PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Paperbacks: Lit From Within

Jer Fairall

Far from using Lit From Within as an opportunity to exploit the freedoms and expectations of the classic double-album format, the Paperbacks have basically just made the same album that they always make, only twice as big.

The Paperbacks

Lit From Within

Artist website: http://www.thepaperbacks.com
Label: Parliament of Trees
US Release Date: 2010-01-12
UK Release Date: Import

Despite a career now spanning three decades and as many bands, Doug McLean basically does one kind of song and generally does it very well. His main '90s gig, the Bonaduces (he did simultaneous duty in Painted Thin), made fast, buzzing punk-pop songs in what might have been easily described as a prototypically scrappy Ramones/Buzzcocks mode, were it not for McLean’s uncommonly ambitious lyrical content. The Democracy of Sleep, the band’s second and final release from 1998, in particular, was startlingly mature in its insights into the fears that plague youth in its initial dawning of awareness of mortality, lending songs with titles like “I Nominate My Kitten for the King of the Dead” and “The Second Annual National Depression Awareness Day Sleepover Party” a gravity that any of the era’s Green Day wannabes would have eschewed for cheap jokes.

If McLean’s current outfit, the Paperbacks, differs in any way from the Bonaduces, the variation lies solely in the music. Where his old band sprinted through his songs with heedless energy, the Paperbacks languish in them, guitars now chiming instead of hollering, the music now spacious and unobtrusive in backing McLean’s boyishly earnest vocals, rather than constantly threatening to obscure them under the music’s punkish blare. Content-wise, however, the band’s previous two albums -- An Episode of Sparrows (2003) and An Illusion Against Death (2007) -- read like natural extensions of the stories begun on the earlier band’s records. Their perspectives on their favored topics -- death, grieving, fear, the occasional dash of youthful romantic longing or political fury -- both remain and grow somewhat deeper and more weathered by age, right along with the tone of their music.

For Lit From Within, the third Paperbacks album, McLean and company actually manage to throw their listeners a bit of a curveball, though it is one that has little to do with the band’s solidly uniform musical or lyrical content. Instead, Lit From Within is a double album of all new material, weighing in at 32 songs and over two hours in length. If the size of the album immediately suggests a suddenly adventurous White Album/Sandinista/Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness streak, though, the music itself rarely does. Apart from a few mild digressions in the form of the Simon and Garfunkel-style acoustic wisp of the title track, the spry Ben Folds-ish piano jaunt of “Do You Sleep?”, the heavy-handed '70s hard rock drive of “A Year on Trial”, or the rockabilly sprint of “A Hawthorne Sublet”, the band stick firmly to their standard template of downcast power pop interjected with the occasional moment of punk-rock aggression carried over in spirit from McLean’s early days. Far from using Lit From Within as an opportunity to exploit the freedoms and expectations of the classic double album format, the Paperbacks have basically just made the same album that they always make, only twice as big.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Two hours might be a long time to spend with any one style of music, but few bands could make that time pass by as pleasantly as the Paperbacks. The marriage of their unfailingly pretty guitar tones to McLean’s sweet vocals makes for an ideally melodic combination, and the band’s punk roots have lent them a finely tuned sense of rock momentum that keeps the music from ever going slack. Theirs may be one of the most purely listenable sounds I've come across, essentially, but what truly enriches their music remains McLean’s lyrics. Where many bands are ready to flaunt literary pretensions, McLean is unique for how he structures his lyrics to resemble actual literature. On paper, his compositions read much more like prose that only happens to occasionally rhyme than song lyrics. This extra weight makes Paperbacks songs typically worth living in for a somewhat longer duration than the average pop song warrants, and the band certainly know how to make the atmosphere comfortable during your stay.

For all of its sonic consistency, Lit From Within is nevertheless overflowing with lyrical detail, sometimes to the point of exhaustion (for the listener, if not for McLean). Still, the material finds McLean’s lyrical skills typically acute far more often than not. The finest moments locate him simultaneously at his most observant and empathetic. “Triggering” ponders the conflicts of balancing the needs of a relationship against one partner’s history of abuse: “You have dark memories in place, and I’ve brought them out with ignorance and haste”. The narrator resigns the “sheltered life I’ve led” to “violence carelessly spun into the fabric of the things that you really love”. “Communicated Through Blood” is a bluntly detailed narrative of its protagonist’s futile escape from a troubled home, but it's at its most poetic in the story’s blank spaces (“You tell me what you’ve seen. You imply the in-betweens, and leave searing red ellipses at the end”.) “Patron Saint of Atheists” is about trying to find a place amidst incompatible world views before concluding, hopefully, that “you provide the antidote to both heaven and hell: a life that’s worthy in and of itself”. “Caroline” is a rare love song that both acknowledges the kind of romantic complexities typically left out of three-minute pop songs and yet leaves them rightfully ambiguous: “Caroline, it feels like a waste of time dancing to the rhythm of things that aren’t forgiven yet […] but we’ll stay and negotiate until we both are dust”.

If anything at all sets Lit From Within apart from its predecessors, however, that's not its imposing length but rather the weariness that it shows creeping into McLean’s perspective on his own art. The chorus refrain of “Crude Instruments” (“on and on and on you’ll settle for these things: you’ll crawl up to the very borders of your dreams”) might very well speak not only to the band’s own persistent, hopeless obscurity, but that of all generally unheralded art as well. “Continental Drift”, meanwhile, answers that “art is mere compulsion or just a debt that must be paid”. “Illness as Metaphor” initially suggests another in a long line of McLean’s propensity for penning intense bedside vigils (never to more devastating effect than on An Illusion Against Death’s “Institutions”), but its troubling refrain of “illness as a metaphor means shit to you when you are sick for real” feels like a rejection of even the most well-meaning and humanistic of all artifice.

The album’s final song, however, comes closest to addressing what is starting to shape up as McLean’s overwhelming concern about the responsibilities of his own creations. “I betray you constantly”, he sings to his subject and unwitting inspiration on “Thieves Guild”, “I adjust your pain to fit a melody; compress your time into platitudes that merely rhyme”. It is the rare artwork, alongside Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that places the guilt that springs from making art from the sadness of others (and yourself) against the inability of the artist to properly confront his pain without inevitably making it part of his work. If Lit From Within is an undeniably overlong record, one that from any reasonable critical standpoint would likely have benefited from some serious pruning, this closing sentiment goes a long way towards redeeming the whole occasionally bloated enterprise. Too many stories to tell, and too much hurt to face them any other way.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.