Normally, reviewing a record only requires an examination of music-related thoughts, but We’re Fucked was different – it forced me to consider my thoughts about myself.
[Release page] Before I wrote this review, I was forced to come to a precise understanding of my feelings about We’re Fucked. This is nothing new. Every review involves this process, and by now I am used to spending hours wrestling with vague notions, assigning them words, deleting those words, writing new words, and deleting them again. Eventually, I write enough words to accurately express my convictions.
As strongly as I might feel about a given band, this is a pretty impersonal procedure. Criticism reveals much about an author’s taste and sensibilities but little of his or her personality, since taste isn’t necessarily an emotional concept like self-image. Normally, reviewing a record only requires an examination of music-related thoughts, but We’re Fucked was different – it forced me to consider my thoughts about myself.
Many people who poke fun at my bias towards electronic music ask me what I have against lyrics. I admit most of what I listen to doesn’t have words, but that turns out to be helpful when I’m reviewing it. Wordlessness means the emotional content of most electronic music is superficial, and can be understood from passive listening. Songs like these are also more universally appreciable, as language contributes nothing to their meaning. Wordless pieces of music can be related to on an emotionally nonspecific level, one based on hard-wired responses to major and minor chords, euphony, etc. Some lyrics might be widely appreciated for their poetic merits, but even then, only in the singer’s native language. Our most powerful experiences with lyrics are often due to an arousal of empathy, which has much more to do with one’s personal experiences than a beautiful melody does.
Nathan Amundson is not Bob Dylan. Not that I expect him to be, but it still limits the ways I can appreciate his writing. It also doesn’t help that We’re Fucked is the most depressing album of 2011. (Couldn’t you tell?) It’s exhausting and entirely devoid of levity, mostly because Amundson limits his emotional range to futile anger and hopelessness. The message is clear everywhere: On “Come See Me,” he claims “The beauty in my life / is missing / when you’re not around.” On “Change in Your Heart,” too: “Why fight for one / incapable of change.” And then there’s “Sheep Among Wolves,” in which he moans, “Would it kill you just for once / to shut your busy little mouth… Yeah, I’m a sheep among / all you fucking wolves.” You can look at the rest here. It’s clear that Amundson is interested in purging his emotions and not much else.
This fact alone doesn’t bother me. After all, it’s essentially the same idea behind Elliott Smith’s music, and I‘ve spent a ton of time with XO and Either/Or. Elliott Smith was severely depressed and won a considerable audience by writing starkly confessional lyrics. Fans empathized; fans bought his albums. Elliott Smith is popular not only because anyone with a love life can find personal meaning in his work, but also because he was able to turn his depression into such haunting art. The latter is what often confuses listeners, in the heat of the moment, to equate the high drama of Elliott’s impassioned cries with their own personal situations, as mundane as they may be.
This is where I think it is dangerously easy to go wrong in appreciating Elliott Smith. Pathological depression notwithstanding, happiness is a matter of personal choice more often than we might realize. In other words, making our lives out to be some sort of delusional melodrama is just as counterproductive as giving in to the mournful passivity Smith’s reedy voice engenders so well. Both indicate a credulous belief in the music at hand, one that accepts tragedy as truth. I have done this, and I know how unhelpful and addictive it is.
So now, listening to this album, I have to ask myself: To what degree am I willing to let We’re Fucked affect me? How much stock do I put in Amundson’s lyrics? I’m sure a younger, more sentimental me would have loved to contemplate the wordless deliverance Amundson describes on “No Talking,” or the promises of eternal love in “This Stays True.” Now, though, his lyrics are hard to take seriously, and they read less like revelations of crushing truths and more like diary entries of someone whose worldview is too limited by inexperience, willful solipsism, or judgmental anger to know any better. It is disheartening to see someone this depressed, but it is even more painful seeing someone so committed to plumbing his own feelings that he is unwilling to let them go. As Amundson sings on “Gentile Boyfriend,” “I won’t grow up / I won’t grow up / I won’t grow up / I won’t grow up.”
This is why reviewing We’re Fucked was a more psychological experience than what I’m used to. As seductive as Amundson’s sadness may be, my own self-consciousness prevents me from sinking deeper into his music, because I can’t bring myself to believe him. Had I chosen not to analyze my feelings about the album this deeply, I probably would have been able to enjoy We’re Fucked passively, never giving a second thought to its message. But now that I’ve had those second thoughts, I recognize that We’re Fucked fails at its most crucial level, the arousal of empathy. Sympathy, yes, but not empathy.
But I don’t pay attention to lyrics anyway, so what’s the difference? A Red House Painters album minus Mark Kozelek’s poetry is still a Red House Painters album, right? Well, sort of. Amundson’s songwriting, at best, is still only an approximation of Kozelek’s. Plus, the only person whose misery is as oppressive as Amundson’s (and whose music I enjoy) is Michael Plaster of Soul Whirling Somewhere. With Plaster, though, at least some of his grief is expressed through ethereal beauty, which is a scarcity on We’re Fucked. As its best, Rivulets is a substitute for the less desirable parts of its forbears – Kozelek’s tunes and Plaster’s pathetic lyrics. And if I’ve already recognized that I’m not actually as fucked as the title suggests, then why bother?