Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - “The Bones”

Photo courtesy of Jim Newberry.

Lifestyle's twelfth track, "The Bones", is beautiful, life-affirming, and brings this classic album to a thoroughly definitive conclusion.



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

It's barely conceivable that after just over half an hour we have arrived at the final point on the itinerary set out by Silkworm on their remarkable seventh album Lifestyle. It has been an odyssey that has taken in Gallic ennui, failed marriages, Fritz Lang, down at heel rock stardom, small town scrapes, mad affairs, love, home, nostalgia, braggadocio, darkness, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, a glorious Faces cover, and every point of connection and disconnection in between.

With its elegance and warmth "The Bones", Lifestyle's 12th and closing track, and the subject of this week's blog entry, encourages us to pause and take stock. The song may be talking about life itself, but through its thoughtful disposition it also gives the listener cause to look back and consider the parade of human life and the wild journey along which this remarkable collection of exquisitely realised songs has taken her.

Silkworm had a knack for classic closing tracks, and the Tim Midyett penned "The Bones" is among their very best. Throughout their discography the band seemed to be able to judge exactly what was required to give each album its perfect conclusion.

The Joel Phelps songs "Pearl Harbor" and "Pilot", from the albums L'ajre and In the West respectively, are both typically terrific songs, but "Bloody Eyes" on the third album Libertine was arguably the band's first great track to function specifically as a closer. It feels made for that position. Although very different in arrangement and feel, the prettiness of its melody and the sentiment of the last verse ("Don't look back behind you / That's my best advice") make it in some ways an unlikely relation of "The Bones".

Elsewhere in their catalogue, Silkworm made sure that none of their albums ever ended with a whimper. Stand-out closers include "Don't Make Plans This Friday" from Firewater, a rousing novella of a track that features a refrain which deserves to be carved in stone: "Friday night is sacred / It's not time to be wasted". There's also the honking-squonking "A Cockfight of Feelings" from Italian Platinum, which in its final verse features, almost apropos of nothing, possibly the greatest couplet ever to grace a rock song, the baffling undeniable showstopper: "The worst work on Earth is on a turkey farm / When those birds get excited, sound the alarm".

While a drop-the-mic moment such as the last verse of "A Cockfight of Feelings" is just the ending Italian Platinum needs, the same would not be appropriate for Lifestyle. The album effectively floated into earshot with the heat-dazed opener "Contempt", and considering the wit, intelligence, grace, and weirdness that we have seen along the way, it's right that Lifestyle should end on a moment of poignance and humanity.

"The Bones" follows the trajectory set by the preceding track, the cover of The Faces "Ooh La La". It turns the volume further down just as "Ooh La La" did with respect to its predecessor the galloping "Dead Air". Where the old granddad of "Ooh La La" offered advice, so too does the narrator of "The Bones". However, whereas The Faces song counselled about the dangers of those evil women, as rock songs of the '70s were wont to do, "The Bones" moves for higher ground and seeks to reassure the listener that no matter what's dragging you down or whatever pain you may be feeling, you'll get through. There will be a time when the trouble is over. The world turns and you will still be here to enjoy it. As we shall see, "The Bones" is literally life-affirming.

An acoustic guitar that forms the backbone of the track — pardon the pun — welcomes the listener in. It's a beautiful, gentle melody. It feels as if the listener is being called home. Tim begins: "The bones you're built on / Have held you in good stead / The bones you're built on / Have not crumbled yet".

Bones have traditionally more than any other part of our bodies signified what is most essential about us as human beings. Other examples of conventional somatological and poetic connections might be between the heart and emotion, or the blood and life force. For the Ancient Romans the liver was the seat of desire.

Today, however, it's our bones which we believe constitute our very core, the thing on which everything else physically and metaphorically hangs. If we experience an extreme of emotion, then we are said to feel it in our bones. The idea that they might actually tremble under the force of stress or fear has a long history ("tremis ossa pavore, Horace, Satires II, vii, 57). Therefore, the notion that your bones are strong and healthy and have not failed you is significant. It suggests an emotional strength, deep and constant in the fibers of your being.

The song continues: "Something really whacked you out / Got you by the throat / But some kind of histrionics / Pulled you through / You're gonna live a long time before you go". Beautiful twinkling jewellery box piano enwreathes the first two lines. On the third it is joined by the beguiling chime of an electric guitar. There will be no drums on "The Bones". The song is carried by the intertwining of its delicate lines of melody.

At any time, but perhaps particularly at this moment when self-affirmation and empty positivity seem so central to the popular culture, the Top Forty is full of mawkish songs that tell their listeners that they are beautiful, unique, special, and altogether terrific. You're number one! These are easy sentiments to generate and accept if the songwriter and her audience have no concern for triteness and irony. It's much harder to convey a feeling of warmth and positivity in a way which is thoughtful, adult, intelligent, and convincing, especially to an audience of grown-up GenX rock fans. With the next lines Silkworm pulls it off: "The bones you're built on are beautiful off-white / The bones you're built on carry you all right / And you shouldn't care who knows it now / Don't forget to eat / At least you know / They're gonna last you through the week". 

Tim's vocals are perfect. We have seen elsewhere in this series, particularly with the songs "Slave Wages" and "Dead Air", how attuned he is, not just to the importance of words but to the manner of their delivery. His voice has a natural softness but also an earnestness which here he wraps around the lyrics to full effect. From "And you shouldn't care…" all the way to the end, he pushes harder and tempers his words with a kind of pleading.

At this point in the song lesser artists would open their lungs and jump on the lyrics throat first, aiming for a baroque and hysterical finish, the overwrought being a popular signifier of the authentic as any TV talent show will attest. Instead, Tim sounds emotional but in control. Serious but sympathetic. The joke at the end ("At least you know / They're gonna last you through the week") offers a wink to the listener and breaks any tension that may have been building to this point. Reassurance like this is a serious business.

The final three lines are simple and direct: "You're gonna live a long time / And I'm gonna live a long time too / We're all gonna live a long time before we go". One wants to believe him. The message is not that everything will be OK now and forever. Rather, it's that life will go on and you will be here and I will be here. That much we can count on, and actually that's a lot.

We suggested in the introduction to this series that one of the great qualities of Silkworm's music is that it rejects as an illusion the eternal and the metaphysical, the numinous nonsense to which so much classic rock alludes. Instead, the goal of Silkworm is the contingent, the beauty to be found in each moment as it happens. "The Bones" encapsulates this. There is no reason to be afraid. Life is here to be lived. It's a definitive conclusion to the album.

Over 12 tracks Lifestyle has described and redescribed moments of love, excitement, and wonder, and over these last 12 weeks we have tried to grab them, examine them, and savour them. In some ways it would be misleading to describe Lifestyle as a classic, although in terms of songwriting, singing, playing, kickass aesthetics, and everything else right down to its cover art, it very obviously is; the album is a work of art.

However, the notion of a "classic" suggests something monolithic, something old, a work which has passed tests of respectability and conventionality in order to be admitted into the canon, presumably some cobweb-strewn hallway with dust-covered busts of Eric Clapton, Santana, and The Eagles lining each side. No, as we suggested in the introduction to this series, Lifestyle conveys a sense of freedom, a complete unanchoring from expectation and cliché. Its songs seem to be constantly shifting. The feeling of newness and self-creation is so acute that it seems possible that each time one plays Lifestyle it might contain a completely new set of songs. It's the opposite of a hoary old classic.

It would be even more egregious to call Lifestyle an indie rock classic. It was released on Touch and Go and Silkworm were as independent as it gets, but 'indie rock' is a problematic term. Does it signify an aesthetic? A means of production or distribution? Whatever we take the notion of 'indie rock' to mean, if we apply it to Silkworm and in this case Lifestyle, it becomes redundant. Silkworm were one of the all-time great rock bands and Lifestyle is an all-time great rock album.

Further explanation? We mean Led Zep great. Jesus Lizard great. That kind of great. While over the course of these entries we have tried to explain why they are so great, to convey a sense of why their music is such a thrill, the only way to really understand is to listen for yourself. So, please, give Lifestyle a spin. Take that wild journey. See where it takes you.

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