Stew (Passing Strange, the Negro Problem) Talks SoKo’s I Thought I Was an Alien

I don’t wish to write about this great record from the perspective of an old man, nor from the point of view of a younger version of myself. I wish...

Dear Diary,

It’s 1:00 AM
I don’t wish to write about this great record from the perspective of an old man, nor from the point of view of a younger version of myself. I wish I could review it as an alien with a command of the English language but little if any understanding of life on earth. This distance would tell me something profound about what it is to be young, articulate and human.

Were I reviewing the lame version of this record that existed in an alternate universe, I would say I Thought I Was an Alien was the perfect album for deep-feeling teenagers and twentysomethings. But I would warn jaded “heard-it-all” oldsters (like me) that they would find little more in it than diary entries set to music.

But thankfully we’re not in that lame alternate universe. This is an amazing record by an incredible artist. You should stop reading this now and just listen to it.

1:30 AM
In the late ’70s/early ’80s there was a ton of songs that sounded like the minimalist opening joint “I Just Wanna Make It New with You” but few were as good or as honest.

She informs and promises us from jump street that…

“You will discover me, through my songs.
That my heart breaks, and fears, and depression…
and I hope that you don’t hate me by then.”

I laughed out loud when first heard this.

This kind of bluntness is the language of youth, artists and crazy people. It’s what the startling character you met at that art opening said without cracking a smile after going back to her place to listen to her sing her songs at 3:00 AM quietly so as to not wake up her roommates.

She continues…

“I only want to share new things…
I just want to make it new with you.”

And she achieves this noble goal by conjuring new meat for an old skeleton.  Which, if I remember correctly, is a large part of what this pop music game is all about.

And we’re only on the first tune. So far, so very good.

“And you’ll start to think I’m boring.
Cause I’m straight-edge since I’m eighteen.”

Some might find this confessional vibe, and other aspects of this record, too precious (because, let’s face it, it’s kinda easy to fall for the breathy whispery ingenue thing, especially if it’s in a foreign accent. But I’ve lived in Europe way too long to be affected by that shit). But I find it endearing, clever and affective when someone in no danger of being boring intones a lyric like this. I don’t think SoKo is genuinely worried about being boring, but she’s smart enough to know that a lyric like that coming out of an un-boring person’s mouth is money.

1:50 AM

“People Always Look Better in the Sun” sports a great chorus that reminds me of something from the ’60s but it’s so good I don’t care. And besides, the line is super-cool.

2:10 AM

“We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow” is a deeply beautiful tune. The delicate guitar sounds like sadness. OK, again, it has that nagging thing that plagues old people like me where it sounds like another song — but that’s my stupid curse, not yours, dear reader/listener. This is a straight-up CLASSIC number — if I can use that word without getting emotionally profiled by the pop police.

“I don’t want to judge
What’s in your heart
But if you’re not ready for love
How can you be ready for life?”

OK, I just read that lyric and it doesn’t look as great on the page as it sounded coming outta my headphones when it destroyed me. But such is often the fate of a great rock & roll lyric. It’s not poetry and ain’t no shame in that.  On the contrary. It needs the voice, the tension, the delicate harmony, the drama, the whisper to make it poetry.

“So let’s love fully
And let’s love loud
Let’s love now
‘Cause soon enough we’ll die”

That just about says it all, don’t it?
Could Foucault have added anything to that?
Sure, he could’ve.
But I wouldn’t be singing it to myself on the Q train.

2:30 AM

“No More Home, No More Love”

“I downgrade on the couch again
I swear I’ll make myself tiny
Just have a suitcase and guitar with me”

One could resort to the standard “She writes beyond her years” cliché but in rock & roll Rimbaud, is the rule, not the exception. The clearer observation would be “She writes beyond most songwriters of today.”

I’ve always found it stupid when people were blown away by a young person’s “advanced” artistry. But still, this tune does sound like it was written by someone a decade (at least) older. And it does seem to be the case that if you’ve been through some shit you have something to not just write about but a psychic place to write from.

Coming out of the mouth of a 26-year-old…

“It was fun for just a second
To be a vagabond musician
I could use some security now…”


“You’re way stronger
When you’re younger…”

But if you’ve lived, you’ve lived.

There is no age monopoly on insights into the human condition.

My favorite line in this song, because it points to her youth and to the primacy of the moment (something some of us get worse at recognizing as we get older) is this line…

“It was fun just for a second
To be a vagabond musician”

SoKo teaches us that the wise, world-weary “been around the block and paid my dues” vibe does not only come from 20 years of touring/living/struggling/loving/losing/mourning/being. It’s about how you package the life you’ve led up until the engineer presses the red button. It coulda been two years or two months or even two weeks of hell. The amount of time spent in hell really doesn’t matter. What matters is how that time sliced you up and how well the song you write can paint the picture of the damage and your transcendence.

Just have to learn it all again.

“No more home
Much more worries…”

2:45 AM

“For Marlon” is a song a whole lotta people are going to be able to relate to in a way that no song has ever spoken to them before. I need say no more. You’ll see.

3:00 AM

“How Are You” sports a beautiful chorus that you could take with you to the top of the highest hill in the park and fly it like a kite.

3:10 AM

“Destruction of the Disgusting Ugly Hate” is another classic. This is the it song. Listening to it is a seriously guilty pleasure and a wonderfully comical experience: it’s so utterly infectious with its drum-machiney shuffle and gorgeous, blooming chorus, and the kicker is, you are enjoying this whole experience in the same way you would “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” only it’s called “Destruction of the Disgusting Ugly Hate.”

“I got a tattoo on my heart
Your name is written in black
You have tattoos everywhere
But my name is not there”

I can’t think of anywhere where loss has been explored as complexly, masterfully and affectively than in this song, where we are forced into various directions at once by the rhythm, the melody, her voice, the text, etc. It forces me to smile even as I feel I shouldn’t. Pop music rarely pulls tricks like this. Brilliant.

“I got tears on my cheeks
Rolling faster than a rocket-ship”

I’m down with tears rolling faster than rocket-ships.  Are you?

4:48 AM
“Happy Hippy Birthday” dances on the edge of the dangerous precipice of Diary Entry Pop but manages, despite its dramatic and dubious leaps, never to fall over the edge into the abyss. This song is the Citizen Kane of Diary-Entry-Pop. Maybe this whole record is the Citizen Kane of Diary-Entry-Pop. Maybe that is this record’s second-greatest achievement: that the sentiments expressed herein are close enough to lame diary-entry-pop that in a lesser artist’s hands they’d be cringeful. But Soko moonwalks on the volcano of youthful self-indulgence like an alien princess. If she can keep this level of self-reflection and melodic badassery she will be one of the great artists of this age. And if she stops now that’s cool too.

SoKo writes great, daring songs and one hopes she survives the hype and static that I imagine is swirling around someone as young and genuinely talented as she is. If she is as tough as her tunes, she probably will.

Goodnight, Diary,

Stew is the writer and co-creator of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange and the singer of the Negro Problem. You can follow him on Twitter here.