Burning Hell song analyses #2: Nostalgia and Kings of the Animal Kingdom




This post will look at two very different songs, that provide two entirely different ways of presenting significant ideas. ‘Nostalgia’ as its name suggests is a song that offers examples of nostalgic contemplation, and then presents a brief buy brilliant assessment of what nostalgia is. Not didactic, exactly, it is nevertheless a kind of clear position piece. ‘Kings of theAnimal Kingdom’ by contrast, despite its much more over final assertion (We are the kings of the animal kingdom) is actually much more gnomic – somewhere between a parable and a fragment. I have offered links to the songs, and have annotated the lyrics – I hope that doesn’t get in the of reading them too much.

Nostalgia

The compact disc was the wave of the future
I had my first kiss and I liked it ok
April and I slow-danced to the Cocktailsoundtrack
‘Kokomo’ is still my favourite song to this day



Remember when John Stamos played the drums in The Beach Boys?
That’s the kind of thing that happened back then
Musicians guested on sit-coms and actors made albums
The late 80s was a fantastic time to be 10.

And one night I was watching The Lost Boys
With a girl who I liked and her friends
And when the vampires attached the hippies on the beach
She said she had a crush on Kiefer Sutherland



So for a while I wanted to be a vampire
A vampire like Kiefer, not like the guy who played Max
But my favourite scene is Tim Capello at the boardwalk
When he played that shirtless solo on his golden sax



In retrospect, it all seems spectacular
And I’d love to go back, But I broke my flux capacitor



And I tell ya, it’s just nostalgia
It’s as vague as a disease, like fibromyalgia
But instead of unexplained pain, it’s unexplained pleasure
Its buried deep in your brain like pirate treasure

And I know there’s lots that I’m forgetting
But I choose to remember the music and the heavy-petting
I think there was some heartbreak, and some humiliation
Which I guess is just part of a well-rounded education

God knows it wasn’t it wasn’t all rainbows and puppy dogs back then
‘round the time the 80s waited for the 90s to begin
But what good is an imagination, if you can’t pretend
‘cos after all, it’ll never be that good again
After all, it’ll never be that good again
After all,
It’ll never be that good again.


I love this song for many reasons, including the fact that, like many Burning Hell songs, it is prepared to shift its formal qualities as the emphasis and nuance of the piece shifts. There is no verse/chorus structure, rather a series of four quatrains rhyming abab, followed by a couplet that acts as a bridge between the first section of the song, and its conclusion. If the opening quatrains provide snapshots of memories located around erotic desire and cultural engagement (and the combination of the two), the second half is more of a reflection / speculation about how these memories  are constructed through and in the service of a nostalgia that purposefully occludes the potentially disruptive or damaging (‘humiliation’ is a necessary aspect of a well-rounded education, for example)./

The humiliation / education rhyme also marks an important difference between the two halves. The quatrains rely on simple lexis, an almost off-the-cuff-ness in how the lyrics unfold. The rhythms are (relatively) simple and the rhymes full and concluding, with the exception of the ‘friends’ / ‘Sutherland’ dyad whose half-rhyme feeds into the conclusion of the memory in the next stanza where the conversational drift from wanting to be a vampire, but like the one guy and not the other, ends with the most deliciously perfect and, simultaneously unexpected and inevitable rhyme with ‘Max’ / ‘sax’. The dropping in of proper names of musicians, songs, bands, films provides concrete, straightforward recollections of the period he’s reminiscing about.

This changes in the bridge couplet. For a start, the rhymes occur over two lines not four. And they become much more adventurous. The explicit mention of movie names is replaced by allusion as Kom laments the breakage of his flux capacitor (which provides the title of the album), a reference that requires knowledge of the film Back to the Future which, of course, neatly ties his longing for the period to the song’s celebration of pop culture from the time.

The reflective part of the song, not unexpectedly, mentions nostalgia, but in an amazingly precocious use of simile he likens the ‘vague’ concept with the relatively mysterious disease fibromyalgia. I’m not sure there have been many more audacious rhymes in pop music history. Having compared and contrasted the two, he asserts that nostalgia is about pleasure which is hidden like pirate treasure. The image allows for a kind of self-pilfering that then leads into the self-justificatory partial history where he chooses memories like heavy petting, even as he knows there’s other stuff that he’s forgetting.

The song ends with a beautifully plaintive lament that is given added pathos by its setting up through half rhyme (the always not-quite-but-nearly form of rhyme). Extolling the virtue of creativity and imagination, he insists on a certain kind of pretence that nostalgia enacts but then justifies this, the joy of the pretend, because things will never be as good again. Nostalgia is not just unexplained joy or pleasure; it’s the residual knowledge of a permanent disbarment from that which was better: it is the memorialisation of lack, and the song does an amazing job of offering us this insight.


Kings of the animal kingdom

Well Cheryl had a dog named Skip that she loved to bits
He had big sad eyes and he was gentle around the kids
He could do tricks that would amaze ya
But he developed hip dysplasia
The veterinarian said it’s surgery or euthanasia

Cheryl asked how much it would cost to get Skip sorted
The vet said if you have to ask then you can’t afford it
She could barely make the rent
She said, “Skip, you know you’re my best friend.”
She made sure he couldn’t see the needle at the end

She hummed the bass-line to ‘North Window’ by The Inbreds just to keep from crying
She took the bus down town ‘cos she was too upset to drive



Well, once upon a time there was a 10 year old boy named Dave
He liked cars and karate and he hardly ever mis-behaved
He got it into his little boy head
He didn’t want to eat anything dead
He told his parents, “No meat for me please: just French fries and bread.”

Well, Dave’s daddy was a dude who didn’t deal with dissent too good
He said, “While you’re under my roof I want this clearly understood:
You’ll eat whatever mama is making,
Be it Beef, baby back ribs, or bacon.”
And he slammed his fists down on the table so hard, it set the silverware shaking.

Well, Dave got sent to his room and he lay on his bed
And said, “I wonder where my real parents are.”
And he cried himself to sleep under a ceiling full of
Glow in the dark
Stars

If there are victory bells, we should ring them
If there are victory songs, we should sing them
‘cos we are the kings of the animal kingdom
we are the kings of the animal kingdom
we are the kings of the animal kingdom

As with ‘Nostalgia’, this song has no verse / chorus structure, and chooses to establish formal parameters, only to upset and reject them. Musically, the first two verses are mournful, with minor key violins adding pathos to the already heart-breaking stories.

The two stories are both themselves fragments of narrative but nevertheless provide essentially full – if attenuated – stories. Both are, in different ways, about animals, but there is no narrative link, and even the animal connection is muted. It’s as if we have two related but distinct parables, each with a different (quite oblique) moral.

Formally, they are brilliant. Both begin with five-line stanzas rhymed aabbb but with the rhymes being a mixture of half and full, and also demonstrating the dizzying felicity we saw in Nostalgia. Rhyming ‘ya’ / ‘dysplasia’ / ‘’euthanasia’ is a feat worthy of some kind of commendation, especially as it avoids any semblance of cleverness for its own sake, and instead sets up the horrible truth of the second stanza, where again the aabbb structure lends itself to a pathos-ridden half-rhyme tear-fest: ‘rent’ / ‘friend’ / ‘end’.

But then, as is so often the case, the structure shifts and we have a two-line section, un-rhymed that has no conclusion – just two images of grief, two fragments of pain (the reference to the Inbreds’ song may or may not be because the video references a vet – I leave such speculation for future scholars…)

The next verse shifts stories to Dave. His rhymes are simple and full ‘head’ / ‘dead’ / ‘bread’. His deliriously alliterative dad has more complex and incomplete rhymes, but in the way of these things, can still silence his poor, would-be vegetarian son ‘making’ / bacon’ / ‘shaking’.

Dave’s tear-laden hope that he is adopted seems to suggest (as written) a full rhyme ‘are’ / ‘starts’ but as played, the vocal delays, the music changes both key and time signature and the effect is disarming and foreboding, and leads into the song’s conclusion, the curiously upbeat declaration of Humanity’s ascendancy over the animals and the need to celrbate this.

It is a weird, troubling, saddening and worrying piece. Formally complex and allusive; hinting not saying. Together these songs provide a real sense of just what song-writers can do when they move beyond tired clich├ęs and love songs.


The next Burning Hell post will be of a love song.


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