The Meat of Life
Despite achieving the lion’s share of its notoriety in the 21st century, functionally, Clem Snide was always viewed more as a 90s band. This somewhat depressing fact became impossible to ignore after the 2001 release of The Ghost of Fashion, a mostly quiet, endearing little record full of elegant, country-tinged pop songs that seemed never to stop winking. It was so littered with pop culture references and lyrics that alternated between soul-crushing pessimism and bright-eyed optimism that it was nearly impossible to figure out what was serious and what wasn’t. Meaning was obscured by jokes, or maybe it wasn’t—who could tell? Within a few months of the album’s arrival, 9/11 happened, and, as I’m sure you remember, there was a notion perpetuated by writers and critics that—god help me, it’s embarrassing to even type—the age of irony had ended.
And in a way it had, even if only because people kept insisting as much. There was a noticeable shift in the type of music that was considered timely, with the rawness and authenticity of the Strokes and the White Stripes standing as the most obvious examples. Clem Snide was essentially hung out to dry, cast aside as too cute or as relics of a bygone era when indie rock bands were allowed to be so pleased with their own cleverness. Even when they released their excellent cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” by which point the music crit world had already begun its move toward condescending populism, no one seemed entirely sure how to take it. This was likely due to singer Eef Barzelay’s voice: always gentle but at the same time weirdly accusatory, like Dylan only even more nasaly.
After Ghost of Fashion, the band, originally based in Brooklyn before relocating to Nashville, would go on to release a few more records of equal or slightly lower quality before quietly calling it quits in 2006. Barzelay released two solo albums—one very good, the other just meh—and last year the aborted 2006 album Hungry Bird finally came out. They’re back at it again, with The Meat of Life, their seventh full-length overall and their first new one in four years.
They seem, for a moment anyway, to pick up exactly where they left off, with exceedingly lovely album opener “Walmart Parking Lot,” about seeing the light of day, literally, after the unceremonious ending of a relationship outside the biggest chain store in the world. “BFF,” one of the few other upbeat tracks on the album, might take that same relationship as its subject. Barzelay issues the warning, “Trust me, you don’t want to know how I really feel,” before coming clean: “What if what I want is/What if what I need is/Just a little more than all your love?”
It’s this type of directness that stands as the most recurring theme on The Meat of Life. Musically, the songs are far more straightforward, which is actually sort of a shame. They’re mostly based on the acoustic guitar, and they’re not quite as dynamic as the band’s earlier material. The weirdo country vibe is gone too, replaced by a simpler indie-pop sound that’s inoffensive but not terribly impressive either. Lyrically, there’s almost no winking to speak of, and the intellectual playfulness is toned down in general. For detractors, this is most definitely a good thing; for longtime supporters, it will take some getting used to.
“I Got High” is the album’s centerpiece. Like the scene in Almost Famous when Russell Hammond attends a party at a high school kid’s house, the song imagines Barzelay getting high with a group of Sufjan Stevens fans, riding shopping carts around a parking lot. He romanticizes suburbia and first kisses, longs for adolescent innocence: “This song goes out to all you beautiful American girls and boys,” he sings, and you realize his decision to name-drop the hyper-earnest Sufjan is a meaningful one. It’s like he’s declaring, finally, “I’ve meant every word I’ve ever sung.” We made it more complicated than it needed to be, not him.