Welcome to Reasonable Things, an occasional newsletter about music, language, and meaning from Joel Heng Hartse.
Hey! I hope to have news about my new book soon, but until then: let's listen to some music!
I find it the hardest to write about the music I love the most.
There was a time I was convinced that language was the highest human thing; after all, it's what makes us different from animals, seems to allow us to do incredible things, has immense power to shape and change the world and people. This is all true.
But I am beginning to think that the things we do in silence may have more meaning that anything we could say -- that physical actions, sounds, touches, glances, movements -- might do more than language ever could, or at least when combined with language seem to super-charge its power. I don't know any other way to explain why music seems to have such an effect on us.
I love the band Ozma. A lot. I've loved them since I first heard their music in 2001, right before they opened for Weezer on the latter's "comeback" tour. (O, if we'd only known what they were coming back to be.) I've also never really written about them because I don't understand why I think their music is almost perfect.
"Domino Effect," from their first true album, was my essential summer song for most of my late 20's through mid-30's. There's something nostalgic about it -- they were high school kids when they wrote it, and it feels like nothing so much as a late-teen summer, brimming with possibility and promise. I played it whenever I needed a jolt of energy, a burst of positivity, a shot of joy. (Try it yourself, if you want!)
An song I've been really into since, I don't know, mid-2021 is "Nervous" from their 2014 "comeback" (may we all have these!) album Boomtown. I find it difficult to explain my love for this song in anything resembling a coherent paragraph, so let me make a list. You can listen while reading, if you want:
The way it starts too fast, with an infinitesimal tempo change after the first eight bars. You can almost see someone mouthing "slow down" in the studio as the band settles into a more comfortable groove.
It's the only song sung by the band's keyboardist, Star Wick (note: this is an amazing name and I wish I was friends with someone named Star Wick), who has a great voice.
The frantic pace of the main riff and verses, which give the song a paranoid, nervous vibe; that is, until...
The pre-chorus, which slows to half-time and gives the song room to breathe while also introducing the notion that the chorus is going to offer help or advice that will speak back to the paranoid verses.
The lyric "Where'd seven hours go/ as seven years go by" which doesn't really make logical sense but absolutely works with the current way we're all experiencing time
The synth arpeggios in the chorus! I feel surrounded by warm ocean waves or something. And the harmonies, so low in the mix but so supportive of the lead vocal! I am SUCH a sucker for male/female harmonies.
The way the guitar comes in during the final vocal vamp, tying it all together.
The repetition of the chorus so many times, like a good friend trying to help you get through a hard time: offering encouragement ("be strong/ and keep calm") but also understanding ("you're still nervous").
Even though this is more of tired grown-up Ozma than the optimistic teen band they once were, the open-hearted optimism of the bridge: "Maybe that feeling in your heart/is telling you to go for it")
When everything drops out and we just hear Star sing "don't be nervous." I can finally breathe, and just be thankful I got to experience such a beautiful pep talk from such a great band.
This list of ten things I love is about half music, half lyrics, but what emerges is something much bigger and more difficult to name (I'd try, but it's embarrassing: a hug? a mantra? a prayer?) and I don't think I'd appreciate whatever emerges as much if I hadn't already been listening to this band for twelve years before hearing it.
I guess what I'm saying is, I love this song, but I can't explain why. The best I can do is commend it to you. Try listening to it one or ten or two hundred times. You might like what happens.
I hope you're well.
Don't be nervous.