by Carl Wilson
An email group that I’m on – let’s call it the Nerd Mafia – got into exchanging favourite song titles this week. Someone offered up Don Caballero’s “A Lot Of People Tell Me I Have A Fake British Accent” and “Why Is the Couch Always Wet?” and then came Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Architecture, Morality, Ted And Alice.” Inevitably, someone raised with Guided By Voices (“A Contest Featuring Human Beings,” “14 Cheerleader Cold Front”) and doubled down with Jim O’Rourke’s “Halfway to a Three Way.”
The Minutemen (“Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”), Smog (“Dress Sexy at My Funeral”), the Fugs (“I’m Gonna Kill Myself Over Your Dead Body,” “I Command the House of the Devil”), Love (“Maybe the People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”), Curtis Mayfield (“We the People Who Are Darker than Blue”), Captain Beefheart (“Neon Meate Dreams of an Octafish”), and even calypso godfather Lord Executioner (“Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard,” ”How I Spent My Time at the Hospital,” “We Mourn the Loss of Sir Murchison Fletcher”) all got their due respect. I felt I crowned the lot with Charles Mingus – pretty hard to outdo “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers” or “All the Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Were Your Mother.”
With a few exceptions, those are jokey titles, but most of them do stand up, even without hearing the songs they name. The conversation got me thinking about this relationship between artwork and title. I adore titles, and pride myself on having a good ear for them, but the hours of intense conversations I’ve had with friends when they’re in the titling stage of a project strikes me in retrospect; likewise the number of friends who seem to have many more titles than they do projects, or who need to begin with a title.
It speaks to a conceptualist orientation, but it’s also to be a child of the marketing age. I sometimes wonder if it betrays a preference for the idea of a thing over the thing itself, a self-accusation that quickly widens its net over the rest of my life and hauls it in for questioning. I’m prone to idealize the mind of the artist who rejects titling as too restrictive, and goes with “Untitled #2” or “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.” But such an artist offers a certain impersonality to the audience, too. Especially in abstract forms, the title is an opportunity to offer the audience a starting point, a weather-vane to swing round in the imagination and point in a rough direction. A sonata or a jazz instrumental or minimalist sculpture on first encounter can be, to swipe my favourite Modest Mouse album title, “a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.” A title can supplant that nothing with something that then evolves of its own accord in the listener’s mind. Or it can simply help you focus on the more helpful detail among all the elements of a work. There’s a generosity in that. It doesn’t presume that the audience has nothing better to do with its time than search your work for a clue to what you’re on about.
When I was a child, I had a guitar-strumming, open-concept-school teacher who played us songs like “One Tin Soldier,” the cheesy anti-war anthem first recorded by the Canadian pop group Original Caste in 1969, remade first by Skeeter Davis (whose “The End of the World” from 1963 – a good title, though not quite as good as Willie Nelson’s “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” – was named the 177th greatest country single in my friends David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren’s book of the best 500 country singles) and then more successfully by Coven for one of the Billy Jack movies. I vividly remember getting laughed at by my classmates for requesting it by the name “Listen Children,” based on the first line, “Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago…” Somehow I missed the resonance of the key chorus line, “On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.” No doubt I was narcissistically overrating the importance of the invocation of children. In any case it left me careful to get titles right.
One of the practical purposes of a title is for a fan to call it in to a radio show or shout it out at a concert, but often you might know a song without knowing its title. Especially when the relationship between the two gets looser. This is a point against the title that stands independent of the work. My mind’s never really been able to maintain the link between the words “Lady Marmalade” and the Labelle hit that seems to want to be called, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”
But several of my favourite songwriters use titles as almost a cryptogrammic guide to underlying themes in their work. I love the “hymn” series by Hefner: “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” “The Hymn for the Alcohol,” “The Hymn for the Postal Service,” “The Hymn for the Coffee” – in one fell gesture it indicates the whole approach to beauty that the band takes: elevating the abject, losing to win, mocking to worship and worshiping to mock. It may be that titles now are what we have instead of manifestos, to state our aesthetics without going to the obnoxious lengths of making an “artist’s statement” out of it.
One of the more outré approaches to titling of late (well, outside metal, Anthony Braxton, the likes of Autechre and the highly ambivalent case of Fall Out Boy) has come from The Mountain Goats, a.k.a. John Darnielle, who for years not only worked in series (the “Alpha” series, in which all the songs using that word in their titles depicted the same imaginary doomed couple; the “Going to _____” series, which featured characters who mix up geographic plans with life plans; more), but titled most of the rest of his songs with various historical, mythological and geographical references, so that if I want to hear one of my most-loved songs about burning jealousy, infidelity and loss, for example, I need to call to mind what I think is a grammatical mode in Sanskrit (“Raja Vocative”), or if you want to hear the one about robbing the candy store, you’ll have to recall the classical-dramaturgy/psychoanalytic term “The Recognition Scene.” Is this a less generous, more self-indulgent approach to titling? Here’s what Darnielle said in a Believer interview in 2004:
“I always preferred album titles that weren’t named after a song on the album. … Why is the album called Get Lost? That’s a great example, because it’s The Magnetic Fields Get Lost – it’s a sentence. But divorce it from the band name, and it’s an imperative: Get lost. When I was a kid, when I was developing my record-collector disease, those are the types of records I liked best because when I exhausted the songs and the lyrics I could still think about that aspect and I wanted albums to have as many possible points of scrutiny as they could. From the time I started writing songs, I thought it’d be better if the song title had to be in some way connected to the song. Then I got perverse about it and thought if I titled them in ways that no one could possibly make the connection I’ve made, they’d be even more interesting because anybody who’s like me and wants to make the connection would have to fabricate their own or conclude that it can’t be done. If you’re a record collector, you won’t conclude that it can’t be done. You’ll just go ahead and do it.”
So there’s another, more playful kind of generosity there, a game being played with the listener, based on the kinds of games the artist himself likes, which again is a hint of what kind of artist this is: “Here is everything I know, and here is how I put it together, but I’d be delighted if you would pull it all apart and put it back together differently. Also, I think meaning is contingent, how about you?” (Perhaps with the settling calm of maturity, perhaps because “record collector” is a pretty imperilled category, more recent Mountain Goats albums have used song titles closer to the content of the lyrics – even the latest, on which all the songs are titled with chapters and verses from scripture, is a relatively low-difficulty-level challenge.)
It’s refreshingly bracing sometimes when a song’s just called “Love Song” or “Divorce Song,” but all the additional pointers and tags make for a richer experience. Indeed, perhaps the question should be why we use the same general names for so many different things in life, like loves and divorces, rather than inventing unique titles for them. Or perhaps we already spend too much of our precious time in those deepest realms of our lives searching for the caption instead of listening to the music.
P.S. Here are some of the rejected potential titles for this website:
Triple Nerd Score
Ergo the Living Planet
The Potato Barn
Zionist Time Conspiracy
The DeLorean of All One’s Born Days
Viva la Quinta Brigada