by J.J. Shale
'Without Contrast there is no progression' said William Blake. The most successful songs of the Boston/NYC alt-country band Clem Snide are, in my opinion, the ones which are built around exactly this notion: the importance of opposites, the realisation that something unique and unified can be produced by the collision of two conflicting elements.
Sitting in the middle of their fifth album, 2005's The End of Love, "The Sound of German Hip Hop," a Dylan-esque journey through a nightmare landscape populated by sinister scientists and 'mathematicians counting crumbs,' strikes me as the most obvious example of this in their discography. There's a subtle recognition of it in the lines, 'All my life I've never known a moment quite so still/ As if space was being emptied at the same time that it's filled.' Lyrics aside, the song is made by a more direct contrast, the one between lead singer Eef Barzelay's delicate, haunting voice and Brendan Fitzpatrick's deep, metallic bass guitar that we hear rumbling out in the aftermath of his verses. The harshness of the guitar emphasizes nuances in Eef's delivery that would have otherwise gone undetected. In fact, I'm sure that if its verses were trailed by a more conventionally harmonious form of instrumentation, the song would have had far less of impact on me as listener. A large portion of its power is born from this contrast; aside from simply being great on an aesthetic level, it lends a distinction to it, separates it from the crowd. In the modern era, beauty is easily attained. Individuality is not. "The Sound of German Hip Hop" combines both.
Something similar occurs in "Rock and Roll" (from 2013's Birthing Pains). Multiple times throughout, we get a surging burst of punk music, followed by a plunge into near silence - the only sound remaining is the squeaky, panicked wail of a what sounds like a violin (which isn't credited on the album). The juxtaposition is startling; to shift so suddenly from one extreme to another, flung from a peak down into an abyss. You feel disorientated, as though all the oxygen has been snatched from the recording. It has an effect comparable to the kind produced by the shattered sentences favoured by the avant-garde novelist William Burroughs (also the creator, not incidentally, of the character after which the band is named). It's a bizarre mixture of clarity and distortion, a shape emerging from the fragments that ends up proving more significant than the original picture. As with Burroughs, there's a sense of playful indecisiveness to the whole affair - abruptly killing a song only to revive it seconds later.
And yet, despite this, all the strangeness and deconstructionism, the overall atmosphere of the "Rock and Roll" is not one of contrivance. It could certainly never be mistaken for that most ghastly of creatures- a song that requires explanation for enjoyment. No, quite the opposite. It comes off as natural, raw, decidedly un-pretentious. You could, for instance, play it in a bar and not expect to turn around and be met with a sea of frowns. By which I mean that "Rock and Roll" functions as an actual song, as well as an experiment. It hits you on a gut-level. It is as infectious as it is irritating - and perhaps wouldn't be so infectious if it wasn't slightly irritating. You will, I predict, find yourself listening to it more than once.
But it is in "The Ballad of David Icke" (included on the European addition to The End of Love) that we find the technique of Contrast taken to its extreme (an extreme that, it must be said, is reached in a remarkably understated manner). Here, Eef's voice is pitched against, well, nothing. There are no guitars, violins, drums, accompanying music whatsoever. It's just him. The result? An amplification of the song's essentials: its words and the voice of the man singing them. It quickly becomes clear that the use of 'Ballad' in the title is not glib or thoughtless; the song really does resemble a classic ballad. It has characters. It has an emotional pulse. It tells a story.
What story? A story of victimization, a story tinged with madness and paranoia, a story filtered through the world of David Icke. If the name doesn't ring a bell, I shall offer here a brief explanation (or as brief as is possible for such a complex person). David Icke first entered the public eye in the early seventies as an English footballer (team: Hereford United, position: goalkeeper). After retiring from the sport, he drifted into journalism and spent the following decade or so employed as a presenter by various programs on the BBC. In 1991, he provoked headlines by a series of statements he made claiming that, among other things, that he was the Son of God and that the apocalypse was imminent. This was the beginning of a new David Icke, the internationally famous conspiracy theorist. For today, that's who he is. Arguably the most famous conspiracy theorist alive. He's the man who popularized the belief that most of our ruling classes are actually interstellar reptilians.
Considering this context, you would assume that a song entitled "The Ballad of David Icke" would be a satirical one, a humorous take on a ludicrous subject. But it's not. It is deathly serious. It places you in the mind of someone convinced that they're being persecuted by satanic lizards. 'The secret rulers of the world,' goes the opening, 'Have stolen my girl/ They whisked her away in a black limousine/ And that was the last of her I've ever seen.' As with "The Sound of German Hip-Hop," there's a strongly nightmarish tone to the song, made all the more alarming by the prettiness of the voice that's narrating it. As such, it's pure Clem Snide.
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