Along with the vast majority of 20th Century phenomena more than 30 years old, punk has surreptitiously been declared dead. Simply. Punk is Dead. There was a time when I anxiously willed that untrue but I haven’t really cared in what feels like a lifetime. Too many people who I knew who considered themselves punk had taken Lou Reed’s declaration that he was an “anti-elitist elitist” (without consciously knowing it, of course) and compressed it into a narrow and exclusionary ethos of uncritical self-justification. Punk is a fractured term, a fractured idea. It was a sound, a style, and an ideology momentarily held together with safety pins, mythologized into oblivion.
Of course, it’s not that simple. All of the histories are relative, the projections of limited perspectives. And, anyway, this is a record review and I don’t want to get into it any further except to say that punk’s signifiers have been voided of manifestly anti-establishment content. The slogans, sound, and, especially, the style, like the counter-culture of the sixties, were reduced to marketable commodities and became tokens of status quo approved rebellion.
These thoughts were brought to mind by repeated, recent listens to the new collection of singles by Jay Reatard from the past year. I had come to distrust punk, to look with antipathy on its adherents’ simultaneous claims to purity and squalor. The pleasure of a song like “See/Saw” makes me completely forget all that. It also reminds me that it is possible to actually indulge in both, purity and squalor, at once to ferocious effect. And maybe that is one of the legacies of punk that is worth exploring, an ambiguousness that can’t be taken as just one thing. Jay Reatard’s willingness to develop his music away from straight, raw gutter-punk is, then, “punk” in the best sense.
If there is a secret to Jay Reatard, it is hidden in plain sight. He again and again performs the sleight-of-hand act of synthesizing his influences into something individual and indivisible. Seen in this light, it isn’t particularly surprising that one of the album’s high points is the cover of Deerhunter’s “Fluorescent Grey.” Ditching the quiet/loud aesthetic of Bradford Cox’s original, he turns it into a barrage of primal drumming and searing waves of feedback, sounding more and more disembodied, more and more miniaturized by the wall of sound surrounding him. Like “See/Saw,” it melds the visceral charge of primitive rock and roll to the charm of infinitely repeatable phrases. “See/Saw,” with its crazed call of “She creeps me out/ She crept me in again,” is the other undeniable diamond here, an actual, inflammable anthem.
To say that Jay Reatard songs are immediate doesn’t get the point across. Think of blood dripped into resonant Rorscach patterns from a newly reconfigured nose. Raucous garage punk should hit you square in the jaw, and these songs repeatedly do. They also manage to incorporate synthesizers in a way that adds to the both brashness and infectiousness. A huge chorus like that of “An Ugly Death,” the b-side to “Painted Shut,” manages to keep its sharp edges protruding at odd angles while flashing some serious power-pop clout. The following track, “Always Wanting More,” functions along the same lines.
Talent may be luck, but by spending the more than a decade writing and recording songs—since he was fifteen—Jay Reatard has definitely learned a few tricks along the way. He knows enough not to complicate things too much, that it is more important to do the right thing at the right moment, making the timely change and adding an element that pushes a song over the edge and into squalid ecstasy. With this collection of singles (the originals were all limited edition runs—punk!) he continues to establish himself as a remarkable purveyor of delightful mayhem.