Few bands in rock history have been able to take life’s disappointments and make them sound absolutely glorious. Oh sure, many have sung about disappointment, but few have made striking out sound like a glamorous way to pass one’s working years. A handful of names come to mind: Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Replacements, early Wilco. Each of these bands elevated society’s nobodies by depicting the frayed dignity of struggling and stumbling through life. Springsteen’s blue collar workers, the Replacements’ starry-eyed losers, Wilco’s weary romantics—all of these characters possess a debauched dignity, a bull-headed and often foolish refusal to give up in the face of reality that makes them heroic.
Like these groups, the Mendoza Line specialize in turning life’s outcasts into mythological figures. Their albums are full of desperate people trying to simply make it through the day without further messing up their lives. Throughout these tales of disappointment are glimmers of hope: the possibility of falling in love, the sacred communion of a night at the bar, the healing powers of a good song. On Full of Light and Full of Fire, the band’s seventh album, the Mendoza Line have perfected their literate brand of songwriting, writing a series of vignettes full of dynamic and round characters. Each song is a glimpse into the mind of somebody that could easily be you, and the effect is both frightening and moving.
“Water Surrounds”, for example, depicts a love-starved mother who contemplates suicide by walking into the ocean with her son: “And I can’t tell the others what I feel / That I sometimes see the Light, but Satan’s real / I feel his burning rain ” As the song ends, the narrator is submerged in water, haunted by the loneliness that plagues both her waking moments and her dreams. In “Settle Down, Zelda”, the narrator wearily tries to convince his love that growing up isn’t so bad: “Oh honey I know that rings / And material things / Ain’t exactly what you had in mind / But you tremble and dissemble / And then you start to resemble / All the people you left behind.” These songs, as well as others on the album, display the band’s gift for articulating the cruel contradictions of life—simply recognizing the wrong path doesn’t always prevent you from taking it.
Musically, the band’s strong suit has always been their arsenal of singers: the worn-out nasal sneer of Timothy Bracy; the soft-spoken sophistication of Peter Hoffman; and the playful, sultry sass of goddess-in-residence Shannon McArdle. This time out, Bracy and McArdle handle all vocal duties, and the result is a record that sounds more centered. For new listeners, Bracy’s deliberate Dylanisms might sound like a mere affectation, but his weary, creaky voice perfectly underscores the lyrics. When, for example, in “Catch a Collapsing Star” he sings, “On the margins, in revisions / Where we both first made our living / In an alcove filled with sawdust / There a new light fell upon us,” redemption sounds inevitable, even for the unworthy. As for McArdle, her voice is a marvel, sounding seductive even when full of ire. In “Pipe Stories”, a not-so-subtle jab at President Bush, McArdle’s voice slides and glissades, making protest sound downright enchanting.
The singing, however, is just one ingredient of an amazing band. The Mendoza Line have always paid tribute to their influences, and listening to their albums is like making a compilation of all your favorite bands. The band has often been compared to the Replacements, both for the subject matter of the lyrics and the ragged splendor of the music. While this influence is apparent, there are others. “Mysterious in Black” features a raucous guitar solo that makes the Stones’ best bar tunes sound prudish. And then there’s McArdle’s feminine bravado, which channels the spirit of Chrissie Hynde and permeates the entire album.
Full of Light and Full of Fire is easily one of the best albums of the decade. Seven albums into their career, the Mendoza Line are finally making albums that sound both brilliant and focused. Gone are the songs that hint at genius but fall apart before the payoff. Also gone are the songs that lack structure and merely meander through snippets of promise. Indeed, while the tracks all sound different, the common link is the attention to craftsmanship. Every melody and guitar riff sounds meticulously sculpted, yet retains a spontaneous grit. More importantly, the Mendoza Line has once again tapped into the American mystique. Like Born to Run, Pleased to Meet Me, and Being There, Full of Light and Full of Fire is another page in American mythology, an artifact of the withered dreams and fallen hopes of the dispossessed.