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Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Transcontinental Drift
Lyricists’ Watch

Debut EP from jazz-punk band Lyricists’ Watch, “Transcontinental Drift” is a roadtrip concept album with an unusual destination, and much to ponder before it gets there.  The album title alone– playing as it does on an aimless drifter crossing the continent and the unstoppable surge of tectonic plates in the Earth’s crust– lets us know that we will be encountering some serious word smithery.

And with all 10 songs combined onto a single 28 minute track, listening to “Transcontinental Drift” becomes a journey unto itself.

Let’s get our ponder on.

The album opens with one booming, sustained chord, then distorted acoustic guitar feedback kicks on for a full ten seconds. A jazzy riff is introduced, but the feedback dominates the sonic profile, panning in full stereo as it swells and ebbs and peaks for over 50 seconds. The CD back cover and band website tell us that this number is called “Bells”. 

Then come the first lyrics from Lyricists’ Watch, more barked than sung or spoken, “I’m Sam Spade”. Sam Spade is the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in the classic film noir “the Maltese Falcon”, so we suddenly have a 1st person character– a main character, a protagonist. This journey will be a subjective one, a personal journey as well as a geographical one.  

In “Night of Good Luck”, the second number on the long track, the first with any real song structure, we get to know this Sam Spade character a little bit better. He’s a wild one, alright– “kickin’ my feet and I’m howling at the moon”– yet he seems to have a sense of whimsy, too– “dance in the darkness to a video game tune”.  The chorus sounds, “deep after dark on a night of good luck”, and the extended motif of darkness and night is introduced– to occur over and over again across the album.

Yes, darkness seems omnipresent for the first half of “Transcontinental Drift”, and elements of night time are mentioned in five of the first six songs– not counting the instrumental “Bells” opening.  But the sixth and seventh of these both mention sunrise and break of day, respectively, and afterwards no mention of night or darkness occurs.  It is an evolving motif– pretty sophisticated stuff.

Equally omnipresent– indeed even more so– is the motif of travel and movement.  Every song drives, or walks, climbs mountains, or takes a different type of trip entirely.  The overarching narrative of the album, after all, centers on a cross country road trip, so Lyricists’ Watch reinforces this narrative thematically.  Also pretty sophisticated.

But back to the second song, the night in which luck is good, and our character is making some very bad decisions, decisions that necessitate good luck.  “‘Let’s all go driving’, I hear myself say. ‘You shouldn’t be driving, you’ve been drinking all day’. ‘This is no time for cowardice’ I say with some pluck”.  The journey has begun, however unsteadily.

The third number then gives us a firm geographical setting, an embarkation point: Washington, DC, the capital city of the United States.  In this town labeled “the City, the Swamp”, we have “bodies in the river and drugs in the park”, as well as the “pop pop” of gunfire, all alongside “cookie-cutter politicians” and a “two-party system”– which, we are told, President James Madison disapproved of.  There is even a fairly original political statement made, “where the bureaucratic sieve keeps the tyrants from hanging ’round”.  Lyricists’ Watch is defending the bureaucracy of governments as a tier of defense against fascism. Never heard that one, before– bureaucracy as a good thing. The song then ends with an impressive string of alliteration: “our stagnant stream of consciousness has finally slowed to a stop”.  The travel of this particular song, the motif of movement, here, is a lack-of-such.

With the title of the next song, “Mean Reds”, another classic movie is referenced, this time Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. “The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of”.  The song soon develops into a psychedelic trip– “tabs from Texas… this is how I tripped across the World”, so the title is letting us know that the psychedelic experience is a bad trip. In this context, the final lyrics truly are terrifying, “bought a Starbucks coffee in Jerusalem, and it cost me my soul”.  Good ol’ Sam has arrived at an ancient, holy city– though Jerusalem is not, to my knowledge, known for any particularly special type of coffee– but this holy city provides Sam with only another chain store from corporate America. It is a critique of Globalization.  

It’s remarkable subtle, for this bad trip element is only apparent in the title of the song– the melody is annoyingly chipper, the singing style down-right dapper, and the lyrics do not paint any of the typical tropes of fearful hallucination. But without a CD hard copy, the song titles are only visible on the band website– the 28 minute mp3 does not list them. This results in a branding ploy, listeners must visit the website to know what the songs are named. Well, unless you’re reading Concept Albums Explained on Defenestrationism.net (unabashed branding ploy).

A super slick lead guitar solo transports us back to the city of Washington and a song called “Beltway Laps(e)”.  Washington has an infamous, circular highway around it, called the Beltway.  A Beltway lap would then be a circumnavigation of the city, while plural laps make it more than one circumnavigation.  And the parenthetical e adds a dual meaning.  In this context lapse would be best interpreted as an interruption, or a passing of time, as in a time lapse.  As the lyrics of “Beltway Laps(e)” become a love song– “It’s so hard to ignore her sparkling eyes… the fool who falls is the fool who dies… if this what blind men see, then I’ll stay blind”– this lapse becomes either the loss of a sense of the passing of time resulting from falling in love, or, potentially, a waste of time after a love affair gone wrong. To find out which, let’s engage in some close reading.

In the lyrics, the fool who falls in love will certainly meet his doom, will certainly die, yet Sam will stay blind, stay blindly in love. Yes, Sam is lyrically driving in circles, driving in laps around a circular highway, deep in a love affair that he expects will die, and he doesn’t care. He will love, anyway. He’s not going anywhere. Not yet.

Verse two has lyrics of note: “I’m searching for something don’t expect to find between the stars and this yellow line”.  It’s an expression of a listless drift, a night time drive for no real reason except to be with a girl. 

The love story of “Beltway Laps(e)” is not in itself a sad one.  The romance is a pleasant one, bittersweet, but in no way bitter, a nice date driving around the city.  However, by the opening minor chord of the following song, “Blowin’ Smoke”, the affair has clearly ended.  In another lyrical subtlety, only one line of “Blowin’ Smoke” directly references a break-up, “never knew heartache ever tasted so sweet”.  Ah, so we do have a young love, here, a learning how to love, a character who never knew the emotional power of heartache before. For the rest of the song, heartache is only alluded to– “pass time recalling all the words that you spoke, when I run out of memory I can only blow smoke”.  Sam is lost in his memories, smoking cigarettes of ennui, and about to “drive to the sunrise”.  A ripping guitar lick takes us there.

Yes, the road trip is now upon us, as is the dawn, and the title track, “Transcontinental Drift”, takes us away: “I drive to the break of day.  These interstates are captivating, who knows who may lie waiting, when I reach the end of this roadway, and dawn creeps into the sky”.  Sammy Spade has driven all night long, and with a who knows who may lie waiting, he is now searching for his next love.  I wonder if he’ll find someone.

The actual road trip, itself, doesn’t take very long at all.  After one more verse and… some sort of Irish reel that turns into a shredding guitar solo, the transcontinental of the album has been lyrically accomplished.  “Smoke over Los Angeles, my arm in the air with my hand in a fist, I’m cursing this sweet circumstance, I’m westward all the way.  This infinite boredom has taken its toll, just drift to the transcontinental drum roll, I don’t have to save a single sole, just broaden horizons and you’ll… be free”.  Note the save a single sole on the website lyrics– he’s been busy walking the soles of his shoes off. But the destination is at hand, the continent has been crossed, and Sam has made it from the East Coast of Washington, DC, till he is westward all the way.  He has broadened his horizons, expanded his mind, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and appears to be somewhat free.

The drifting, however, is far from complete.

What do we make of the band name, anyway– Lyricists’ Watch.  

Might as well start with the syntax.  What’s up with the possessive apostrophe with the s ahead of it? When the s is before the apostrophe, the name must mean the possession of multiple lyricists– whereas if the s were after the apostrophe, it would refer to a singe lyricist’s possession.  Now, with the syntax straightened out, we can dive into different combinations of meaning.

I suppose the name could refer to a small timepiece that belongs to these lyricists.

Or, it could mean the gaze of several lyricists, with watch meaning watching.

The most productive reading, however, would use watch in the sense of night watch, or castle watch— a bunch of lyricist guards, a group of lyricists that are watching over us, keeping us safer than we otherwise would be.  

And yet still another meaning arises within the night watch, castle watch reading.  After all, it is the night that needs watching, and the castle that demands guarding– perhaps the plural lyricists are what this band is guarding against?

As the finger picking of the “Transcontinental Drift” song picks up into an eerie, double-time tempo, we seem to be coming up on another bad trip. By the time the lyrics surge in, it’s clear we are.  There’s a fair amount of lyrical mumbo-jumbo in this section– a lot of trippy-for-the-sake-of-trippy combinations of images and adjectives, a number of attempted metaphors that don’t actually mean anything, and some tired cultural allusions with nothing new to add to the discourse– but there is some cool stuff, too.  

So, let’s dig-in. 

“Here comes the six-legged spider comprised of the souls of the ashes of the innocent”– oouf, completely stupid.  Ashes don’t have souls.  Spiders– regardless of number of legs– cannot be comprised of souls. Trippy-for-the-sake-of-trippy nonsense.  “And here comes your moth-eaten conscience asking who in this greedy world was ever born innocent”– alright, yeah, that’s good stuff.  Your conscience is moth-eaten, because you don’t take it out of the closet often enough, and your conscience asks a rhetorical question, with the implied answer that no one is born innocent.  “And here comes the chameleon corruption”– corruption in the abstract can, indeed, be nearly invisible– “pillaging all prospects of peaceful existence”– so corruption in the abstract destroys any chance for peace.  Sure.  Why not.  “And here comes the insect self-doubt”– love it, self-doubt bites and stings in an itchy fashion– “perpetuating the stereotype that nothing is possible”– it is self-doubt that enforces the norm that things are not possible. That follows well enough.  “Now here comes the boxer with the welder’s mask head, yelling ‘What’s In Your Wallet, What’s in Your Wallet’”  That’s pretty scary, actually.  A big, intimidating, good-at-punching person in a full-face mask as a metaphor for Capitalism.  “And here comes the the shadow with the Cheshire-cat grin― GRIN CHESHIRE– watching you, watching you, watching you always”– right, so, some intertextuality there, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has a Cheshire cat, and whenever it appeared, the grin would show up first.  Still nothing more than trippy-for-the-sake-of-trippy, but I suppose it adds to the mood.  A ripping guitar lead follows, the distortion kicks in, and the lyrics continue with, “THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR… BUT FEAR ITSELF”.  Quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, very good advice to someone having a bad trip.

But the album is barely two-thirds through. With three songs left, what is there left to drift to?  Ah, right, the next love.  The CD back cover and band website name the next song “Solitude”.  Oh. So much for a next love, I guess.

Yet it is not a state of loneliness where this album ends, emotionally.  It is a state of solitude– a far more desirable way to be by one’s self.  Alone, as well as lonely, are states of being denoting a desire to not be lonely, a desire to not be alone.  Solitude implies no such thing, is actually the place of desire, itself.  Often one will seek solitude as a way of being alone in peace. A place of peace in order to commune with one’s inner self.

And in this place of peace, the album gets quite philosophical.  What, do you suppose, would the jazz-punk band Lyricists’ Watch– still young enough to be learning about love, but old enough to drive and purchase cigarettes (both set at 16 years of age in 2014)– be philosophizing about?

Why, death, of course.

The conclusion to the “Solitude” number has these lyrics to share: “everyone I’ve known is gonna die alone, gonna die alone, gonna die alone”– the two repetitions are sung almost like a cheerful ditty, quite encouragingly.  Dying alone seems to perks up Lyricists’ Watch, whereas the opening lyrics of the song, “nothing to do as I walk empty streets, time on my hands, boots on my feet” involves boredom, emptiness, time to kill, and walking in boots of loneness.  What is a jazz-punk to do? Ponder, ponder, ponder some more.

The final lyrics of the “Solitude” song give us something to really ruminate upon.  Directly after the third iteration of “gonna die alone”, comes “that’s why I got to find that solitude”.  Huh, that borders on a profundity.  Assuming, as Lyricists’ Watch does, that everyone dies alone, then the pursuit of solitude– no, it must be the attaining of solitude that does it– somehow prepares us for this lone death.  That’s deep.

At this point in the journey, we have a geographical conclusion to the drift, we have an emotional conclusion to it, and a philosophical conclusion, as well. So what is the lyrical conclusion to the album? Any last words, Mr. Spade?  The second to last song, the last with any lyrics, is called “Gutters”.  Our hero, our main character, our protagonist, Sam Spade, has eponymously collapsed in a gutter somewhere in Los Angeles, alone and seeing things– cheshire cats, masked boxer capitalists–  probably in the midst of some psychedelic trip, busy philosophizing about death, with his horizons now broadened, so now feeling somewhat free.  That’s bad-ass.

The lyrics to “Gutters” have a lot more trippy mambo-jumbo to spew, not entirely without meaning, often quite fun, but by and large not worth analyzing.  The first verse confirms that a psychedelic trip is ongoing, “to the peak of the mountain where I see everything”– the peak of a psychedelic trip being the moments when the drug has its strongest effect.  Verse two, then, is full of intellectualist braggadocio, bragging about “a few thoughts in this episode”, followed by a truly interesting play on words: “universal consciousness download”.  Universal consciousness– a philosophical concept that dates back to pre-Socratic Greeks, later dusted off by Hegel in the 19th century– entails that the workings of the mind are what motivate all existence.  How that happens is kinda obscure, but the basics are pretty basic.  Universal mind then becomes a download, a word that exclusively refers to moving computer data to different platforms. Now, that’s intense.

Oou! can we get into the etymology of that word chain, download?  

Down would here be the adjective form, “moving to a lower place”, derived from the Old English dūne, “off the hill”.  Intriguingly enough, there is another computer-specific sense of down, “out of service”, having nothing to do with a download.  Next in this word chain comes load, in this instance the noun form, “a heavy or bulky thing that is being carried or about to be carried”.  Again, the word comes from the Old English lād “way, journey, conveyance”.  Load also has a meaning in electronics completely foreign to download: a circuitry load, a certain amount of electricity. And both components of the word chain download are non-Latinate– I’m probably making to much of this, but sciencey words are almost entirely greco-latinate words, is there a reason that this computer science related word is entirely West Germanic in derivation?   

But the point of the lyric is that universal consciousness, the combination of minds in the universe that makes everything happen, somehow involves computers now.  Somehow, the album, “this episode” called “Transcontinental Drift”– to extrapolate, any work of art at all– is the shifting of the data of the universal mind, a journey down the hill of all knowledge.  

More lyrics from the “Gutters” song: “met a masked angel waiting for me there, burn at both ends and then mourn the flare”.  It is the love affair addressed, here.  The former love interest is idealized as an angel, however, this angel is masked, so Sam Spade cannot truly see her– our main character recognizes that he is idealizing this woman, and is processing this understanding.  The second part is an intertextual reference to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay wrote, “My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night… but it gives a lovely light!”  So the affair does not last long, but it is lovely, nonetheless.  A nice, sweet sentiment about young love lost.

The last lyrics are far more heartbreaking, “don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go home, don’t wanna go”.  That’s sad, no matter what the reason.

The final segment– “Smoke Rings”– returns us to the instrumental of the opening number, combining two musical references from earlier in the album.  A tinkling, finger-picking rendition of the chords from “Blowin’ Smoke” gives way to almost a minute and a half of guitar feedback over the same booming chord as the opening number.  We are back to memories of the lost love, back to where we started. Then we slowly fade away.

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more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained
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