Wednesday, July 11, 2012

30 Songs, 30 Days (2012 Edition), Day Twenty Two: Bull Black Nova by Wilco

"Hey, you!  Yeah, you!"
Hey, it's a murder ballad! It's a pop song about anxiety! It's both!

I'll be upfront in telling you I am not as enthusiastic as some people are about Jeff Tweedy and his band of musical misfits. It's not that I hate them; they just don't jump out at me the way some other bands do. Most of the Wilco tracks I have in my hard drive dedicated to media are cover songs (I recall a blog actually releasing a massive zip file of all of them, which I downloaded), since Jeff seems to delight in being eclectic when it comes to choosing what he'll cover.

Doesn't mean I can't like one of his originals. And I like this one.

I've always had this weird fascination for America's enjoyment of the murder ballad. After all, there was this weird period in the late 50's and early 60's where something like two dozen songs about people dying due to horrific tragedies and their loved ones pining away for them or--in some extreme cases--committing suicide to join them became Top 40 Hits. That obsessive need to see lovers torn asunder by the grim reaper has faded away from the 70's to now, but that hasn't stopped occasional examples of this time-honored tradition from breaking through to the pop charts periodically. Hell, Maroon Five--Maroon Fucking Five, the most boring pop band on earth--managed to get a Top 40 Hit out of 'Wake up Call,' a song about Adam Levine coming home and finding his wubbie in bed with another (assumably more interesting) man and shooting them dead.

On the surface, 'Bull Black Nova' is in this tradition. We have our POV character watching from the titular muscle car as 'they'--presumably the police--approach. We learn that something is all over our guy and his car....and his sofa, and his sink, and you get the idea. He's aware that whatever he did can't be undone and can't be outrun. Sounds like a man who murdered someone, maybe a girlfriend, and realizes he can't go back on this. He's snuffed out a life, and it's going to be with him the rest of his days; ultimately, judgement--whether flesh and blood or spiritual--will catch up to him. The melody, with its aping of a police siren through repetitious piano/synth chords, emphasize that this judgment will happen sooner rather than later.


There's a definite change of the tonality as the song progresses. The siren chords get higher, becoming somewhat playful. The filling out of the melody, particularly in the bridge, give the song, eases the tension somewhat until you never get any real specifics. Hell, the only reason we presume it's the police that are approaching is because of the connection we make with sirens when we hear the chords of the first part. There is a very strong chance that Jeff Tweedy is playing a little game with us, and that this is a metaphor for something less dire, but no less life or death to our POV character. Maybe this isn't a physical murder but an emotional one--his lashing out at a girlfriend that leads to her leaving him. Or maybe it's not a murder but a physical trauma, like a car accident, that is causing our guy so much anxiety. Jeff's not telling, and I respect him for it; after all, it seems it's not the event but the after-effects he's interested in.

I like this song because of its ambivalence and the slow way it introduces doubt to our system. It's up to us to decide if this is the murder ballad it seems to be on the surface, or something a little more ethereal. Unlike some other recent practitioners of this form, Jeff doesn't want to spell it out, trusting that the scenario we build with his music will be much more satisfying to us than anything he can spoon feed us.

Here's the song....

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