[1 December 2009]
The Verlaines have flirted with international attention over the last 25 years, releasing one record (1996’s Over the Moon) on Columbia. Lead member Graeme Downes put out his strong solo album Hammers and Anvils through Matador in 2001. The band hasn’t caught on, though, and it’s not too surprising. A lecturer at the University of Otago, Downes’s central aesthetic involves combining disparate elements of music, merging lowbrow and highbrow forms (if those categories persist). You get some classical, some pop. Maybe some Tin Pan Alley next to some harder rock. The resulting music is complex and highly entertaining, but like his bemused narrator in “Oh Yeah, All Right,” Downes might be left reminding himself, “My dog appreciates my genius.”
The dog, who must be from Dunedin, has the right idea, and new album Corporate Moronic furthers the case for Downes as a top-tier songwriter. Musically, this one keeps more the rock approach of Way Out Where, especially on songs like “Wanting”, but that’s simply relative to some of the earlier records. “Tomorrow Without You” slyly—and, ahem, positively—references Bob Dylan before turning into an almost country number. There’s some jazz underpinnings on a cut like “The Way I Love You,” a friendly reminder of the sound of Hammers.
Lyrically, the disc touches a number of points, but the casually challenging song structures hide an essential anger (generally targeted at corporate and capitalist culture). The title of “The Situation Is Hopeless (Not Serious)” only somewhat reflects the artist’s outlook on this album. The facetiousness carries over to a morbidly funny title like “Socrates for a Day (Then I’ll Go Quietly)”, but it only partially masks expressions of cynicism and frustration.
In the cabaret-bounce of “Socrates” Downes sings, “Our music misses the bus / It’s ugly and bent out of shape / It’s not fit for kissing, nor even raping”. On the surface, the lines suggest a self-effacing look at the Verlaines’ body of work. Then he turns it around: “Such that the likes of he with his markets free / May never have a use for we.” I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the diction, but it’s a successful and brutal attack on corporate culture. When Downes earlier described his music as having “no utility”, it seemed like a simple economic play on words, but he’s leading us to realize the political usefulness of such tunes, especially when they become this pointed.
Other tracks are more precisely topical, including “Paratai Drive” (described in the liner notes as “a musical Ponzi scheme in one act”) with its take on “Wall Street gangsters” and the banking crisis as well as “Paraphrasing Hitler”, which, of course, turns into a commentary on “George’s war”. These songs are solid, and certainly more artistic than typical protest fare, but fortunately the Verlaines don’t stick to close to the anti-company line. The romantic cuts, such as they are, remain bleak and doubting, but utterly moving. The exception is the remarkable “The Way I Love You”, which is the type of honest, uncertain, but strong love song we could use more of. More darkly in echo, “Forever and a Day” dances us into that space across which marrying lovers might not reconcile. “Tomorrow Without You” turns the Dylan-to-country style into a package of Beatles allusions in which the narrator replaces hurt with bitterness while ending a relationship. A half century later, it’s a final, emphatic answer song to Sam Cooke’s “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)”. This relationship’s over, with resolve.
In the politics and emotional strain, it’s possible to miss Downes’s humor, but it’s essential not to. In one of the top moments, he gives us research instructions, in this case to “google Maungatua” and to “google Jerusalem and Baxter”. It’s a funny aside, but it’s an extremely elegant move on a formal level. He gives these instructions in “Rootless Cosmopolitan”. The idea is to help us find “God’s mountain” and “Jerusalem”, but the title man, despite being cosmopolitan, is directing us to a narrow view focused only on Dunedin. It’s ironic, but develops the chorus, which explains that “We’re always blown back to / Back to square one.”
The moment captures the sensibility of the Verlaines well. It’s funny, it’s precise, and it’s very crafty. Corporate Moronic, as Downes knew when he named the record, is neither corporate nor moronic. It’s a difficult position to take if you’re intent is to sell records. Fortunately this music has no utility, so selling’s of no concern, and there are simpler ways to get a coaster.