by Tom Murphy
The opening track to this record, “In Spite” is one of the sunniest songs to ever emerge from a music scene not well known for that kind of thing. The vocal harmonies are on par with what you might hear on one of the earlier Beach Boys records. But like that band, there’s more to the picture than is apparent just from the sound of the music. There is a disillusionment with the artifice and superficiality of people latching on to the latest cool trend within the lyrics. There’s nothing snide about what Cowboy Curse have done here, there is just a mature, incisive and measured assessment of some of the less impressive aspects of our culture. Because of this, “In Spite” sets the mood for what is honestly one of the most remarkable pop records of the last ten years.
“Grey Sky Blue” continues the exquisite pop perfection Cowboy Curse has cultivated for the few years, originally appearing on their landmark EP, Welcome to Cowboy Curse from 2004. The tone of the lyrics is one of loss but the song is so catchy and pretty it’s almost diabolical if not for the basic humanist message underlying what it has to say. “Last World’s Fair” manages to deliver the old adage about “bread and circuses” in a completely new and refreshing way set to beautiful, masterfully-layered melodies. It is from this song that the album takes it’s title and it is an insightful observation from singer Ben Bergstrand’s own experiences at what really was the last World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982 (subsequently they were called merely “Expo’s” or “Universal Expositions”surely a sign of hubris among a certain subset of our world society and perfect considering Bergstrand’s biting lyrics).
“Bad Bets” is the first down tempo song of the record, fittingly so considering the song is about a relationship gone wrong but where the narrator is conflicted and strangely hopeful. In its lonely guitar lines and light yet weighty rhythms, you can feel the melancholy in your heart long after the song is over. “Liar’s Lack” is about a person who lives a life of deceit to the point where they don’t seem to know the difference. It’s such a venomous song and yet there is a perversely upbeat sing-a-long quality that elevates its mood. This seems to be a way of transforming negative emotions to something more tolerable and manageable. Almost like a catharsis but one in which there is also some fun to be had.
The second half of the album begins with the scathing “Shoot A Boy” about the murder of Paul Child’s. The song goes beyond mere topicality, as deeply tragic as the Childs incident was, to a commentary about how Paul Child’s is not so very different from so many of the children who are living in similar circumstances and how our government, society and culture sentences them to a life of deprivation and dreams deferred. It’s a devastating song with an upbeat attitude and that just adds to how affecting it becomes with repeated listens. Rarely has a songwriter penned such poignant social commentary and, lyrically-speaking, it’s on par with “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye and “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan. The less weighty “Heroin Hair” is no less sharp in its puncturing the hubris of being a pathetic scenester who aspires for small time fame over something of true significance; mostly because they forgot how to dream and to have real ambitions that are grounded in things that matter and in genuine artistry. Listening to the song, you can almost imagine yourself at a couple of clubs that shouldn’t be named where the hipper than thou hold court.
“Mucho” is one of those rare songs that sting you over halfway through the song with its vitriol. Too many punk rockers talk about selling out but don’t write a thoughtful and poignant song talking about what that must really be like. Here, Cowboy Curse really outline what it looks like when someone has no shame and is willing to compromise him or herself egregiously. “You’ve never turned / down a whore’s last / dollar, you can’t / beat her price.” Ouch. “Dirt On the Lane” continues the theme of social conscience in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s a song about wanting to ignore ugly truths in our lives and in the world when in fact it’s better and more honest not to; to own up to our roots and to honor the truth rather than running from it. It almost sounds like a long-lost Velvet Underground track. The album ends with the sentimental and lovely “Late Night Radio,” ending this phenomenal first full-length from Cowboy Curse on a wistful and peaceful note. Good thing too because it might be hard to take an entire album of unrelenting lyrical intensity.
Ultimately, this is the kind of album that perfectly matches pop music with real social conscience and commentary. We haven’t seen much of that at all for a very long time and it’s a welcome addition to a world of music that has largely eschewed making any kinds of intelligent, thought-provoking observations about our society or even our local culture. Frankly, the vapid pop I’ve become used to hearing has been wearing a little thin and I miss a time when this kind of music had more to say than some trite statement on love and sex and specific relationships. In speaking of specific incidents that inspired the songs, Cowboy Curse have hit more universal truths about unsavory aspects of the world we have learned to tolerate and accept as though it’s just the way it is and we are powerless to change it. Inherent in all of these songs is the implication that we have the power to choose to live our lives differently and to organize our societies and cultures in such a way that they are more nurturing, authentic and worth living within. These are not outsider perspectives pointing fingers, they are compassionate illustrations of the unpleasant things we’d rather not admit or look at more honestly. Because of this, Cowboy Curse went from merely a good band with flawless pop instincts to a great band with more intelligence and songwriting prowess than most rock bands working today. Frankly, pop music should be this brave more often. I can scarcely wait for their next release.