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Screw double jeopardy, it’s been almost ten years and I need to talk about this one again.
My obsession with Barsuk Records dates back to the early days of CK – I first posted about the label in January of 2001, but I had already been spinning Death Cab For Cutie’s Forbidden Love EP for weeks after being turned onto it by the owner of the old Spaceboy Records, who used to visit the coffee shop where I worked.
Barsuk was on top of the early internet game with a cool website and lots of MP3 samples, and over the course of the next year I came to know and love the label’s early roster of oddball rockers – Abigail Grush, This Busy Monster, Little Champions, and The Long Winters (though I was never a John Vanderslice fan).
One band, in particular, really captured my imagination. They were called Rilo Kiley, and featured a casual, squeaky-voiced women singing earnest, emo-ish, indie-rock tunes over glisteningly clean guitar tones.
I devoured song samples like “Bulletproof,” and when I bought their Sophomore effort The Execution of All Things on release day it completely took over my listening for a month. I remember laying in bed in E’s big shared house on Poweltown Avenue, listening to it on repeat on my CD Walkman while she slept.
I would have never imagined that an LP like 2007’s Under The Blacklight would emerge from that scrappy, squeaky, indie band, even after their sonically meandering More Adventurous in 2004. Where the first two Rilo Kiley LPs were filled with rough edges, Blacklight is wall-to-wall sheen. Where Jenny Lewis used to sound like an earnest alt-country crooner, now she is a rock powerhouse.
(Seriously: I saw them tour on this record, and I’ve never before seen a rock frontwoman in such good voice as Lewis, short of PJ Harvey.)
(It’s a complete coincidence that both Harvey and RK received full LP write-ups in a month of song-of-the-day.)
(Or maybe it isn’t.)
Opener “Silver Lining” begins the album with a complete reset of expectations. Handclaps, piano, and a gospel-tinged backup singers aren’t exactly the earmarks of Rilo Kiley’s prior sound, and there’s no doubt that Jenny Lewis’s 2006 acoustic soul effort Rabbit Fur Coat had an influence on the sound of the band’s return. Lewis’s voice streams and catches like honey, totally unlike any prior effort save for maybe the prior LP’s “I Never.”
And I was your silver lining, as the story goes.
I was your silver lining, but now I’m gold.
Hooray, hooray! I’m your silver lining.
Hooray, hooray! But now I’m gold.
The girl of “Silver Lining” is a trickle of quicksilver, something great in your life that you barely recognized before you lost your grip. It’s also about being defined by your partner and what you add to them, rather than who are are as an individual. Life isn’t like the movies – there aren’t any sidekicks or romantic interests, because everyone is a protagonist in their own minds. You might still be thinking of your silver lining as the one that got away, but she’s living her golden life in that getaway car.
That fleeting happiness is a theme of this bruised LP. Despite a lot of depression mixed in with its themes, Under The Blacklight doesn’t bear a single regret. It never hesitates to smile on the good times that came before the bruises started to show.
The other predominant theme of the album is sex. Blacklight sounds like the diary of a sex addict, filled with carnal obsessions and morning after regrets. It’s bracing to hear the disarmingly sweet Lewis lend her voice to these narratives, like seeing a favorite child actress tackle her first adult role. Or, as with Juliana Hatfield (a clear predecessor), would I even notice those innuendos from a male-led band?
It speaks to Lewis’s deft narrative touch that both of the following songs are about the monetary value of sex, yet this album never seems to be talking down at sex workers. Lewis’s lyrics obsess over sex, but she and her characters are never defined by it.
The layered, chiming “Close Call” recalls 80s Fleetwood Mac as it asks the question: “Funny thing about money for sex – you might get rich, but then?” The return to the same sound on “Dreamworld,” which even plays with layering male/female duet lines in a callback to “Little Lies.”
The funky “Moneymaker” (which, by the way, is an actual early Fleetwood Mac song) runs on barely seven distinct lines, a syncopated, hip-thrusting encouragement of a carnival-barker to a curvy young girl to shake what her momma gave her. By contrast, the singer in 60s-style head-bopper “Smoke Detector” can’t shut up unless she’s in the midst of making out. Are they the same girl, separated by a few years of a life and a few close calls?
“Breaking Up” draws together both themes in one of the high points of the disc, a sunny, optimistic break-up song that boasts a booty-shaking bass and infectious, swirling synthesizers. “It’s not like New York City burned to the ground once you drove away,” she insists at the start, although she might be trying to convince herself. Our narrator evolves over the course of three choruses. going from “Are we breaking up?” to “Did your heart break enough? Did it break enough this time?” before exploding into a sunny refrain of, “Oo, it feels good to be free!”
(This is a fan-made video, but it is perfection.)
The alt-country of the title cut should feel like a left turn after that dance anthem, but somehow it still occupies the same sonic gestalt as the the rest of the disc, maybe owning to the super clean-toned lead lines form Blake Sennett.
When you get sober will you get kinder?
‘Cause when you get uptight it’s such a drag
When I get older, I won’t remember until that day comes.
I’ve got something on you
It’s maybe the most obtuse set of lyrics on the disc. I’ve always seen the title as the key. A blacklight is a sort of secret decoder ring that shows you the world in a new kind of way beneath its rays. This song is innocuous on its own, but viewed in the light of the songs around it it’s about them all – the lost lover of “Breakin’ Up” and the line of Johns in “Smoke Detector.” She even teases the molesting “spider on a web” from “15” with “somewhere in Laredo borders a soft man, like a black widow.”
“When The Angels Come Around” is the world-weary book-end to “Silver Lining,” but also a letter to its younger sibling “Breaking Up.” In the same way “Breaking Up” plays with whose heart got the most broken, “Angels” seems to revel in the idea of the sweet embrace of death only reveal it’s a partner’s death that’s setting our narrator free.
I been whored and I been gored
I been less and I been more
But I never thought I’d see you as I did today
Till the angels hung around
And they put you in the ground
When the angels hung around
And the angels hung around
As they carried me away
I’ve always viewed the final track, “Give A Little Love,” as apart from the narrative of the disc with its cheap electric piano and Casio drum beat. It’s not part of the story, but its the moral: “You’ve got to give a little love.” That’s how the misused and abused manage to live, to get out from under the blacklights and into the sunshine: they always had so much love to give.
Under The Blacklight is a history written by the unlikely victor – the underdog girl one who lived through all those close calls and breakups to gain a little perspective on them. What does it matter if she gave a little too much love and let down her defenses too many times now that she’s survived to tell the tale?