(The first in an ongoing series.)
OVER THE EDGE (Brain Eater, 1983)
Disc Three of Wipers' Box Set (Zeno, 2001)
You don’t have to think like Aristotle to know that the album can be a perfect unit of human expression. Artistic forms can feel so natural because they meet our expectations about the way experiences, emotions and ideas should be meaningfully organized. The punk rock record, as it existed in the early 80s, 30 minutes long on average, meets expectations about the amount of time and degree of noise required to exorcise our demons and reconstitute them in a way that leaves us feeling stronger. I often think of Daniel Desario in an episode of Freaks and Geeks, crouched in his bedroom with headphones on, listening intently to Black Flag’s “Rise Above.” His family life’s a mess, his girlfriend halfway despises him, he can’t do math. You know he’ll make it to the end of Damaged, because he knows the album was conceived as a testament to his problems. I don’t know if I’ve ever managed a moment of listening as pure as Daniel’s, but if the album is old enough and loud enough, I still imagine myself as him. Damaged was the soundtrack to my masochistic half-hope that high school would be miserable and allow me to indulge in the album’s miseries. But my problems couldn’t be summed up so easily; my greatest misery was that only in my headphones did I understand the plot.
Wipers’ Over the Edge is just as harrowing as Damaged, but it admits that being over the edge and damaged is an elusive feeling and can’t be named. It can’t be called thirst, police brutality, or no TV. The album starts with a dizzying punch to the floor and ends in the same place, but this time with the hint of a struggle. Greg Sage sounds a little more empowered, a little less overwhelmed. Somewhere in between, he sings about “The Lonely One,” who is you and not he, and all those repeated notes on bass and guitar lose their musical properties and become a spell pulling you out of your “life lived in dreams” or back into it, depending on where you started. You begin to ask: Doesn’t Greg sound a bit too old, a bit too strong for this sadness? He sings from the bottom of his throat and shivers against his guitar from beginning to end. But it’s an album that doesn’t ask you to sympathize, because the only despair on display is your own.