Saturday, 13 July 2013

D CDs #485: Fading Vital Signs

Ah.  We’ve reached grunge, have we?  Time for another autobiographical detour…

As a child, I had little time for music.  I haven’t the slightest idea why, it just left me cold, right up until I was approaching my GCSE exams in the ’95-’96 school year.  Something just broke apart in my head watching The Cure and Smashing Pumpkins, with “The 13t” and “Tonite Tonite”, respectively, perform an unstoppable double on Top of the Pops.

This is important for two reasons.  Firstly, it means I began exploring music at roughly the point grunge had reached its highpoint and was beginning to collapse in on itself.  Second, it means that my sudden obsession with the Smashing Pumpkins meant I was immediately allied with the forces that helped kill it.

Billy Corgan once said, with his trademark modesty, that if he and Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love and Eddie Vedder had figured out a coherent plan of attack whilst grunge was still in its infancy, that its heyday could have extended into the new millennium.  Which, I mean, that’s obviously 99% bullshit.  But there’s a kernel of something interesting there, because the Pumpkins are the most obvious case of having worked out how to adapt grunge into something that had some hope of lasting.  Much of Siamese Dream is difficult to file as “grunge”, and by Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness the link was stretched still further.  It was perhaps still a vital component (Adore jettisoned it completely and suffered as a result), but this was clearly something else, some kind of post-grunge eclecticism which made those two albums among the best that have ever been recorded.

All of which meant that my initial exploration of what one would recognise as archetypal grunge – Pearl Jam themselves, along with Hole and, yes, even Nirvana – struck me as being basically Pumpkins songs without any of the good bits.  Without any of the grace of beauty.  Hell, even the name sounds wrong.  Try saying “Vitalogy” aloud.  The syllables trip each other up; it’s a word without style, just sitting there because this leaden weight supposedly has rhetorical weight, rather than simply brute, ugly mass.

Fast forward seventeen years, and some of that attitude still remains.  Certainly, the tracks on Vitalogy that are most worthy of praise are those that wander furthest from the album’s mean.  The astonishing beautiful "Nothingman", the introspective "Better Man"; these are real highlights, islands of experimental prettiness breaking through the ocean of standard-template grunge. 
That said, whilst I’m not moved one inch on my belief the genre is a horribly limited one, I have no intention of denying that Vitalogy does the absolute best with the limited tools it allows itself.  "Last Exit" coils around itself amongst random guitar stabs before leaping for your throat as the song proper begins.  "Corduroy" offers an exhilarating tumble into the confused mix of dissatisfaction and defiance that was always the most interesting theme grunge had to call upon.  "Satan's Bed" manages to combine a ruthlessly disciplined chugging rhythm with a very slightly demented guitar line, married to a effectively simplistic chorus, providing a toothsome treat, though I'm not sure anyone was listening to this album curious to know Eddie Vedder's position on fellating Satan.

But is it really nothing more than amusing irony that the album cannot sustain itself any more than the genre it exists within? The final three tracks are pretty throwaway, a Latin-tinged trudge, a medicore track stretched to unsupportabl lengths, and a pile of nonsense serving as a perfect exhibit of how experimentalism can be misinterpreted as just requiring the shoving of shit together.  The fact that this triptych of unravelling ability are tacked on after the wonderful Better Man is telling; rather than conclude with an atypical but excellent song, the band thrash around for further fifteen minutes.
As if they still have something to say. As if grunge still has spaces to explore, as oppose to walls that can only be slammed against.  When you’re trapped in a structure so small and so crowded, hitting the walls with all your might seem the best plan, actually.  But the aim is to break through and escape, not to bring the whole building down on top of you.
More than anything else, Vitalogy is the sound of that collapse.  On its own terms and of its own time, there’s plenty to enjoy.  But we are done here.
Seven and a half tentacles.

No comments: