The Musical Talmud is our ongoing series that finds the true meaning behind pop music lyrics. There have been a whole bunch of entries already. The current post attempts to decode the noise-pop band Deerhoof’s 2007 single, “The Perfect Me.”
Ok, I actually have kind of an issue with the whole premise of the Musical Talmud series, because it encourages the idea that pop music is basically a form of poetry, and that the best way to understand a song is by understanding the lyrics. This is the point of view implicitly endorsed by about %60 of professional rock critics, but it’s also patent nonsense. Pop lyrics are important, but at best they’re only half of the equation: if an album were equivalent to its lyric sheet, we’d just buy the lyric sheet. And in some pop, the lyrics hardly play any role at all.
Take a listen to this song, for instance…
Great song. Enigmatic song, clearly worth decoding. But do the lyrics really tell us anything about it?
You of no home, of no family
You of no clan, of no history
Meet me, meet me, over the mountain
Meet me, meet me, under the ocean
Cry out, cry out
Cry out, cry out [3x]
Meet me, meet me, beautiful daughters
Meet me, meet me, terrible daughters
Cry out, cry out
Meet me, meet me, meet the perfect me
Meet me, meet me, over the mountain
Meet me, meet me, under the ocean
Cry out, cry out
What’s the war
What’s the war for
The “perfect” protagonist of the song, who lives over the mountain and under the ocean, and has beautiful but terrible daughters, is beckoning a social outcast (with no home or family) away from a life of war. So clearly what we’re dealing with here is a retelling of the Tannhäuser legend from Venus’ point of view, amirite? Not much to decode there at all, really. Instead, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the music. But don’t worry, I’m going to avoid music theory terminology as much as possible… the point of exegesis after all is to make the source text clear to everyone. Instead, I will try to explain the music by making reference to other bands or other songs. (This approach, incidentally, accounts for the other 40% of professional rock criticism.)
0:02-0:11 “Konichiwa/How’s it going/[tap tap tap tap tap]”
Before the song proper starts, we get this interesting little spoken-word section, where the members of the band all introduce the song simultaneously. The singer Satomi Matsuzaki is speaking Japanese, the guitarist John Dieterich is speaking English, and the drummer Greg Saunier is kind of also speaking English but mostly just tapping on his woodblock, the implication being that percussion is his “native language” just as Dieterich’s is English and Matsuzaki’s is Japanese. Deerhoof is an unusually percussion-centric band, and they evidently want to get that message across to you as quickly as they can. They also might be trying to let us know that they – like me – consider the music more important than the lyrics. After all, the drumblock rhythm here is as clear as day, while the speech is an incomprehensible garglemesh.
0:11-0:27 [Instrumental Section A]
What’s interesting here is the juxtaposition of the rather simple pattern in the guitar and organ (highlighted by the extremely lo-fi garage rock sound of the instruments) and the almost perversely complex drumming. It’s interesting to compare his style here to other “main event” rock drummers such as Brann Dailor or Keith Moon. Listening to songs by Mastodon or The Who, you sometimes get the feeling that there’s one enormous epic drum solo going on in the background. That’s not quite the impression that Deerhoof creates… for all the complexity of the drum part, it doesn’t quite sound soloistic. Rather, Saunier just occasionally seems to be playing a different (and more interesting) song than the rest of the band. His music is always entirely rational. This will become important in a minute.
0:27-0:50 “You of no home… of no history”
Each vocal couplet is punctuated by the riff from Instrumental Section A, above, so it’s fair to consider the first 50 seconds of the song as one big section, probably what would be called the verse in a normal song, although that label causes difficulty here. The grain of the singer’s voice is particularly interesting. As a rule indie rock has always eschewed the vocal pyrotechnics of the Steve Perrys and Tom Arayas of the world. (Yes, that’s a voice hitting the high note about 20 seconds into the Araya link. Quiver in terror, mortals.) The explanation given by critics is usually that polished vocals are an “inauthentic” display of empty virtuosity, which is anathema to the indie scene. I’m not quite sure this would hold water for Deerhoof – is the drumming then supposed to be a display of somehow “full” virtuosity, then? – but we can see something similar operating Matsuzaki’s voice. Her voice is untrained, it is also somewhat childish (not all untrained voices are so thin), which makes a double whammy of organic “innocence” to be contrasted with the technological timbres of the harmony instruments and the mathematical complexity of the drumming. She might be trading on her ethnicity a little here as well… are we supposed to try to ignore her accent, the way we would if we met her on the street, or is the fact that our language is foreign to her (and thus, she is foreign to us) very much the point? This kind of thing is not unheard of, certainly – consider Damo Suzuki, lead singer of the legendary krautrock band Can. (Suzuki doesn’t actually have a noticable accent, but they still traded pretty heavily on his “otherness” as an itinerant street poet.)
0:52-1:01 “Meet me, meet me, over the mountain… cry out, cry out”
Up to this point we have had an alternation of two different textures: crazy drumming with power chords, or somewhat less crazy drumming with vocals. This is the first place where we hear the voice, drums, and harmonic background at the same time. This kind of build in intensity would usually indicate that we’d arrived at the chorus… again, that’s a tricky label to apply to this song, but worth using nevertheless.
1:02-1:17 “Cry out, Cry out [3x]”
The music here is the same as what I called “Instrumental A” up above, with the addition of a vocal melody. So there’s a sense in which we’ve come full circle. But note that this is not the same music as what I hesitantly labeled the “verse.” So while we’re seeing a standard verse-chorus-verse form take shape, it’s already a pretty distorted one.
1:16-1:27 “Meet me, meet me, beautiful daughters… cry out, cry out”
In the second chorus – if you want to call it that, the drums and bass abruptly drop out, leaving us only with the vocal and a twinkly cloud of organ chords. The momentum of the song is suspended, and we’re left floating in space. Not only is it a beautiful gesture, it’s necessary to prepare us for…
1:28-1:47 [Instrumental B]
…this explosion of bluesy skronk, which is related harmonically and rhythmically to the rest of the song by only the most tenuous of threads. This music is not actually all that weird in its own right, but placed in its context it is nearly incomprehensible. Personally, I find it very difficult to hear what chords are being played. I mean, I can sit down at the piano and figure it out, but when I listen to the song this section just sounds like glorious noise. Having a section of completely new music at this point in a song isn’t so weird. Songwriters call this a bridge, and you get them all the time. (The “Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me” bit from Somewhere Over the Rainbow is perhaps the paradigmatic example.) And having a guitar solo as a bridge is a pretty standard move for rock songwriters. But this again doesn’t quite sound soloistic. It sounds – well, I’m repeating myself, but it sounds like Dieterich has suddenly decided that he’s going to play part of a different song for a few seconds. If you’re beginning to get the impression that this song is oddly put together, you’re on the right track.
1:47-1:59 “Meet me, meet me, meet the perfect me.”
This is pretty spare on the surface, but when you unpack it it’s an incredibly dense twelve seconds. Flip back up to the first 50 seconds of the song, where we had vocal phrases alternating with Instrumental A. Later on, Instrumental A came back, but not the vocal section. Here, balancing the scales, we get the vocal phrase, but no answering riff. Or rather, we do get Instrumental A, but only the drum part, which still feels like an absence. And this itself – playing the drums of Instrumental A without the harmony instruments – balances out the section at 1:16 where we had the harmony of the chorus without the drum part. Finally, we get the title of the song in the lyrics, which is always an important moment when it happens. Everything that’s occurred in the song thus far is leading up to this moment. The split second of silence (matched visually with a cut to black) that follows is a little slice of perfection.
2:00-2:10 “Meet me, meet me, over the mountains… cry out, cry out”
And it’s followed by the most intense statement of the chorus so far. One thing that might be of special interest to music nerds is that the rhythm and harmony here are actually less complex than they usually have been in the chorus sections… out of the entire stretch of the song, these ten seconds sound most like rock music, I suppose. Lyric nerds, take heed of the way that stock phrases such as “cry out” and “meet me” bleed across the edges of the musical and poetic form. This isn’t new here – it’s been going on throughout – but it’s a convenient place to point it out. It has the subtle but powerful effect of preventing the listener from quite getting his or her bearings in the song. But wait, isn’t this the chorus? Isn’t that line from the verse? Etc. etc.
2:10-2:31 “What’s the war, what’s the war for?”
This is a completely new section of lyrics and music, the latter reminding me powerfully (if somewhat unaccountably) of the Brinstar music from the old NES Metroid.
Yeah, now try to get that melody out of your head anytime in the next week and a half. You’re welcome.
Anyway, the significance of this new section appearing here is that, for the first time, the end of the chorus feels like a sharp division rather than a gentle blur. This aids in the impression that we’ve only heard the “real” chorus this one time, and that the earlier versions were just rehearsals for it. Some two thirds of the way through the song, we’re finally beginning to feel like we know where to stand. But the “Metroid” section keeps going a little too long, and that sense of accomplishment is replaced with a heightened insecurity. What is this music doing here? This could be a bridge, but we’ve already had a bridge, and while songs with two completely unrelated bridges are not unheard of, they’re pretty odd. So having heard the chorus, shouldn’t we be getting a verse? Or at least Instrumental A?
2:31-2:51 “For… fo-o-or?” [Instrumental A]
Yeah, that’s the ticket! Or so we think. But scant seconds after the familiar chord changes appear again, the song fades out in a flurry of overdubbed monosynths. It’s a perverse ending, one whose effect is generated entirely by its frustration of expectations. Something like Stella, only in musical terms, and with fewer jokes about sex toys.
There is no real conclusion. Unfortunately, with a song like “The Perfect Me” where the lyrics are relatively unimportant, it’s impossible to neatly summarize the meaning of the work. Perhaps the most I can do is point out that places where the meaning takes shape – in this song, largely at the divisions between the major musical sections – and the processes through which it occurs, which is the subtle frustration of the expectations we’ve formed through decades of listening to less adventurous pop. The sound of the lyrics plays a large role, but their semantic content has little if anything to do with it. The song is likely telling us something about how pop music is put together, both revelling in and exposing as hollow the sense of arrival that we feel when a long delayed chorus finally arrives. This meaning cannot be easily put into words, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t have anything to do with mountains, or daughters, or war, or perfect, or me.
On the other hand, I am kind of proud of that left field Tannhäuser reference. So maybe there’s something to this interpreting-the-lyrics business after all.
Thing 1: Thank you for pointing out that lyrics are unimportant, Stokes. I love it when OTI’s writers analyze pop song lyrics–I even do it myself, sometimes–but when the music critics start doing it, that’s when I get annoyed. I’ve read several reviews recently along the lines of, “You can’t like this song; the lyrics are stupid.” I’m thinking, “Wait, there are words in that song?” I was busy paying attention to the music.
Thing 2: Next time, you should Talmud-ize the Deerhoof song “Panda.” If memory serves, the lyrics are, “Panda, panda, panda/Panda, pan, China.” Shakespeare. Pure Shakespeare.
Thing 3: Does Deerhoof have the most nonsensical lyrics of all time? They sure might. My other nominees would be Animal Collective (see my favorite of their songs, “Leaf House” for an example–it degenerates into them meowing), Dan Deacon (I, too, have a rattlesnake gun, sir), and, of course, The Beatles. And the award for Lyrics So Dense and Obscure They May As Well Be In Another Language goes to Ms! Joanna! Newsom!
Response 1: I get annoyed whenever a reviewer says “you can’t like this song” for any reason, but yeah, saying that you can’t like it because of the lyrics is particularly dense. What if I didn’t speak English, would it be okay then?
Response 2: I’ll give it a shot! The irrational reproduction of the word panda in the lyrics is meant as an ironic counterpoint to the difficulty of getting actual pandas to reproduce. The syllable “pan” seems like a truncated statement of “panda,” but in fact is an evocation of the Great God Pan, and by implication, the mysteeerious forces of nature. And the word China is thrown in just to be weird.
Response 3: And then there’s the “Cookie Monster” school of metal singing, in which the lyrics are functionally impossible to understand. Actually, metal is great for this kind of thing, since a number of bands have recorded songs with lyrics in Latin. There’s even a band called (oh wow, seriously guys?) “Rotting Christ” that has lyrics in Sumerian, a long-dead language that I’m pretty sure scholars do not strictly speaking know how to pronounce anymore. And then there’s Sigur Ros, (not a metal band) who sing in “Hopelandish,” which is their made-up language of Icelandic baby talk. All this deliberate mysteriousness has a certain masonic flavor… maybe instead of Musical Talmud, we should do a series of Musical Kabbalah, where we just jumble up the phonemes in Living on a Prayer and see if we can recreate the Secret Name of Jovi.
Response 3.1: I love “Leaf House!” But I’m kind of sad to know that they’re meowing at the end, because I had thought that they were saying “Meowth,” you know, like the Pokemon.
Great, now I’m going to hear Animal Collective singing “Meowth” from now on every time I listen to that song. Thanks, Stokes. “Meowth, that’s right!”