The Middle Age of the Wolf

Apologies to the Queen Mary
Wolf Parade
Sub Pop, 2005

By Matt Meade

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The tragedy of young adulthood isn’t that young people don’t know their adolescence is precious and fleeting.  Old people are known for blaming the young for wasting their youths on things like smoking too much weed, spending more money on shoes than they do on food, and watching every single John Waters movie (even the one with Stephen Dorff in it).  The tragedy is that young people are all too aware of the importance of their evanescent youth and they are terrified of squandering it.  This fear of losing the most precious thing anyone is ever given is why every young adult is so burdened by bad relationships, drug problems, and wasted opportunities.  Young adulthood is the effort of a half-formed human to make the most out of something that will never happen again.

I bring all of this up because I recently came to the realization that one of my favorite records, by one of my favorite young and hip bands is about to be ten years old.  You see, though I am well past adolescence, I didn’t used to be (that’s how it works, I’ve been assured) and ten years ago when I was all skinny and cool, cooking up some kind of impossible future, and making every possible mistake at least twice, Wolf Parade was what I listened to.  I listened to them because that is what you listen you when you are skinny, cool, and young; when you are confused, good looking, and desperate.

Wolf Parade knew what youth was about better than anyone, which is why they made the kind of music they did.  Music about doing the best you can with what you’ve got.  Music about learning how to love things despite being ashamed of who you are, what you love, and where you come from.  Music about the special kind of angst you feel living in an era where you have no idea how, when, or why you become a grownup.

And just like any kid trying to distance himself from his family so he can do for himself in the world, they even named the record Apologies to the Queen Mary like they were trying to make up for their embarrassing forefathers who they loved more than air but whose antics were hurtful and confusing as much as they were inspiring and formative.

sex-pistols-god-save-the-queen
Gee whiz, Dad. Do you have to carve “filth” into your arm with an old screw driver?  You’re so embarrassing.

These guys were so heartsick and lacking of male authority figures that they couldn’t even figure out who was supposed to be the lead singer.  Dan Boeckner sometimes handled frontman duties, but Spenser Krug would jump on the mic whenever he has some feels to feel.  Even the bass player snuck onto the mic every once in a while when no one was looking.

bass wolf parade
This next song was made famous by a little band called Rush…

The band seemed restless, like they all wished they were in different bands (which they all would be, shortly.  These young canids would each eventually form or join various outfits, all of them very good, including Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, Operators, Divine Fits, and even the least well-adjusted band in Canada, The Arcade Fire).  They should not have been restless.  They should have felt grateful that they managed to form such a dope band.  After all, theoretically Wolf Parade should have been something of a supergroup,

All the members arrived from varied, yet auspicious pedigrees.  Dan Boeckner, the sinewy and mad-looking guitar player, was a former bandmate of a pre-Modest Mouse Isaac Brock, both of them having done time in Atlas Strategic; Dante DeCaro was plucked from The Hot Hot Heat to join the Parade, before the triple H was rediscovered as the hip, and criminally overlooked “The” band that we all should have been listening instead of The Vines; and Spencer Krug showed up from Mars, I think.  But just like any relationship you have in your 20s none of us listening and none of the dudes in the band knew how good we had it.

For some youth-related reason Wolf Parade became a temporary thing, a friends with benefits type situation, an on-again-off-again brand of relationship instead of the marriage it should have been.  Wolf Parade, for these kids, was merely that intense relationship you have in your early 20s, following the almost as intense one you had in your earlier twenties, before you move on to be a successful and functioning member of another healthier band that you will eventually cheat on and divorce.

Wolf_Parade3
We’ll never talk about what happened last night. NEVER.

But it’s not like they weren’t trying to make it work.  They were young enough and dumb enough to really make a go at it.  They were all showing up on time even though they were always hung over, they were pretty much dressing themselves like they were grown ass adults, they were getting the electric bill paid, and they were playing the fuck out of the mostly finished songs (some of which could have used an extra couple takes in the studio, to be honest, but there was no time for that so fuck it).

The way they presented things, it all almost seemed like a choice.  It almost seemed like they wanted to eschew the polish and the craft of contemporaries like Spoon and TV on the Radio in favor of something more fevered and honest.  And it’s that kind of learn-as-you-go aesthetic that defines this record.  Just listen to the words shouted out by Spencer Krug.  It’s like listening to some kind of improv game where the lead singer is hearing the song for the first time along with the listener and he is shouting impromptu lyrics back at the music (this is probably not how these songs were written, but it would explain why the phrases are so absurd and why they don’t even rhyme sometimes).  Simple lyrics such as, “bad things happen in the night,” from “We Built Another World” and “I said nobody knows you / And nobody gives a damn” from “I’ll Believe Anything” present themselves as the kind of profound little nuggets of wisdom you pick up from bearded gas station attendants, toothless truck drivers, and squinting landlords who allow a little bit of wiggle room on when the rent is due.  But somehow it works.  After all, who wants Wayne Brady-slick when you can have Wesley Willis-style mania?

The record isn’t all successes, of course.  What else is young adulthood about if not a misfire or two?

“Shine a Light,” borrows its title from The Stones and its melody from “Spirit in the Sky,” but mostly it is just trying to rip off early Springsteen, going so far as to include the street hustle-rific line of poetry, “You know our hearts beat time / They’re waiting for something that’ll never arrive.”  It fails miserably, sounding instead like someone who doesn’t speak English trying to capture the Boss’ strange mix of machismo and fragility.

A song like “It’s a Curse,” feels misguided, like it’s an attempt at a late ’90s radio tune.  It even goes so far as to include the random sound effects used by early morning DJs.  With its opening chords chiming out and its insistent offbeats, it ends up sounding like 311 if that band had integrity but were still terrible at making songs.

“Fancy Claps” is a bit of a slog.  They sound like they know it too, playing it up tempo to get through it quickly so they can move on to more effective fare like the very powerful, “Same Ghost Every Night,” which sounds like the kind of drunken sway a band would play late in the night, once it had proven itself to an audience and everyone was willing to let their guard down a little bit.

Juxtaposing songs that work despite themselves and songs that don’t even though they should is kind of what this record is all about.  The fact that it’s a bit of a bloated mess of ideas, influences, and cooks in the kitchen is what makes the record so damn charming.  Sometimes the drums sound like the Fraggle Rock kit I got for Christmas when I was seven and sometimes they sound as tight and punchy as ?uestlove’s do on that one John Legend record.  Sometimes the songwriting is assured, sometimes calculating, and sometimes it is a total mess, but it is always something honest.

WEmbly's syncopated rhythms were crisp and insiteful
Wembly’s syncopated rhythms were crisp and insightful

By the time we get to songs like “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts,” and “I’ll Believe in Anything,” it’s like things have started syncing up, like that point at a party where everyone is the same amount of drunk and the things you are saying seem funny even to people who you’ve never met, your references are recognized, you appear sympathetic, and people are really getting where you are coming from.

The la la las are earnest and the lyrics are strange and candid.  Like:

Now we say ‘It’s in god’s hands’ / But god doesn’t always have the best god damn plans does he?

…or…

Modern world I’m not pleased to meet you / You just bring me down

… and …

I got water and I got holes

These lyrics come from somewhere deep and psychologically true and are deranged and beautiful.

Overall, the atmosphere created, with the good songs being just weird enough to get your attention and the failures proving themselves compelling, is that of a competent and interesting record.  It would be one more also-ran, one more pretty cool record you totally forgot about; one more band that you spend a lot of time thinking is going to be important and indicative of the future but then all of a sudden you realize no one you know has talked about them for nine years, if not for one song.

“You Are a Runner and I am My Father’s Son,” is like a single mutant gene in an otherwise well-constructed biopolymer strand.  It elevates a very good record to classic status, much the way “Jane Says” recontextualizes everything else on Nothing’s Shocking.  “You are a Runner…” is the record’s first song, in more ways than one.  It is the first song you hear when a vinyl copy is played on a friend’s turntable, the needle on the vinyl sounding foreign and familiar at the same time;  it is the first song you put on a mix for a woman you never got the nerve to ask out; the song that triumphs from the shitty speakers of your used Suburu when you find an old, unlabeled CD tucked between the seats.  Always “You Are a Runner and I am My Father’s Son,” is the leader, bravely marching the rest of the songs and anyone listening into the unknown.  The song is a beguiler.  It’s a monument of references and ideas asking you, perpetually, “recognize any of this?”  But it knows you do, because this tune knows you.  It knows the fuck out of you.

It begins with a deliberate and almost willfully rudimentary drum beat and then mugs you with off-kilter keys and a vocal style that approximates what a vacuum cleaner would sound like if a vacuum cleaner could sing falsetto.  The insanely specific lyrics about a marathon training schedule are actually about your own relationship with your dad.  They are because you want them to be.  Or, are they about your current poor relationship with your own child; maybe after all these years you’re just now finding out what it’s like to be hated like that.  Or are the sometimes delicate, sometimes jarring lyrics about your own impending death?

Because that is the real trick.  The song only starts to make sense when you realize that it is about what an opaque and impossible human being you are.  How malformed, how incomplete, how you will always be the unfinished young adult, striving to be like and not be like your parents.  That’s the cruel lesson embedded in this weird, aching indie rock masterpiece.

Conclusions

When September 27, 2015 rolls around and the the 10th anniversary of one of the most influential indie records of the 21st century is met with nothing more than a shrug by even the tastiest of tastemakers and even the most derivative of Wolf Parade wannabes (Abe Vigodda / Born Ruffians, I’m looking at you) the prophecy will be fulfilled, the circle will be unbroken, the one ring will rule them all.  After all, what better metaphor for the transience of youth than for the once young to be ignored now that they have aged out of the demographic?

As I mentioned above, the guys from this band all made another few above average but forgettable records and then moved onto other things.  They refused to admit things were over.  They got together every once in a while and nodded at one another during in studio jam sessions and they talked about scheduling difficulties, but none of them could look each other in the eye.  They were all like estranged siblings trying to be cordial at a funeral, so brimming with things to say that they say nothing at all.

But they don’t have to say anything.  Not to each other, nor to us.  They  made one great rock record that summed up the experiences of a bunch of entitled young people who had it way better than they deserved and had no idea how to appreciate it and none of us will ever know how to thank them for it.




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