Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “So Lonely,” “Devil Town,” “Road to Zion”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2010

I decided why not push my luck and hope that Andrew answers a second of my request

New request:

“Devil Town” – Bright Eyes
“Another Girl, Another Planet” – The Only Ones
“So Lonely” – The Police
“Road to Zion” – Damian Marley ft. Nas

Yeah, why not. Already took a shot at “Another Girl, Another Planet” though, so it’s gotta just be the other three.

Will admit–I had no idea this was a cover. The first time I remember hearing the song was during a montage in season one of Friday Night Lights (though Wikipedia tells me this was not the Bright Eyes version, but rather another cover by some folky scrub named Tony Lucca–they basically sound interchangeable so I’m going to talk about them as such). Heard it here and there for a little while, and again in the awful promos for season three, before looking into it before writing this article, where I found of course that the original was by cult hero Daniel Johnston. I don’t really know nothing about Johnston, aside from the awesome “Casper” off the Kids soundtrack and the fact that you’re contractually obligated to use the word “cult” at least once per sentence when talking about his music, but it seemed to make a decent amount of sense as being his song, and it made me wonder if hearing the original would diminish whatever respect I had for the Bright Eyes version.

Not so. Actually, I kind of like the Bright Eyes version more after hearing the original. Johnston’s rendition–an eerie, one minute a capella number that (like many of Johnston’s songs, I presume) basically sounds like a rant by an autistic eight-year-old–should have been absolutely uncoverable, a song so purely indebted to its creator’s style that any further renditions seem like they would sound patronizing or just completely pointless. I’m rather amazed that Mr. Oberst was not only able to flesh out an entire song from it, but to do it in a way that sounded completely of his own voice. The spooky vibe of the original is replaced with a much more serene, resigned groove, which sounds just as natural with the lyrical content as Johnston’s piercing lamentation. It’s kind of surprising that Oberst, who in the relatively few songs I’ve heard of his has a really nagging tendency towards the over-dramatized, would take a song such as this and reduce its wail to a sigh, but he was certainly inspired to have done so.

And regardless of version, I do just really like this song. I don’t know where I’ve heard a better summation of one’s disillusion with involvement in one’s  own scene (which I suppose just about everyone has to go through at some point in their young life) than “All my friends were vampires / I didn’t know they were vampires / Turns out I was a vampire myself / In the Devil Town.” It’s powerful and subtle enough to make Johnston’s version highly memorable even at its exceedingly short running time, and provides the perfect launch point for the emotional swell in Oberst’s as well. It’s the kind of line that someone like Billy Corgan could spend their entire career trying to come up with, but would keep putting stumbling blocks in their own way by trying to make the phrasing too elaborate or cute to really be effective. (Although it’s also entirely possible that I just think that because it hinges around the word “vampires.”)

My own grievance with the Bright Eyes version is that it goes on about a half-minute too long–really don’t need that female backing vocalist repeating the chorus one more time over the outro, especially. Also, I’m not really sure what the song has to do with the love triangle between Lyla, Street and Riggins, but I guess I can let that one slide and just be glad they didn’t use that damn Rogue Wave song again instead.

How many songs have been as hurt by its exclusion from a greatest hits album as this one? Among rock/pop fans of my generation, The Police’s Every Breath You Take: The Singles was one of the bedrock early purchases–friend of the blog Victor often related how among his random assemblage of Freshman year NYU roommates, the collection was the only CD that all four owned. And for a band like The Police, whose hits are scattered throughout their career and whose best-known album (Synchronicity) has taken a deserved retroactive drubbing for its largely shitty first half, it’s inevitable that such a hits comp would go down as the definitive testament to their greatness. Yet despite including just about every other Police hit of note (including lightweights like “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and relative oddities like “Invisible Sun”), “So Lonely”–a UK #6 hit, and a rock-radio standard that actually finished higher than any other Police song on New York station WRXP’s recent Labor Day countdown–got squeezed out of the tracklist, thus ensuring that casual fans for decades to come would be ignorant to its existence. What gives, Coppers?

Shame, too, because it’s one of my favorite Police songs. Not much to its slow-and-skank-y groove–Sting has basically admitted that it’s a total rip-off of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” and I think even that is putting it somewhat mildly–but Sting’s vocals are easily some of the best he ever recorded. Singing at an almost impossibly high register for the song’s duration (I tried it out once on Guitar Hero 5 and the results were…humbling), Gordo perfects the sound of glorified anguish throughout each of his pained, mercilessly elongated phrases. The band is wise to remain subdued and nondescript behind him on the verses–Andy Summers sounds like he’s barely even flicking at the strings of his guitar, and Stewart Copeland’s drumming rarely strays from the hi hat, never even trying to interfere with (as the man puts it himself) Sting’s “one-man show.” The best support the band gives him is on the stunning harmonies late in the verse–and I’m not even totally convinced that that isn’t just a double-tracked Sting keeping himself company up top. (Copeland sings the harmonies in this live clip but sounds off, though having to focus on his drumming and on looking perpetually pissed off at being in The Police at the same time might have something to do with that.)

The lyrics…well, they get the point across, don’t they. Not normally a huge fan of choruses consisting solely of one phrase, but in a song as desperate as this, what else is there to say, really? The only point in which it really risks going too far over the top is in the song’s final verse, which consists solely of Sting testing out just about every way possible to add maximal gravitas to the exclamation “I FEEL LOW!” The funny thing, really, is that as miserable as the song’s lyrics is, in the end, it actually comes across as kind of cheery. The Police’s other noteworthy stab at soul-crushing heartbreak ended up as “Can’t Stand Losing You,” a legitimately creepy, pathetic and unnerving classic that arguably presages the emo/pop-punk movement of 20+ years later better than anything Elvis Costello ever wrote. By comparison, “So Lonely” sounds almost celebratory in its solitude–the band (and of course the Tantric One especially) sound like they’re having too good a time wallowing in their own self-pity for you to really feel bad for them. Fine by me–I don’t always need my gloom-and-doom songs leaving me an emotional wreck. Smiling through the tears is underrated.

Come to think of it, actually, “Synchronicity II” got kinda jobbed by EBYT: TS as well. I guess the band can be slightly forgiven for wanting to forget that they ever titled a top-20 hit “Synchronicity II” (or that they wasted enough resources on wind and fog machines for the ridiculous video to power a small country for about a year), but then again, “Spirits in the Material World.” Who knows with these guys.

I put off writing this article for about a week longer than I should have because I knew I was going to have nothing to say about this song. Appreciate the change-up in suggestion, and the song’s pretty OK, but all I can offer for this is:

  1. I really like how his voice cracks on the “Jah will be waiting there” line.
  2. Damian and Nas make a surprisingly potent combo. Dig the new one too.
  3. “Welcome to Jamrock” was mad overrated.
  4. Tomorrow People” was mad underrated.

3 Responses to “Request Line: “So Lonely,” “Devil Town,” “Road to Zion””

  1. Brent said

    Since you don’t seem opposed to doubling up, here are four that are (still) in constant rotation on my work’s in store radio that don’t kill my soul any faster than the job itself:

    Phoenix “1901”
    Jojo “Too Little Too Late”
    ‘NSync “Gone”
    Shinedown “I Dare You”

  2. Ken said

    The absolute best thing about “So Loney” is that little moment in the guitar solo when harmonica comes in for like two seconds. It plays like three notes and disappears, going back to the guitar. I’ve got no idea what the purpose of that tiny harmonica moment was, but it always stands out to me and grabs my attention.

  3. ZD said

    For some wacky reason, Wikipedia lists “So Lonely” as the third track (of 13) on EBYT:TS. I’ve got the tape and it’s not on there. Perhaps they’re confusing it with EBYT: The Classics?

    “Synchronicity II” is great, fwiw.

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