Monday, November 7, 2011

Lb4Lb#9: Yours, Mine, and the Truth

There's three sides to every story:
the Truth.
Cupid's Dead
Sometimes we're just too clever for our own good.

Extreme is a band that has suffered from straddling a line between down-to-earth and over-the-top. They clearly had the chops and the musicianship needed to rule the earth, but they wanted something else. And what they wanted was something that you can't come right out and ask for: your fans have to figure it out on their own.

I'm a hapless romantic
St-t-tuttering p-poet
Just call me a Tragic Comic
'Cause I'm in love with you
Tragic Comic
I'm one of the many fans and critics who consider their best effort to have been the album entitled (somewhat ambiguously) III Sides To Every Story. It was their third, following up their breakout hits More Than Words and Hole Hearted. If the world was a fair place, then III Sides would have been the homerun the band needed to hit. It showcases one of the world's best guitarists without being a "guitar" album, and it blends thoughtfulness, spirituality, and humor in a wickedly funky metal confection.

The band tried to pull off something really difficult with their concept. After all these years, even a fan like me isn't entirely sure what the message was, or what it all really means. I know that there are parts that I really get, and others I don't. I'm never entirely sure I'm comfortable with what it says.

Mr. Goody Two
Do you really thing the world
Can be Black, White, and Jew?

...Mr. Music Man
Don't turn your back on me?
Cause I'm the one with the gun
Peacemaker Die
At first glance, this bold and disturbing stance seems obvious. Clearly, since this is a concept album about politics and belief, and since the first "side" of the three - Yours - was not meant to reflect the band's own opinions and beliefs, you can't take this bravado and swagger at face value. For these songs, they ought to be painting a picture of the Other Guy - the one we're supposed to be against.

This world ain't big enough for two
And I've got my sights on you
Oh, yeah - that guy is an aggressive jerk. That's YOUR side, alright. Not mine. I know people like him, so "Your" side is about him, right?

That works to a point. But then you see something of yourself in that Other guy:

"Make love/not war" sounds so absurd to me
We can't afford to take these words lightly
or else our world will truly Rest in Peace
Rest In Peace
Wait a minute - I hold to that sentiment myself. Even though the threat of Soviet-inflicted Armaggedon is even less likely now that it was in 1992, I know that we can't afford to neglect our own defense. Maybe these guys consider me to be that Other guy? And yet, I'm also far from the Warhead described in the opening track.

This second-guessing goes on throughout the whole album; what are these songs trying to tell me about the band? Or about myself?

Picture a world without any color
You couldn't tell one face from another
I can't understand why we fight with our brother
Color Me Blind
Just when you think you've got it figured out - which side is which - they throw in something that doesn't fit. Are they hippies? No, because why would hippies put Color Me Blind on "Your" side? Maybe they're trying to show that both "sides" have some balance? Maybe they're trying to show that there's common ground between the "sides"?

But then there are the chilling moments, where you see something horrific and alien in the Other side. I still get goosebumps from the sick feeling of being inside the mind of a violent extremist as the band plays a sample of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech over the repeated leit-motif of "Peacemaker Die." I know exactly where the gunshot is, and I still jump when I hear it. If I identified with "Your" side up to this point, I would be suddenly forced to realize something horrible about the person that "Your" side describes.

All the world's
a masquerade
made up of fools
and philosophers
Were it to rain
on our charade,
all washes away,
except for our true colors
Stop The World
How many listeners were put off by this inherent confusion, I wonder? And how many missed the larger point because they either took the lyric at face value as something the band really believes, or pushed away from what they took to be criticism of their own beliefs? Judging by the sales figures, a lot of people didn't get it.
Which is sad, because there is a lot of goodness here. I suspect the disappointment from the way this album was received led to the frustrating compromises the band made on their next release; a so-called "grunge" album that their more loyal fans saw as a "sell out" move. I'm just glad they had the courage to take this risk, and give us this album first. It must have been a real conflict to decide to do so.

And conflict is really what this whole thing is about. While the conflict on Your side is harsher and more threatening, Mine is more open and accessible. This side is the questioning, sentimental side.

If I had one wish
It wouldn't be hard to choose
Seven Sundays in a row
'cause that's the day that I spend with you
Seven Sundays
I think we can all recognize the hopefulness and futility that comes from trying to sort out our place in a world that seems downright crazy. We all think we're just good, average folks trying to make our way through; we all want to rely on someone stronger and smarter than us to pull us through; and we all want to escape from the glad-handing charlatans trying to take advantage of us.

But even here on what should be common ground we have a problem to sort out, because of all of this religious imagery and language. Seven Sundays could be a sweet song for your steady girl - or it could be about a relationship with God. And that duality gets more overt when you compare it to the aggressive R. Lee Ermey father that opened the album. Just what exactly are they trying to say about God?

Oh Daddy please
Take me with you, where you going
Oh Daddy please
Come find the time, come watch us growing
Our Father
I used to only listen to the halfway point of this album - something which has changed, or I wouldn't rightly be able to call this a "pound for pound" album. I used to get mad or bored with the more religious and heavily orchestrated songs from Our Father on - but now I don't.

I would get mad because it sounded (in my younger days) as if the band were urging me toward some kind of religious answer. I would get bored (later on), just dismissing this section as an attempt to deal with Daddy issues. Now I see that, like the other sections, we have the same mix of conflicted points of view that we saw in the first half.

So I start off every day
Down on my knees I will pray
(for a change in any way)

But as the day goes by
I live through another lie
if it's any wonder why!

Am I ever gonna change?
If I say one thing then I do the other
It's the same old song that goes on forever
Am I Ever Gonna Change?
After years of listening, pondering, wondering, supposing, and rethinking, I still don't really have any answers. But I do think these guys were onto something 20 years ago. I think there is an important lesson here and that it still applies. I don't pray, but I recognize that prayer is an externalized form of meditation. We humans keep looking for answers outside of ourselves; we keep hoping to change others - whether their minds or just their behavior - as if that alone would make everything better.

But the world keeps spinning, and I keep getting sucked into the same arguments with the same kinds of people. Anger begets anger, frustration breeds contempt, and no one ever feels like their "side" is fairly represented.

Maybe the real solution to the puzzle is to let someone else have the last word.

Am I ever gonna change?
I'm the only one to blame
When I think I'm right, I wind up wrong
It's a futile fight that's gone on too long.

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