In Galaxie 500’s incredible On Fire, the opener “Blue Thunder” immediately places the album—and the listener—into a state of motion. The iconic refrain of “I’ll drive so far away” never really addresses the place from which the speaker is so intent on leaving, letting the focus rest on the act of departure and the imagined “elsewhere” to which we’re going and being taken. Money’s sophomore album Suicide Songs is at times thematically and sonically reminiscent (with singer Jamie Lee even belting “I’m on fire” in “Night Came”), positing suicidal ideation as an act of departure from the self, offering a framework through which to explore and complicate the notion of identity formation as simultaneously oppressive and liberating.
At first glance, the cover art—in conjunction with the title—anticipates a maudlin, potentially even macabre rumination on death and decay; however, the opener “I Am the Lord,” with its lush, warm build of egg shakers and Indian strings, immediately undermines this expectation and positions the album as not just a story of crucifixion, but a story of resurrection. This image of the knife on Lee’s forehead becomes, then, more than just an anticipation of death as it asks us whether the knife is falling or balancing, and, resultantly, both the degree to which human agency is achievable and the complications of exerting such agency. Meshes of the Afternoon, a foundational 1943 experimental film from Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, predates this motif by heavily and repeatedly emphasizing the image of a falling knife throughout the film’s interrogation of the illusory nature of identity, a motif that would go on to appear throughout numerous other works since then. Building upon a tradition of the knife as this symbol, Suicide Songs goes beyond simply envisioning death as an escape, calling into question what it means for us to partake in such a projection and the role of the self in the process.
The second track “I’m Not Here,” sonically reminiscent of some mix of Phosphorescent’s slow-burning “Song for Zula,” My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed,” and some growly punk band I can’t think of, begins with the line “All illusions have been revealed,” continuing the exploration of the nature of identity while also highlighting a divide between the physical body and the more elusive soul. “Let me take you with me, ‘cus I’m going out of my mind,” Lee continues, a subtle inversion of the classic line from The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” building on the dimensionality he gives to the self and the directionality he gives to its formation while simultaneously implicating the listener in the endeavor that is this album for him.
It’s impossible to talk about this album fairly without a comparison to The Smiths. If we’re being honest though, I never ‘got’ The Smiths and thus refuse to lend them as much credence as they probably deserve. Money, however, does seem to offer a sort of purposeful departure and progression from the whines of Morrissey and looks upward, much more akin to Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen… or Let It Come Down, with some of Jason Pierce’s best moments coming when he fully gives himself to the Gospel (see: “Won’t Get to Heaven” or “Lord Can You Hear Me”) (also of note: Let It Come Down‘s opener is titled “On Fire”–sound familiar? eh??). For Pierce, we see a constant source of power in his music coming from the tensions between between his inner world and the outer world, between the self and the Spirit, or between the individual and the divine, with ultimate transcendence coming from a dissolution of this self. On Suicide Songs too, Lee incorporates some of the same gospel overtones, with both “I’m Not Here” and the centerpiece “Night Came,” but also most poignantly nearer the end with “All My Life.” Rather than Pierce’s turn outward in his search for redemption, Lee, here, complicates this exertion of agency by asking to be held close but also noting his attempt at finding a sense of peace with himself, proclaiming, “I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, but I’m ashamed of what I’ve done.” If this line were inverted, it might paint a simpler, more linear picture of resolution, but it doesn’t; rather, he provides us a picture of the past and the present together and fully inseparable. He continues, “I will meet you in the garden,” implicating the future and the sense of hope as also tied up in this picture and maintaining that, for him, identity is necessarily all of these together wrapped into one. He concludes, “Only time will tell” before transitioning into the closer “A Cocaine Christmas and An Alcoholic’s New Year,” leaving us with a simple, somber, and surprisingly sweet ballad of resolution that feels, in his words, ugly yet completely beautiful.
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