[25 August 2009]
Joe Pernice’s intoxicatingly melodic, A.M. radio-influenced pop music has always had a literary bent, and Pernice hinted at more literal literary ambitions when he broke rank and wrote a novella instead of an essay on The Smith’s Meat is Murder for the 33 1/3 series. So it comes as little surprise that Pernice, who received a Master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, has finally gone and written a proper novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop.
Like many first novels, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story. The hero, a nameless recent UMass graduate, is living a typically shiftless 20-something life when he gets involved in a relationship that leads to a marriage that ends after just one day. It sounds straight out of the Nick Hornby school of storytelling, but unlike Hornby, Pernice is capable of playing the music that informs his fiction-writing. Thus, he has accompanied his debut novel with a CD of covers, book excerpts (read by Pernice) and one original instrumental (credited to the Young Accuser, a fictional band of which the book’s hero is briefly a member).
The brief readings that punctuate the album aren’t of use to those who don’t plan to read the book, although it’s possible they may intrigue some listeners enough to change that plan. They do give the listener an idea of how the tracks figure into the book’s story (in the funniest spoken-word interlude, Pernice’s narrator confesses that “I had always thought of Del Shannon being right down there with Pat Boone. Why? Because I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.”) More than anything, though, the excerpts interrupt the music; thankfully, there are only three of them, and they’re individual tracks that can be easily removed before uploading the CD to your music library.
But back to Del Shannon: Pernice’s reliably elegant pop arrangements and gossamer vocals amplify the sorrow in his already maudlin “I Go to Pieces”, originally a Beatles-esque bubblegum hit for Peter and Gordon in 1963. Likewise, Pernice’s whispery grovel on “I’m Your Puppet”, takes James & Bobby Purify’s ode to romantic submission to a profoundly emasculating level. Nearly every song on the album finds Pernice extracting every ounce of latent despair from the songs he’s interpreting. Only his true-to-the-original version of Sebadoh’s “Soul and Fire” fails to up the ante on the original artist’s romantic angst; but out-emoting Lou Barlow is a lot to ask of even the saddest of sacks.
It’s not surprising to see Pernice gravitate toward songs that wallow in pity and despair—embellishing sadness with the turgid filigrees of the late ‘70s pop idiom has long been his stock in trade. Moreover, early reviews of the book version of It Feels So Good When I Stop indicate that the hero spends a good deal of time mired in various shades of self-inflicted woe. But Pernice, songwriting veteran that he is, changes up the tempo and tone often enough to keep things engaging, if not lively. His take on the Dream Syndicate’s “Tell Me When It’s Over” takes on a pleasant Byrds-on-quaaludes quality, and an acoustic cover of Todd Rundgren’s buoyant pop masterpiece “Hello It’s Me” is a sad and poignant coda to an album that, more than anything else, reminds us that there’s a deep well of sadness lurking beneath the surface of almost every sunny pop song. Furthermore, it’s a pleasing reminder that Pernice has a unique gift for articulating that sort of sadness with grace, beauty, and a hazy feeling of self-loathing to which many of his male listeners can undoubtedly relate.