Lyrically—and this is where the band’s detractors have typically done most of their detracting—Contra is distinctly more post- than undergrad. Koenig’s no longer musing about college campuses and classrooms, or about fleeing your hometown for something more exciting. Instead, it’s the opposite. On the devastating album-closer “I Think UR A Contra,” the narrator realizes something about a woman who seems to pop up all over the record: “You wanted good schools and friends with pools/ You’re not a contra./ You wanted rock ‘n roll, complete control./ Well, I don’t know.” It’s a partner in crime from the first album’s “Walcott” a few years older, less willing to fight the fight that brought them together in the first place. It takes the band out of the fantasy world of collegiate life and places them right here with the rest of us. It’s a universal and often depressing subject and he deals with it gracefully and with a level of maturity that escapes even people much older.
“California English” is the song that will get the most attention, for no reason other than that the vocals are hit with a little bit of auto-tune at one point. But it also contains one of the album’s most important lyrical passages. It’s a song about the superficialities of language, and about our (in this case class-conscious) affectations being exposed as meaningless.
“Sweet carob rice cake
She don’t care how the sweets taste
Fake Philly cheese steak
But she use real toothpaste
Cuz if that Tom’s don’t work
If it just makes you worse
Would you lose all of your faith in the good earth?
And if it’s all a curse
And we’re just getting worse
Baby, please don’t lose your faith in the good earth.”
Here, and in other places on the record (“Taxi Cab,” “Holiday”), Koenig is testing out the possibility that there’s life beyond the choices we make in our early twentiess—about going vegetarian, about using all-natural toothpaste, about which subway line we live off. He doesn’t sound entirely convinced just yet, but he’s open to it. On “Giving Up the Gun,” he sings, “You felt the coming wave, told me we’d all be brave./ You said we wouldn’t flinch./ But in the years that passed/ Since I saw you last/ You haven’t moved an inch.” It’s likely the “gun” in question is a guitar, and that he’s singing about the outdated notion that a guitar can change the world, but it could also be read as the recognition of contradictions and unfulfilled promises of a certain lifestyle.
The catch here is that the lifestyle he’s talking about, and the lifestyle the band so expertly embodies, may or may not have anything at all to do with your own. This isn’t their problem, of course. They’ve proven, twice now, that an awful lot of good can come from looking outside one’s own little world for inspiration. The rest is up to us.