Long Blondes: Desperation Britpop
The motion picture?
A little more than a year ago, the Long Blondes' singles started trickling in from England, touring the mp3-blog circuit and catching raves. I didn't much notice; I probably looked at the band's name once and decided that they were an alt-country band. I stopped reading NME years ago, haven't picked up a copy since they burned me on that first Vines album. And so I almost missed out on the closest thing the world has had to another Elastica since the first Elastica released their first album. The band started catching waves of British hype a while ago, actually hitting the singles charts even though they're on Rough Trade since that's the sort of thing that happens in England. They had four big songs: the careening jitter-ecstasy of "Once and Never Again," the floating synthed-out serrated Europop of "Giddy Stratospheres," the icy lament "Weekend Without Makeup," and the flushed, blaring dancepunk of "Separated by Motorways." But I'm glad I never heard them until a couple of weeks ago, since that meant that the first Long Blondes song I heard was "You Could Have Both," the sort of song that other bands go entire lifetimes wishing they could write. Musically, it pulls off all the same tricks as the previous three songs, fully absorbing all their disparate stylistic tics into something that feels like a manifesto. Kate Jackson sings almost exactly like Elastica's Justine Frischmann, a menacing, sarcastic drawl that suddenly launches upward into a brattily charged-up yawp on the choruses. And the band plays with the same fluorescent pitched-up thwack, but they give up some of Elastica's cold, mechanistic detachment and sub in a muffled girl-group swoon; it's like that band all of a sudden figured out that there was pop music recorded before 1977. "You Could Have Both" is the best Britpop song I've heard in years, and I would've fallen all over it if it had emerged during that phase where I was actually going to Britpop dance-parties every month.
But the song's real power didn't hit me until it came up on my iPod's shuffle-function when I was out walking my dog. Somehow, I hadn't noticed the lyrics, Kate Jackson blatantly doing everything she can to break up a couple: "You've been going with her now for seventeen weeks, but that doesn't make a blind bit of difference to me." There's a touching desperation in her fervent faith that this dude she's going after is going to suddenly turn her life around and make everything better. And as the song goes on, it stops being about the guy she's shooting for and starts becoming about her fear of turning into a boring grown-up: "I don't kind myself about happy endings / I'm too old for that now." She's 26. That's not old, but she's not hearing it. On the spoken bridge, she and some guy mumble something about listening to Scott Walker on headphones on the bus. I've done that. It's terrifying, and it's not fun, but it's the sort of thing you do when you're working a shit office job and you're trying to remember that your khakis and your work-shoes aren't really parts of you, that you're really this deeply engaged and artistic person who just happens to work some shit office job, someone who's willing to listen to this unbelievably annoying and pretentious art-rock guy because you're not a Coldplay person (and that's even if you totally are a Coldplay person). The song is really about the kind of abject terror of losing the interesting part of yourself while you let yourself get absorbed into the machine. It struck a nerve.
The Long Blondes finally have an album; it's called Someone to Drive You Home, and it came out in the UK a week ago. Musically, it's a blast: big euphoric melodies with trebley Fall guitar-sirens and burbling basslines and squelching keyboards, stuff that doesn't compromise any of its big-tent catchiness with its tinny, canned production. It almost sounds like the band is trying to make difficult postpunk music but these joyous pop melodies keep jutting up despite themselves. But the lyrics are all about that kind of desperation, that kicking and screaming and thrashing because you don't want to get old since getting old means giving up everything you like about yourself. Jackson sings a few more songs about trying to snag dudes already in relationships, like it's pathological for her, like she's convinced that this breakup will save the guy the same way she's convinced it'll save her: "There's a train at the station / It's leaving this morning / It'll take you away from / This girl that's so boring." On "Heaven Help the New Girl," she's sneering fake sympathy at an ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend as the music slowly curls up. And on "Weekend Without Makeup," she's finally got the guy, and she's pissed to find herself waiting at home for him, worried about being made to feel like "some kind of 50s housewife." There's nothing quite so horrific as the looming threat of banality, and I'm not sure I've ever heard a singer articulate that fear quite so forcefully.