A Lesson In Lyrical Put-Downs, By Japandroids

Before Japandroids caught people’s attention with their thrilling debut Post-Nothing and broke through with the triumphant Celebration Rock, they were just a hard-working couple of guys who grinded away for years on the road.  The wonderfully-titled No Singles compiles the band’s early recordings, and though the songs are a bit rough around the edges, there are some gems to be discovered.  The opener, the Springsteen-referencing “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”, is probably the highlight of the collection, mainly due to its anthemic chorus, a quality which would become a future trademark of the band.

Musically speaking, Japandroids reverse the listener’s expectations in the initial section of the song by using the guitar part to set up more melodic elements in the drums; Brian King thrashes on a single (but expansive) chord, but tinkers with intricate rhythms by emphasizing different beats, as David Prowse experiments with diverse rolls and fills.  It’s a thrilling combination, and it helps the band ratchet up a certain tension, as the listener continuously anticipates the moment when the band breaks the pattern to dive into the next part of the song.  When the band finally launches into the chorus, the listener feels some relief with the transition; by drawing out this release, the band helps underline the contrast between the hooks of the chorus and the harshness of the verses, making the chorus that much more effective in sticking in people’s heads.

While the majority of listeners would point to the catchy chorus melody as the most memorable aspect of the song, the part that captures my attention every time I listen is a particular line at the end of the first verse.  Amid all the noise and thrash, the song’s protagonist is lashing out (through a third party) at an unnamed woman, launching insult after insult about her wardrobe and physical appearance (“Tell her she wears too much neon, tell her it’s hanging off her bones”).  The third taunt is the most cutting, as the protagonist proclaims, “That’s all she is: just new ways to wear old clothes.”  The juxtaposition of the old and new make the line especially poetic, but it’s the distinct image that the words portray of the person as merely a mannequin built for the express purpose of modelling vintage fashions that makes it an especially devastating and disrespectful rejection; the narrator has completely dismissed all the elements that make his target an actual person.  It is difficult to recall a lyrical put-down dripping with such sneering contempt, and the fact that it takes the listener a second for the insult to register makes the comparison that much more brilliant.  The subtlety of the barb makes its sting even more powerful.

I am sure that there are those that find praise for such a contemptuous sentiment offensive, but consider the line in context with the rest of the song.  The next verse paints a bleak picture of the narrator and of the relationship between the characters, so the narrator is not exactly reveling in the absence of the partner.  The song ends with the chorus, which documents the repeated pleas of the utterly defeated narrator.  The chorus is set up in a way that de-escalates the stakes of the situation, as the narrator begs the third party to tell her 1) “I’m still alive”, 2) “I’m still in love”, and 3) “to come pick me up”.  With this status report, the narrator alerts the listener to his/her most basic condition, then his/her general emotional state, and finally his/her specific physical situation, narrowing down the listener’s potential concern from “he might be dead” to “oh, he needs a ride.”  The fact that the narrator is in such a state that he’s left pleading for a ride from the object of his scorn should indicate who ended up with the upper hand in the disintegration of this relationship, and provide comfort to those who object to the prior insults.  She’s the one with the last laugh.

But you have to admit, Japandroids delivered a pretty sick burn (to use a colloquial expression).

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