Jon Brion just might be the Last Pop Genius. He’s well versed in the teachings of the Beatles, grew up during the heyday of Cheap Trick, and played for the late, great Jellyfish. His first solo album, Meaningless, has elements of all three bands: Lennon and McCartney’s indelible hooks, Cheap Trick’s crunch and Jellyfish’s flair for the whimsical. He can also write melodies that Burt Bacharach would kill for and breakup songs that would have former girlfriend Aimee Mann seething with envy. The man can do anything.
Except get his album released, it seems. Meaningless has been in the can for years, you see. Atlantic started bumping it off their release sheets in early 1997, and clearly had so much fun doing it, they continued bumping the album until Brion pulled a trick from Aimee Mann’s book—he bought the album from the label and released it himself. Was it worth the four-year wait? Dear God, yes. Meaningless, quite simply, is a pop rock masterpiece, one of those records that will be looked upon by the power pop fanatics with those Bodyguard-esque soft-focus gazes of blind devotion that are currently held for albums by Love, Big Star and, well, the Beatles, Cheap Trick and Jellyfish. It’s an instant classic. Really. No, really.
Brion starts the album, funnily enough, with “Gotta Start Somewhere”, which reads like an unnecessary apology for what’s to follow: “I might not have anything to offer you / I might not have anything to say that’s new / But you’ve gotta start somewhere.” Thundering Ringo-ish drums lumber in, and the song resembles a late night jam recorded while Brion was producing Mann’s I’m With Stupid record. The song even has a hint of Mann’s “Ray” in the verse. “Get a load of the lengths I go to avoid ever admitting that I’m qualified,” he says. I want to tell him, “Don’t sell yourself short, Jon, you’re a tremendous slouch.”
“I Believe She’s Lying”, by comparison, has no slackerisms for miles in any direction. With a skitterish drum beat that sounds like an over-stimulated Stewart Copeland, Brion blames his girlfriend (which could be Mann herself, who co-wrote the song) when perhaps he should be looking in the mirror: “I trust her to undermine my faith in her in time / It’s a given, given time,” all sung with a Vocoder-type backing vocal that shows Brion was a prophet with studio gimmicks. “Ruin My Day” is the song that plays in Burt Bacharach’s more troubling dreams, a light-as-helium melody with a less-than-airy lyric: “I don’t wait by the phone like I used to / I don’t hope for kind words you might say / You don’t prey on my mind like you used to / But you can still ruin my day.”
There is such an abundance of inspiration and influence that pours from Meaningless that Brion seems to trip over himself paying tribute to his favorite singers and bands. It’s the work of a man who should have been going solo from day one, but instead played for everyone else’s bands and secretly hated it. He logged time with ‘Til Tuesday (touring to support Everything’s Different Now), played on Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, and formed the Grays with people from each of those bands (Buddy Judge from Til Tuesday, Jason Falkner from Jellyfish). Then, and only then, did the man go solo. But not before he’d produced two albums for Mann and played on every single record out of LA since 1996. If he hadn’t made Meaningless, he probably would have spontaneously combusted.
Act II contains More Breakup Songs. First up; the beer-soaked, barroom singalong “Walking Through Walls”, loaded with false bravado and hiding the word “motherfucker” better than anything I’ve ever heard. Then comes “Trouble”, which plays like the Carpenters post-binge, pre-purge. The outro to “Dead To The World” features the bridge to “Ruin My Day” as if it were made for Disney, with orchestral flourishes, chirpy birds, fluffy clouds, pink hearts, yellow moons, etc. The spirit of Bacharach does a callback on, fittingly, “Her Ghost”, the story of a girl whose attachment to her ex literally sits in the room with her and new boyfriend Brion. Spilt Milk-era Jellyfish, um, haunts this one as well, especially on the isolated “memories that never burn” line. The bridge of “Every hour, on the hour” is pure pop bliss.
Buried at the end of the album is a faint glimmer of optimism in “The Same Mistakes” (Brion’s favorite song on the album, for the record). “I did a lot that I could not, undo / I don’t want to make the same mistakes / The same mistakes with you.” Coming from Brion, that’s on par with “Here, There and Everywhere” in terms of sentiment. The song segues straight into the finale, a hushed, dead serious version of Cheap Trick’s “Voices” that’s recorded like some old 78 RPM record, making its point about the golden-age aspect of the song all too clear. Brion may live in the modern world, but there’s not a whole lot it can teach him.
Meaningless is so chock full o’ sugar coated melodies and gigantic hooks that it should probably come with a child safety sticker. It’s the kind of pop record that scarcely appears these days, and not just because the labels keep bumping them from their release sheets. Rob Thomas wishes he could write songs like this, but he never will. The fact is, Brion is practically peerless, and Meaningless gets my absurdly early designation of Album of the Decade.