I'm not listening to it, not right now, anyway. (I listened to "Shadow" once to help describe the guitars at the end.) I've listened to this album at least 200 times. Maybe more than that, and that's not counting individual tracks, which easily double it. Yeah, probably more. I listen to it almost every day in the summer, at least once a week every other season. I listened to it three times in a row last weekend.
Why do I want to write a book about this album? Why does GOD want me to write a book about this album, if his random number generators can be trusted, which for the purposes of this experiment they can?
(1) I think people will think I'm being ironic (in the sense that isn't actually "ironic," more like "smug" or "sarcastic") or something, when I'm clearly not, which will help my sales and cause me to hugely resent my audience. (Wishful thinking, like anyone would even read such a thing.)
(2) Frank Kogan doesn't want to write the book (yet). (I checked.)
(3) I'm not sure what I'm trying to say yet, but I know it's important.
(4) It's an excellent album <--woops, should be #1!
(5) I still don't get it.
I don't get this album at all. Well, no, I get it a lot, but there's so much more to it I haven't seen. Er, heard. I tried explaining my relationship to Autobiography to a group of my peers the other day (wrote out my spiel and everything) and fell flat on my face. No one could tell if I was "serious" or not (I was), and everyone figured I was making fun of someone (myself? Someone who would like Ashlee Simpson? Someone who would HATE Ashlee Simpson?).
"You have to start in the middle and work your way out." This is true. The Ashlee closest to the one I "get" comes in around "Love Makes the World Go Round" and leaves sometime during "Surrender." Nia calls it the Messy Girl's Guide to Love ("Love Me for Me" specifically). I've called it "the kind of life my roommates led in their first year out of college" Jonathan over at Screw Rock has called it very mid-20s, if I remember our conversation correctly. There is a lot to talk about here, even though I bring it up like every week.
It's very comfortable-sounding music, and it's very difficult to talk about the musical aspect of it (specifically how there's nothing about the music itself, which is certainly excellent, that makes it so worthy of total intellectual obsession and devotion), because any way I describe it sounds BORING. "Y'know, sleepy singer-songwriter acoustic guitar with a few syncopated accents, 'Wild World'-style laid-back with a strong pulse" ("Better Off"). Pop-punk power-chordage down the minor scale, like a lite "Back in Black" ("Love Me for Me"). Post-grunge something-or-other, still not sure what I mean by that, exactly.
Shanks has developed a signature guitar style that's pretty immediately recognizable, actually; you think it's "derivative" and then you realize he was producing Sheryl Crow and Michelle Branch and Lillix 1.0 pre-Ashlee, and that these are probably as good a musical reference point as any (again, "musical reference points" aren't what draw me to this album, so the point, though fun to speculate about if that's your sorta thing, isn't crucial to connection). I haven't bothered to figure out exactly what he's doing musically. He has a way of doing complicated jazz-leaning charts that sound like power-chords, a way of lilting violently. You can hear it in almost-full force on Lucy Woodward's album, except Lucy rarely has anything interesting to say for herself, even with many of the same collaborators.
Ashlee has a lot to say! She sounds pretty dippy sometimes: "my hair's a mess, even when it's straight" -- hey wait, that's one of the good lines. Seriously, it works. OK, I'll break down the first few lines of "Better Off":
"The sky is falling" (cliche)
"And it's early in the morning" (specific)
"But it's OK somehow" (ambivalence)
"I spilled my coffee" (specific)
"It went all over your clothes" (half-specific, half-cliche?)
"Gotta wear mine now" (you think it's a cliche, then you realize she means it literally -- she just has to change real quick, oh well)
I can see her in her room, she's staring at these same four walls again ("Love Makes the World Go Round") and she's an empty page. When Richard Hell said that ("Blank Generation"), Lester Bangs pointed out the tension/discrepancy between "blank" as "we can go anywhere from here" (that's how Hell justified it) and "blank" as "void" (duh), as emptiness. ASHLEE'S DOING THE SAME THING, and she's aware of that tension, too. And beyond that, she's not talking about her generation, she's talking about how life works. You think you're starting to understand something, starting to love someone (maybe), and you get hurt anyway. Shit happens. Oh well, it's OK. At least I'm better off today than I was yesterday.
It's hard to argue it for some reason, but I can't emphasize enough that no one else in Ashlee's "celebrity class" is doing this. Not the people she's said to be ripping off (Avril, always obtuse, always surface, nothing to dig into) and not her contemporaries (Kelly C. is too tragic, Hilary is too blank, Lillix via Shanks are too boring). Ashlee either nails you with an insight, with that one line or idea that sticks in your craw if you let it, or the whole thing is just specific as hell. Nia's given the best commentary on the words in "Love Me for Me":
"It's been three days / You come around here like you know me / Your stuff, my place / Next thing you know, you'll be using my toothpaste." See how much life is contained within those three lines? These people, this place, the essential conflict. Those are the opening lines, by the way--she doesn't waste time, or words. And that's the thing. Ashlee's writing pretty fucking good poetry: detailed, evocative, every word earning its place, with a voice that's strong and distinct.
And Frank has commented on how the syllables in that one hit you like "quick jabs," similar in spirit to his analysis of Spoonie Gee, I think.
So working backwards: go back to the song-everyone-knows, the (non-hater) "Big Fact" of Ashlee (h/t Tom) in "Pieces of Me," and you see something very different happening, the jabs blurring into each other in that syncopated...I dunno, tilt-lilt? Like a pinball machine got jammed, overload, noise, but we're just havin' a good time heh heh. I dunno. "On a MON-day, I'm WAIT-ing, on a TUES-day, I'm FAD-ing..." like she's short of breath and trying to keep up with her own words, but it all codes "sweet," like oh, maybe this guy will save me.
We know better than that; this is the same "guy" (not in reality, but across the album) that's plucking her from the vine too soon (on her reality show, "Pieces of Me" is for Ryan Cabrera and "Unreachable," where that quote comes from, is "Josh," whom we only meet in the first episode). Anyway, she starts with the come-on ("Autobiography") and the sweetness ("Pieces of Me") but the majority of the album will undermine the optimism, and there's ambivalence in the early tracks, too: the way her words trip over themselves despite a lulling, easy rhythm, she says that the love lets her breathe, but you get the sense she's suffocating a little (I hear "make me happy is your mission," which a stupid line, as "make me happy -- submission," which is a much better line).
THIS IS A GIRL APPROACHING HER QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS. Psychobabble, whatever. Actually, Ashlee doesn't use psychobabble. Listen to what she's saying -- she is not expecting to be healed, in part because she's not sure what's wrong with her.
OK, there's a little psychobabble, but if you give her the benefit of the doubt, it doesn't read as such. "Shadow" should be about 80% psychobabble, and as far as I can tell, there's only one line that's even close: "my chains are finally free," or maybe "it's safe outside to come alive in my identity."
But that's also precisely what the song is about, in a very non-cliche sort of way -- about convincing yourself that things are better now than they used to be, you finally know who you are. But Jesus, Ashlee is not cool with that at all. What is this about having "more than anyone should" (when there's no reference whatsoever to privilege in the rest of the song -- no one should be comfortable with who they are? WTF?) and "don't feel sorry for me," like that's the biggest concern in anyone's mind? It's pathetic! And frankly, her closing assertion "mother sister father sister mother, everything's cool now" isn't exactly the most powerful assertion of some sort of healing. "Everything's cool?"
I mean, Ashlee fails big time in this song, but the song isn't a failure. It ends up compromised, which is more than you can say of, say, "Complicated" (that's what I'm thinking of with psychobabble, re: Jody Rosen's comment on the lyrics -- and he's right, but this isn't a feature of Ashlee's lyrics). Well, of course it's compromised. This is a song about forgiving your family for (consciously or not, and we get a sense of a little of both) hierarchizing the love. Middle child syndrome, sure, let's throw in the psychobabble, too. But it's not about your family recognizing how they brought you up, and it's not about the singer understanding that her parents always loved her. It's about everything being OK now. Y'know. Better than it used to be. Every day isn't worse than the last, thank god.
The breaking free stuff, the no-more-chains-hooray -- well, I guess it feels like a weight off. But not having a giant weight on you, not being in chains, is not the same thing as being happy, nor is it the same thing as understanding who you really are (or being more comfortable with who you really might be, to skirt psychobabble a bit). "Everything's cool now." How sad is that? And yet the song is triumphal, the guitars have a way of swelling like the strings after establishing that initial melancholy, that sad little warble at the end of the phrase. They crescendo and swell -- accompanied by a Shanks solo line (reminds me of "Baby You're a Rich Man" melody, and almost everything in it is Beatles, a reference point so obvious I missed it until Frank pointed it out!) -- even at the expense of the actually-swelling strings. (The decorative nature of the strings was nicely summed up by Ashlee herself, pleasantly yawning at them in the studio as they were being recorded.)
And damn, Ashlee sounds so in control of her slightly-lessening bewilderment and slow-building acceptance. (If you want stronger acceptance, check out Fefe Dobson's "Unforgiven," if you want stronger bewilderment, check out P!nk's "Family Portrait"; this one falls somewhere in the middle and is probably more interesting for it, if not as powerful/"healing" or as bewildering.)
Unreachable: "You can't push a river, you can't make me fall, but you can make me unreachable."
Giving It All Away: "Hey girl, screamin' for attention / Once you get it, you throw it away / I'm broken, I'm pickin' up the pieces /I won't live in all your mistakes."
Undiscovered: "All the things left undiscovered, leave me empty and left to wonder; I need you. ...Don't walk away."
There's latter-half Ashlee ("Surrender" onward -- "Surrender" and "Nothing New" are fairly surface-level spite-rock tracks and point the way toward stuff like "I Am Me," brilliant kiss-off but almost all surface pleasure, on her second album).
What is she saying? It's not cryptic, exactly, though certainly oblique. It's rug-pulling, pretty well executed, too: in that penultimate track, she throws out some of the most GODAWFUL cliches yet on the album, really really terrible stuff (comparatively, still better than 90% of Avril). "Big burning beds" and "smoking up your sorrows" and "selling your dreams for a bucket of change." I mean just AWFUL.
And then there's that third verse, and you prick up your ears a bit, and she switches up the chorus on you, "you're" not giving it all away anymore, "I'm" giving it all away now. That is, Ashlee's giving it all away. Which makes her both the girl who won't make "your" mistakes and the girl that made the mistakes. I don't get it.
"Unreachable," seemingly untouched (writing-wise) by any of her key songwriters (Kara DioGuardi, to a lesser extent Shelly Peiken [from "Love Me for Me"]), in fact co-penned by the dudes from Sugar Ray), not a bad line in it and a chorus that actually makes you think twice before you can write it off as nonsense. Because it's not nonsense; it's pretty damn evocative! Of what, who knows. Rivers, I guess, and Ashlee being one. Unruly, unthinking, powerful. Well, she's certainly thoughtful.
And come on, listen to her do her Courtney Love growl at the end of "Undiscovered" and try feeling nothing. Not going to happen, not if you're being fair, not if you're starting to get it. "Don't walk away," and her voice breaks, like she's John Lennon at the end of "Twist and Shout" and her voice is about to give, but she's gotta get those last words out. And the music just drifts off, kind of aimlessly, like oh, I guess we'll end it here, then.
Which is what I'm going to do, too. But I'm not finished with this one.