Friday, June 7, 2013

"Our Happiness Is Guarenteed" - Quasi

Hello, old friend. It's been a while, hasn't it? 

Today's song comes from a band that I'm ashamed to realize that I've yet to write about - Quasi. Comprised of Janet Weiss (who you probably know from Sleater-Kinney and/or Wild Flag) and her husband Sam Coomes, the group was originally conceived as a drums and keyboards (and etc.) duo in the mid-'90s, with an occasional bassist added in since then. Although I first discovered them at the Hideout/Touch & Go Block Party in 2006 touring off of When The Going Gets Dark, their favorite album of mine (and of many others) is probably 1997's Featuring "Birds"Quasi has never been a "feel-good" band, always keen to expose the darker side of life, politics, the universe and everything and their best song exposes just how skilled they are at turning pessimism into insightful, energizing music.

"Our Happiness Is Guarenteed" starts with an undifferentiated cavalcade of pounding drums and thick, throbbing, atonal keys that eventually resolves itself into an odd, heavy, even somewhat catchy groove in a way that only Weiss and Coomes could accomplish. This transition from angry, painful chaos into a pacifying rhythm is important because it sets the stage for the song's major premise. 
Since I was in junior high, I've always loved dystopian political fiction from 1984 to Brave New World to A Handmaid's Tale. Exercises like this were groundbreaking for me in the way they allowed me to conceive of alternate realities and test my ideas regarding alternate constructions of reality. "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" manages to pack the revelatory insight and perspective about human society and nature of those novels with incredible concision into just a few lines.

Out of that opening tumult, the song begins by painting a picture of a serene and idealized society located away from trouble under the water. In the world Coomes imagines for us, some humans have fled from conflict and fear into a world of "orbiting pods" and "underwater domes" where everything is strictly controlled. Although Coomes sings as a contended citizen extolling his society's virtues, it's obvious to the observer just what a horrible cost such safety requires.

It seems that the only way to guarantee "happiness" is to eliminate passion. Love is replaced by breeding science, which also eliminates all war (again confirming that the phallic nature of nuclear warheads is not coincidental). Difficulty and pain, it would seem, are the flip side of free will, desire and and achievement. In just a few couplets Coomes highlights just how boring, robotic and ultimately unfulfilling such a "perfect" life might be.

The song speaks to humanity's restless nature and wonderful imperfectibility. Not only are we all flawed, does it seem to say, but to act any differently would merely deny us of our own humanity and would lead to a world even bleaker (as hard as this may be to believe) than one filled with jealousy, competition, anger and violence.

It's a bold position for a pop song but it's also one that comes across as amazingly cogent and convincing despite being made in just a few allegorical lines. "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" wonderfully illustrates the brevity and incisiveness that songwriting uniquely allows. The pulsating keys and inventive drum-based groove also reinforces and magnify's the song's gut-punching insight. Quite simply it's a song that perfectly embodies pop music's unique ability to speak directly and viscerally to people in a manner catchy enough to ensure repeated exposure.

When you're caught midstream paddling frantically against life's many currents that threaten to drag you this way and that away from the things you think you want, a song like "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" is a wonderful life-preserver. It reminds us that, though life is most certainly filled with more heartbreak and pain that we'd like to really think about (cue White Sox joke here), it's only because we have the audaciousness to love and dream. Nothing truly satisfying can be achieved without struggle and nothing truly worth having can be gained without exposing oneself to the risk of humiliating rejection or failure. Sometimes all it takes to put a sunny perspective on things is the pessimistic sytlings of a gloomy duo from Portland. Thank God for that.

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