Daniele Daniele lives in Washington, D.C., drums in the band Priests and runs a label, Sister Polygon Records, with her bandmates. In her spare time, she works on cultivating cosmic friendships with the artists who inspire her. You can read a random assortment of her thoughts at her Tumblr.
I think the most accurate thing I can say about the new Papercuts album is that it’s honest. Normally, that would be a compliment. Usually, albums described as “honest,” or the clichéd “brutally honest,” contain some form of raw emotionality — think Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Papercuts, aka Jason Quever, make melancholic chamber pop that eschews the typical dude-posturing of rock & roll. The songs are a lush, almost symphonic layering of piano, Mellotron, strings, electric guitar, bass, drums and other percussive odds and ends, paired with plaintive, understated vocals. But despite the album’s title, there is nothing primitive about Life Among the Savages. There is no raw emotionality here; on the contrary, everything is extremely considered, so it might be confusing why I describe the album as being honest. Let me explain.
On Papercuts’ 2007 album Can’t Go Back, the benign cheeriness and listenability of the music, as well as the pretty yet disaffected vocals, were juxtaposed with lyrics about bitterness, resentment, anger, depression, etc., and in doing so, portrayed these feelings almost sarcastically. After all, really going whole hog musically to say something as trite as “I’m sad that no one likes me” or “I’m angry my partner cheated on me” seems maudlin. And I get that. I am one of those people — I’m overly self-aware to the point of paralysis when it comes to self-expression, so I understood what Quever was doing on that album, and even though it was a little timid and a little duplicitous, I liked it, I identified with it.
Which brings me to Life Among the Savages. Before, Quever’s benign music was a cover for something darker, something more sinister, but here those undertones are absent. He constantly seems to opt for resignation over anger. Despite his words at the end of the album’s title track, “I choose war/I choose war/I choose war,” he’s clearly not fighting anymore. He’s saying it, but he doesn’t really believe it. Quever’s forte is making subtle, understated pop. The problem is, subtle, understated pop isn’t that compelling when it’s not a cover for something weirder or uglier. Ironically, it’s facing this very conundrum and dealing with its consequences that makes the album so guileless.
As an intelligent, mature human wrangling with your emotions, you have to, at some point, come face to face with their triviality. In these moments the most reasonable reaction seems to be to just give up, stop caring. And that is exactly the reaction that Life Among the Savages portrays. It’s music to give up to — and in that way it’s very emotionally honest. This music can provide listeners with a degree of catharsis in those moments when they, too, have given up, and I appreciate that, but I have trouble applauding an album that stops there, that accepts just giving up. On top of the ethical dilemma posed by this approach, there’s the simple fact that it’s hard to feel fulfilled or inspired by a work of art that stops at the very moment of self-defeat.
Once Quever has admitted how trivial his own experiences are, it seems like there’s not much left to do besides focus on the music and songwriting as craft more than self-expression. This interpretation also provides a justification for Quever’s choice of title — maybe life among savages is an abandonment of sorts, a giving-up on making sense out of this hyper-complicated, post-modern, globalized, simulacratized world, and going back to something simpler: the music, and taking refuge in that. Maybe that’s why the lyrics come second to the music on this album. As compared to Can’t Go Back, the lyrics in Life Among the Savages are more abstract, often less a coherent story or message, and more of a bricolage of phrases that sound good with the melody and revolve around a loose theme (for example, “New Body,” “Staring at the Bright Lights,” “Tourist”).
“Easter Morning” is an interesting song in this regard. At five minutes and 17 seconds, it’s the longest track on the album, but Quever doesn’t sing any words after the 2:45 mark — instead, he abandons himself to melodic la-la-las for the next 45 seconds and then leaves even those behind, ending the song with almost two minutes of instrumental outro. This is especially surprising on a track one would expect, judging from the title, to be about rebirth. But there is no redemption on offer here, just the chance to allow oneself to be carried away (not cleansed or purified) by waves of music. This lyrical abandonment happens again on “Afterlife Blues” where the last half of the song is again non-verbal melodic singing and an instrumental outro.
I don’t want to make it sound as if there’s nothing of merit in the album. It is beautiful, and there are some tracks where the songwriting really shines. For instance, Quever has a way with lyrical repetition that serves him well. He often repeats phrases or whole verses, making minute changes here or there that substantially change the meaning and advance the song’s narrative. In “Still Knocking at the Door” he ends the first verse with “And they say you’re OK,” which, after the singer has smoked some banana peels, morphs into the questioning, “Hear them say, you OK?” A verse later, feeling left out, the singer is consoled by a pair of lovers: “But they say you’re OK.” And in the final verse, Quever reminds us that we, the listener, are as sad and lonely as he is: “But they say we’re OK.”
I was also impressed by the sense of “wanting to believe” captured in “Psychic Friends.” Quever sings “I keep thinking/I keep thinking/that somehow/I’ll reach you at last” — but with the disaffected way he sings, it doesn’t sound as if he really believes he will. The music and the vocals together give the impression that Quever wants to see his friend again and wants to believe in the possibility of that, but wanting to believe and believing are two very different things: for instance, I want to believe that we will, as a society, start taking steps to reverse global climate change in our lifetime. I want to believe we will do that, but can I say that I really do believe that? I’ll let you be the judge. It is a subtle difference and a complicated emotion to portray, and Quever nails it.
There are some cool, interesting things going on in Life Among the Savages, but ultimately it’s still boring to me. Would I really have been compelled to do this detailed of a reading of these lyrics if it weren’t for writing this piece or my previous familiarity with Papercuts? No, and I think that’s a deficiency. Music should be able to pull you in and keep you interested on its own merits. I applaud the album’s honesty, but it’s not enough. If this album is supposed to represent resignation, a forfeit of self-expression for the safety and comfort that solid songwriting and musical prettiness can provide, it succeeds. But it feels like an empty victory.