Quasi: The Sword of God

[20 August 2001]

By Margaret Schwartz

The liner notes of Quasi’s fifth album begin with a lengthy screed about an unspecified primate named Omar. Sam Coomes, who writes the duo’s lyrics as well as this particular piece of invective, seems to be poking fun at the media’s celebrity worship, taking the opportunity to dispel rumors promulgated by Spin magazine that Omar’s contributions to the record were touched up, or about the nature of his relationship with his caretaker (“I do not believe their relationship was sexual, technically”). He ends by making a plea that Omar, currently sustained by artificial life support in the University Primate Center, be taken off the IVs “and allowed to live or die on his own”. “There is no place for him in this world and he should be allowed to leave it”. It seems that for both Coomes and Weiss, whose “other” gigs are Elliott Smith (Coomes plays bass in Smith’s backup band and was also a member of Heatmiser) and the Sleater-Kinney, the weight of even being artfully famous has begun to wear.

Combine this piece of satire with the anthemic, almost hopeful strains of “Rock & Roll Can Never Die” and you’ve got a picture of an album hovering between giggle and bile. It’s not far from the melancholy, nay, suicidal affect that characterized the last four albums, but it’s got more of an edge of both humor and pique.

In contrast with desolation-fests like Field Studies, which often spoke from a single “I” to an estranged lover of a “you”, the band’s first outing with Touch and Go speaks directly to a variety of “yous”, and not usually about love: “You’ve got your career: you chose boredom over fear. / You’ve got a righteous cause: all I see are fatal flaws”, Coomes sings on “Genetic Science”. Or, drummer and backing vocalist Janet Weiss sings—on the only song on the album that she wrote—a story about someone else: “Nothing’s good enough, she’d say, / Until nothing’s what she did all day”.

It is true that if you write an album like this, full of bitter, wry advice to the shallow and misguided, you run the risk of sounding a little self-righteous. In “From a Hole in the Ground”, a rocking pop song with all the characteristic Quasi fuzz, Coomes accuses someone of passing “little judgments on a world you’ll never know”. Fortunately this conviction is delivered from a position not of knowledge but of the wisdom that comes with accepting confusion and doubt: “You don’t have to overcome your confusion—you only have to feel” (“Seal the Deal”). It seems Coomes and Weiss, their own train wreck of a marriage the ostensive fodder for their previous albums, have gotten over it enough to turn their black-tinted gaze elsewhere.

Fans who craved the melancholy love stuff may find something essential lacking as a result. But those who love the music will come away as satisfied as ever: here is the deep distortion fuzz punctuated by jangling pop and keyboard, and Coomes’ high, unaffected vocals soar over the rest without any kind of effects crutch. Most notable to these ears was Janet Weiss’ percussion: she is able to do so much with so little that when she punctuates her sparse beats with artful fills or tambourine it really counts.

The album is at its best when the condemnations are delivered with a bit of irony, humor, or self-deprecation. In “Little Lord Fontleroy”, Coomes’ blistering character assassination ends with the admission “I know what it’s like to be you / Because I’m a lot like that too / A spoiled little boy”. The best two songs, in my humble opinion, are the first two, because they combine all of these elements. “It’s Raining” is lovely, lovely pop, a bit Elliott Smith-y, especially in the vocal inflection (here and elsewhere) with clever and searing lyrics: “It doesn’t only rain on you / but you’re acting all upset / like you’re the only one who’s getting wet[...] So go ahead and cry / but that won’t keep you dry”. I can’t help but believe that, even with the sarcasm, there’s real wisdom there, something earnest about the importance of seeing beyond personal melodrama, if only because it’s pointless.

“Fuck Hollywood” starts with a cinematic string intro, almost like the music from Close Encounters or some other Spielberg schmaltz-fest. The message appropriately summarized might go something like this: Ok, so you’re old and ugly and uncool and you’ve dropped out of sight. Don’t worry—you’ll be dead soon. What a lovely way to mock those whose lives are devoted to surface validation—and yet remind those who would judge that we all end up in the same place.

In the song “The Sword of God”, Coomes speaks of “an unsuspected enemy, deep behind the lines”. This album’s finest moments are exactly that, sort of double-edged secret agents, undermining themselves even as their words convict a host of hypocrites. It’s a far more complicated position than simple despair, but it only makes me all the more curious to see where they’ll end up next.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/quasi-sword/