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Pop Music

Driving punk rhythms conceal a gentle grace


Someday my husband and I will finish paying our student loans. Both of us embarked on expensive postgraduate programs after college -- my husband has a theology degree with an emphasis in youth ministry, while I have a teaching credential.

Right now, he works as an electronics technician, and I am a waitress.

We realized not long ago that although the loans were a burden, it was far worse to stay in the jobs it bought us if they made us miserable. Still, every month, we make payments that barely seem to make a dent in how much we owe. We try to live simply, to get by on less, partly so that we can throw anything that’s leftover at the loan beast.

Maybe it’s because we live in Nevada, where slot machines clank at the grocery stores and jackpot winners make the 11 o’clock news, that we sometimes dream about winning big. What if we dropped three nickels in a slot one day after Sunday brunch and scored a $500,000 jackpot? It’s happened to other people, hasn’t it?

We already know how it would change our lives. We’d pay off our debts, starting with the loans and our lingering credit cards. We’d put money in savings. We’d buy a car built in the current decade, one with less than 150,000 miles on it. We’d clear out some of our hand-me-down furniture. We’d support our favorite charities. We’d travel. We’d quit our jobs. We’d be free.

Everclear, a Portland, Ore., band, speaks to these kinds of financial fantasies. Its latest release, So Much for the Afterglow, has been on the charts for more than 45 weeks. Its current hit, “i will buy you a new life” (spelled, like everything else on the album, entirely in lower case) delves into bills and poverty, into the stuff we’d like to have that we’ll probably never get, and the way riches change us.

Though some young adults have probably made it big in the stock market, with portfolios and healthy 401(k) plans, I suspect that my husband and I are not alone in trying to figure out how we’ll make it. Thousands of us left college with significant debt, debt that grew as we used easy credit to buy career wardrobes, furnish households and keep up with the technological revolution.

Money is indeed a problem for many Generation Xers, and it’s a relief that somebody is finally singing about it. Art Alexakis, Everclear’s lead singer, talks about buying “a new life” for his baby’s mother, one that includes a garden “where your flowers can bloom,” a “big house, way up in the west hills,” and a car that is “perfect, shiny and new.”

It’s hard to argue with a life like that, one that includes beauty, space and safety. The part about the car is especially attractive to anyone who’s ever stalled at a red light, windows rolled down in 100-degree heat, cursing folks who honk and whiz by in air-conditioned comfort.

At such a moment, there is nothing you want more than a new car, especially one that’s paid for. You understand Alexakis when he sings, “i hate those people who love to tell you/money is the root of all that kills/they have never been poor/they have never had the joy/of a welfare christmas.”

It’s one thing to preach about the dangers of money, to laud voluntary poverty and simplicity when you have a reliable vehicle and just about everything you’ve ever wanted. It’s another story altogether when you’re broken down on the side of the road.

“I will buy you a new life” is perhaps the most mainstream, pop-sounding song on the album. The rest of So Much for the Afterglow employs a harder core punk-pop style to grapple with issues both timely and taboo. In “normal like you,” Alexakis sings about Prozac, depression and mental illness. Medication, he implies, changes people to make them “normal,” a state that leads to complacency and being “a good dog,” living life “in a wonderful way.”

He sings, “tell me why/you want to be blind/i don’t want to be/normal like you” though “everyday/i get closer/to the place inside/where i can be complacent ... sedated ... [and] normal too.”

This is a song with a startling vulnerability, and though it’s dangerous to assume it’s autobiographical, Alexakis does not hide his long struggle with depression. Vulnerability is one of his trademarks. It makes the album accessible not only to younger fans, the traditional lovers of hard core punk, but also to older listeners, folks who will tolerate a heavier sound if the lyrics speak to them.

Alexakis’ vulnerability peaks in “father of mine,” a song chronicling a child’s abandonment by his father. Though the song is not necessarily about his own life, Alexakis acknowledges on the band’s Web site that his father never paid child support and was “basically an asshole.”

He sings, “father of mine/tell me where have you been/you know i just closed my eyes/my whole world disappeared ... take me back to the day/when i was still your golden boy/ back before you went away.” It’s a loss that stays with him forever, one that makes him feel that he will “never be safe ... never be sane,” that he’ll “always be weird inside ... always be lame.”

If there’s any good to be had from the suffering, it’s in the fierce promise it leads him to make to his own child. “now i’m a grown man/with a child of my own/and i swear that i’m not going to let her know/all the pain i have known.”

It’s a promise that Alexakis seems to be trying hard to keep. Married, he wears a wedding ring and often refers to his wife and daughter in interviews. On a recent episode of “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” he talked at length about parents’ love for their children.

In his mid-30s, he is older than many punk pop musicians, and his younger fans respond to him accordingly, viewing him as a sort of hip parental figure, someone who understands them.

Alexakis grew up in a housing project, struggled with addiction, lost friends to drugs and survived a suicide attempt before quitting drugs for good. He is the antithesis of the stereotypical rock musician, someone who sleeps around, fathers children indiscriminately and abuses drugs and alcohol. His fans seem to know this -- they write letters asking for help and advice. He says that his therapist tells him that he can’t be a father to all of them, that he has to distance himself. It’s something he is still learning to do.

Alexakis is joined in Everclear by drummer Greg Eklund and bassist Craig Montoya. All three sing vocals and play keyboards. Together, they’ve made an album that frequently catches the listener by surprise, both with its startling vulnerability and fusion of distinct musical styles.

The lead song “so much for the afterglow” starts with acappella harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys before flowing into a hard-hitting rock melody that takes your breath away. “atraxia (media intro)” uses a piece from Prelinger Archives called “The Relaxed Wife,” about that “breakthrough” time when doctors could first prescribe medicines in cases of “nervous apprehension.” These medicines, the announcer says, help people bid “their darkened spirits goodbye for the calming peace of a cloudless sky.”

“normal like you” follows, its pounding beat and lyrics a stark contrast to the soft orchestral sounds and soothing narration of “atraxia.”

So Much for the Afterglow is popular with young teens, both male and female, with lots of chains and multiple facial piercings. Its appeal is not limited to them, however. All of us have our monsters, whether they be depression, doubt, haunting parental relationships, even student loans. Alexakis and band draw close to the listener through the sharing of pain, confusion and darkness.

This album is a worthy addition to any collection, even one that’s light on heavy-hitting music. Through the driving beat and rhythms, there shines a gentle grace, one that catches you by surprise.

And that, in the end, is what grace is all about.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998