Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Slave Wages"

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

Lifestyle's second track guzzles valerian tea and ponders foul apartments while the cat forgoes its vaccinations. The result is perfect pop music.



Label: Touch and Go
US Release Date: 2000-08-08

Lifestyle's opening trio of tracks ensures its classic status even at this early point in the album. It's not just the quality of the songs, but their sequencing and the way in which they complement one another, easing the listener into the journey and then quickening the pace with each step. "Slave Wages" of course is the centrepiece of the triptych.

As the dreamy chords of "Contempt" die away and the feminine wiles of Andy Cohen recede in a Tyrrhenian heat haze, the listener's attention is jolted by a chiming, circling guitar pattern. It is irresistible. It also represents that prenominate quickening of pace, the acceleration from "Contempt" that will continue through "Slave Wages" on to the next track and propel the listener through the first quarter of the album.

After the exoticism and torrid, existential Franco-angst of "Contempt" we are presented with a subject that seems closer to home, namely the struggles and stresses of the down at heel musician. Although it seems more relatable and more familiar than "Contempt" — music about music or the making of music — as always Silkworm approach things in an entirely unique fashion. It's Tim Midyett's first song on the album, and it is spectacular, not only for that compelling opening melody which sinks its teeth in and won't let go, nor just for the richness and wittiness of the lyrics. More than that, like much of Tim's work, "Slave Wages" is a compressed, complex masterpiece which covers a lot of ground with uncommon economy.

The first verse presents a droll portrait of the under-appreciated musician's living quarters: "Living in a walk-in closet / The carpet clots / The cat hasn't had its shots / Sad sad listing on the web page of / Some real estate agent who is just starting out". It's a scene of comic dilapidation as if from Rising Damp or The Young Ones. The introduction to this series made reference to the poetry of Silkworm's lyrics. Straightaway "Slave Wages" demonstrates that that was not hyperbole or a gilding of the lily. If aliens land and demand to know the definition of the word "poetry", then the phrase "The carpet clots" is as good an example as any to present to these intergalactic wannabe-bohemians. This metaphorical expression, almost akin to pathetic fallacy, with its alliteration and originality of diction conveys its meaning in a new and distinct way, and with a redoubtable sense of grotesquerie. However, typically with Silkworm, before we are allowed to really linger on that gross image and be drawn downwards to the depths of despair, the moment is undercut with humour and the cat that "hasn't had its shots".

As the verse zips along, each line is punctuated by an irresistible descending guitar melody. It is a relation to the chiming opening lines and it sounds like chewing delicious bubblegum feels. But as absorbing as the verses are, it is all a tease for the chorus. While the opening verse is sung gently, not far from spoken, the chorus is a different matter. There's a mighty whomp from drummer Michael Dahlquist and the song leaps, a signal for Tim to throw himself into the lyric: "Up in a tree / I'll want to be what someone else is not / It ain't a lot / I'm feeling it now / It's all coming down". It seems to be an expression of why the narrator puts up with all the frustrations of a life making music.The exhilaration has a price though as the final lines acknowledge, wryly returning to the hardships detailed in the verses: "My sleep relies on valerian tea / And the slave wages I'm accumulating".  Surprisingly this is currently the only known mention of valerian tea in all of rock music.

From the opening riff through to the end of the first chorus "Slave Wages" builds. Each new element is an advancement on the last. It feels as if the track is getting faster, louder, and bigger when in reality it isn't particularly doing any of these things. It seems unclear how it can maintain this trajectory through to the end. The answer though perhaps lies in the character of the narrator. The song's subject matter, at least judging from the first verse, may seem to be disappointment or frustration, but the presiding emotion is never despondency. Humour and esoterica are the tools of a great raconteur, not a misrerabilist. It is this distinction that provides a clue to the song's grand finale.

Tim's next trick may seem minor, and a simple description like any description of a great song will not do it justice, but it is yet another detail, heaped upon all those other little details and devices, that serves to keep the listener of "Slave Wages" transfixed. The final verse begins: "Took the notes, hoaxes, jokes / Flushed them down the toilet now / Had to see you just one more time / Make sure the vibes were still sublime". Are those "notes, hoaxes, (and) jokes" songs?

The second half of the verse: "I was skinny back then / Had a concave chest / My hair was white from the sun / No better no worse / I'd call it a wash / Just had to find out if I still had doubts". A beat and then straight into the final chorus. Tim's 'trick' here is something which emphasises the difference between written verse and lyrics that are intended to be sung. "I was skinny back then" et cetera are equivalent to the "Living in a walk-in closet" lines in the first verse. However, what Tim effectively does this time is rearrange the syllables. He sings "I was skinny back then / Had a concave chest" without a pause, running the two lines together. The printed lyrics are as above, but on record they become something more like "I was skinny back then had a / Concave chest". This adhoc enjambment shuffles the beats of the lyric and aligns "I was skinny back then" with Michael's bass drum. It may seem a minor detail, but the effect of this is that it seems to momentarily separate the line from the song. The lyric jumps out of the speakers and becomes maybe the most memorable line of the entire track. It is the move of a master songwriter with an expert grasp of not only the content of lyrics but of the importance of the phatic in his art. This is someone who knows how to write a pop song, who knows how to hold a listener's attention.

The final line is a fitting climax to a song so well judged: "Just had to find out if I still had doubts." In the context of everything that has preceded it this professed uncertainty about a life in music, turns the song into a kind of recusatio, typically a poem where the narrator throws his hands up and claims to be unable or unwilling to write to his usual standard or in a particular style, often while doing exactly what he says he can't. Isn't this the case with the narrator of "Slave Wages"? The narrator who flushes away all those notes, hoaxes, and jokes while dazzling us with his composition?

"Slave Wages" is an expert and perfectly realised pop song which confesses doubts about its own composition. And yet the narrator answers all this uncertainty in the most emphatic way imaginable with a full demonstration of his talents. Accommodation may be crumby, sleep may be herbal, but there can be no possible doubt that somehow out of this our narrator has created something special. The song shows how the value of exceptional art outweighs the difficulties surrounding its creation. The final insistence of "Slaves Wages", despite its explicit protestations, is that, even though circumstances may be trying and popular applause elusive, if the artist can put up with dirty micro-apartments and valerian tea hangovers, then the enduring greatness of music such as this can make it worthwhile.

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