Presidents Then and Now

March 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Barack Obama minister controversy. There are multiple issues here that deserve consideration: 1) can a person belong to a religious community without agreeing with everything the spiritual leader says; 2) should we be held accountable for the views of our leaders; 3) do personal relationships transcend ideology? None of these will be treated here. In fact, the whole premise of the controversy is false; as we all know, Barack Obama is a crypto-muslim. Therefore the views of “his” Christian pastor are meaningless. It’s all an act.

But lost amidst the transformation of the presidential circus from a hootenanny to a hullabaloo is the release of a new The Presidents of the United States of America album. As in 1996, The Presidents decided to have their new album coincide with the US elections. That album, II is an excellent album with an incredible A-Side and brilliantly nonsensical lyrics. The greatest example of this is “Twig” by Chris Ballew and Beck, a perfect storm of lyrical daff (old English root, cf “daffy”). For example:

“You paint a monkey gold, let him loose downtown
You start him with a smile, he’ll come back with a frown”

While I’m not really sure what the lines are supposed to mean in a grand sense, they have an inner narrative logic that makes them work. Why should a monkey be satisfied in gold paint? This idea of inner-narrativity was later perfected by the President’s frontman Chris Ballew in his solo project “The Giraffes.” From, “Ghost of a Bad Friend”:

Check out that bunny with the sick fat tumor
Busy ducking punches and dodgin dirty rumors
Evening magazine shows up at his hole
And catches that bunny with the money that he stole
Can’t find an explanation for the way
He got rich as a rabbit in a day

Here Ballew exploits his inner-narrativity to collapse it. The verse begins in an animal world, a familiar motif in Ballew’s lyrics. As in a fable, the Bunny is endowed with certain human characteristics. It lives in a world where Evening Magazines will show up at his hole. But as soon as the world is constructed, Ballew destablizes it. The rabbit “can’t find an explanation for the way/He got rich as a rabbit in a day.” He’s still just a rabbit, no matter how personified he may be, and rabbits can’t get rich that fast. This, by the way, is similar to one of my favourite lyrical techniques: literalizing metaphors. As in this great Destroyer line, “Tried to summon up the spirits/live on Face the Nation/But the Port Authority’s just taxed incantations”

All this said, the new Presidents of the United States of America album, “These are the Good Times People,” is borderline terrible. I should have known from the over-emphatic nature of the title that these would not, in fact, be good times. I just never expected them to be so bad. Ballew’s still singing songs about animals, but now the songs are only about animals. No lyrical or musical complexity. The last album saw the Presidents successfully move in the direction of a standard, “non-gimmicky” rock group with even its most quirky song, “Some Postman,” being incredibly rational, only with a more interesting premise. The album also showed the band’s improving ability to craft narrative as in, “Shreds of Boa.” “These are the Good Times People” is a regression from the last album, the bands worst—worse than “Pure Frosting” which wasn’t even a real album—and, ironically, in their blatant disregard for the reality of the situation, their failures now mirror those of our current President. I only hope the band does some honest soul searching, rather than removing all dissidents from office and minimizing their voices.