More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #1: “Miracle Drug,” A.C. Newman

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

I am not one for pop-music criticism — you can find some wank defending anything with whatever flimsy criteria in whatever prominent forum you choose; let me just come out as a philistine and say that good popular music’s goodness resides in its making you want to listen and, if possible, move to it, repeatedly, and do we really need a theory for that? — but I thought I might introduce an occasional feature to highlight songs that I enjoy both as music and as a kind of literature: not just story-songs (although I’ll surely include some good story-songs), but songs which interest me in the narratives they create with their combinations of words and music.  Not critical appraisals, but notes on songs I like. Because, despite what I just said up there, I do think there are some fine narrative artists working in music.  Therefore, “More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes” (a strained homage to the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food).

My current obsession can be heard here, by clicking on “Media,” then “Miracle Drug.”  (Apologies for the reroute; I’d like to embed but am both too cheap and too paranoid about copyright law to make the post easily available here.)

Are you back?  Okay.  I’m late to this, having missed The Slow Wonder for about six years despite the New Pornographers being more or less my favorite band of the past decade, and just got the album a few weeks ago.  (I am old: I buy physical things called “albums,” often on shiny “compact discs.”)  I love how compact this song is: just three verses, as cryptic as pretty much every A.C. Newman and New Pornographers song, but with a much stronger narrative throughline than usual.

There are many mysteries in this song — what’s the miracle drug?  what’s with these weird inscribed trophies? — but here’s the narrative I developed around the song: the first verse is about a somewhat pathetic suicide — or is it a murder? is he tied down to the bed by force, or tied like a heroin addict might be? — that “miracle drug” a poison, or overdose, after the receipt of yet another form rejection of the young man’s “great lost novel.”  Perhaps we then move back in time, with the desperate man deciding to try to “err on this side of divine” despite his “perilous slide into crime,” perhaps the crime of selling drugs, or just abusing them; and perhaps we move back even farther, as the young man finds himself “tied to a job selling miracle drugs” and receiving motivational (or mysterious) trophies for the work he’s doing.  Boredom and quiet desperation at being tied to a (possibly evil — what’s this “miracle drug,” anyway?) job; shift to crime as an attempt to find a way to freedom; last-ditch effort to redeem youthful dreams of the life of the artist shattered.  But of course, could be each verse is about a different “he,” or maybe I’ve overstated the first verse as being about a suicide attempt.  Anyway, I love the noir overtones of the song, how it works as the catchiest hardboiled story you’ve ever heard.

I love the recurring words “interest,” with its three different tones — devastatingly dismissive, hopeful, and menacing — and “tied,” with its different literal meanings but meaningful connection.  But what the hell’s up with “So why all the history now?”  Or is it “So why all the mystery now?”  That would make more sense, but it sure sounds like “history.”  It seems like it might be a line used only for phonetic and tonal purposes, without carrying any narrative weight.  Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

I also love the music, which works against and with the noir narrative in interesting ways.  Every time I listen to the song, I’m fascinated by that awesome beeping rhythm in the breaks: sounds kind of like a stylized alarm clock or phone ringing, and carries a lot of urgency along with sounding rad in Newman’s rich soundscape.  (What is that, anyway?  Melodion?  Synthesizer?  Can someone with a modicum of musical knowledge help me out here?)

Overall, the song keeps reminding me of “Paperback Writer,” mostly because of the content of the frustrated amateur writer but also because the songs are of virtually identical length, and both have that booming guitar hook.

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