It's weird when there's a song you like, and you always mean to get it on your computer, but then lo and behold, you discover it's on your computer after all. That was the case tonight with Sloan's "Everything You've Done Wrong," which I played last semester on KUMM off the Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Turns out it's on the band's A Sides Win singles compilation, which is on my computer. Sloan was one of those bands I knew I had to check out when I got to college. Mr. Zuccola, my old high school journalism teacher, mentioned them as one of his favorite bands. I prefer their newer material, maybe that's because they turned to blatant power-pop in recent years. I've liked most of their stuff that I've heard, and Action Pact, in addition to being a great album title, is 45 minutes of pure power-pop punch.
If you have a blog, Livejournal, Xanga, et al., there's literally hundreds of mini music surveys & quizzes you can post to the world. One of the questions I encountered back in the day was "Favorite song lyric." This could have multiple meanings; it could be an entire song libretto, or it could be a single line from a song. At the time, I said New Order's "Blue Monday," which, for all its technical innovations, remains an incredibly haunting & enigmatic portrait of confusion, isolation, disillusionment, and/or the Falkland Islands War. I was listening to one of my favorite songs tonight and I realized that there's probably more individual lines from that song that I can apply to my life than any other song. The song, of course, is the Streets' "Empty Cans," A Grand Don't Come for Free's epic eight-minute closer. Over the course of the album, the protagonist (narrated by Mike Skinner) hooks up with a girl, goes to the racetrack, gets bombed out of his mind on Ecstasy, gets kicked out of his girlfriend's house, (unsuccessfully) hits on a girl at a fast food restaurant, finds out his girl has been cheating on him with his friend, and breaks up with the girl in a tear-jerking nightmare of female indifference, all while trying to track down the shoebox full of the (titular) thousand quid that has mysteriously vanished from his flat. By the time the album rolls around to its final song, the protagonist is sitting in his flat, alone in the world, wondering what to do next. His buddy Scott phones him up and asks him to take a look at Mike's broken TV set, but Mike is still angry that Scott didn't tell him about Dan & Simone's affair, and he decides to go to an independent repairman. Mike and the repairman get into a spat, which results in a bloody confrontation in Mike's kitchen. The chorus kicks in: "No one gives a crap about Mike, that's why I'm acting nasty." The ultimate ode to despondency and despair, sitting in your flat sitting bad for yourself....but then something strange happens. The tape starts rewinding, moving backwards, before you suddenly realize that the song has started over again. Mike is still sitting in his apartment, with empty cans lining the walls. But this time, he decides to give Scott another chance. Scott comes to repair the TV, where he makes an amazing discovery: he pops the back of the TV open and discovers the thousand quid sitting inside. The lilting strings kick in, and the chorus rolls around, but this time quite different:
The end of something I did not want to end
Beginning of hard times to come
But something that was not meant to be is done
And this is the start of what was
The album concludes with Mike stepping outside, pulling his coat tighter to keep warm as his breath floats in the air, and jogs out into the world to start a new day. So which ending is reality? Have his transgressions caught up with him, dooming him to a despairing existence, or has he been given another chance, finding redemption in the form of a shoebox inside his television set? Or maybe neither? In any case, it's difficult for me to find a more vivid, lucid depiction of acceptance, closure, and learning to move on. On an album that covers the full gamut of human emotions, Skinner takes care in the closing track to sketch a world that is contingent on our own actions. Mike says, "No-one's really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you. You are the one who's got your back 'til the last deed's done." It's your responsibility; if you want to sit in and drink and feel sorry for yourself, that's your own prerogative. If you want to move on, mend old bonds, and possibly find redemption, that's within your reach as well. Finally, the song reminds us that no matter how bad things get, there's always the possibility that you'll open up your TV set and find your thousand quid inside. You may be on your own in the end, but you can't give up hope that things will get better. Near the end of the song, Mike talks about a girl named Alison he met at his house; it's possible that he'll treat her like crap too and the whole cycle will just start over again. Will he learn from his mistakes? This is the great unanswered question about "Empty Cans" and A Grand Don't Come for Free; the answer lies in whether we will ever learn from our mistakes. We may control our own destiny, but maybe we hold the power to shape our destiny into a world where we are not so alone after all. Things can get better, but we have to be the ones to make the peace.
So, for its endless layers of depth and meaning, I would now have to say that "Empty Cans" is my favorite set of lyrics in all music. The whole album is pretty amazing (and only gets better with each listen, if that's even possible) and while "Dry Your Eyes" and "Fit But You Know It" were each spectacular singles, it's "Empty Cans" that stands out as the album's apex. Maybe we're not so hopeless after all.