Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Around the Outline"
With a brilliant and rare lead vocal from Michael Dahlquist, "Around the Outline", Lifestyle's ninth track, takes the listener to a land of darkness, chill, and murder.
Last week our tour of Lifestyle stopped to gaze in wonder at the minor miracle that is "Raging Bull". At only a hundred seconds long Tim Midyett's microscopic masterpiece is easily the shortest song on the album. It is no accident then that the track which follows "Raging Bull", and the subject of this week's blog entry, is Lifestyle’s longest song. It is appropriate that "Around the Outline", a song with a landscape of mountains, peaks, and cliffs, should stand just slightly taller than anything else on the album.
Lifestyle's ninth track is still only four minutes long — hardly Der Ring des Nibelungen — but the duration of "Around the Outline" is accentuated by the company it keeps. As noted, preceding it on one side is "Raging Bull", Lifestyle’s shortest song, but succeeding it on the other is "Dead Air", another gem from Tim to be covered in next week's entry and the album's second shortest. Lifestyle's sequencing is perfectly judged.
We saw earlier in the series how the six tracks of Side A seem to form two mini-trilogies, the album gliding into view and accelerating throughout the first triptych ("Contempt", "Slave Wages", "Treat the New Guy Right"), before slowing serenely ("Plain"), catching breath ("Roots"), and taking off again ("Yr Web"), all within the thematically linked second. As Side B unfolds it becomes apparent that, although the second half of the album takes a different tack from the first, once again the ordering of the songs creates a very particular ebb and flow. We began with the graceful fireworks show of Andy Cohen's "That's Entertainment" with its languid tempo and kickass guitar solos. We then hopped, skipped, and jumped with the aforementioned "Raging Bull", as flawlessly complete a song as you're ever likely to hear. In response to this tiny, complex moment of beauty, Lifestyle now marches us up to a summit of kinds. Where "Raging Bull" was brief, intricate, highly melodic, and multi-tempo, "Around the Outline" lands with both feet and stomps a path in even circles around the listener. If "Raging Bull" is a portrait carefully etched on the head of a pin, then "Around the Outline" is an imposing monument of a song.
"Around the Outline" begins with a brief second of bass from Tim before Andy and Michael pile in, and the song immediately finds full lock. Lifestyle's other 'lengthy' — a comparative term if ever — rocker "Yr Web" danced on a pretty melody and a buoyant chorus, which fitted its subject of affection and past love. Lyrically "Around the Outline" concerns itself with almost the opposite. What the two songs do have in common though is the way in which they match their form to their content. And so "Around the Outline's" images of shadow, cold, and death are carried on a track where cyclicality and dynamism are key. There is no chorus, but instead a series of brief four line verses. While the melody does not vary greatly throughout the song, the texture of the music shifts and rolls. If this were The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bob Harris would no doubt comment on "the groove that they get going". It's another example of the fruit borne when a band play and tour together for so long, never mind how good Michael, Tim, and Andy are as individual players. The interaction between three great musicians, that crushing 'groove', isn't something that can be faked, not even in a studio.
The sound is immediately enormous. Michael fills the centre with powerful booming clomps while Tim's dramatic bassline rolls along underneath on huge, metallic caterpillar tracks. Around this, Andy's guitar scythes back and forth, circling the rhythm section and giving the track its own particular set of contours. As noted, the pressures within this whirlwind of sound fluctuate, but from beginning to end the potency does not.
Another unexpected element is added when the verses come in, for "Around the Outline" features a lead vocal from Michael, the only one on Lifestyle and extremely rare throughout the entire Silkworm discography. Perhaps the other most memorable example of Michael taking the mic is "Bourbon Beard" on the album Italian Platinum. Our blog entry for "Yr Web" noted that one of the qualities which marks Michael out as an exceptional drummer is his ability to convey a genuine sense of personality in his playing. The listener gets the feeling that nothing is being held back. There is an unchecked eagerness to his drumming. Every moment is filled with the maximal concentration of energy. This lack of restriction and qualification is also transferred to Michael's singing. In "Bourbon Beard", a beautiful bout of boozy philosophy, it comes through as gentle pathos, with Michael evocatively transmitting both the sorrow and hope of the lyrics. In "Around the Outline" the underlying earnestness to his voice is similar, but he uses it to entirely different effect.
The song sketches a bleak landscape. The first two verses: "Around the outline / Of a mountain's midriff / A dirt road leading up to a cliff // Around the outline / From a peak to a meadow / No stop signs / No talk of a shadow." It's not clear where we are or why we're here. It's an empty, ominous place. No road signs. Not even a shadow. And as our journey progresses, the feeling of danger in the air becomes more and more palpable: "Around the outline / Bleakest cold / A wicked murderer who was born old / Around the outline / Of our breath in the wind / Little daggers of frost / That we are breathing in." The conviction in Michael's voice completely sells the sense of threat in the lyrics. In pop music sincerity is often equated with demonstrativeness, the harder you sing somehow being equivalent to how much you mean it. Michael shows this up for the falsehood it is. Like his drumming, his voice is imbued with a presence which grabs the listener's attention. There's a quiet passion and seriousness to his delivery which nails the minatory lyrics, relating the song's series of foreboding images with an undeniably compelling tension.
The musical backing also carries this sense of drama. At the 90 seconds-mark Andy's guitar drops out as Michael delivers the last set of sinister verses: "Around the outline / Make the men eat rice / They are blind in the heart / They are dead in the eyes // Around the outline / Of a widow's veil / She's been killing time / With the head of a nail". When Andy rejoins he is no longer following the same spirals as before. The shearing, frenetic solo lasts for over a minute. Underneath this, listen from about 2:15 to 3:03 as Michael beats all hell out of his cymbals. He ramps up gradually until from about 2:50 to 3:03 he unleashed bomb after bomb. Earlier we said that the texture of the music "shifts" as the song goes on. Well maybe that was an understatement. When Michael is done, the texture of the track is a series of craters.
At the three minute-mark Andy's guitar starts winding out of its groove and drops back. The only place left to go is down, and just before the track begins to slow towards its close, "Around the Outline" makes reference to the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and that legendary riff. It's appropriate that a song full of images of darkness and menace should end with a nod to a phrase which in its bludgeoning descent conveys empty-eyed nihilism like no other.
On "Around the Outline" Silkworm take a chance to flex their muscles and to stretch out after the nimble manoeuvres of "Raging Bull". Lyrically it also represents a break of kinds from the rest of Lifestyle. There is none of the humour of "Slave Wages" or "That's Entertainment". If there is a theme of travel, physical and temporal, running through Lifestyle, then "Around the Outline" is another thrilling leg on the journey. Every voyage must have its stygian leg. Every traveller must face the darkness. With "Around the Outline" Silkworm confirm that they are capable of taking the listener anywhere.