“Something in the phrasing was quietly amazing.”
—Bic Runga, Get Some Sleep
Some years ago, I watched Oingo Boingo’s Skeletons in the Closet video collection and sat, transfixed. The wacky, cherry-haired man gyrating about the place amid dwarves and twelve-year-old girls, surrounded by guys playing trumpets was simply captivating. All those years spent wondering what was missing in my life, and here he was, wriggling about in striped suspenders.
It wasn’t simply Danny Elfman’s peculiar look that made him endearing, nor his unusual video co-stars; his baronial lyrics were equally appealing. Here he was telling me, in no uncertain terms, exactly what my problems were and where I was going wrong in life. More importantly, he was justifying my faults, giving me reason to accept them and cherish them as a respectable part of myself. Danny Elfman, my new messiah, was doing just that, while at the same time conveying his own freakish sensibilities reassuring me I wasn’t the only crazy one in the room.
This is most evident, to me, on 1990s Dark at the End of the Tunnel. Following years of three minute testimonials to the weirder side of life, Danny’s lyrics take an interesting, dare I say, lighter, turn on Dark. Sure, death, depression and individual despair are constant themes, but this time, Danny seems to have worked through many of his own little demons, offering hope, and perhaps an answer to the questions asked and situations pondered in much of his earlier material.
Dark has taught me a lot about myself, and I find I learn something new each time I hear any of the eleven songs. Often a line will jump out at me, embedding itself somewhere in the brain where I dwell on it before reaching an understanding of the motivations behind it. With an understanding of the line, comes an understanding of the song, and then of myself, of my connection to the words, and why it may have stuck out among the textured words and intricate pumping beats surrounding it.
“You’re out of control / And you want the world to love you / Or maybe you just want the chance / To let them know / That you live and breathe and suffer / And your back is in the corner / And you’ve go nowhere to go”, Elfman sings on “Out of Control.” It’s a giant anthem of a song, with Danny’s commanding vocals booming forth, preaching acceptance of one’s position in life as we all have something to offer, regardless of the stresses we may be feeling as to an avenue to convey it. His way of visually evoking exact moments of living catastrophe (“There’s a cloud rolling overhead / That seems to rain on no one else / There’s a black sun / Casting a black shadow / I know you feel so alone”), singing his “lullaby” as he rests “your head on [his] lap” raises goosebumps.
This kind of storytelling sparkles through the entire album. Danny’s fine imagery inside such a mix of instruments, including the standard guitars, drums and keyboards, as well as a range of horns and, even, a most prominent xylophone, elevates the already vigorous messages being delivered.
On “Flesh ‘N Blood”, he explains that we’ve all shared experiences of love, happiness and heartbreak, from the “little child to the man of power from the beggar to the angel of my dreams”. He continues the theme of accepting that our own personal despair is likely to be universal. “We’ve all been to hell / And we know what it’s like / And we’ve shared each other’s sins”, he sings, before presenting, if not a reason for this despair, then a way to accept it: that universality, as, “after all we’re flesh and blood.” Also, the “Flesh” chorus intro is a particularly powerful shouting of, “when the catcher comes to take my soul / He’s gonna have to fight me first”. And, it’s invigorating hearing Danny’s huge voice—equal parts Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Jim Kerr with a little Gary Kemp thrown in for spice—tackle such a wild line.
Other Dark songs containing lines like this, which are at once dangerous and empowering, cause me, at times, to scream out at how utterly crammed they are with so much intention in so few words. These include the soul-searching “Skin” (“Is there anybody in there / In this self-inflicted tomb”) involving Danny pondering actual peeling away of his skin to see if there is anything deeper within him; “Glory Be” contains two such lines in “Here’s a boy whose hands are bleeding / Though he’s never had a scratch” and “Drink the wine and eat the wafer / Lash the skin and scream together” both using very visual language to expose very different, yet equally exciting emotions; while “When the Lights Go Out” contains probably the most perplexing line (“And let’s all pray to the cat’s eye”). Admittedly, I’m still yet to work out what it’s all about.
With this kind of raw honesty, Danny confronts humanity head-on, breaking down stereotypes and presenting a new world view on personal and cultural issues. He’s the voice of the human subconscious, constructing messages about existence in an often embarrassing, hidden world. Essentially, he says what no one else will; letting you know he knows what’s on your mind, right down to what you dig out from under the bed when no one’s looking. He’s finger is so dead-on the pulse of modern society, in terms of our fears, wishes and beliefs, which has been evident throughout much of Boingo’s back catalogue (see, for example, “Private Life”, “Little Girls”, “Wild Sex (in the Working Class)”, and “Nothing Bad Ever Happens To Me”).
The album’s standout track for me is “Is This”, about the concept of change and what we would go back in time and do differently if given the chance. Danny gets to the point of begging (“Oh, hold the clock / Say the words to make it stop”), for “time to stand still for a moment” in order to, perhaps, live a memory one more time. The song leaves a lot of the previous I-know-your-secrets cockiness behind, acting as a real cry for help. Danny opens himself up, exploring the pain and challenges that come with loss, be that of a person or a moment in time in which maybe we should’ve let the ego take a backseat. Or maybe I just love it ‘cause it makes me cry. Either way ...
Danny, through Oingo Boingo, has always been adept at comically dissecting societal flaws, and he does it in such a way as to make himself a part of the problem. As such, his criticism of human behavior becomes far easier to relate to, as he, as well, is forced to remind himself that we all makes mistakes, that life is “not a sitcom” and depression is a conscious state.
Dark‘s raw honesty is completely refreshing. I don’t mind Danny reminding me of my problems and of life’s atrocities, because rarely does he tell me to change my ways or sugar coat the failures I may endure. He’s uncompromising, yet comforting, and his voice, manic and soothing, makes me wanna cuddle up with him and fall into a dream-filled sleep (kind of like Buffy does with Rutger Hauer in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer—the movie, that is).
Through Danny’s music, and especially Dark, I have learned that my peculiarities and differences are to be treasured, for they make life fun. I’ve learned that my frailties, be they spoken aloud or simply thought in the back of my mind, are just as real. I accept that not everybody is going to be pleasant and accommodating, and that the only way to get through life is with strength, belief in myself, and a sense of humor.
And that’s why Dark At The End Of The Tunnel is my favorite album.
// Notes from the Road
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