Music

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

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

"That's Entertainment", the seventh track of Silkworm's seventh album, features a devilish Lothario and guitar solos straight from heaven.


Silkworm

Lifestyle

Label: Touch and Go
US Release Date: 2000-08-08
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Lifestyle began with the song "Contempt", a song of easy beauty from Andy Cohen or, given the lyrics of the track, should that be the easy beauty of Andy/Brigitte Cohen? The opening of the second half of Lifestyle is a mirror of the first in some senses. "That's Entertainment", the subject of this week's blog entry, is another languid classic from Andy. However if "Contempt" was a poignant, smouldering take on a broken relationship, then "That's Entertainment" is an elegant firestorm. The two tracks are similarly paced but strike wildly different tones.

"That's Entertainment" shares its name with the famous track by the Jam from their 1980 album Sound Affects. Although bizarrely never given a domestic single release in the UK, it remains one of Paul Weller's best known songs. The Jam's track is a string of images of the mundane, the mildly threatening, and the everyday of British life. In terms of subject matter the two songs are as far apart as Woking and Missoula. What they do share is an ironic use of their title phrase, albeit to different ends. Weller's song is brilliant, at this point as deeply woven into the culture of modern England as the Beatles, Morecambe and Wise, and 1966, and to reduce it to one emotional note would be ridiculous. However, for the purpose of contrast, broadly speaking, when the chorus pays off the measured detail which Weller accumulates in the verses, the effect is of pathos, as the end of the third verse and the subsequent chorus demonstrate: "Watching the news and not eating your tea / A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls / I say that's entertainment / That's entertainment."

In this series we saw an American apartment of similar despair and disrepair in "Slave Wages". In Silkworm's hands though it became the setting for a comic scene of unvaccinated cats and epically foul carpets. Silkworm can be deadly serious and their songs tear at the heart strings but, as pointed out in our "Slave Wages" entry, they are certainly not miserabilists. "Slave Wages" was written by Tim and "That's Entertainment" is an Andy song, but here we see their shared sensibility. With eloquence and expert raconteurism Tim transformed what could have been quite a sorry subject, and in "That's Entertainment" Andy gives the ironic use of the title an extra twist which nudges pathos to the edge of the frame in favour of dark humour.

Before we even get to any lyrics though "That's Entertainment" presents the listener with a gift from the rock gods, namely an Andy Cohen guitar solo, for our song opens with almost exactly one minute of Andy at his shredding finest. Describing a guitar solo on the printed page, beyond "awesome" or "not awesome", is up there with wearing baseball caps, drinking decaf, and being really 'into' your hair in the league of entirely pointless human endeavours, so we shall not do that. Let's just say that Andy is a miraculous guitarist. He easily fulfils the requisite criteria for guitar hero status. Not only can he play 'a lot of guitar', but he's completely distinctive. He navigates paths in his playing that only he can see. His solos are complex and abstract, and are therefore endlessly fascinating, entertaining, and, yes, awesome to revisit. He sways and bobs and pitchpoles in ways that would make Neil Young proud. Comparing one unique player to another is silly though. As Gerard Cosloy points out in Couldn't You Wait? Seth Pomeroy's exceptional Silkworm documentary, which we've now referenced for the one hundredth time and we're not done yet, "It's almost a disservice in a lot of ways to compare him to a lot of the great rock players because it's really sort of transcendent some of the crap he comes up with."

Part of what lends Andy's playing this near numinous quality is his ability to stray so far from the original melody that as a listener it can be difficult to remember or backtrack and re-imagine how he got there. The only option is to cast these thoughts aside and follow him, or rather try to follow him because more often that not he will head the direction least anticipated, and whenever a dead end has apparently been met, he somehow magics up an escape route, some unseen trapdoor, through which to continue his sprawling journey. In Couldn't You Wait? Steve Albini puts it succinctly: "I was always impressed that he could start in the song and then go completely outside the song and wander off into this sort of self-sustaining continuum, and then somehow or other get back into the song when it was time to play the song again. It always seemed a mystery to me."

We said in the introduction to this series that Lifestyle contains a sense of contingency, that the album feels dramatically alive, that there is a feeling of newness with each play. Andy's solos in "That's Entertainment" speak directly to this. They lack the obvious clichés to signpost where he's going, and so, as noted, the only thing we can do is be present with him as he negotiates his private map through the song. To transport a listener like this is to perform a kind of thaumaturgy. It is an impenetrable mixture of art and science, and it is a thrill.

"That's Entertainment" is clearly one of Andy's highlights on Lifestyle. After treating us to a sublime instrumental introduction he then turns in one of his most darkly funny lyrics. The first of the song's two verses: "The affair was good / But it wasn't worth the money / Don't you cry / I earn a lot now / And you see what you could be / If you were only willing to work as hard as me." On paper the lines seem snide and cold, but that's the point. The performance is of course entirely straight-faced, but in context the excessive snark of the "I earn a lot now" punchline can only provoke a grin. Humour is one of the most under-rated qualities in rock music. Whether it's Shellac, the Smiths, or Steely Dan, we're drawn to bands who create their own unique world in their songs, some special dimension with an exclusive vernacular and its own particular in-jokes. It is something which Silkworm do to perfection.

The narrator of "That's Entertainment" appears to fancy himself as some kind of Lothario. He certainly seems happy to lay waste to his unfortunate ex. Andy's predilection for outré, leering characters is a feature of the Silkworm discography. For example, one of his most memorable lyrics — literally memorable in that, hear it once and you won't forget it! — is the classic opening to the final verse of "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" from the Developer album: "Down on Kettner Boulevard / I called on my friend Gerard / Said "Gerard, gimme 200 bucks / It's been weeks since I had a good… FUCK!" It's a different kind of humour to "Frankly, Mr. Shankly", but just as Morrissey evokes his idiosyncratic world, so do Silkworm, one with its own language, secret handshakes, dramatis personae, and outlook.

The chorus comes in: "That's entertainment / That's entertainment / Never in our lives have we been so entertained." As noted, following the scathing putdown of the verse, the refrain of the title becomes ironic; most people would not consider the end of an affair to be a leisure activity. Again though where Weller mined sadness from the gap between his use of the line and its explicit meaning, Andy ramps up the sarcasm and finds a kind of black humour: "Never in our lives have we been so entertained". Finally the chorus concludes with another brilliant bit of mischief, as our narrator takes the opportunity to kid the listener with a half-rhyme too good to pass up: "And I know you're for me / You're for me / You're foreign." Foreign as in alien, distant, different? Foreign as in actually foreign, like Dutch? What the what, Andy?

The second and final verse continues our rake's theme: "It's Christmastime / We're feeling fine / Everyone's drinking and on the flirt." Given the preceding verse, this feels like the scene from an office party, with booze flowing, asses being photocopied, and cleavage being peered down. One of Andy's great skills as a lyricist is to leave room for and encourage all manner of mad extrapolations. The final lines are typically ambiguous: "But I'll say whatever it takes / To get a promise you won't make it hurt." Could it be that our narrator has found his heart? Perhaps the break-up was more painful than he let on and now here he is pleading for compassion from his latest conquest before things have even got started. However, given the context and the particular brand of carnal etiquette displayed by some of the characters in Andy's songs, it is more fun to imagine it as an appeal to his latest paramour for physical restraint in whatever manner of filth our narrator has in mind for the pair.

"That's Entertainment" opens the second half of Lifestyle with a caustic sauce. It bristles with the wit that makes Andy such a terrific, entertaining lyricist. Elsewhere in the series we have mentioned his love of esoteric subject matter, but here he demonstrates his skill for deadpan humour with a gleefully cruel narrator out to torment their latest victim. The same intellect which somehow managed to write lyrics which are ambivalent enough to encourage multiple readings but never so indistinct as to seem irresolute or senseless is also at work in the song's two exquisite guitar solos. The track lasts just over three minutes forty, and about two minutes twenty of that is instrumental, with one long solo as an introduction and another after the first chorus. Both teem with ideas.

So far Lifestyle has whisked us through its luminous landscape with languid ballads, incomprehensibly great pop songs, acoustic reminiscences, pounding rock, and now an extended display of genuinely top rank, majestic lead guitar. Andy is only showing what Silkworm fans already knew though, that he is one of the master guitarists, a player whose work is beautiful, inventive, intricate at times, and yet never forsakes its main responsibility, which is to tear the listener's head off. Now that is entertainment.

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