On Quasi‘s previous albums, there’s always been a clash between the despairing melancholy they seemed determined to project and Sam Coomes wholesome, high-school-musical singing voice, which sounded earnest as could be but lacked the grit essential to making emotion palpable. On Hot Shit, the band seems to have recognized this problem, leading to Coomes pushing his voice much harder, sacrificing the opportunity to hit precise notes for the quaver derived from his strain, leading to more shifts back and forth from his falsetto and more drawn-out vowels in his line deliveries in an attempt to maximize the words’ emotiveness while necessarily limiting what they might potentially mean. Typically, the sympathetic listener isn’t bothered by these sorts of pathos-manufacturing tricks, since he is more interested in finding a sounding board for his own emotions than understanding those of someone else — vagueness helps such listeners interpret everything they hear in terms of their own lives, and artists catering to this audience generally accept that their songs have no meaning until they reach the audience and are filled with their individual dilemmas. But Quasi seem more ambitious than that, (this is, after all, an album which features a rant denouncing most of the Bush administration for the Iraq war) and one wonders if they aren’t at cross-purposes with themselves.
Quasi has always tried to disguise the cabaret-like nature of their tunes (most of which sound as though they have been written at the piano, a songwriting strategy that, save for the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, is the virtual antithesis of rock) by laying on distortion and by including a discordant change or two into the Tin Pan Alley chord progressions they often adapt. Janet Weiss, of course, is a phenomenal drummer, and her inventive patterns help as well. (Though on this album she is curiously underused — one keeps waiting to be amazed as one typically is, but that moment never comes. Here, her drumming is just steady.) Here, they show a proclivity for queasy, “In the Evening”-style waves of undulating noise generated by what sounds like a Mellotron on its last legs. Opening with a minute or so of washed-out strings joined with a loop of nauseous-sounding slide playing and some sputtering drum hits, Hot Shit immediately announces its intention to be a purposely difficult listen, and the difficulty persists through the album’s eleven tracks, including a dreary, interminable outro on “Sunshine Sounds”, the kitchen-sink clatter of “Good Times”, and the aforementioned ranting on the remarkably unsubtle “White Devil’s Dream”.
The sentiment of “White Devil’s Dream” is welcome — it’s nice to hear the frustration at America’s warmongering vented — but its expression is musically clumsy and without nuance. Perhaps outrage knows no nuance, but Coomes’s outrage here, righteous as it seems to me, comes across as petulance. Hearing Coomes call Rumsfeld a “fucker” and Tony Blair a “sell-out” just doesn’t seem to achieve anything positive, and tends to make opposition to current American policy seem a bit juvenile. The same problem has afflicted his lyrics reaching all the way back to the “work sucks, corporations suck” sentiment on 1998’s Featuring Birds. He seems inspired to invest his songs with political overtones, but fails to find ways of shedding any light on any of the issues. So they don’t even rise to the level of polemic, as no arguments are offered. He merely asserts positions without much context, and assumes he’s already preaching to the converted. This treats politics the way pop music treats emotion generally: it renders it vague and abstract in an attempt to make it universal, to leave room for the listener to project his own feelings on to it. So if you are dissatisfied with the United States government, you can find some sympathy here and augment Coomes’s sketchy viewpoints with your own arguments, feeling glad that someone else seems to be sharing them. But this is ultimately a disservice to political discourse, which one would hope would rest on the logical and rational exposition of justice rather than the manipulation of people’s feelings. It makes politics into something you feel rather than something you conclude, or think, and that seems a bit dangerous. It may just be that pop music as a form automatically does this to political expression: it coarsens it and reduces it to just another emotion one can stimulate and feel vicariously for the sake of entertainment and distraction.
Quasi’s lyrics are much more convincing when they hew to the interpersonal politics of relationships. They get considerable mileage from the conundrum of love being at once both an extreme form of control and surrender. The dirge-like lullaby “No One” captures the paradox succinctly, with parallel verses that end “I won’t allow them to hurt you” and “I won’t allow them to help you”. The song also makes good use of sinister, slowly modulating synth sounds to give an otherworldly, Outer Limits sensation to it, conveying something of the strangeness, the unreality of this kind of love. There’s the same sort of tension in the album’s best song, “Drunken Tears”, wherein it’s impossible to tell whether the singer is consoling or mocking the person, an apparent failure, he’s telling to “Cry drunken tears again”. Coomes gives his delivery just enough ironic edge to make both readings possible: that he both pities and resents the one crying for his self-pity. Such compellingly rendered moments of ambivalence illuminate the situations they capture; they bring the listener new understanding rather than tired confirmation of what he’s already happy to understand. If only that could be said for all the songs.