Why Is Keith Murray Confused?

18 Aug

When I interviewed We Are Scientists last week (check out the first half here), one of my questions regarded the significant change in Keith’s lyricism that’s visible in their current release. Due to several factors–unbalanced food-alcohol ratio, anxiety and decreased eloquence–I’m not sure I explained my point correctly, and in turn, I would like to take a second look at this now that I have a bit more input from Keith & Chris. Before I begin, I want to clarify some things in case this post gets taken out of context. Do lyrics truly determine the overall potency of a song? No, they do not. Do the lyrics on Barbara really bother me that much? No, not really. Nevertheless, when complex gets construed as better, which is what I think Mr. Murray has convinced himself by shunning his lyrics off of With Love and Squalor because they’re “whiny,” I get pretty annoyed.

Chris, who is the voice of reason, does admit that “if for good or for bad” the lyrics on Barbara are more sophisticated. Though he did not elaborate further, I did agree with him. Not only are the lyrics from Barbara more diverse in the themes that they encompass, but I imagine the way in which they were conceived–Keith states that they weren’t topics that directly related to him, so I’m assuming constructed from an observer’s standpoint–requires a little more effort. So in turn, the scope of the lyrics do extend further than those from With Love and Squalor and did require a touch more labored imagination to do so. But do these traits make them better lyrics? Absolutely not! The problem occurs when mere phrase construction gets marked down as being the means to improvement.

This isn’t a new misconception–this kind of faulty thinking is outlined in the study of causation (usually describing why most social policies fail to address the issues they’re trying to resolve, aka “correlation does not imply causation”), in statistics (in the form of a spurious relationship), and even modern philosophy. Richard Rorty, in his book entitled Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), goes into depth regarding this kind of assessment by stating why “moral progress is not a matter of an increase of rationality.”

Nor is what Dewey called an increase in intelligence, that is, increasing one’s skill at inventing courses of action which simultaneously satisfy many conflicting demands. People can be very intelligent, in this sense, without having wide sympathies. It is neither irrational nor unintelligent to draw the limits of one’s moral community at a national, or racial, or gender border. But it is undesirable–morally undesirable. So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.

So Chris wasn’t too far off when he described the lyrical success of With Love and Squalor as arising from an “[identification] with the grade of intensity [that the listeners] then apply that to a situation in life where they had high-grade emotion;” this is the increasing sensitivity that Keith so convincingly accomplished by writing from a highly personal perspective, which people then co-opted to their own situations. Keith suggests that because he removed the specifics from the songs, they then became vague and too broad to be viewed as interesting or holistic to the experience. I feel like he might have even caved into calling them cliché if pestered long enough by the wrong person.

Yet, Mr. Murray can’t be farther from the reality of the situation. It is his responsiveness to the environments present in With Love and Squalor that make the lyrics powerful, whereas the lyrics from Barbara read like an advice book for dealing with the tragically immature. Do some of the lyrics off of the first album reek of adolescence? Yes, but it’s hard not to empathize with the narrator because they’re themes that not only everyone has experienced in their own unsteady psychological growth, but also themes that still plague us when we face rejection, loneliness, petulant intoxication, contentious denial of reality, the detrimental outcome of pushing limits, or romantic vulnerability.

Don’t get me wrong–not every single song off of Barbara breaks away from the methods used to write With Love and Squalor lyrics (Jack & Ginger, Ambition, and Central AC are obvious exceptions) and not every song from With Love and Squalor benefits from the strengths of its counterparts (Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt, Cash Cow, The Great Escape are some catchy culprits). Despite this, a concern with jumping from exposition to overall statement remains a problem that plagues Barbara, much more so than in With Love and Squalor. Those few songs off With Love and Squalor with scantily clad narration are such high-powered tunes that all is forgiven–but the songs from Barbara which similarly possess a lack of emotional atmosphere cannot claim the same merit.

It’s true, though, when Chris argues that having Keith focus on playing beautiful chords suitable for a rhythm guitarist rather than fancy lead guitar parts is going to get people fussy and unreasonable. People like me, will then state that the band isn’t harnessing all their talent in creating a compelling album when they are probably expending twice as much of their musical craft and ability than normal. The fact remains, however, that the band has not completely compounded all that they have to offer in one album. They’ve definitely expanded their range and corrected prior shortcomings, but they still need a bit more of something before everything comes together in the studio.

Alright, well, now I should go use my college education for more suitable endeavors, like proposing a middle east peace solution, rather than constructing a droll argument on why I’m miffed by song lyrics. SORRY Y’ALL.

photos © 2010 Mahsa Borhani, all rights reserved

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4 Responses to “Why Is Keith Murray Confused?”

  1. Adrian August 19, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    I definitely disagree with Keith when he says WL&S is harder to relate to than Babs. and I love the adolescent whining of WL&S! Keith is such a baby. one of the things that drew me to WAS was the sense of self-deprecation in their lyrics and that they just generally give off (especially Kjerk’s) because it just made the music so much more relatable to me, but when he starts to shun his lyrics for being “whiny”, like you said, it is so god damn ANNOYING.

    “So in turn, the scope of the lyrics do extend further than those from With Love and Squalor and did require a touch more labored imagination to do so. But do these traits make them better lyrics? Absolutely not!”

    not at all. I think that if I had to pick between the two writing styles, I would probably pick WL&S. but that’s just cuz I like to hear Keith whine. that’s not to say that I dislike any of the lyrics on Barbara. I don’t think the fact that it’s less specific or from an observer’s view lessens the quality of the songs at all. though Jack & Ginger and Ambition are my favorite songs off of Barbara, so maybe I’m just in denial.

    I don’t know which album is more broad or vague, though. I keep making a decision and then second-guessing myself and changing my mind. but I don’t think either of them are vague or ambiguous enough to be hard to relate to. I mean, personally I don’t relate to the some of the events Keith writes about (like boozin’ it up, getting drunk, and boozin’ it up some more) just because that’s not something I’ve ever done, but I think the tone and like I said before, the sense of self-deprecation really draw me in. and I think I take lyrics in general at a much more face-value because if I’m not so shallow, then I just end up with this situation (or a vague interpretation of a situation) that I could never relate to. but I don’t know, now that I’ve said it like that, it doesn’t really seem like how I listen to music at all.

    I think it’s weird that they call WL&S “desperately universal”, and then add “except for Inaction”. to me, that’s always felt like the most relatable song on WL&S. maybe I just interpret it oddly, but the main theme in that song has always seemed to be fear, which is THE MOST universal thing ever. I definitely think it’s not vague, but to say it’s not as universal as the rest of the album is a lie. and I wouldn’t call any of the songs “desperate”. well, not in that sense.

    I hope all that didn’t make me sound like a total tool.

    what did you think of the lyrics to BTM?

  2. gigawave August 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    Adrian, you’re right on the money about your observation on Inaction, and that did make me laugh out loud. One of the other bands that I’ve been listening to on a semi regular basis for the past year or so, Marked Men, made a very good case about lyrics in general (on why they don’t include them in their liner notes):

    Mark: Writing lyrics is a pain in the ass; something we just have to do. I like some of our lyrics when they are sung, but whenever I read lyrics they always seem stupid. I’d rather people just hear them instead of read them. It’s a weird thing. For Jeff, I think that the shadowiness may be intentional. He’s a real private kinda guy. For me, when Chris and I started the Reds, he was like, “Well, I can’t sing”—which isn’t true—“so you’re gonna have to do it.” I understand that some people really listen to the lyrics, but it’s not the most important part to us. I think you can get the idea without knowing exactly what is being said. It’s like getting hints.

    So I think maybe it’s just on paper that Keith detests his lyrics? The way they are sung and the tone in which they are sung in grab me by the throat, even still, and it’s mainly how they spring a sense of compassion in me for the narrator. Duh. When I talked of the quality that was lost in Barbara for me, that was part of it–the way in which the new lyrics are sung (nevermind their content, which doesn’t interest me either) that required a lot of musical decision-making, didn’t quite appeal to me. Even the self-deprecation off of WL&S–and I am certainly not privy to that feeling anymore–isn’t something that gets me exasperated. There are tons and tons of bands that write self-deprecating lyrics who really don’t capture the same progression (or teetering stagnancy) that’s present in WL&S. Of course, there are also bands that do it much better–but case in point, self-deprecation isn’t a topic that blows, in itself, which is what Keith makes it sound like. It’s the approach. He had a good one.

    I mostly left BTM out because it strikes a pretty great balance what one wants from themselves and what one wants from others–I wanted to compare the opposite sides of the spectrum, and WL&S and Barbara are better nodes. I think the only lyrics I don’t like off that album are Altered Beast’s, which I still like as a song.

    you didn’t sound like a huge tool. thanks for the thoughtful response.

  3. Amber August 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Oh my, this is a topic I could discuss for hours, but I am not going to do it right now because … well, I don’t have the time, to be honest.

    I think that Keith really does not deal with himself and his emotions very well at all, and there is a huge history of lyrics about keeping himself clueless, not understanding himself or situations until its too late, wondering what is wrong with himself, etc that goes back to Safety Fun & Learning, etc. I imagine that when he looks back at those feelings he had, those ways in which he deceived himself and made the same mistakes over and over, he does not detest the lyrics themselves, but (if we’re going to get right down to it) he detests himself on some level for ever having felt or experienced them in the first place. Can you tell I was a Psych major? Heh.

    I have always felt that this is something Keith has a problem with, though, after listening to all of his old stuff, and then hearing how vehemently he REFUSES to sing old songs, and how he really tries to stay as far away from emotion on so many levels — not just in songwriting, but in his public persona, always the one to either a) keep quiet in interviews so as to avoid the SERIOUS TALK, and b) ALWAYS telling jokes. I know he is hilarious, but I am the kind of person who also avoids SERIOUS TALK by making jokes. I know SO MANY songwriters who pour their hearts out/show their neuroses/truths/whatever in their songs — but CANNOT HAVE A SERIOUS CONVERSATION in their real lives. It can be really disarming, and I think there is a real “brick wall” effect that is in place in peoples’ minds when that happens. I don’t think this is an unreasonable hypothesis–do you? Yet I have to admit … that is all it is, and I do like to analyze stuff like this to the point where I forget it really is all MY OPINION and not FACT. So, you know, I do realize that this is all my opinion, but I don’t think it’s borne out of nothingness. I at least think its plausible.

    I told myself I wouldn’t even write this much 😉 but here I am! I will conclude for now by bringing up how many times Keith has written about his inability to grow up. How.Many.Times. Maybe part of him just got sick of seeing the same themes repeating themselves over and over? Maybe he WANTS to grow up. I don’t know. Maybe he’s just being avoidant, though, as always.

  4. gigawave August 20, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Amber, thanks for your thoughts. I’m not going to give my opinion of your response, though I do think it is definitely a valid opinion. I really just wrote this in order to point out the holes and the weak foundation of the view that was given to me in reply to the question I asked them during the interview. And also to start going into how those aspects of the lyrics might affect the songs.

    I didn’t really point out that writing techniques used in WL&S lyrics can make their way into future songs if Keith discovers how topics “[he is] personally less passionate about” can be approached with the same candor as lyrics from BTM or WL&S. Plurisignation and ambience are some devices that can be drawn from that album if Keith can quit lampooning himself and writing lyrics about flat characters and lackluster epiphany. It doesn’t have to be confessional poetry peppered with petrarchan conceit, which is mostly what WL&S is and what Barbara strives to break away from. BTM, especially, weaves some great figurative language in the tunes that Barbara seems to have dangerously low levels of. I don’t really think Keith’s natural behavior is a good enough reason for why the lyrics fall short. He’s done it before, he can do it again with some tweaking. However, I think that there was a strong effort to incorporate mas machismo in Barbara and I guess that’s not a style I like.

    So ultimately, stylistic differences will take the cake and next time that should be the answer. Not that it’s better quality.

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