Humor, Despair, and American Music Club

American Music Club - MercuryAt one time, I listened to little else but American Music Club. I still think they are one of the best bands ever. They are sometimes referred to as “sadcore,” which Wikipedia defines as having “bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies and slower tempos.” That’s not the greatest definition of the band, however. It is best to think of singer-songwriter and frontman for the band, Mark Eitzel, as a man who is drowning his sorrows but who hasn’t lost his sense of humor. A good example of this is the song “Lonely” off their 1988 album California. The refrain of the song is, “If I have to be this lonely, I may as well be alone.”

But the one AMC song that most haunts me is off their major label debut Mercury, “I’ve Been a Mess.” Here it is:

The first line is typical tragicomic, “Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind.” Any time someone whips out Lazarus, you know you’re in for some fun. And of course Eitzel had to take a contrarian view of it. Everyone else thinks Jesus did his friend a great favor, but Eitzel thinks Lazarus was pissed off. But the whole verse brings the actual theme of the song in two parts:

Lazarus wasn’t grateful
For his second wind
For another chance
To watch his chances
Fade like the dawn and leave
I can barely tell you
Just how pale I get
Without you.

First he makes clear exactly why Lazarus is ungrateful. It’s just another opportunity to be disappointed. Then he moves, without any clear indication from either music or transitional lyrics, to the concrete first person narrative: he misses his lover and it is making him ill. That takes us to the very simple proclamation of the chorus, “I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone.”

In the second verse, he comes back to Lararus. At this point, the metaphor is clear:

What were the first words
That crowd heard him speak
I’ll bet he was cursing at the sky
I’ll bet he wasn’t
Turning no other cheek.
And was there still hope and desire
Left in his heart
For the last word in love?

Again, this is very funny. He’s hammering so hard on poor Lazarus. You can just image a drunk rant, “I’ll tell you this! Lazarus probably just punched Jesus right in the face. And he’s right!”

Other than the repetition of the chorus, there is only the bridge, which is about as gin-soaked as anything AMC has ever done. In it, he returns to the first person:

Your beauty is just a slap in the face
That’s gonna bring me back to life
Back to another sky that’s blue
It’s gonna turn me into another
Great american zombie
So hungry for you.

As is traditional for a bridge, he provides us with a different way of looking at the rest of the song. There is that concern that once you have survived a breakup and become deadened to the ex-lover, seeing them again will start it all over again. So it circles back very nicely to the beginning. But he can’t resist ending with a joke. So he refers to himself (and thus also the risen Lazarus) as a zombie who is “hungry for you.”

Life may be hell, but it is nice to have company that understands that. And American Music Club is excellent company.

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