An Accidental Collaboration
What about the collaboration itself? How does What If It Works? work? There are satisfying yin/yang comparisons we can draw in assessing the music. Barbeau Happy/Miller sad. Barbeau Loose/Miller Tight. Here are some more: Straightforward/Oblique. Drugs/Straight. Pagan/Christian. Whimsical/Serious. Free-spirited/Duty-bound. Or, as Barbeau sings on the title track, “The strawberry jam in the jar giving purpose to the lid.” Jam/Lid.
There’s some truth to all of these comparisons, but they don’t entirely hold. Barbeau’s career has been anything but straightforward, for instance, and Miller’s catalog includes plenty of not-at-all-serious songs with titles like “I No Longer Fear the Headless”, plus any number of prankish and/or bizarre sonic experiments spread throughout his albums like futurist finger food. Plus there’s the goofy clear-six-inch-cube sales gimmick, which was entirely in character for him. Drummer Becker, who grew up with Miller from elementary school, recalls the teenage Miller constructing a three-quarter-scale replica of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and installing it on the high school campus quad. (Also in character: “We cleaned it up at the end of the day.”)
More to the point, such facile comparisons do an injustice to the LP itself. Most of the songs on What If It Works? are both/and, including the Stones cover that opens the album. “Rocks Off” is one of Jagger’s pleasingly oblique lyric sets over a gyre of a backing track which Miller called “the essence of clarity.” He and Barbeau perform it faithfully and convincingly, and no wonder: for all that Miller was unquestionably a Beatles guy, constitutionally Apollonian, there was plenty of Dionysus in him, too. “Scott was a tremendous Rolling Stones fan, second only to the Beatles for him,” Becker told me. “’Rocks Off’ was a song we covered back in the very early days.”
It’s followed by Miller’s “Song About ‘Rocks Off’”, which sounds nothing whatsoever like the Stones and is demonstrably not about “Rocks Off” in any audible way – it’s one of Miller’s tenderer melodies – except that it borrows words from Jagger like “pirouette”. It’s more “Song after ‘Rocks Off’” than “Song About ‘Rocks Off’”, although it might, “Rocks Off”-ishly, be about the push-pull of wooing and making romance (“Maybe it’s back off/ Maybe it’s come a little closer”). But as any Miller fan knows, you can get yourself into trouble overthinking his dense, intertextual lyrics, which are full of obscure references, sometimes to favorite writers like Joyce and Eliot and occasionally to his own previous recordings.
“He wanted to give listeners something to listen for as well as listen to,” Becker says. According to Kristine, “He carefully and methodically examined the meanings and sounds of specific words and the ambiguity he might create with his lyrics that would best express his own complicated feelings about his self-assessed successes and failures in life. Nothing recorded was improvised or spontaneous, and he had difficulty writing romantic songs.”
No surprise that she adds: “Scott had an intensity about him, and he kept a lot of his feelings and thoughts hidden or perhaps suppressed.” Or that Becker declares: “I can say without exaggeration that I never saw him cry, even when we were kids.” Or that Barbeau remembers that the one time he saw Miller obviously upset – his first marriage was collapsing – Miller cut off Barbeau’s offer of a sympathetic ear with a curt no-thank-you. All of that is its own kind of lifelong, very purposeful failure.
After “Song About ‘Rocks Off’” comes Barbeau’s jaunty “Pop Song 99”, and it most certainly is – you have to be quite a maestro to write the first line, “Pop song ringing in my ear” and then deliver on ringing in your ear with a nifty metrical hop in the verse that helps the ring get in there. It’s followed by another jaunty number, but this one is Miller’s and it’s called, not-jauntily, “Total Mass Destruction”. (Is it supposed to refer to Swamp Dogg’s 1970 soul rave-up “Total Destruction to Your Mind”, which Miller, a walking-talking-writing music encyclopedia, would almost certainly have known? And if so, how?) It echoes the sort of shuffle that Miller occasionally wrote throughout his career – the Game Theory song “Andy in Ten Years” comes to mind – and had been sitting around unrecorded since the Loud Family’s ’90s heyday. The lyrics revive Miller’s longtime preoccupation with another kind of failure: self-sabotage, which he sometimes courted. “The fanzines rave,” he sings, “but I can’t see it paying no bills.”
We could go on like this, describing and evaluating the rest of the songs on What If It Works? – three originals each by Barbeau and Miller, plus the two additional covers – but that’s exactly the kind of comparative approach that doesn’t serve the album at all. Despite the interrogative of the title, it isn’t asking for much and it doesn’t want critics. Ask Barbeau, Chambers, and Trowbridge which of Miller’s songs on the album they like best, and each gives a different answer, which speaks both to the uniformly high level of Miller’s craft and his habit of writing nothing like an obvious hit. Everyone likes the one they like for their own personal reasons, because for Millerians (to coin a word) the music is always personal.
Nor does the one song Barbeau and Miller co-wrote – essentially a Barbeau bridge installed in a Miller verse and chorus structure – solve for the X of the album’s unplanned math. What If It Works? sounds, to repeat Jozef Becker’s assessment, “like a Scott and Anton LP”, in which each is discretely audible, all the way down to their voices in harmony, which sound entirely distinct. The album is not, nor is it trying to be, greater than the sum of its two prodigiously gifted parts, or even to present either part at his most prodigious or gifted; but neither does it clash against itself at all. Miller and Barbeau were mutual fans, had worked together before, and belong in the same section of the genre library – yet each, at the same time, echoes influences far beyond the power-pop pigeonhole to which they’re both often, and wrongly, confined by the raving fanzines.
It would perhaps be worth making this comparison, though, regarding the album as a whole. All of its dozen tracks are pleasing and hummable, but they generally conform to two different types of pleasure. Barbeau’s melodies and delivery grab you instantly; every time you listen through the album, each of his songs jumps up again like a beloved pet and makes you feel happy to play with it – the aural equivalent of “sunshine and a beer” as he sings on “Pop Song 99”. Miller’s songs, on the other hand, have a way of drifting past you almost unheard as you listen to them, but they’re more often the ones that seem to follow you around during the day.
If there’s an either/or comparison that obtains, then, perhaps it’s External/Internal: Barbeau’s music bounds right up to you to worm warmly into your ear, while Miller’s seems to well up from inside you and ring in your mind. But to extrapolate from this comparison that Barbeau’s songs are “superficial” and Miller’s are “deep” is mistaken. The lyric set that has autumn leaves falling and the line, “The only way to flow is like a river” is Barbeau’s, as is the one with the repeated threat, “This is my goodbye party / I’m gonna cry”; and Miller’s wide-grinning quintuple rhyme (!) “Maybelline towers”/ ”Make-believe hours” is, as the first word implies, cosmetic. What they have in common is that all three of those songs can get you bopping around the room like you don’t care who is watching you, which is pretty much what pop music is supposed to accomplish in both the first and last place.
What are pop musicians supposed to accomplish? The superstardom they almost all dream of, including Barbeau, has always eluded him. That’s partly because he’s had the usual near-misses that undercut so many talented strivers in a crowded competition for fame. But it probably owes more to Barbeau’s own recognition that “I’ve never had any image of how to be successful,” he told me. “I just keep cranking out records thinking that someday somebody’s gonna hand me a million dollars.” In the meantime, he has made three times as many albums as Miller did; he has lived and worked in England and Berlin as well as in his native Northern California, and he plays to enthusiastic crowds from London to Spain; and he has worked with some of the most illustrious eminences in the genres in which he traffics.
He understands and appreciates that although he has not reached the million-selling heights he might have hoped for, nonetheless “my career has developed. I’m grateful for that. And I take what I do more seriously now. I think my songs deserve more recognition and I know it’s possible that any number of them could really click, go viral. But it’s probably obvious that it’s not the thing that drives me at all anymore. I’m just doing what I’m doing, you know, and happy to be doing it.”
This question of failure – failure at what, exactly? “Scott held himself to a rigid standard, yet did not judge others,” Becker told me; and unlike Barbeau, Miller’s math did not allow him to adjust those standards or stop judging himself when it came to the public outcomes of his music. He did himself the greatest injustice there – and injustice to his family, too, of course, in depriving them of himself. If his fans are still mourning his death, perhaps the mourning ought to be for his wife and kids more than for his music.
As it stands, he left behind more albums than the Beatles did. None of them are bad, and all are still easy to find and listen to. It doesn’t matter that a lot of the copies were unwanted and had to be destroyed. Omnivore has been sponsoring their resurrection for nearly a decade. That’s how strongly they still speak to us. And in Barbeau’s case, Miller’s voice is still present. To this day, Barbeau says, “I ask myself, with everything I release, ‘What would Scott think of this?’”
In his book Music: What Happened, Miller observes: “Two of Badfinger’s members killed themselves. And now, hey, they’re actually the band from [their] era who sound fresh.” You could, obviously, say the same of Miller, his sounds, and his era, but the point he’s making there is that when “No Matter What” comes on the radio, virtually no one starts thinking how sad it is that half the band committed suicide. We hear the song, like Miller does, as “a joyous, overdriven throbbing of all things analog.” He came of age with digital, but his music still has the same freshness and throb and it probably always will; one meaningful item of justice we can do for him is to listen to it for that freshness and throb, and not through the echoes of his death.
We need to make him less personal to us. Granted, he approached joyousness and overdrive with a good deal of reticence. “The dude could just not chill,” Barbeau says, “and he could never do a straight line, that’s for sure. But it’s very emotional music. It’s not obvious, primary-color emotion; by pop music standards, it’s complex and contradictory. But it’s pure. If you wanna feel it it’s right there.”
What If It Works? might not stand with Miller’s most complex and contradictory music, and with Barbeau alongside him in the studio it isn’t the purest, either. But thanks to Barbeau’s line-straightening instincts and primary-color disposition, it’s among the most accessible introductions to Miller’s work. Reciprocally, Miller’s “deadly seriousness, his absolute commitment,” as Barbeau puts it, to doing everything on purpose, puts a well-fitting lid on Barbeau’s strawberry jam, and it’s an equally good place to start discovering the latter’s dauntingly extensive catalog. That this dual (re-)introduction can be made, once again, by the reissue of the album that was Miller’s actual, if not intentional, farewell to music, feels like justice prevailing. Start with What If It Works?. Then work backward, and forward, from there.