[7 January 2009]
It’s easy to dump on the Plain White T’s. It’s even easier to read as someone else does it. Please join me.
The blandly-named band’s breakthrough hit “Hey There Delilah” was, it needs to be said, one of the worst songs to ever hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the chart’s long and checkered history. To really work out how bad it is, one must momentarily put aside the common narrative and generic conceit of the Sensitive Acoustic Ballad Boy pining for the Distant Sophisticated Object of Desire with a Hippie Name (and you know he’s not a creep ‘cause he’s got a string quartet on his side). With that out of the way, it soon becomes apparent that the refrain hook is adapted from the chorus of “What Goes On”, one of the Beatles’ rare wince-inducing missteps. And no amount of sincere yearning can overcome a line of such stultifying, Yoda-esque forced-rhyme inversion as “even more in love with me you’d fall”.
Still, compared to the preposterous inanity and consistently unintended hilarity of the T’s new record Big Bad World, their (likely only) hit seems like the second coming of “Blackbird” in retrospect. Singer and lyricist Tom Higgenson can’t sing, nor can he write lyrics. These would seem to be key qualifications for the position that he holds, but he seems content to do without. The band behind him is happy to play the Blowfish to his Hootie, though even that much-maligned ‘90s analogue comes through that comparison rather favorably. There’s nothing overtly wrong with the arrangements as they stand, and some good ideas work their way through the glut, but there’s nothing particularly right with them either. One can’t help but be at least slightly impressed at the precocious skill with which these polished musicians craft songs so completely shiny and empty. It’s really something to behold.
Since the compositional energies required for constructing complete paragraphs seems incommensurate to assessing the simian banality of the song-like substances digitally smeared upon this unfortunate slice of plastic (and since I’ve already wasted enough cracking vocabulary words on this sentence alone), I shall continue this review with a point-form enumeration of the various occasions on which I laughed audibly while listening to Big Bad World:
- The opening verse of the title track, and the general attempts at sociological commentary provided by Higgenson throughout.
- “I could fill up the driest river / With all the tears falling off of my face”. Save America’s wetlands by making Tom Higgenson cry.
- “She moved her body like a butcher knife” in “Natural Disaster”.
- The backing “Ohh!” in the chorus of “Natural Disaster”.
- “What’s your name / What’s your game / Show me how to play” in “Natural Disaster”.
- Pretty much all of “Natural Disaster”.
- “I keep on letting myself down / Even the rats say they don’t want me around” in “Serious Mistake”.
- “The sky is grey / Just like me” in “Rainy Day”. Perhaps the surfeit of grey fur can explain his evident facility at comprehending Ratese.
- The chorus of “1, 2, 3, 4”. Also, Jon Brion plays the chamberlin in this song, according to the liner notes. I listened more closely, and he’s playing the crap out of it. He’s probably hoping Fiona Apple hears him and decides to make another album. Poor guy.
- The opening lines of “That Girl”: “Doo doo doo / ba ba ba / oh oh oh / la la la / yeah!”.
- “I Really Want You”. It’s the Plain White T’s doing Bob Dylan, and it’s as comically inept as it sounds. As if Higgenson’s word-spills on the verses and the adverb added to the classic Dylan title weren’t enough, there’s also tepid harmonica wheezes scattered throughout. Laughable.
- The verse melody of “Meet Me in California”, a direct rip of the White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends”, with the legally important distinction of a single note changed.
- “You know in California / There’s something better for us all”. Unless you’re gay and want to get married, of course.
Albums like Big Bad World make me want to give up on music criticism, renounce all of my worldly possessions and leave civilization to become a hermit on some rocky coastline cleft, subsisting entirely on lichen, seabird eggs, and brackish cave water. I could make action figures out of twigs and have long, meandering conversations with my own beard to occupy myself. This, to me, is preferable to living in the Plain White T’s Big Bad World. Please join me.