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

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

Lifestyle's fourth track "Plain" is a love song of rare insight which is anything but.



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

As noted in previous entries in this series, the first three tracks of Lifestylei form a breathless triptych. The opening track "Contempt" glides in at mid-pace, the tempo of the track matching its sun-lounger sighs of ennui. The second track "Slave Wages" grabs the baton and sprints away, the quickening of its stride matching its comic-tinged themes of fretfulness and the stress of a hand to mouth existence. Finally, the third track "Treat the New Guy Right" bundles the listener into its back seat and screeches off down the road, its hi-octane revs entirely appropriate to its portrayal of a fiery love affair.

"Plain", which is the fourth track of the album and the subject of this week's blog entry, represents a break in the sequence. It is the first song to slow the pace of Lifestyle. In this respect it is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it begins the process of opening the full vista of the album to the listener. After the thrills of "Slave Wages" and "Treat the New Guy Right", for a first time listener it would be easy to get carried away and anticipate another short, hard rockin' pop song, and there are several more of those on the album. However, by choosing not to sequence another similar track straightaway, but instead stepping in with an abruptly slower song of uneven tempo, Lifestyle forces the listener to pause and refocus her attention. This is not going to be simply a quick sprint of an album. The first three tracks have already let the listener know that lyrically the songs of Lifestyle may encompass any subject, and "Plain" confirms that musically we also have a full journey in store.

Secondly, where, as noted, "Contempt", "Slave Wages", and "Treat the New Guy Right" form their own opening triptych, "Plain" marks the beginning of a second trilogy of related tracks. As we shall see in the coming weeks, "Plain" and the two tracks which follow it, "Roots" and "Yr Web", while musically very different, share common themes of nostalgia, all looking warmly backwards in one way or another. "Plain" begins by locating itself very clearly at home and in the past.

A bass drum like a mountain pushed off the side of another mountain and striking a dynamite factory below it, then sheets of crunching bass guitar. The riff which will reappear throughout the song is a good example of Tim Midyett's creative approach to the instrument. Listeners used to the common relegation of the bass in rock music to the nothing more than a low hum sitting back in the mix might mistake it for a lead guitar. For all the spontaneity in their music, there is nothing idle in the conception of Silkworm's work. A guitar solo is never short of intense invention, a drum track never less than a full exhaustion of adrenalin, and a bass line never just something that fills the space between the two. In "Plain" Tim's bass is fiercely melodic and rhythmic, a juddering twist of metal that alternately drives the song forward and then grabs it by the neck and jerks it back.

The first line then, and that backwards glance: "Missoula, Montana, 1984 / The year of big government taking over / The river gleams with sudden light / New wave bliss under patchy fog tonight." Our narrator sets the scene for Lifestyle's most conventional love song. "Contempt" painted a scene of a doomed marriage and "Treat the New Guy Right" projected a movie about a love affair where the "bed's on fire", but "Plain" is a more obvious love letter to a partner. The narrator looks back with his addressee to their younger selves in a beautiful description of tender adoration: "Strands of your hair fell / Opened your eyes / The start of a spell / The perpetual movement / Gleam in your eye / Cut of your hair / Length of your stride." Elegant phrasing such as this has to be quoted in full.

As usual though — and we have said this in every entry in this series — being Silkworm, as it arrives at its chorus "Plain" eschews the usual trite "I love you / Like flowers in bloom / In the month of June" sentiments of a traditional love song. It ditches the platitudes of most rock music for something much more sophisticated and frankly more intelligent. Throughout the verse bass and guitar have been slinkily prowling forward, thoroughly intertwined but, as the chorus approaches, everything stops and drops out. Only Michael's drums and a few punctuating chords remain. That unusual chorus: "You're plain so plain / Just look the other way / Do you want to stay with me?"

Out of context it seems like an inappropriate expression for a love song. He says he loves her and then tells her she's plain, as in ordinary? It is not a reading that makes sense in light of the verse which precedes, full as that is of love-drunk affection. The song turns on the meaning of its title. In the context of the verses before and after, rather than "ordinary" or "unimpressive", it seems more reasonable that the narrator is saying that the object of his love is plain as in "unembellished" or "unpretentious". To him she is perfect exactly as she is. Elsewhere in this series we have commented on the poetic qualities of Silkworm's lyrics, and this is another example where Tim, the song's author, comes up with an idea which drags the usual conventions of the love song into a new or odd direction. It is not the rapid, twisting wordplay of "Slave Wages" or "Dead Air", which we'll see later in this series, and there have been songs by other artists which talk about seeing the 'real' you/me, but what he has done, ironically in a track called "Plain", is to add a layer of complexity to a song which could have been just an engaging but largely conventional love song. The expression, which might at first seem so unusual or, as noted, inappropriate, gives the listener pause. The song itself promotes that response with the instrumental drop-out noted above.

"Plain" will return to themes of clarity and devotion in its final verse, but before that the middle eight descends like a storm, in keeping with the Missoula meteorological conditions described in the lyrics. The climax of this is the biggest guitar solo of the album so far. Compared to some of the heads-down rock elsewhere in Lifestyle, "Plain" seems to stop and start. It's a feeling encouraged by the bass line and the pauses within the lines of the chorus. The impression is of a piece of paper being folded over and over again. It's not a song which suggests an obvious solo. Andy Cohen though is one of the most singularly inventive guitarists in rock, a musician who can find a new take on a melody or theme with baffling ease, a demonstration of which we'll come to later in the album. He spatters "Plain" with streams of sparks, playing against Tim's bassline. It's the exact peak which the song needs and, as with the best solos, it completely lacks obviousness and yet after hearing it just once it is impossible to imagine anything else in its place.

The final verse completes the unsentimental yet heart-melting notions of its predecessors: "But you're stuck with me / Stuck with this / It will never relent / Never miss/ I'm part of your kiss / I'm inside you now / The coarse and the rough are elided somehow." The narrator points to himself. "Stuck with this" could refer to all-consuming love or instead be a gesture of self-deprecation. "Plain" which could have been a simple love song turns out to be, yes, a passionate love song but also a song about honesty, the foundation of any genuine love. Again, "The coarse and the rough are elided somehow" is suggestive of problems being smoothed, but also of any embellishment being wiped away.

The introduction to this series suggested that one of the wonders of Silkworm's music is that it strives for beauty, not sublimity. It captures the multiplicity. It gives shape to the transitory. It grabs handfuls of life and presents them to the listener in an original and fascinating voice.The illusion of the metaphysical with its claims to infinity and permanence is rejected. "Plain" is a love song with a strong dose of realism. A pun is not intended, but it presents a plain, unadorned love. The track avoids mawkishness without abdicating its responsibility as a love song to move the listener. Grandstanding and hyperbole and windswept mountain tops are rejected for the hackneyed tropes they are. Instead "Plain" closes by offering a restatement of its chorus, "We're plain so plain / Just look the other way", and by asking with open-shuttered simplicity, "Do you want to stay with me?"

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