The song of the summer...

...at this point appears to be "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?" by The Gaslight Anthem. I mean, I've only been completely obsessed with it for about a week, so I suppose it could be a flash in the pan that I'm tired of in a few more days, but right now it doesn't feel like it's going to go that way. And there's a part of me--the part that resists things that seem too easy, too tailor-made--that resists this. Because honestly, for a certain target market that's pretty big right now, this song--and really, every song by The Gaslight Anthem--is a softball thrown nice and slow over the plate. This is perfect tattooed ex-punk drinking at the bar music. It's an even cross between Lucero, The Hold Steady, Hot Water Music, and their common forebear Bruce Springsteen. It seems guaranteed to sell half a million copies, and that's partly because it's completely unchallenging and borderline cliche.

Nonetheless, it's still on the good side of the cliche line, no matter how close to the edge it skirts. In fact, as I mentioned, I'm obsessed with it, so I definitely think it's still good. Maybe part of that is because of my demonstrated susceptibility to dramatic emotion in music; fromt its minor chord structure to its heartfelt lyrics to its overwhelming climax, this song is about as dramatic as it gets. Maybe it's got to do with my personal connection to the song's lyrical themes; now that I'm walking to work every day, a song with a chorus about walking is gonna feel closer to my heart. There's more to it than that, actually, but we'll get around to that later.

I can't deny that there are a bunch of problems with this song. Aside from its title, which uses the word "wherefore" in its commonly understood and completely incorrect sense of "where" (it means "why"), there are some badly worded lines that take things over the top from heartfelt and dramatic into the realm of cliche interspersed throughout the song. The line, "Say a prayer for my soul, senorita," which ends the chorus and is therefore repeated several times, is the worst offender, and there are others--"I've got the dust of the desert in my bones and coming through the amplifiers" is another good example. Lines like these are like a magician letting the audience see the wires--the trick isn't going to work if everyone can see how you do it. The trick here is romanticization; when bands like this write about being a broken misfit who just wants to be loved anyway, they're romanticizing the position they're in. If this becomes too obvious for the listener, it starts to seem calculated rather than sincere and heartfelt.

So why am I so in love with a song I can tear apart so efficiently? Well, to tell the truth, I just can't hold these points against The Gaslight Anthem. They do what they do so well, it nullifies all of my objections. When I listen to "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?", I don't hear a song in which emotionless smart guys who are trying to be famous come up with the most efficient way to make a buck off playing music. I hear sincere dudes who aren't quite practiced enough to avoid cliche doing the best they can with what they have to work with and making up the difference with pure heart. I feel like the fact that, on their two LPs and on the EP, "Senor And the Queen", from which "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?" is taken, they never achieve this level of brilliance again (and only come close on occasion) is an argument in favor of their sincerity. If they'd calculated the exact formula for success, woudln't they use it more than once? I would assume so.

The emotional payoff of "Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?" comes about 1:40 into its 3-minute length, but in order to properly explain it, we've gotta start at the beginning of the song. It begins with a guitar intro that leads into a somewhat melancholy first verse, which is neither intensely played nor quiet, per se. It establishes a base tone for the song, and the two verses it has are both in that tone. However, as we'll soon see, the verses are only a minor part of this song, laden as it is with bridges, pre-choruses, and... well, we'll get there.

"Cut my teeth on the stone of a teenage romance," the singer announces by way of introduction. Another line follows and signals a slight change in the music, which leaves it not quite the verse anymore but not a chorus yet. "I sang the blues like the dogs left too long in the street," declares the singer, showing that he can offset his occasional cliches with some truly evocative images. From here, we move into what sounds like a pre-chorus; the bridge built things up, and this builds them up more. However, just when we think we're hitting a climax, the bottom drops out and we go right back to the guitar intro that started the song. Over the last few measures of the pre-chorus, the singer sings: "I watched the whole night come down, I'll never miss her again," and then one of my favorite lines in the whole song: "I never felt right--I never fit in." It's so simple, so easy to relate to... so perfect. At that point is when the music drops back to the solo guitar riff, and he throws in one last half-line, "...walking in my own skin." This, if anything, adds even more punch to the line before it. Maybe I'm only saying this because I've never felt right in my skin either, but I don't think so.

Now we go into the second verse. It starts the same as the first, and flows into the steadily building bridge and pre-chorus, same as before, but there's an added intensity this time, brought in by lyrics that are somewhat nicked from Leonard Cohen, most likely by way of Jeff Buckley: "In the minor chord fall and the fourth and the fifth, it's a broken hallelujah and I'm painting my fist." I don't know if it's what the singer meant or not, but in the last half of that line, I hear resonances of my own enduring frustration with life, of every time I ever punched a wall until my knuckles bled. This line comes during the bridge, and the pre-chorus is even more intense: "I've got nothing for you, darling, but a story to tell about the rain on the pavement and the sound as it fell. I watched the whole night come down, I'll never miss her again; I never felt right--I never fit in." Now we finally get the payoff, and it's worth every second it took to get here. Again, the singer starts with the word "walking", but this time it doesn't sound so much like a continuation of the previous line as a statement of being, a declaration of one's own shortcomings, without shame or guilt but without pride, either. "Walking in my old man's shoes with my scientist's heart; I've got a fever and a beaker and a shot in the dark. I need a Cadillac ride, I need a soft summer night; say a prayer for my soul, senorita." Immediately after the chorus ends, it starts again, only now, instead of playing it as the climax of the rest of the song's buildup, the rhythm section drops out and it's played through once with just vocals and guitar. This time the singer sounds sad and broken--his voice almost breaks on the last line. But then the band comes roaring back in, and they run through the chorus once again, now even more intensely than the first time. The singer sings it defiantly, as if now he's proud of who he is. It's as if, by singing the same lyrics three times in a row, in three different ways, with three different kinds of musical backing, he's spotlighting his own contradictory emotions about who he is. I think it's good that he ends on an up note--it's a message of hoep, of belief in oneself. It makes me want to start the song all over again, play it through over and over. In fact, I've been writing this essay for over an hour, and playing it the whole time. I'm not tired of it yet.

The Gaslight Anthem - Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?



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