Savages – Silence Yourself (Pop Noire/Matador)
By Scott Creney
Man, that band name’s a fucking misnomer, isn’t it? This record doesn’t have a hair out of place, an unplanned thought in its overwrought head. They were kidding right? It’s meant to be ironic? I know, we’ll call ourselves Savages! That’s hilarious!
Silence Yourself is in complete control of itself — its intentions, what it hopes to accomplish. It doesn’t have a savage bone in its body.
It sounds, in a production sense, amazing. A rock record that explodes out of the speakers, it works well enough as texture, sonic sculptures and all that. Just don’t listen too closely or dig too deeply, because when all’s said and done there isn’t a whole lot here to get excited about. Silence Yourself gets worse every time I listen to it. I’m a little past a dozen right now, and after the last one I had to listen to The Slits’ Peel Sessions for an hour straight to wash Savages out of my ears, to remind me of what music can accomplish, just how much life you can cram into a song.
I just hope you don’t buy the album expecting to be surprised. I hope you’re not one of those people who value spontaneity. Everything about Savages feels staged, premeditated, mapped out in advance, a brutal cartoon. Look, just because Silence Yourself is more compelling (and it is) than say, Palma Violets, or Peace, or Haim, or any of the tired played-out dishwater shit that makes up IPC-sanctioned Contemporary UK Indie Incorporated, doesn’t mean it’s good. They’re just the brightest bulb in a botanical garden filled with blank, withered, colorless tulips.
When people say it makes more sense when you see them live, that’s usually a surefire sign that their record going to suck. And I dare you to find me a review of Silence Yourself that doesn’t mention Savages’ live show.
Though I don’t doubt that Savages in person might hold my attention in a way that Silence Yourself does not.
I understand the music world has a business to run, but why does it have to be as dull, careerist, empty and oblivious as everything else in the world these days?
Hey, here’s a question: How come every review I’ve read about this band so far is positive, but every single review feels compelled to lash out against the band’s naysayers? Why all this pre-emptive criticism? Shouldn’t y’all at least wait for the backlash to actually begin before you start pushing against it?
So I guess you can start pushing now.
Look, I don’t enjoy writing this review. I’m disappointed because I had hoped (though as the songs kept appearing I became less and less hopeful) that Savages might make, at the very least, an interesting album. What’s worse, I feel like I’m telling all the UK media/publicists that there’s no Santa Claus — not even the emperor has no clothes, more like the emperor only wears black and why do you think that’s interesting?
Thing is, I’d look past all this (some of this) if every song was up to the standard of ‘Husbands’, but they aren’t even close.
The first time I heard ‘Husbands’ it stopped me in my tracks. I thought something might be happening here, but it’s been all downhill for me and Savages ever since. It’s still their best moment, their best set of lyrics, their best singing, their most excitement, their most hooks, the one song in their catalog that I actually want to hear again.
And it’s still the only one. I know The Album is dead as an artform, as a music-consumption device, and all that, but seriously after 18 months this is the best they can do?
Not the shock of the new so much as the comfort of the old. The “I like stuff that sounds like the stuff I already like” branch of the rock’n’roll fanclub meets here. This is the part where those people reflexively shout “ THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ORIGINALITY!” Of course, when confronted with an artist who does thing differently, these same people mock them. They can’t play their instruments! They don’t know what they’re doing! This is terrible! Is this some kind of joke?
If you think rock is about learning the rules and then successfully demonstrating your knowledge of these rules, then Savages is the band for you.
Tamsin calls it MAMOR — Middle-Aged-Man-Oriented-Rock. She’s a sharp one, that Tamsin.
I don’t give a shit about originality. But I do give a shit what you do with your influences — are they a springboard or an albatross? Have you swallowed them whole or do you wear them on your sleeve like a fashion accessory. I’m not looking for something new, but I am looking for something you.
I won’t be the first person to point any of this out. I may, however, be the first person to follow this train of thought all the way into the station.
It’s like Siouxsie — only less.
It’s like Joy Division — only less.
It’s like The Birthday Party — only less.
It’s, in places, like the first U2 album — only less.
I’m not asking for originality. I’m just asking for more. I want to hear one influence that isn’t already pre-approved by a bunch of old white dudes. I want to hear one influence that isn’t already part of the accepted canon — I can’t help thinking that if this were 1985 the critics falling all over themselves for Savages right now would be massive Whitesnake fans because Whitesnake sounded like Led Zeppelin the greatest rock band of all time, not like this Replacements/Husker Du/Minutemen/Mary Chain bullshit. Meet the new orthodoxy, same as the old orthodoxy only this time with better taste. (Or is it? I’m starting to wonder.)
I want to be surprised. This is predictable. All of it — the music, the press, the interviews, the uniforms, the manifestos, the coolness, the coldness — so tired, so uninspir(ed)ing — so tedious. There’s a record to be sold, a marketplace to consolidate, credibility to be claimed.
I’ve already seen Silence Yourself called a triumph, and it is — a triumph of projection on the part of the UK media.
I keep reading that Savages say something about the times we live in, but nobody ever tells me exactly what it is. Maybe that’s because what Savages is saying doesn’t make any sense. Now I love misdirection and scattershot incoherence as much as the next person, but like what the fuck is all this about?
Their manifesto sure says something alright — it says they’re not all that bright. Not because I’m offended, but because I literally have no idea what point they’re trying to make (which between you & me is one of the most important part of a goddamn manifesto). It seems to say that we’re all overstimulated by too much information and so everyone’s shallow now — not like the enlightened days of… 1972?… 1956?… 1924? Savages doesn’t say when the world had the proper number of voices, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume that they aren’t idealizing a time when the only voice most people heard was their small-town newspaper and most non-dominant views/people were so marginalized that they scarcely existed.
But you know, if you want to make a case for that, the poem allows it. It seems personally upset that anyone can say whatever they want to, upset with the leveling power of equal access. We can piss and moan about these things all we want, but social media and web culture present a world where there is no centralized power, and this, based on their manifesto (which is on the cover of their album so we can go ahead and use the M word here), pisses Savages off. Not globalization, not the inherent structural violence of capitalism, not even puppy torture. The problem in this goddamned world is TOO MANY VOICES.
But then it goes further — the problem isn’t too many voices, the problem is all voices, i.e. the whole world needs to shut up. Everyone. Except for Savages, I’m assuming, since they’re the ones with all the answers (and because they, in a real artistic fuckup, keep saying you instead of we — as if they’re somehow exempt from this phenomenon). Not forever, just for a while (a fortnight perhaps? a bank holiday?). And then we can all like catch our breaths and put everything back together.
The fact that this putting everything (everything?!) back together line comes immediately after the bit about how we’ve already deconstructed everything (I can think of a couple more things that need deconstructing, just off the top of my head) makes me stop and wonder. If deconstruction was about undoing certain received wisdoms that dominate western thought, isn’t this poem/manifesto arguing that they should be rebuilt? And then to end the last line with silence yourself? Who exactly are they talking to?
Conservative with a lower case c, Savages are such bad poets they don’t (I’m assuming) realize they’ve written a manifesto that would make Thatcher proud. Seriously, it idealizes a golden age that never existed, bemoans the diversity of voices in the culture, and longs for rational simplification in the face of messiness.
Freedom is messy. Democracy is the process of everyone talking at once — an endless series of negotiations and protest, advocacy and compromise. It works best when nobody is silenced.
For the record — and I’m going to write this next part in big letters so I’m not misunderstood — I DON’T THINK SAVAGES ARE A BUNCH OF ANTI-DEMOCRATIC THATCHERITES. At the very least, they’re savvy enough to know that anti-democratic manifestos aren’t going to play well in The Guardian. But the poem reveals something very important about the band.
Savages try so hard — they try to be interesting, try to be smart, try to be special. But they try too hard. They overreach themselves. And the effort is so palpable, so foregrounded, that it makes the album exhausting to listen to, demanding in the worst sense.
Take the tuneless, hysterical dreck of ‘Strife’. Again, the enthusiasts keep insisting Savages are saying something, so why can’t I figure it out? And why don’t these enthusiasts ever go into specifics?
They wonder how we do it/They ask me if I care/They wonder how come the years/Haven’t sought more lovers tear
Um… ”Haven’t sought more lovers tear”? You don’t need me to point out this is terrible, do you?
They question that it’s true/A love that never wilts/And they must seek you there/Where furies smite young slits
Remember earlier when I said it’s best not to dig too deeply? To listen too closely?
Since the lyrics are, at best, incoherent scattershot nonsense, it’s left to the interviews to outline what Savages are saying (and the only reason I’m looking is b/c, again, I keep reading that this is a band that is NOT mere entertainment — they’ve got something to say, man).
Check out last week’s Pitchfork feature.
Beth says Hostile’s role in her liberation means she can’t call herself a feminist. Although she agrees with the movement’s aims for equality, she has misgivings about its wider motivations and is fascinated when women put a feminist reading on Savages. “They tell me they think pornography is bad for women and assume I’m going to understand,” she says. “The thing is, I watch a lot of pornography. It’s been very important for me, to liberate myself from the pressure of romanticism, the myth of a woman’s pleasure.”
Again, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt (though at this point I’m getting a little tired of having to do this). Let’s assume that when she says “the myth of a woman’s pleasure” what she’s actually talking about is “traditional preconceptions about a woman’s pleasure”, that she doesn’t literally think woman’s pleasure is a myth (though, again, you could interpret it that way if you wanted to). But what’s this shit about how she can’t call herself a feminist because her boyfriend (Jehnny’s s/o is a guy who calls himself Johnny Hostile, and no he is not 12 years old) has helped her?
Here’s some more from last week’s feature, discussing a song on the album called ‘Hit Me’ — and no, it’s not about playing blackjack:
I took a beating today/And that was the best I ever had,” Beth moans, adopting the perspective of her favorite porn star, Belladonna, who gained widespread notoriety following a 2003 Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer in which she cried about some of her experiences, and subsequently became used as a strawman for porn’s “manipulative evils” by lobbyists. (She spoke out afterwards about how Primetime’s editing misrepresented her as a victim.)
Well I’m glad Jehnny Beth isn’t using Belladonna (the lyrics have for Belladonna written at the top) as a strawman — just singing in the first person about how much she loves getting beat up. “Hit me with your hands,” the song continues. “Oh it’s the only way I ever learn.”
The edginess of ‘Hit Me’ feels obvious, put there to shock, to complicate, to signify. Like, am I supposed to be impressed? This is just cheap thrills in other people’s misery and a pathetic attempt to say something profound. It’s meant to titillate, pure and simple — I doubt we’ll ever hear Jehnny Beth talk about the Myth of Male Pleasure.
Savages go on to say they make music to fuck on the floor to, and it’s an apt comparison, the first thing I’ve heard them say that actually makes sense.
Because like floor-fucking, Savages sounds great in theory, but in practice turns out to be seriously overrated — and I say this as someone who has floor-fucked from the top and the bottom, on both hardwood and carpet. But like everything Savages, it’s not there to communicate, it’s there for effect (and trying to get people hot and bothered over your taste for the rough stuff isn’t much of a statement). In lyrics and interviews, it’s become apparent that Savages persist in the juvenile belief (one they really should have outgrown by now) that fornication makes you an interesting person, and variance from traditional sex norms makes you somehow edgier and more dangerous than those with less variance.
So I guess if Justin Bieber shoves a big camouflage dildo up his ass this makes him relevant?
And I’m not saying this as a prude. Shit, I once engaged in actual real-life full-on unprotected fornication while driving 80mph eastbound on Interstate 10 towards Arizona. I once received a blowjob, to completion, while the benefactress carried on a phone conversation with her father. I once — well, you get the idea. My point being, NONE OF THIS SAYS ANYTHING ABOUT ME AT ALL. They’re decent stories and all (though the one where I sing Karaoke to a stadium of 50,000 booing baseball fans in Chicago is better — it ends w/me waving a Red Sox hat in front of the camera and yelling Chicago sucks as they cut my microphone), but come on, even meth-head Florida rednecks can do better than fucking on the floor.
And you probably shouldn’t buy those people’s album either.
Everything about this record reeks of conservatism, right down to the last deviant sexual fetish and the drummer bringing a copy of The Fountainhead to the Pitchfork interview (+1 journalism points to the interviewer for mentioning it, but -25 journalism points for not actually, you know, asking her about it).
They try so hard to be significant that it ends up working against them, the difference between trying to sound smart and just being smart. Silence Yourself crumbles under the misbalanced ambitions of its creators. Shit lyrics, shit tunes, shit ideas… equals a shit record no matter how you dress it up. If this is the best UK Indie has to show for itself (hint: it isnt’), it’s in even bigger trouble than we thought.
Silence Yourself stinks of theatre, of school play contrivance and affectation for the sake of affect. I don’t mind illusion and artifice, but illusion and artifice that insists its real and demands you take it seriously as such just wears me out. And 20 years from now this silly little record isn’t going to mean shit to anyone aside from its creators and their immediate friends and family.
“…something about this performance for the press, no matter how authentic others claimed it to be, felt forced, staged, an innocuously deceptive put-on. In the constant comparisons to Joy Division, Wire, and Clinic, there reigned one unspoken truth among the words: the band’s domination of the critical hive-mind came from the fact that, in everything Savages did, they were channeling not women, but men.” (Playing Fair)
“In my head it’s 1978, not that it is anywhere else. Obviously. I’m just saying I remember early Factory Records, I remember Malaria!, I remember bands that battled with demons that were all the more scary for being real, and I remember being never quite sure where it was all going to end up.” (Song of the day – 471: Savages)
“Savages. They aren’t.” (Savages | the three-word review + REVIEWED IN PICTURES)
“1. That I (we) care if Savages are manufactured.
Wrong. My (our) ultimate concern is the music. And the Savages debut album is a crushing, lacklustre disappointment (especially after the barbed promise of last year’s ‘Husbands’ – c.f. Song of the day 471: Savages). Haven’t I (we) spent the last couple of years arguing against the necessity of authenticity in pop (see sample posts, here and here)? Don’t I lecture week in, week out, about how intentions and deliberation – though important – count for next to nothing next to the music itself? I like it, for Bang’s sake, when musicians and the folk surrounding musicians think about what they’re doing. Why is it ever considered a minus?” (Ten misconceptions about Collapse Board and Savages)