Yes Darling, But Is It Art?
The record titles say it all: Live Through This, The Downward Spiral, One Foot in the Grave. In the alternative rock scene it's currently cool to wear your torment and anguish on your sleeve. Courtney Love, Trent Reznor, and scores of other rockers shriek and wail like expressionist caricatures, giving the impression that they're suffering cataclysmic torments that would crush lesser, banal wretches like you and me.
It's refreshing, then, to encounter someone a bit more objective about his suffering, like Dan Treacy, leader of Britain's Television Personalities. Treacy has struggled with depression, made worse by drug and alcohol abuse, during his band's obscure 15-year history, but he details his trials and tribulations with an unassuming candor and a self-deprecating humor that invites the listener to identify with his problems rather than be clobbered by them.
On the band's 1992 LP Closer to God, Treacy reviewed his checkered past in the song "Hard Luck Story Number 39."
It happened all too quickly
I was too young
I had too much
Before I'd even begun
But I'm feeling much better now
I've only just begun
And soon I know my day will come
Don't get me wrong
It's not hard luck story number 39.
Treacy is one of the few alternative rockers who isn't afraid to critique the values and ethics of his own milieu. Long a foe of mainstream political, social, and religious conformity, Treacy has also cast a sardonic eye on youth culture's mob mentality, which rockers often reinforce.
In the late 70s punk rock inspired Treacy to pick up a guitar and start writing songs, though his early ones were influenced by a previous generation's heroes: John Lennon, Syd Barrett, and Ray Davies. The Television Personalities' debut record And Don't the Kids Just Love It (1980) was a unique mix of shaggy punk playing, whimsical psychedelia, and raggedly tuneful song craft all overlaid with Treacy's artless Cockney-cloaked singing. Lyrically, the record contained salvos of bitterness and frustration, but they were sandwiched between recollections of childhood friends, imaginary lunches with acid casualty Syd Barrett, and moments of emotionally naked introspection. With its blend of childlike naivete and scruffy anger, And Don't the Kids Just Love It is one of the oddest yet most human artifacts of the punk era.
Over the course of ensuing records, Treacy refined his songwriting and began penning lyrics that examined the problem of maintaining personal integrity in the face of widespread pressure to conform. In 1983, as Treacy began sliding into depression, his band delivered a dark, troubled masterpiece called The Painted Word.
The Painted Word, rather than being a monument to Treacy's own suffering, looked outward, examining an array of stunted lives. The songs boast some of the group's most poignant and melodic music. "A Life of Her Own" is the tale of a teenage mother who, overwhelmed by caring for her family, suddenly sees herself as old and half dead. "Mentioned in Dispatches" tells the story of an unemployed kid who joins the army to escape the dole and is killed in the Falkland Islands. "The Girl Who Had Everything" recalls a young celebrity wannabe whose obsession with fame leads her to an anonymous death in poverty from an overdose. Still, The Painted Word was more than a gallery of despair; it was an indictment of the personal and social flaws that destroy lives.
In his more recent work, Treacy targets pop culture and the fashionably decadent lifestyles that often accompany it. The first tune on Closer to God describes a meeting with an acquaintance of Treacy's who asks: "Would you like to see my scars / The brand new needle marks?" To which Treacy replies: "Wearing your sins like a new tattoo / Can't imagine why I don't envy you." Likewise "The Engine Driver Song" on Privilege (1989) turns the tables on rock cliche with the story of a girl who flees her family to live with friends in the city, but returns home "to the ones who love her most" after she discovers that her friends rather than her family are manipulative and petty. Treacy's willingness to question what might be his audience's values undoubtedly contributed to the band's longtime cult status.
Yes Darling, But Is It Art? is a compilation of rare Television Personalities material from throughout their career. It charts Treacy's growth from a ham-fisted punk rocker to a more polished and melodic, though very idiosyncratic, songwriter. Almost half the material predates the band's debut record and captures the early TVPs with all of their awkward sincerity. But even Treacy's early lyrics reveal a wry and ruminative mind. The songs "Part Time Punks" and "Posing at the Roundhouse" ridicule those whose "punkness" had more to do with clothes and hair than selfless integrity.
The second half of Yes Darling, But Is It Art? testifies to Treacy's developing songcraft, though it just scratches the surface of his more recent lyrical preoccupations. "God Snaps His Fingers" weds a sharp guitar hook to an angry declaration of agnosticism while the mid-80s underground classic "How I Learned to Love the Bomb" is an appropriately black-humored update of Dr. Strangelove. The LP also boasts one of the group's rarest and best singles, "That's What Love Is." Over a churning rhythm section and a wistfully beautiful melody, Treacy sings a series of romantic cliches each ending in a terse and bitter one-line chorus: "Is that what love is?" The juxtaposition of the fake and the real memorably encapsulates the Television Personalities' enduring worth.