Jon Brion's Meaningless: An Appreciation
Jon Brion is well known as a successful composer of film scores, but his 2001 self-released album, Meaningless, a lost power-pop classic, should be better known.
For almost any other artist, the story would end there. Brion, of course, is an exception; in fact, he's an exception to just about every music-world cliché. Since 2001, far from fading, he has written one brilliant soundtrack after another: Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Synecdoche, New York, and more (his soundtrack for the 2012 animated movie ParaNorman, for example, is a delight). Brion has also contributed, as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, to a great number of projects, working with Elliott Smith, Brad Mehldau, Evan Dando, Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Dido, Of Montreal, and Best Coast, among others (having previously worked with Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, and Robyn Hitchcock, to name only some).
He has also continued to perform regularly at Largo in Los Angeles, where audiences are treated to sets that include Brion originals (including soundtrack cuts), collaborations with a rotating cast of musical guests, impromptu covers of rock and jazz classics, and extended piano improvisations. Brion is especially well-known for using multitracking live in order to perform full arrangements on guitar, piano, bass, drums, and whatever else he can get his hands on. In December, when I saw him perform for the first time, he covered everything from “Moonage Daydream” to “Moon River”, not to mention the classic tearjerker “Christmas Time Is Here”.
Where does that leave Meaningless, then? Simply put, while Brion has given us plenty to listen to, and will certainly continue to do so, there's no better way to appreciate him than to listen to his first and so far only solo album, to listen to him playing his own songs. Appropriately enough, these are songs on which he performs all the parts, with one exception: the centerpiece of the album, the song “Trouble”, features the contributions of legendary session players Greg Leisz, Jim Keltner, and Benmont Tench (also of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), as well as actress Mary Lynn Rajskub.
Meaningless has 11 tracks, ten Brion originals plus the closer, which is a cover of Cheap Trick’s song “Voices”, from the 1979 album Dream Police. What strikes one immediately about Brion’s album is the effortlessness of it. Unlike other albums on which one person plays all the parts, the sound is not disjointed -- it really does sound like a band playing cohesively, each instrument locked in with all the others. Equally striking is the sheer ease with which Brion produces one memorable melody after another. Most would be content with having one catchy part in a song; for Brion, each part of the song is an equal opportunity to write something that will linger with the listener. Every guitar solo, drum fill, vocal harmony, and unplaceable sound effect has the quality of a gift. Brion’s music is truly “gratuitous”, not in the modern sense, but in its original meaning, which is to say that it's given freely, that it's spontaneous.
Indeed, this gives the album an out-of-time feeling; I don’t think it would be possible to guess that the album is from 2001 just by listening to it. In retrospect, however, it makes sense that Meaningless would have been hard to place. The dominant genres of the late '90s, namely bubblegum, pop-punk, and nü- metal, certainly did not make for an especially exciting mainstream. The label that most readily applies to Brion’s album -- with due apologies, since he would almost certainly resent the idea of labels being applied to his, or anyone’s, music -- is power-pop. By the time 2001 came, the age in which artists such as Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads, and Matthew Sweet (among others) could succeed had come and gone. Sure, there were big hits that were more or less in the power-pop vein in the late '90s, too, but they were considerably less interesting and more generic-sounding -- Big Star they were not.
The year 2001 arguably marked a significant improvement in commercially successful music. The world collectively decided that guitars were back (even Radiohead, the band that had killed the guitar the year before had an actual ‘lick’ on “I Might Be Wrong”). Instead of clean-faced pop stars or faux-menacing rockers, major music magazines began featuring disheveled icons like The White Stripes, The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and other so-called “The…” bands (The Hives, The Vines, et al.). Brion’s music didn’t really fit into this trend, either; there is very little “image” to his music, little “fashion” to go with it. However good the music, most of these new-retro bands had a crucial visual component or at least a recognizable attitude that could translate into an effective advertisement. What would Brion do? Pose with a Wurlitzer?
It's a shame Meaningless didn't take off, as it easily could have joined the ranks of a few other avant-pop classics from the early '00s like Oh! Inverted World by The Shins, Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers, or the first couple Badly Drawn Boy albums, as well as moodier works like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco and Girls Can Tell by Spoon or, indeed, the somewhat Brion-esque Figure 8 by Elliott Smith. Alas, it did not. Despite this, however, it's still with us, though getting a physical copy is not exactly easy (or cheap). In short, Meaningless is an album desperately in need of a reissue.
Every song has something to say for itself. The opener, “Gotta Start Somewhere” shifts from plaintive acoustic pleading to mid-tempo rocker with the sort of “all-over-the-place” drumming that makes one think of the end of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”. On “I Believe She’s Lying”, Brion combines skittering breakbeats with Johnny Marr-style guitar. The title track, “Meaningless”, is a more straight-ahead rocker that shows off Brion’s guitar chops as well as his knack for ably capturing memory and loss within the parameters of a pop song. “Ruin My Day” is a loping, piano-driven song whose chorus -- “I don’t wait by the phone like I used to/I don’t hope for kind words you might say/You don’t prey on my mind like you used to / But you can still ruin my day” -- is a brilliant double-edged sword of a lyric. “Walking Through Walls”, the most raucous song of the album -- it even has swears in it -- chugs confidently with stinging guitars, chugging piano chords, and irreverent back-up vocals.
“Trouble”, the aforementioned centerpiece of the song, is perhaps Brion’s best; it is a song so good that even Elliott Smith memorably covered it live (indeed, some say it was inspired by Smith himself). “Hook, Line and Sinker”, which pairs nicely with “Ruin My Day”, offers plaintive guitars and impassioned vocals, sentimental without being cloying, and a middle section that would not sound out of place on a George Harrison solo album. The cinematic one-two punch of “Dead to the World”, replete with Chamberlin, Mellotron, and who knows what else, and “Her Ghost”, a haunting shuffle of a song that would not sound out of place on one of Brion’s soundtracks, leads to the closing of the album. “Same Mistakes”, the most minimalist song on the album, features Brion’s singing and acoustic guitar with little else until a whimsical pastiche leads us into an adoring cover of Cheap Trick’s “Voices”, which makes it sound like it could have been a Brian Wilson outtake.
The line that gets repeated in this album-closing cover, “You didn’t know what you were looking for ’til you heard the voices in your ears”, is a nice summation of Brion’s aesthetic as a writer and a performer. One imagines that, for someone with his knowledge of music and with his perfectionism, it must be hard to commit to original material without fearing that it is overly contaminated with the trace of the innumerable influences that color his playing.
Meaningless, to the present day, remains the defining document to which Brion aficionados turn to be reminded of the place he has so admirably carved out for himself in the pop landscape. It might be strange to say about a self-released album that, to this day, has not been canonized by any “best of” lists I know of, but Meaningless remains for me one of the best albums of its kind. In a sense, it is an album that has been punished for its own sincerity, for wearing its love for a particular musical tradition on its sleeve, and for being blissfully detached from any sort of trend. Perhaps this makes it a stubborn album; if this is so, surely its stubborness is part of what has allowed it to survive as long as it has among those lucky enough to have heard it.
No one, perhaps not even Brion, knows how much longer listeners will have to wait for a follow-up to Meaningless. One gets the feeling that Brion is playing “the long game”, and hoping that others will play it with him. Perhaps so many years will pass that new fans of his will not even know that he had put out his first album long ago, and might even be moved to go back and discover it. I envy them. In the meanwhile, though, I am happy to have Meaningless. As the Daniel Johnston song goes, “some things last a long time”.