Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Week 11: "Stars" by Hum

On February 13th, 1998 I went to see Hum perform at La Luna, a rock club in Portland, Oregon. They were touring in support of their newly released album Downward is Heavenward, which turned out to a commercial failure as well as Hum's final recording before the band parted ways.

Hum is the loudest band I've ever heard. Experiencing them transcended the sense of hearing; you feel the music as much as you hear it. Waves of sound wash over you as if you are standing in the surf of an ocean beach. The sound thickens in the air around you, enveloping you, and you feel as though you are submerged in a sea of sound as thick as split pea soup. At other times you feel like you are standing in the eye of a hurricane of sound.

The irony is that Hum didn't look like the type of band capable of producing this level of sonic intensity. Hum wasn't the first band whose image was incongruent with their sound. Weezer had earlier perfected the image of nerds who could rock with surprising force. The grunge movement proved you did not have to look like Guns N' Roses or Poison to create music with the same intensity.

But Hum took this incongruity between sound and image to its furthest extremity. When they sing, in the song "I'd Like Your Hair Long" that "You'd prefer an astronaut," this line is almost delivered with a tinge of mourning. They play like rock stars but seem like they would rather be rocket scientists.

In 1995 Hum released You'd Prefer an Astronaut, their only commercially successful release. Although it is a strong album from start to finish, its success was bolstered by the popularity of its first single, "Stars."

"Stars" is my favorite song of all time; I consider the song to be 5 minutes of rock perfection. My love for the song is also nostalgic and personal. (How could it not be?) But, rather than my emotional attachment to it, I'd rather dwell on the technical reasons that I believe make the song superb.

"Stars" begins with softly strummed guitar chords and the exposed voice of singer Matt Talbot who twice repeats the two-line chorus, "She thinks she missed the train to Mars, she's out back counting stars." The second time he sings the word "stars" he is joined by the raucous thunderclap of a distorted power chord. (In live versions, this chord has been known to reverberate for over half a minute.) Once the chord dies down, all the instruments kick in and the song takes off.

The lyrics to "Stars" take second stage to the instrumentation. The meaning of the lyrics are not easily ascertained. They seem to describe a young woman, wracked with personal pain, sitting in her backyard and counting stars as a way of seeking cosmic relief from her affliction. What's more, the song is sung from the point of view of someone who accepts some level of blame for her sad condition but is powerless, or perhaps reluctant, to attempt to mend the situation.

This is as far as the song's narrative arc takes us. There is no resolution. She is still out back counting stars and he is still stuck. I don't mean to insinuate that there is anything profound about this, but the song does succeed as a snapshot of one person's hurt and isolation and another's shame and sense of powerlessness. Despite the melancholy of this image, there is also a kind of beauty in what has been captured. Perhaps it is as contrived to think that a couple minute rock song should resolve as it is to believe that the problems faced on a television sitcom should resolve within 30 minutes.

Within this interpretation of the song, the loud aggression of the music can be understood as kind of cathartic, if mis-placed, release of frustration. Again, there is nothing profound here. I do not require of the song that it ends with reconciliation or atonement. I can tolerate its unfinished messiness.

Emotionally, "Stars" bears some resemblance to the hit song by Ben Fold Five entitled "Brick." In "Brick," which is a fine song in its own right, the male narrator expresses his sense of shame and powerlessness with a depressed whimper. "Stars" takes the tone of a fantastic howl, an eruption of raw, sublimated energy.

You can hear the song and watch the music video here.