album of all new material, weighing in at 32 songs and over two hours in length. If the size of the album immediately suggests a suddenly adventurous White Album/Sandinista/Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness streak, though, the music itself rarely does. Apart from a few mild digressions in the form of the Simon and Garfunkel-style acoustic wisp of the title track, the spry Ben Folds-ish piano jaunt of “Do You Sleep?”, the heavy-handed ‘70s hard rock drive of “A Year on Trial”, or the rockabilly sprint of “A Hawthorne Sublet”, the band stick firmly to their standard template of downcast power pop interjected with the occasional moment of punk-rock aggression carried over in spirit from McLean’s early days. Far from using Lit From Within as an opportunity to exploit the freedoms and expectations of the classic double album format, the Paperbacks have basically just made the same album that they always make, only twice as big.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Two hours might be a long time to spend with any one style of music, but few bands could make that time pass by as pleasantly as the Paperbacks. The marriage of their unfailingly pretty guitar tones to McLean’s sweet vocals makes for an ideally melodic combination, and the band’s punk roots have lent them a finely tuned sense of rock momentum that keeps the music from ever going slack. Theirs may be one of the most purely listenable sounds I’ve come across, essentially, but what truly enriches their music remains McLean’s lyrics. Where many bands are ready to flaunt literary pretensions, McLean is unique for how he structures his lyrics to resemble actual literature. On paper, his compositions read much more like prose that only happens to occasionally rhyme than song lyrics. This extra weight makes Paperbacks songs typically worth living in for a somewhat longer duration than the average pop song warrants, and the band certainly know how to make the atmosphere comfortable during your stay.
For all of its sonic consistency, Lit From Within is nevertheless overflowing with lyrical detail, sometimes to the point of exhaustion (for the listener, if not for McLean). Still, the material finds McLean’s lyrical skills typically acute far more often than not. The finest moments locate him simultaneously at his most observant and empathetic. “Triggering” ponders the conflicts of balancing the needs of a relationship against one partner’s history of abuse: “You have dark memories in place, and I’ve brought them out with ignorance and haste”. The narrator resigns the “sheltered life I’ve led” to “violence carelessly spun into the fabric of the things that you really love”. “Communicated Through Blood” is a bluntly detailed narrative of its protagonist’s futile escape from a troubled home, but it’s at its most poetic in the story’s blank spaces (“You tell me what you’ve seen. You imply the in-betweens, and leave searing red ellipses at the end”.) “Patron Saint of Atheists” is about trying to find a place amidst incompatible world views before concluding, hopefully, that “you provide the antidote to both heaven and hell: a life that’s worthy in and of itself”. “Caroline” is a rare love song that both acknowledges the kind of romantic complexities typically left out of three-minute pop songs and yet leaves them rightfully ambiguous: “Caroline, it feels like a waste of time dancing to the rhythm of things that aren’t forgiven yet […] but we’ll stay and negotiate until we both are dust”.
If anything at all sets Lit From Within apart from its predecessors, however, that’s not its imposing length but rather the weariness that it shows creeping into McLean’s perspective on his own art. The chorus refrain of “Crude Instruments” (“on and on and on you’ll settle for these things: you’ll crawl up to the very borders of your dreams”) might very well speak not only to the band’s own persistent, hopeless obscurity, but that of all generally unheralded art as well. “Continental Drift”, meanwhile, answers that “art is mere compulsion or just a debt that must be paid”. “Illness as Metaphor” initially suggests another in a long line of McLean’s propensity for penning intense bedside vigils (never to more devastating effect than on An Illusion Against Death’s “Institutions”), but its troubling refrain of “illness as a metaphor means shit to you when you are sick for real” feels like a rejection of even the most well-meaning and humanistic of all artifice.
The album’s final song, however, comes closest to addressing what is starting to shape up as McLean’s overwhelming concern about the responsibilities of his own creations. “I betray you constantly”, he sings to his subject and unwitting inspiration on “Thieves Guild”, “I adjust your pain to fit a melody; compress your time into platitudes that merely rhyme”. It is the rare artwork, alongside Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that places the guilt that springs from making art from the sadness of others (and yourself) against the inability of the artist to properly confront his pain without inevitably making it part of his work. If Lit From Within is an undeniably overlong record, one that from any reasonable critical standpoint would likely have benefited from some serious pruning, this closing sentiment goes a long way towards redeeming the whole occasionally bloated enterprise. Too many stories to tell, and too much hurt to face them any other way.