Forget everything you know about Mecca Normal.
Wait, no, don’t panic. All is not lost, and in fact many of the oak-like constants remain. The Vancouver-based duo of vocalist Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester, a sapling (with tree rings counting all the way back to 1981) in what later blossomed into the Riot Grrrl movement, is very much present and accounted for. Novelist Jean continues to draw subject matter from her writing, and the lyrics to her songs read, as they always have, like flowing, stream-of-consciousness stories. Jean’s unique vocals, residing somewhere in that same ethereal ZIP code as PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom, have not filled out a change-of-address card, and David’s virtuoso guitar playing, veering from angry to angular, has not dulled its edge against the ever-forward grind and march of time.
No, the sharp, commanding sound these two have been making together for decades has not left the building.
With their album The Observer, however, Mecca Normal takes us down a thematic rabbit hole as they tackle something not normally associated with their own work, or even with punk in general: the concept album. And even amongst concept albums, this is an odd one, as Jean delves into and delivers back to us the strange and sordid world of online dating. “Say again?” If you just cringed at the thought, if it somehow sounds gimmicky and topical or just plain awful, that would be a perfectly understandable reaction. And yes, in lesser hands this could be a disaster, but Mecca Normal are no mere mortals. Despite the unsavoriness and overall rotten-fish smell of the subject matter, Jean does indeed deliver, and The Observer does indeed rock.
No holds barred and in medias res, the band dive right into the thick of things with the first song, “I’m Not Into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want.” Surprisingly poppy and concise despite its unwieldy title, its name also aptly sums up its theme. The song is a tale of a woman trying to diplomatically back out of a lousy relationship (“I need to figure out how to get his CD’s back to him…”) where the man she’s with not only constantly compares her unfavorably to past loves, but openly searches for someone supposedly better. Of course this is hardly a new phenomenon, but one of the unintended “benefits” of this golden electronic age has been the increasing ease with which one can play the field, and the unparalleled ability to keep one’s options open.
Another glitch in electronic dating is explored in the next song, “Attraction is Ephemeral,” where two people who are quite plainly wrong for each other try to make things work despite their obvious differences. “We connected right from the start. You can’t make this happen, you can’t make this happen … can you?,” Jean questions, subtly mocking the engineered, inorganic method by which this pairing happened in the first place. As Jean goes on to describe her wardrobe, a “slutty” fifteen-dollar outfit including one-dollar panties and a Value Village bra, her significant other, seemingly out of touch with the contradictions set out before him, explains that he prefers a woman who adorns herself with jewelry, good shoes and other fineries. He rattles off his professional accomplishments (“he’s the architect of a hospital, a hotel, a prison in Texas”) and fills the air with empty promises of bringing his grand piano out of storage while Jean describes how she walks 20 minutes to the grocery and would cross the street to save ten cents a pound on oranges. We can only envision how this will end, as Jean trails off pondering the genuineness of this gentleman’s words and about his being an architect, “the architect of another line, a really long line…”
The pinnacle of the The Observer, and perhaps its most difficult moment, is found in the song “Fallen Skier.” Here, again courtesy of narrator Jean, we get a bird’s eye view of a first date gone horribly wrong, or at least horribly not right. “I picked the date, I picked the place for the date, a radical bookstore to which he, a 47-year-old English student, has never been…” At one time or another, we’ve probably all found ourselves sitting across a table from a mistake, an error in judgment, and staring down an utter lack of chemistry. And yet – out of curiosity, politeness or just the sheer hope that we haven’t dug deep enough – we somehow keep the conversation going. Jean finds herself in such a moment of ennui here, and she is awed by the enormity of this man’s vapid existence. He shows no interest at all, not just in her, but in anything. As painful as this sounds, there are comic moments, like when her date frets over whether Jean’s being in a punk band might mean she’s akin to Henry Rollins, and also moments of pure poignancy:
“I ask what sort of music he listens to. He says his taste is ‘eclectic,’ my least favorite answer to a question meant to increase understanding.
‘Eclectic,’ in this case, means that music isn’t really that important to him, isn’t really that important to him…”
Some may complain that, at twelve minutes plus, this painful exorcism carries on for far too long. The flip side, however, is that by stretching this moment, by fleshing out each lifeless detail and thoroughly examining this hollow, would-be suitor, the listener becomes a part of the story and feels the same tedium and awkwardness that Jean did in going through the ordeal. Life, or love for that matter, isn’t all about butterflies and fireworks, and as a slice of realism this piece is outstanding.
In the album’s final moments, its self-titled track quietly ties up all the loose ends of the online dating conundrum and of the search for meaningful connections of any stripe. Jean, the observer, finds herself riding a bus. Different people get on and off the bus as she rides. She hears parts of conversations, sees different landscapes outside her window and momentarily catches glimpses of beauty and meaning. “I close one eye to lose my depth of field,I am so limited, so limited the infinite unravel of the universe.” As the ride draws to a close, everyone has gotten off the bus except Jean. With everything stripped away, in the end she finds herself as the one constant, as are we all. Each of us, individually, are observers, and ultimately, no matter who we reach out to in our lifetimes, no matter who we connect with or who falls away, in truth we have only our own selves to fall back on, and we each will die alone.