"Four Is Only Really Just One More Than Three": Todd Snider's "The Excitement Plan"
I have found myself compulsively listening to Todd Snider's new album, The Excitement Plan. Snider is entirely new to me. And while I am beginning to get caught up, the only thing which makes me presumptuous enough to write anything at all about this discovery is my sheer, unabated-after-
twothree-days-of-constant-listening enthusiasm for it (that, and a secret desire to be the sort of person who is hip enough to write record reviews).
I first heard of Snider on NPR (which surely marks my complete and bodily assumption into NPR bourgeoisdom), and what NPR, myself, and actual professional reviewers seem to agree on is the bristling wit of Snider's lyrics at their best. Snider is often compared to Randy Newman; and though I've never been a fan of Randy Newman, the comparison is apt insomuch as it captures the album's sparse instrumentals and Snider's halting, conversational vocal delivery--both of which serve to heighten the focus on Snider's lyrics.
The opening image of Snider's album, in the first verse of "Slim Chance," illustrates well the sort of transmogrification of the ordinary of which his wit is so remarkably capable.
I found a four leaved clover in my yard today
It had one leaf missing off it but that was okay.
Looking it over I could easily see
Four is only really just one more than three.
Hey that's close enough for me,
Must be my lucky day.
The completely unremarkable three-leafed clover is transformed into a token of fortune by the (of course, completely unconvincing) argument that "Four is only really just one more than three." By sheer force of wit, the utterly banal is briefly transformed before it collapses back into the ordinary. And, in its best moments, Snider's album manages to repeat this feat, dramatizing the failure of intellect against circumstance, of ambition against reality, and, most compellingly, of individual experience against cliché.
In Snider's hands cliché becomes an occasion for originality and, simultaneously, an opportunity to undermine the pretensions of such originality. Consider the opening lines of "Greencastle Blues,"
There was a time when I was handsome,
There was a time when I had money to burn,
There was a time when where I landed,
Was the least of my, the least of my concern.
Not an especially auspicious beginning to a song; the hackneyed phrase "money to burn," the repetition of "least of my" to achieve metric regularity, all dominated by a sense of clichéd nostalgia ("There was time...", pop music's version of "Once upon a time"). One finds a basically cognate sentiment in Toby Keith's "As Good as I Once Was."
But Snider manages to transform such clichés. After the nostalgic opening, the song continues, "But it hurts to lean back in these handcuffs." With its plaintive anapests, the line instantly relocates the hackneyed narrative of nostalgic reflection in the concrete context of embarrassed indignity. The wistful philosopher of the opening lines turns out to be shackled in the back of a squad car. (The song, as NPR and the New York Times explain, was inspired by Snider's own arrest for possession of marijuana at 40).
"How do you know when it's too late to learn?" asks the refrain of "Greencastle Blues." When the speaker answers the question, as "Greencastle Blues" draws to a close, one feels a genuine bit of a thrill at his ability to triumph over circumstance.n
So there's nothing left for me to learn here
Just this half full or half empty cup.
Less than an ounce of possession, man,
I could do that kind of time standing up.
The perfect rhyme, slipping into the unforced, colloquial phrase (itself a sort of clichéd boast)--Snider executes it so well that it feels like an exhilarating sort of triumph, rather than a mere rationalization--one can almost believe, for a second, that four really is only one more than three. But it is hard to think of this as anything but a pyrrhic victory at best. There is no realization, just a sort of defiance, dressed up by a well played rhyme. This sort of dry wit, which manages to wring insight out of cliché, sustains the album.
The low points of this album (which are, to be sure, never that low) are when Snider's wit takes a back seat. The earnest "Bring 'Em Home" is written from the perspective of a soldier longing for home; "I just enlisted like a lot of guys do / Hoping to maybe get a leg up on a dream or two." Here the bumper sticker slogan seems well intentioned, but lacks some of the depth of the album's stronger moments; here, the cliché is never really torqued, or transcended. The duet with Loretta Lynn, "Don't Tempt Me," is similarly fine in its way, but weak by comparison with the album's stronger moments.
The ability to build brilliance on cliché, to transform the well-worn and everyday into the sublime, is on full display in "America's Favorite Pastime." which narrates, à la "Casey at the Bat," Dock Ellis's 1979 no-hitter, pitched when (according to legend) he was high on LSD. Here the illusion manages to have real effects. Ellis hallucinates the field as a well iced birthday cake, imagines his arm as a gun and the ball as a silver bullet, but manages to succeed. Ellis emerges as a Sniderian hero, a figure whose completely idiosyncratic understanding of the world (here, chemically so) manages to succeed. "Hallucinating Halloween scenes each new swing of the bat, / His sinker looked like it was falling off a table / But nobody was hallucinatin' that."The song's chorus transforms yet another cliché.
I took a look all around the world one time,The final line seem unfinished; the words "finally discovered" call out for the rhyme that would complete this well-worn nugget of wisdom "You can't judge a book... by its cover." But Snider refuses. Against the pat wisdom that appearances can deceive (don't judge a book by its cover), Snider seems to throw out judgement itself.
I finally discovered,
You can't judge a book.
Perhaps the triumph of this sensibility is "Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)," a song that stands as a rejoinder to the sort of wisdom-literature-cum-vocal-performance that one finds in such classics as "Satisfied Mind" (written by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes, covered by The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash among others, though I was introduced to it by Jeff Buckley's phenomenal cover). In "Satisfied Mind," the singer speaks as world-weary authority, earnestly offering insight and wisdom:
How many times have you heard someone saySnider's song offers the very same wisdom, but from a speaker decidedly less convinced of its efficacy. The speaker is not the gnomic bard of "Satisfied Mind," but a songwriter trying to cadge one more song to round out an album. The song begins,
If I had his money, I would do things my way.
But little they know, that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.
A man once said that the pinnacle of success"Can't buy me love"; "the best things in life are free"--a well established pop music topos. And the speaker of this song is happy enough to pass it along one more time, even if he doesn't seem entirely convinced by it. The song continues,
Was when you finally lost interest
In money, compliments, and publicity.
A noble enough idea I supposeThere is something moralizing about even so great a song as "Satisfied Mind," which holds its nose to ascend beyond the grubby world of money to the realm of pure "mind." Snider offers the album's most wonderful bit of cliché-twisting brio later in the same song.
How on earth he does this heaven only knows.
I know I'd need a lot more of all three of those
Before I'd ever have the nerve to turn up my nose,
At any money, a compliment, some publicity.
If I ever do get my money togetherWritten out, such a sentiment seems downright misanthropic. But Snider's irony is always sufficiently self-conscious that any misanthropy is directed inwards before it escapes elsewhere. This cyncism is given a final, brilliant concluding turn:
I'm going to take care of all my friends
And buy an island, run a phone line,
Call them, and tell them all to get fucked
Oh, that ought to take care of them.
A man once said that the pinnacle of successCliché is exposed as packaged wisdom, another marketable and saleable commodity. But Snider is not superior to this process, but is right at its center.
Was when you finally lost interest
In money, compliments, and publicity.
Many years later, another man will say all that again
But not for the sake of inspiring men,
But rather 'cause he got nine songs and knows he needs at least ten
Before he can go back to town and turn 'em all in,
To get the money, the compliments, the publicity.
This fascination with cliché carries the album to its pleasantly rambling closing track, "Good Fortune." The concluding verse ends,
Enough about me, let's talk about you for a minute.Here as elsewhere, Snider's speaker is a sort of well intentioned failure ("let's talk about you for a minute / OK, maybe that's enough"). Crucially, the album ends with a reference to another cliché. Exactly what movie is this? Is it Lethal Weapon or Rush Hour he is referring to here? That, of course, is part of the joke. How can one really know "that one," when it is characterized in such formulaic terms? But Snider ends not by decrying cliché in favor of some more authentic experience, or even parodying it, so much as professing a love of it.
OK, maybe that's enough. But getting back to me,
You know my all time favorite movie
Is that one where those two cops who cannot stand each other,
But later under pressure learn to work together,
Become great partners even better friends,
And then that one says something funny, and the movie ends.
In transforming cliché Snider's album strives not for originality, so much as honesty. It doesn't reject cliché so much as expose the operations of one's investment in it.