REVIEW: Clues - Clues
Zach Hart Monday, May 18, 2009
Before looking at the album, I would like to take a moment to talk about the 10.0 rating (I’ve never handed one out) and make our criteria for a perfect score clear. Personally, I think the album has to move the listener to a level where the love for the sound is indefinable, which makes clearly stating your reasons for loving the album impossible. My co-WLFY blogger, Hank, believes it’s impossible to give a current album the 10.0 rating because the album has to stand the test of time. While I agree with this notion, what’s the fun in running a music blog if you can only hand out perfect scores to re-issues? Were you really shocked when Pitchfork gave "OK Computer" a 10.0? That was brave. Then I had a friend bring up this interesting point…is this album better than Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” or Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” (my two favorite albums of all time)? The answer is no, but I think there is room for more than one 10.0 album that you can then rank as the list of your favorites. I’m not claiming that this album will be a 10.0 for you or that it will change music forever. To me, this album exudes an emotion, a specific sound that I’ve been looking for all my life. Just like the first time I heard The Velvet Underground, after experiencing this masterpiece from Clues, I sat there stunned, clicked back on the first track and took the musical journey over and over again.
What’s funny with Clues is how most music journalists seem to be more concerned with where they came from, rather than where they are going. Almost every piece of news surrounding the band starts with: Clues, featuring Alden Penner (ex-Unicorn) and Brandan Reed (ex-Arcade Fire). What’s interesting about Clues’ past is not the successful bands they came from, but how Penner focuses his dealings with musical fame/success into the lyrics. We’ll get to that later, but the main thing to take away is that this review will not be comparing the self titled Clues album to anything Unicorns or Arcade Fire related.
The first song on the album, "Haarp", threw me off immediately with its loud hits and long pauses, immediately suggesting that this album is something different. The first lyrics offered are: “Our reaching, expecting hands” (loud guitar and drum crash). “Searching for what the eyes cannot see”. Hmmmm. Right away, I’m thrown into the theme of this album. It’s an introspective look at the musician’s dilemma, specifically putting themselves out there to be the subject of critique and having fans ask for more than one wants to give. The whole album follows this theme and it’s quite interesting because it poses questions I’ve never considered in a subtle, yet beautiful manner. At the end of "Haarp", Penner yells, “Will I be able to feel the difference…when you turn me on and off?” The album is jam packed with lyrics like these that work on two levels. On one hand you have obvious subtext, like the line mentioned above relating to the previously stated theme. On the other hand, the deeper levels of the lyrics complicate this album and ultimately strengthen it, passing themselves off as unimportant babble on the first listen, but becoming a clear companion to the theme after a few more spins.
This is obvious on the next two tracks, "Remember Severed Head" and "Approach the Throne". With lyrics like, “Who here wants to sleep in the dragons mouth?” and, “Approach the throne…throw away your skin…” the self-reflexive take on the music industry is present…but not on the surface. What exactly does sleeping in the dragons mouth mean? Why is Penner talking about throwing away your skin? For me, it’s a direct exploration of a musicians identity…you can have all the rewards of being a successful band (the throne), but be prepared to strip yourself down and give your identity (skin) to the people who listen to your music. I could go on for several pages highlighting this theme through lyrics, but point made, let’s move on.
Looking now at the albums sound, it’s important to note how amazingly unpredictable the music is. This rebels against the usual pop structure where the listener can sing along to the chorus during the first listen because it is repeated over and over. This album has perfectly planted twists, turns, and tempo changes, and the tone of the album, if plotted on a chart, would move rapidly up and down. This will ultimately hurt Clues, as I find it’s impossible to understand/fall in love with the album after one listen. It’s a tough album to crack and demands the listeners’ utmost attention. The first time I heard the track, “You Have My Eyes Now,” I just sat there confused and after a minute or so, skipped ahead. Big mistake. The whole track is building toward a musical explosion at the 2:05 mark that is now one of my favorite moments on the album, the musical equivalent to opening Pandora’s box in my mind.
The album is strong start to finish, without a misstep or a track out of place. It’s impossible to describe the overall sound of the album, because it cannot be related to anything else ever made. It has moments of prog rock, garage tendencies, lush classical arrangements, unicorns-esque melodies, bullshit, bullshit. Don’t let any reviews of this album tell you it fits in any category of established sound, Clues have created their own sound that has yet to be labeled by music blogs/journalists. I was fortunate enough to see Clues live before hearing the album and while Penner /Reed will garner most of the attention due to their pasts…this is definitely a band where every member plays an equal part. They’re all talented musicians who often trade off instruments song to song…showing that this is a untied team that can pick up any part, any time.
The last track put the bow on deciding to give this album a 10.0. It’s Penner playing a simple, but beautiful piano line and singing about the above mentioned theme. The lines hitting on voyeurism, choice, regret, desire to be famous…and the last and most amazing line of the album: “I’ve got wings…but they aren’t meant for viewing.” I’ll let you listen to the album and make your own conclusions as what it means, but for me it basically sums up in one line what Clues are trying to say with every lyric. It’s almost as if the entire album was a musician’s therapy session, and in a poetic fashion the band states how they should feel with the last line.
It’s my contention and I don’t expect you to agree, that this self-titled album does exactly for music that Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 did for film. They are both stripping away the themes of their own professions and execute the self-reflexive examination so perfectly that it demands several views/listens to fully understand the genius of their finished works. This just might be me and my relationship to art, but I like to struggle when finding meaning. There is nothing rewarding about being handed all the themes, quickly understanding why the album exists in the way it was presented to the listener by the band. If you are forced to work for it, you will find beautiful discoveries along the way…if they are there (some albums, you can look and look, but there is nothing). I urge you to give this album at least two listens all the way through…and if it’s not for you, then so be it. But in my mind this is one of the most important albums of the decade and demands the attention of anyone who is remotely interested in music.
Since you will hardly ever see all their names I would like to list them now. Alden Penner, Brendan Reed, Ben Borden, Lisa Gamble, and Nick Scriber. Five, not two, are Clues…and they made the perfect album.