My Dark Places
Dozens of fabulous little records spun out of England in the heady years after punk broke down the doors, but none topped the Television Personalities' 1978 debut single, "14th Floor," and the four-song follow-up EP Where's Bill Grundy Now? The TVPs didn't sound terribly punk; with their playful demeanor, charming early-Kinks-style melodies, and on-the-cheap proto-indie-rock production values (much of their early material was recorded in jingle studios with cardboard-box acoustics), they were more like precursors to the Clean and Beat Happening. What bandleader Daniel Treacy took from punk was its commingling of adolescent boredom and working-class frustration--which his precocious gift for social observation transformed into lyrics as sharp, ingratiating, and witty as Ray Davies's best.
Those early platters (since collected on Yes Darling, but Is It Art?) showed enormous promise, and throughout their career the TVPs attracted earnest and powerful patrons. John Peel talked up a test pressing of "14th Floor" on the air, which helped Treacy persuade his parents to loan him the money for the single's first proper run, and in 1991, during the post-Nevermind frenzy, Kurt Cobain invited the band to open for Nirvana in London. But Treacy has never become a star. He quit recording and touring in 1996, after seven LPs, and has spent most of the intervening years strung out on heroin, either living on the streets or serving time for petty thefts he committed to support his habit. He's stayed off the narcotics since the end of his last prison term almost two years ago, but on his blog he admits he still can't keep a room--he's been in and out of hostels, periodically homeless, sometimes crashing with his sister--much less hang onto a girlfriend. But he has put the Television Personalities back together, with a lineup that includes original bassist Ed Ball and two newcomers, drummer Mathew Sawyer and singer Victoria Yeulet. Discounting live recordings and odds-and-sods collections, the new My Dark Places is the band's first album in 11 years.
The first thing that hits you about the disc is its messiness--it's not stitched up any tighter than Treacy is. The bouncy keyboard-based novelties are cluttered with distracting digressions--synth horns blurt out a quote from Lohengrin ("Here Comes the Bride") on a tune called "Velvet Underground"--and the rockers are awash in sloppy guitar noise. Treacy skips hyperactively from stumble punk to acidic disco to confessional piano ballads to spoken recitations, and his songs overflow with bitterness, resentment, hurt, and desperate need. The opener, "Special Chair," is set in a council estate (that's English for housing project) like the one in "14th Floor," but it replaces that old tune's peculiarly British combination of dreariness and jollity with unrelieved gloom. Tangled up in guitar fuzz, the song lurches like Frankenstein, and the people populating its lyrics are all dreading the imminent return of their least favorite neighbor, a violent convict who's been serving time for aggravated burglary. Not at all by coincidence, that was Treacy's last conviction.
Next up is the record's first single, built on an enervated version of the "We Will Rock You" beat and cheekily titled "All the Young Children on Crack." Even in a time when "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp" can win an Oscar, it's supremely perverse to make your breakout track a shout-out to underage heroin and cocaine abusers. Treacy explains his sympathy for fucked-up kids in three singsong lines tucked away in the song's bridge: "I don't believe that anyone is born bad / I don't believe that anyone is born sad / But some people are born mad."
That's mad as in "crazy," not "angry." Mental illness has been a recurring theme in the TVPs' music since "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives," a supremely twee ditty released as the band's fourth single in 1981. Treacy came clean about his own bouts with depression in an interview with Option in 1992 and sang about them at length on the last two albums before his long silence, Closer to God and I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod. But he's never depicted its impact upon his behavior and relationships as nakedly as he does on My Dark Places. The way Treacy sings the word "mad" on "All the Young Children" betrays a bit of his old impish glee, but the firsthand view of wounded narcissism, psychotic rage, and bottomless loneliness he provides on the spoken-word number "Ex-Girlfriend Club" is nothing to laugh at. Accompanied by melodramatic piano and melodica figures, Treacy heaps abuse on the women who've left him, all the while demonstrating quite plainly why they did. After three minutes of increasingly desperate invective, he turns pleading and pathetic--caught with crack in hand, he cries, "Don't be fooled by the rocks, I'm still Danny from the block!"
The album's lighter moments feel like throwaways, but this kind of heaviness makes their frivolity a welcome relief. "She Can Stop Traffic" is a giddy two-chord, three-line fragment that seems to exist mostly so Treacy can dump guitar noise all over it. In the rollicking boogie-woogie trifle "Velvet Underground" he snarkily dismisses artistic aspirations ("Art? What is art, exactly?"), opines that the Velvet Underground's sound is the eighth wonder of the world, and admits that he never finished the song.
Treacy likes the Velvets' sound so much, in fact, that he nicked it for the album's loveliest moment: the gorgeous viola-and-glockenspiel melody that winds through "No More I Hate You's," which recalls the poetic opening track from The Velvet Underground & Nico, "Sunday Morning." That song paints a scenario of marveling at the world after an all-nighter, but Treacy has no doubt stayed up till dawn a few too many times to buy into its stoned, sleep-deprived optimism. Though his lyrics offer up a kind of hope that's likewise born of exhaustion, there's nothing romantic about his outlook. With levelheaded gratitude, he talks about what's left of a relationship after both love and hate have died down--a quiet core of shared history and sheer presence. Yeulet's reassuring coo shadows his rueful delivery of the lines "It's all gone / You're still there / I swear now there's no more I hate yous." But a sampled male voice weaves a strand of ugliness into the song, suggesting that what sounds like a final bottoming-out may just be the eye of the storm. "You asked me to make a record of me voice; well here it is," it snarls. "What you want me to say is I love you. In truth I hate you, you little slut."
With that gesture Treacy proves he's still got it, and that he'll never make it. His observations are as merciless as they ever were, but they're turned inward--the shambles he's made of his own life has taken over as his subject matter. It's one thing to make a compelling record out of that stuff, and Treacy certainly has. It's practically a self-canceling proposition to try to make a career out of it.