If you want I’ll sell you a life story
About a man who’s at loggerheads with his past all the time
He’s alive and living in purgatory
All he’s doing is rooming up in hotels
And scooping up lots of wine
Many of you already know this band as a one-hit wonder with their single “There She Goes”, which hit the American airwaves in early 1991 and appeared pretty much everywhere in the early 90s, from tv shows to movie soundtracks. You may have also heard the oft-told story of lead singer Lee Mavers’ never-ending search for the perfect sound for their music, and that the album was released against his wishes. Their single self-titled album is listed on all kinds of best-of lists even today, and is highly praised by many music critics.
But is it as excellent as they say it is? I would definitely agree that it is. Let’s put aside the argument of “…but it’s not the album that Lee Mavers wanted put out.” Let’s be honest, I can see where Mavers was coming from, but sometimes your creation doesn’t quite match what’s in your brain, and you have to make do with the end result if it’s close but not perfect. Steve Lillywhite, the last producer to work with the band, pretty much had the job of making a finished product for Polydor Records, whether or not Mavers was happy with it. Let’s take a look at the end result.
The La’s were (are?) a Liverpudlian band who wore their influences openly and proudly–the pre-fame Teddy image look of the Beatles (as well as their ’64 Dylan-inspired folk rock sound), the simple-yet-catchy songwriting of Buddy Holly, with a dash of the lo-fi DIY of 60s garage bands. Mavers’ songs were the kind you’d kick around with your buddies in your uncle’s back shed, songs of love and longing, of frustration and irritation. At the same time it’s a dedication to craft, filled with intricate guitar picking and tight band playing. They’re well aware how to write a song correctly, where no tracks ramble or lose direction.
“Son of a Gun” kicks off the album and sets the scene: a tale about a man entering the 90s, who may have had an exciting and adventurous past, but now seems lost and listless. You’re not quite sure if he’s talking about a friend of his or if he’s actually talking about himself but hiding his failure behind third-person narrative. He returns to this directionlessness multiple times throughout the album: the folky skiffle “Doledrum” , the slow doom of “Freedom Song”, the waltzy “Way Out”…and in a brilliant move, he returns one final time to this theme in the excellent epic closer “Looking Glass”. By this final contemplation, however, he’s come to the conclusion that he’s got to break the cycle once and for all if he wants to escape it–in fact, he comes to terms with the fact that his past is gone, and the only way he can move is forward. Not that the whole album is a study on suburban Brittish ennui; there’s a number of uplifting songs involved as well, from the big single “There She Goes” and the perky “Feelin'”, and the love of music in “Timeless Melody” Each song delivers its own take on Britain’s blue-collar listlessness, condemning it, celebrating it, and ultimately breaking free of it.
The La’s was released in October of 1990 in the UK, but did not reach American shores until March of 1991, where it was an instant hit with the growing alternative rock crowd. In Boston, where I was in college at the time, many tracks off the album got airplay on both WFNX and WBCN, and remained a favorite on both of those stations throughout the 90s. Even after the rather twee take on “There She Goes” by Sixpence None the Richer, the original still version still gets played to this day.
On a more personal note, this album came out right about the time I was finishing off my sophomore year in college. I was rooming with Mike on the fourth floor of Charlesgate, and I’m pretty sure I drove him nuts by listening to this album in those final months of that semester. But this year was also the first summer where I stayed in the city rather than head back home for the season–I rented out a room at a Fisher College dorm just down the street from Emerson College’s old Back Bay campus and retained my job at the Emerson library media center. As nearly all of my college friends had gone home and my then-girlfriend was still in high school, I was pretty much completely on my own for those three months. I did a lot of thinking, a lot of working things out, a lot of future planning…and a lot of writing, both words and music. A few weeks into the season I ran into Lissa, a girl from my circle of friends at the time, and we hit it off as friends. We’d end up sharing an apartment for about a year, spending my entire junior year in a spacious apartment on Beacon Street (this was well before the city got rid of rent control, so we could still afford to live there).
I remember listening to The La’s incessantly during this period, as it seemed to mirror a lot of what was going on in my own life. I too was listless and directionless, having come to the frustrating conclusion that as a film student I doubt I’d ever get close to making the dream of actually making films a reality; my relationship with my girlfriend at the time had started to deteriorate and would finally come to an end by the end of 1992; and even my friendship with Lissa would become strained. I found myself listening to “Looking Glass” on repeat in an attempt to remind myself that I couldn’t wallow in pathetic self-pity–I simply had to move forward, one way or another. It would take much longer than expected to get my shit together and move ahead, but I was bound and determined to make it happen, despite all the setbacks. In late 1993 I would start gathering my ideas for a story based on this time in my life and named it Two Thousand. I have various incomplete versions laying about and have this on one of my backburners. And around that same time, I’d start writing my first science fiction story, which would, after nearly twenty years, end up morphing into the Mendaihu Universe and The Bridgetown Trilogy.
Tell me where I’m going…
Tell me where I’m bound…
Turn the pages over
Turn the world around
Open up the broken door for all lost will be found
Walk into the empty room but never make a sound
Oh tell me where I’m going
Tell me why I’m bound to tear the pages open
Turn the world around…
This is the kind of record review I would love to write. It’s more about you and where the music fits than the music by itself. This is a good read, Jon.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Been meaning to start a “favorite albums” string for some time, and finally got around to it! 🙂