For Guy, Lauren, and Jay, fans who move with the music…
At first, I just saw the name: the Teenage Prayers. I can’t remember where, but sometime in the gloomy spring of 2006 it suddenly appeared. I immediately wrote it down on a blank page in my notebook. It had a frank poetry — conjuring up that fusion of the sacred and the profane, explaining that bubblegum devotionals reach well beyond the lovesick rhymes that flicker over the surface of a longing sound, such that one can only call it sacred. Before I had heard a single song, the name inspired me to a poem of sorts, writing down a series of names that seemed suddenly best described as, well, teenage prayers.
The Teenage Prayers
Some of those names were the indie bands in the air, some my own obsessions, many were from the great teen doo-wop of the 1950s that I had been wallowing in that spring — songs like the Mellows’ “Smoke from Your Cigarette” and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”. At least one of the names, was, as far as I know, the invention of my friend Lauren, who insisted that there simply ought to be a band called the Beautifuls. To me, a certain bright treble shimmered through these names, a constellation of overwrought adolescent dreaming, and taken by this new name, I thought certainly they were all prayers. But though I loved the name, the Teenage Prayers sound would turn out to be not a shimmer, but a deep, dirty swell, and it would take me a surprisingly long time to realize that their album Ten Songs is a remarkable work, one of those few perfect albums, a category defined by the likes of the Television’s Marquee Moon or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
The first few times I heard them, I didn’t know it. I was listening to Soma FM, and “Brown Bottle” was in the rotation — the first track from the Prayers’ self-released Ten Songs. Unlike the crackle of most of Soma’s indie pop, this began with two laconic bass notes, almost dragging, as though the listener is being pulled down into the song. Then that rasping voice sings with real desperation, wrestling with those two simple notes, “She’s going down, like a wet cliché / And I’m thinking of an angel just to try and keep it hard”. Something about that sound, combined with the achingly sincere but absolutely surreal lyrics, and I was swept away — and I looked up to see a name I had taken for a poem scrolling by. It came as a shock, for I thought that the band called the Teenage Prayers would play with the saccharin jangle that defines teen music from Buddy Holly to N ‘Sync, but this sound was pushing me towards Memphis and a new vision of rock’n’roll soul.
I bought Ten Songs immediately, and I began listening to the album almost constantly, but initially with real frustration — there would be a moment in a song, a perfect verse, a swelling horn section, or a lingering chord that would all but break my heart, and yet there was something quite uneven in the very construction of the songs themselves. Almost every track has whimsical changes of tempo, mood, mode, and dynamics that seemed to cut against these hooks, taking you to a new idea when you long for repetition, and you want to say “Wait, go back.” Indeed, I often did go back, to listen again to the first pounding piano chords of “Acetylene Summer”, or the soulful, telecaster arpeggio that begins “All the World’s a Song”, or to marvel at the lyrics of “Annihilation”, with its lines “Define temptation / She’s a flame and I’m a limber gasoline / She’s tame, and I’m the tamer / Define elation / She’s a bottle of a crystalline disease on the throttle of my indolent beliefs / And I’m elation, annihilation”.
So I began to live with the album, listening to it just about everywhere, and inflicting it on just about anyone I met. The more I listened to it, the more enraptured I became, and the more the complexity and sincerity of the entire work began to speak to me. I reveled in its sudden shifts of mood, from soul to cabaret, from irony to the purest longing, and I began to sort my friends into two categories: those who got the Prayers and those who didn’t. This, however, had much to do with just how indulgent my friends happened to be. The difficulty of Ten Songs is much like Jeff Buckley’s Grace. To describe either album, one can’t really just pick out a representative track, for the albums really are just that, complete units of sound that grow and develop and move the listener, and it is this depth that gives the lie, or at least the profound irony, to the name the Teenage Prayers.
While you might be misled by the name into thinking that this music is the prayers of teenagers, you finally realize that it is a prayer to that innocence — to the longing, the infinite potential, and the openness of that glorious moment at its best. This is prayer as reflection and meditation, as a sustained longing that goes beyond the two-minutes-thirty-seconds of a pop single. If the Romantic poet William Wordsworth defined a poem as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility,” that would almost fit the Teenage Prayers, save that their recollection of the sounds of soul, the longings of love, and the race with mortality are not tranquil, but rather troubled and wild. Having survived our adolescence, facing a changing world, we still need to reach out to our dreams — not that we might be trapped in the past, lashed to those dreams, but that we might be reborn through our memory, turning to the past to redeem that radical openenss in our present as we “walk through every door that swings open” in these amazing sounds. As the Prayers sing it in “Banner Muse”, “Its a way to make her feel less broken / Lashed to a canon of a decade’s worth of unmade dreams / She’s been reborn”. And while these lines aren’t about the Prayers themselves, they might just capture what it is that makes this music so moving.
Nostalgia is a tremendously complicated emotion, and an even more dangerous practice, and the Teenage Prayers certainly play with its fire. I played Ten Songs for a friend, and he dismissed it with a cavalier, “Oh, another nostalgia act, like the Strokes, but with soul.” While we all give in to nostalgia, especially with music, there is something decidedly pejorative about calling a band nostalgic. After all, the very word was coined to describe a seventeenth century medical condition, the physical symptoms of lassitude and hallucinations that afflicted the chronically homesick, those poor souls who just couldn’t come to grips with their present. In her recent book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes, “Nostalgia was said to produce ‘erroneous representation’ that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present. Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession. The patients acquired ‘a lifeless and haggard countenance’.” Certainly the Teenage Prayers are longing for those traditions of Southern soul, with the sounds of Stax marking the cardinal points of their compass, but I don’t think of the Prayers as a nostalgia act in the same way as the group of local guys who play Dion and Del Shannon covers every other weekend. Those guys clearly enjoy themselves, but it is one-dimensional recapitulation, slavish and uninspired. Indeed, they seem devoured by the past they turn to. Much as everyone has suddenly taken up Amy Winehouse, I think she is nostalgic in just this way, reciting a soul sound from the past that makes her into a ghost. The Teenage Prayers are deeply influenced by soul, but they also count among their influences the cast album of Cabaret, the newly blosoming alternative scene in New York, and they bring sophisticated, theatrical indulgence with the earnestness of an avant-garde provocation. In this, they are animated by a past, not devoured, so much a part of our contemporary moment that they sweep us along with them and push us forward. They have figured out how to take the best of soul and make it speak it profoundly new modes that could only happen now, at this instant.
Listening to the Teenage Prayers, I’ve also been remembering, caught in what might be described as powerful wave of nostalgia, but I find it is one that animates me, as though the best sounds and experiences of the past are pushing me into my future. I suppose that this is a fancy of way of saying that this band doesn’t inspire a desire to be sixteen again, but instead a feeling of passion and openness to music that I experienced more intensely and readily as a teenager myself, and in this it brings me to that energy again. Yet, there seems such a danger in this. After all, it seems so silly to be a fan when one is beyond the age of Abby Hoffman trust — and to really be a fan again, to give oneself over to delight, and mad adoration, seems to demand that one give up the very comfortable pose of knowing and evaluating, coolly appraising and judging, recollecting tranquilly, that so often becomes the pose of audiophiles of all stripes. That pose of being, well, cool.
The noted musicologist and performer Jamie Currie writes about the ways in which music might push us into a different kind of existence, producing intensities and activity that, at least for a brief moment, smashes and shatters our everyday equanimity and complacency, the way music can push us into the unknown. For Currie, this is made plain in the oldest of Western myth, Odysseus’s desires to hear the song of the Sirens, but he isn’t willing to become their creature, and so wily Odysseus has his shipmates plug their ears while he is lashed to the mast, able to hear but not to respond. Writes Currie,
Odysseus wants to feel what it would be like to revolt without becoming so revolting as to actually do so. Understandably, he demands to be stuck to something, since music’s mere presence can act like an oil slick, making the performed irrefutability of the roles in which we are presently fixed slide over to where they said they never would be. Manifestations of music’s threat can be witnessed in the scene repeated every Saturday night: the boyfriend sulkily stuck to the bar whilst his girlfriend attempts to coax his ship onto the rocks beneath the sea of the dance floor, where the rubbish that he has devoted himself to being will then undoubtedly, momentarily, drown. It is interesting to pause for a moment and consider who traditionally gets associated with dance. The beginnings of a list would include women, African Americans, and homosexual men. Dancers lead a precarious existence. They are adored, for through their ability to seem so easily to relinquish themselves to what the music makes them do, they offer us the image of how we might possibly be something else, and of how life might be otherwise.
I don’t know that I went so far as to dance, but I definitely felt the bonds around me go slack for a moment when I saw the Teenage Prayers play in an all but abandoned bar on a lonely Midwest Wednesday night, surrounded by my good friends who were watching me make an absolute spectacle of myself. I chanted and swayed, and I screamed at the top of my voice for them, shouted the lyrics along with them to every song, and by the end drunkenly embraced every member of the band, carried away into that magic circle where, for a moment, I forgot myself and gave over completely, foolishly, and beautifully to the sounds.
How I came to be stumbling out to such intoxicating and dangerous rocks in my small prairie town deserves some comment, for it is so miraculous that it must either be the resonance of communicating vessels or the terrifyingly sudden answer to an unspoken desire. Macomb isn’t so far from Green Town, Illinois, made famous by Ray Bradbury as the home of devious aliens bent on destroying nostalgic astronauts in The Martian Chronicles. Its central square might well be mistaken for an abandoned set from some unrealized Frank Capra picture, one of those odd places hallucinated when the railroads laid down a random grid across the vast, green immensity of America. Which is to say that it isn’t a likely tour stop for any band, indie or otherwise. Late one night, depressed and seeking solace in Ten Songs, I was struck by a craving to see the Teenage Prayers perform. I suddenly wanted to see them make this music, and I wondered if just maybe I could catch them in Chicago or New York. I hadn’t been following their lives, reading about them, or doing any of the other obsessive things that I so often fall into with music that I love. Indeed, I began reading their MySpace page for the very first time, where to my utter disbelief I saw that they were playing in my town the next night. It was a radiant but unsettling moment, as though I had been seized by the spirit of this music.
The Teenage Prayers played Macomb, Illinois, at the Cafe, with an absolutely epic set of three and half hours. They were stripped down for the road to just their core members: lead singer Tim Adams, guitarist Terrence Adams, Kyle Chrise on bass, and Kyle Wills on drums. Filling in on keyboards and some absolutely amazing saxophone riffs was horn man Adam Schatz. While I had become used to the polish of the album, this was raw and live. Tim’s voice was already a bit torn up from almost half a dozen shows he had already played, and yet for three hours he sang without pulling a punch, working through the desperate rasping and smooth crooning that defines the sound of Ten Songs. With their roots in soul and early rock and roll, it was fantastic to hear a band where everyone sings, and while on an album you imagine that it is all laid down in pieces, all a bit too smooth, here they were, all raising their voices together in soulful, falsetto harmonies, playing with all their hearts to a half-empty bar on a lonely Midwest night. They were carried away by their joy in the music, and they took us with them, making everyone there shout, and move, and believe.
They played almost everything from Ten Songs, and then started into their new material. I heard almost all the songs from the new Teenage Prayers EP, No Sex, and their new album, entitled Everyone Thinks You’re the Best. While southern soul is still the ground of the Prayers, other influences are more pronounced in the new material. There is more rock and roll in the guitars, and more Beatles in the horn riffs and bridges, yet what is amazing, and what keeps them from being a nostalgia band, is the way they break down such moments, giving into the repetition only to miraculously turn it into something else as the song changes modes. While they seem to channel the Beatles on “I’m in Love Again”, suddenly that sound changes, becomes soulful and southern, as if instead of the Beatles and the Stones playing back southern music through a British sensibility, Americans were claiming the Beatles for American soul, but soul played by kids from Queens and not Memphis. Such inverted possessions abound on the new tracks, and perhaps show both a growth in their sound and the influence of their new producer, Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate fame.
If the predominate emotion of Ten Songs is disillusioned longing, the ecstasy of annihilation and elation, here the songs often have an angrier edge to them. This is particularly pronounced in the track “I Like It”, with lines like “I don’t like you but I’ve got a use for you”. I guess it isn’t surprising that a tour called No Sex might find the band a bit angry, and perhaps there is a frustration too, that after making the perfect album in Ten Songs, they are still seem to be working day jobs, as “Dreams of the South” makes so painfully and yet hopefully clear. Yet soulful longing on tracks like “Don’t Call” is still there, showing the softer side of the Teenage Prayers, with melancholy three voice harmonies and swelling horns. Listening to the EP and the new album, the experience is similar to Ten Songs in that all these songs are difficult, inventive, and while I’m already in love with a line here or a bridge there, I’m starting to live with the new album, listening to it more and more, and liking it more each time. Thankfully the band isn’t trying to make Ten Songs again. Everybody Says You’re the Best is a complex work with a different mode and darker, angrier themes, more rock and a harder edge, yet the hallmark of challenging and difficult pop music is there.
It is a great gift to still be carried away by a band, especially when one has grown up, learns more about music and life, and can all too clearly see the flawed people who make the gorgeous sounds. Sadly, I’ve become all too self-conscious of one’s own flaws and pretension to really let go anymore, but the Teenage Prayers have made me an unabashed fan for the first time in years, and I find myself giving over to this sound and loving the band for just existing. It makes me foolish and passionate again, dropping everything and traveling across the country just to see a show, staying up all night writing a fan letter, the sorts of things I did do as a teenager but became all too composed and practical for as an adult. This music has helped me remember that openness and passion for music I had as a kid, the kind of passion that you can have only for a contemporary, for people making music in one’s own time. No matter how much the music of the past lives for us, the artists that inspire our feelings are gone, and we can’t raise our voices with them while they sing, and we can never tell them what their music means to us. So, for the gift of this music and passion in this moment, I want to raise my own voice in a soulful sentence and offer this as a prayer for the Teenage Prayers from a born-again fan.