Alternate versions: ‘Happily divided’ Sebadoh (Bubble and Scrape, 1993)*

For me this song by Sebadoh – the ‘representative’ lo-fi, independent US group from the 1990s, perhaps – is the perfect example of a song that has a united front, but still makes space for subtlety and nuance, largely because of the ambiguous lyrics that move me each time I hear them.

In much recent music I hear a kind of faux-simplicity and conscious under-development, via an emphasis on highly sibilant sounds and absence of the lower registers (where is the bass-line, hidden there somewhere maybe) but too often the vocalist and/or lyrics undermine this impulse towards the essential; often becoming preachy, or didactic. Where is the space of the listener here? 

Music gains its power, like any non-representative art-from, via its ability to make us feel. I don’t look towards music as a potential teacher (though I know this is not the case for everyone, many say how they were ‘educated’ in the best possible sense by Public Enemy, so be it). 

Yesterday I listened to a record by a neo-soul artist with an abundance of talent and noticed how the producers seemed to be influenced by the philosophy of a kind of anti-production style, just like the lo-fi pioneers … The problem for me, though, lay in the way the under-stated music was weakened by the explicit nature of the lyrics and position of the singer.

Make some spaces, leave gaps, I kept thinking, cut it back to allow the darkness, and ambiguity in. Not all human experience benefits from a harsh light, make space for the shadows. I want to hear your uncertainty, all those things you don’t know, but feel or sense.

Oppression, sadness and all kinds of suffering work on a bodily level, as sensations and are felt as humiliation and the shame associated with being weak, it can’t be explained via maxims and slogans (and can’t be named using the words of the academy, we need to find new tools to dismantle the master’s house ….)

Here are the lyrics to this song that come close to poetry for me:

Of these times, it’s well we make the most
Boredom fabricated as you’re going down each other’s throats
And I’m so excited, happily divided
Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you’re bigger than you really are
Pretending you’re bigger than you really are
Happily divided
Yeah, you’re big, only when your numbers grow
All dressed up with nowhere to go
So excited
Happily divided

On the studio version, the sway of the understated beat and the low vocals are perfectly in-synch in terms of mood, but what I love – among other things – is the constant feeling of no-release, the music appears to build, but doesn’t (no room of show-off guitar solos here). This frustration is perfectly in keeping  with the sarcastic tone of the lyrics, ‘I’m so excited …’

The section just under a minute in touches me, and could be my favourite lyrics of all time: ‘Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you're bigger than you really are …’

That moment when the backing vocals come in offering a surprising warmth – as if the vocalist is not alone, even if it sounds like his voice (he is echoing himself) - and the crinkly sounds of the guitar in the background provide a wonderful contrast, in keeping with the atmosphere of the song before and after.

‘Pretending … that … you’re bigger … than you really are …’

Not so long ago I found this recording of ‘Happily divided’ from a radio session in Holland, which is beautiful for the guitar track and the way the vocalist plays around with the delivery. Be careful, if listening on headphones, as the added musical excursions (those seconds of experimental piano) gave me a bit of a shock when they came in.

*In praise of shadows – Tanizaki; In praise of darkness – Borges …