Saturday, August 22, 2009

#37 Song of the Decade- "Distortions"


#37- Clinic- "Distortions"

Internal Wrangler, the 2000 debut of Liverpool four-piece Clinic, is an accomplished album, but it lacks identity as a whole. The band shifts between moods like a petulant child, and songs are over before they really even make an impression. The songwriting tends to hide behind characters like Evil Bill and C.Q., even though those characters don't have much organic payoff. Originally, Clinic's gimmick was that all four members wore surgical masks on stage; sometimes it sounds as if they follow suit in their music. It's a bit antiseptic and anonymous.

So it comes as that much more of a surprise when a song as emotionally bare as "Distortions" shows up buried as track nine. On a pretty polyphonic album, it's the first time things scale back, the only accompaniment being a drum machine and a Philips Philicorda, one of the '60s transistor keyboards the band experimented with. While the reverb on the keys' sustained chords is haunting, they're nothing when compared with Ade Blackburn's delicate vocal.

The song's speaker is at the crossroads of a relationship. He explains: "It's eerie and so scary/I don't know who to marry/Your sister came to bait me." Most singers wouldn't get away with selling those lines as anything other than treacly emo pablum. Blackburn--partly because he sounds as if the mic is really far away from him--performs them with a willowy, disaffected whisper. This is a song about the need for resolution, but he purrs every line as if he's afraid of answers he might get.

Every guy has said of women: "You can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em," and it's a cliche for a reason. Loving someone isn't easy. It's parasitic. A part of you is gone when you commit yourself to someone else, and it's an idea that's never adequately expressed in pop music. This song comes close because it creates a space in which the line "I've pictured you in coffins" still sounds romantic. That conflicted set of emotions is basically what the song is about, and it's achieved almost completely through the understated vocals.

However, no discussion of "Distortions" would be complete without mentioning "I love it when you blink your eyes," which is the best line this side of Lil' Wayne. On the surface, it expresses the speaker's happiness that his lover is alive, that she's blinking her eyes at all. But it's simultaneously the most specific and general detail possible. Blinking your eyes is something we all do, so it stands in for every little quirk you could like about someone. At the same time though, if you remember the way someone blinks her eyes--an action we see hundreds of times a day but normally disregard--that's a very personal detail. It's the most meaningful songwriting shrug I've ever heard. (Well, maybe not. I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan.)

By the last third, the song's tempo builds, but it doesn't matter much. If we're anything like the speaker of the song, we still have our backs firmly against the wall.

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