I suppose most generations want to pin down some sort of identity for themselves, and many have claimed to be lost or blank or useless. So sometimes I wonder if it is actually a peculiarity of my generation (those born in the early to mid-eighties) to feel particularly infantilized, impotent, and inauthentic. Surely others, including the punks of ‘77 and the fabricated cohort of Douglas Coupland’s Gen-X, have felt powerless and disenfranchised. But then I come back to just how self-aware, but self-defeating many of my generation seem to be; we have a sense of our own dearth of maturity and originality, which holds us in fearful stasis. We relate to one another through shared trivia and measure our worth in inconsequential, obscure details that only render us clever around our immediate circle of friends. The idea of wasted time weighs heavily on my mind, and has done for most of my life. This chronophobic dissatisfaction with how life turned out, paired with a lack of control over any of it, leads me to rehearse and remember negligible things, especially from the realm of popular culture, just so I can cling to something that allows me a pathetic sort of mastery and belonging. So much of my anxiety comes from cultural surplus, the acute unease of being always a curator, never a creator. I’m ashamed of how tragic I felt in discovering that I still know all of the words to Savage Garden’s “I Want You,” but that any other memory of my fifteen-year-old experience is virtually non-existent.
Ben Parker, formerly of Nosferatu D2, now recording solo as Superman Revenge Squad Band, has created an album that eloquently articulates these anxieties and musings with an alarming degree of accuracy. There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time terrifies me as much as it comforts me to know that someone else is having these thoughts. Parker’s music itself is lo-fi and acoustic, which is fittingly unassuming. The album rambles, occasionally pauses, and then ends prematurely at under twenty-five minutes. The record is regularly punctuated by gentle drum fills and cymbal shots that propel the album forward whilst also sounding like small ripples of struggle against time, short bursts of energy to fend off the tide. Parker’s vocals are steady, even, and unrelenting, matching the percussion beat for beat. His lyrics are hyper-detailed, and often delivered in a blur of tumbling, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, paradoxically making them more universal for those in thrall to the tyranny of trivia. We all have our own versions of these stories, filling in the blanks of what amounts to an existential Mad Libs.
Parker’s opening track is the sentiment of Orlando’s “Just for a Second”1 writ large. “Lately I’ve Found Myself Regressing” kicks off with the proclamation of “I’m so indie I could die/I like to underachieve and call it DIY,” and parses the experience of failure, including how it feels to attempt art in the ever-available, ever-expanding glut that already exists. The song effectively encapsulates a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, which theorizes why the moderately gifted feel so disappointed and stifled in the mass mediatized world2. The song ends on a slightly more hopeful note with the near-sigh of “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of this is a waste of time.” “Paulie in Rocky Three” is another track that speaks very specifically, almost uncannily, to my own paranoid anxieties about information overload. Singing “I don’t remember stuff that matters” over minimal acoustic guitar, Parker speaks poignantly about the bankruptcy of cultural capital. Though his reference points differ from mine–my Rocky III would be Back to the Future, my “Billie Jean” would be “Bizarre Love Triangle”–I feel the same disconnect with the reality of my life and my personal memories, which exists in concert with my propensity to hoard even more “useless” information to guard my identity. His over-cluttered jumble sale of a brain is Bowie’s warehouse in “Five Years,” but crucially without an apocalyptic need for any of it; we hoard because we can. Our intimate knowledge of other people’s fictions keeps us from creating our own. And as we are constantly told that this kind of memory shouldn’t be meaningful–that it is pathological, regressive, and infantile–we only feel more insecure and inept.
This type of “childish” knowledge, which is of apparently no consequence in the real world, continues throughout Parker’s record. “Kendo Nagasaki,” a song which first appeared on a 2009 release, follows the trend which sees British wrestling recently cropping up in music as a nostalgic, albeit kitschy, love and touchstone for UK musicians of a certain age (see Luke Haines’s album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s, and the Giant Haystacks reference in Manic Street Preachers’ “Me and Stephen Hawking”). Parker employs this kind of memory whilst contemplating rage against self-pity and disappointment, and the petty schadenfreude that tries to alleviate feelings of inadequacy. He switches between speaking and singing tautly of being the angriest dog in the world, a David Lynchian reference that resurfaces as the title of the last track, a song first recorded in 2008. Whilst the gritted paralysis of Lynch’s comic strip dog is surreally humorous, Parker’s final song on the album is a bittersweet analysis of a sour relationship. The two-note guitar rhythm ticks away with the monotony of lost time, echoing the frustrated repetition of lyrics. The song builds into a rolling melody underpinned by surging strings as Parker admits defeat: “I’m the angriest dog in the world/But you will always be my master.”
Parker uses more rapid-fire spoken delivery for “I’m Gonna Go To Bed and When I Wake Up I’m Gonna Be Someone Else,” a track that also first released in 2008, and again in 2009, in more lo-fi versions. It reminds me of a gentler Art Brut, and is a brilliant analysis of looking back at yourself and realizing that you weren’t as pathetic as you imagined you were; your only tragedy was being average. “Flavor Flav” is an excellent example of the analogical, tautological trap many of us cannot escape. Parker uses highly specific references to Public Enemy and REM in 1993 to express his thoughts on his fraught relationship; they’re apt, astute comparisons that position the listener who understands them as an insider, but they also display the sad hollowness of resorting to these kinds of allusions. We use extensive analogies to express ourselves because the lives of exceptional others smother us and crowd out our own formulations and conceptions of ourselves. We’re the sum of our cultural consumptions, and it doesn’t measure up, so as Parker concludes, there’s “just a box of old records/a box of old books/and us.” The precise observations of how we occupy and move through time keep coming. “A Funny Thing You Said” addresses the way we grow older, but don’t grow up, and “We’re Here for Duration” embodies the melancholic ennui that surrounds the attempt at making art. When Parker softly sings “I listen to the Afghan Whigs for two hours/and I wrote a song like this,” leaving you to wonder whether this is a failure or not.
There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time is a pithy musical exploration of the nagging apprehension felt by those of us who can’t tell whether we’re wasting our lives stranded in the mediated and vicarious, or whether our waste is what binds us to others, with no less meaning than other “worthier” pursuits. In one of David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World comic strips, the lone speech bubble says, “If everything is real, then nothing is real as well.” This remark gets at the kind of twisted hope this album offers. Maybe an analogy is always another analogy. The fact I used footnotes in this post only amplifies my incapacity to express myself in my own words, but perhaps demonstrates what I was trying to say better than I could have otherwise. Superman Revenge Squad ultimately functions in much the same way.
1 “Just for a second/you lowered your defenses/and confessed what the world had guessed:/‘Deep down/I fear I might actually be unremarkable.’”
2 “I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives — maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.
That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tapdances on the coffee table like Fred Astair or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’”
Purchase the album via Bandcamp.