Sunday, August 17, 2008

Extreme Days

I'm happy to see Extreme joining the list of reunited bands (Genesis, The Police, Led Zeppelin, and many other high-profile names have come back around for another swing over the last couple of years). Extreme was always one of my favourite groups, and they seemed to have more left to say when they called it quits after Waiting For The Punchline. Nuno Bettencourt, the guitarist, released a criminally underrated (and under-successful, in case that's a word) album, Schizophonic, and singer Gary Cherone went on to a short stint as the frontman for Van Halen, only to be rejected by an audience that didn't deserve him.

Now they're back, as seemed inevitable. Unlike most of the reuniters, they actually have new material. Saudades de Rock (Saudades, pronounced "sow-dodge", means a nostalgic longing for something that's been lost) was released on August 12. I haven't heard it yet (although I should have a... preview copy, shall we say, within the next few hours), but I'm cautiously optimistic.

Extreme is a group I could write several articles on, and someday I may, but for today I want to bring the focus in on their second album. I'd like to examine an aspect I haven't seen discussed elsewhere. I can't be the first person to point this out - there is nothing new under the sun (hey, cool! That works as a reference on at least 2 levels for this discussion!) - but a cursory Google search doesn't turn up anything quite like what I'm about to say.

It's pretty obvious and well-known that Extreme II: Pornograffitti (PG hereafter) is a concept album. For those of you who don't remember the days when musicians generally preferred marijuana and LSD to heroin and crystal meth, "concept albums" are albums (do I have to explain that term too? Well, I'm not. Google and Wikipedia are your friends.) that tell a hopefully coherent story. The songs may stand alone, but most (if not all) of them contribute to a larger narrative.

Some of the most famous concept albums are Tommy (The Who), The Wall (Pink Floyd), The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Genesis), and Operation: Mindcrime (Queensyche). The concept album was a staple of nerd rock, AKA progressive rock, starting in the sixties, but has generally fallen out of favour as the attention span of the average listener approaches that of a crack-addicted fruit fly.

On the surface, PG tells the story of Francis, a young boy growing up in America, being assaulted on all sides by immoral influences. The theme of the story is the difficulty in surviving exposure to the culture at large without being corrupted.

While that's a good story to tell, and the album already contains a great deal of edification and encouragement for those who would resist the pull toward the lowest common denominator in all things, I think there's another allegory lying underneath. I think the entire album is a parallel to the book of Ecclesiastes. I don't normally link to the King James Version text for Biblical passages, but the poetic language of Ecclesiastes is especially beautiful in the KJV.

Like Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, Extreme show us an exploration of attempts to fulfill man's deepest longings. The songs, like the passages in Ecclesiastes, address materialism (Decadence Dance), power and prestige (When I'm President), wealth (Money), romance (When I First Kissed You), and empty sex (most of the others).

The parallel holds as in Song For Love, the penultimate track of the album, the speaker realizes that all of his self-indulgence has left him unsatisfied:

I look around and see the hearts
That still are broken
I can't believe all of our hearts
Remain unopened
We can't go on and on
With that same old song
This isn't so very different from Ecclesiastes 2:10-11:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

Finally, the authors of both the album and the book of Ecclesiastes realize the solution. From Hole Hearted, the prayer that serves as the last track on PG:
There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart can't be filled with the things I do

There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you
Should have known from the start
I'd fall short with the things I do
Compare this to the conclusion of Ecclesiastes:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.

Both carry the same message: no matter what else you may try, only God will ultimately satisfy the longings of your soul.

This almost certainly wasn't an accident. Nuno and Gary, the two main songwriters in Extreme and the writers of every track on this album, are both Biblically literate. Their third album, the magnificent III Sides To Every Story, was filled with explicit Biblical references. I remember some discussion around that time as to whether Extreme would be characterized as a "Christian" band; Nuno told an interviewer for a guitar magazine I remember reading that he wasn't worried about that prospect. To this day I'm not sure whether he meant that he didn't think it would happen, or that he wasn't bothered by the idea.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of clasped hands.

1 comment:

Pastor Derek said...

Yeah, I'm looking forward to hearing the album too. I've heard both good and bad reviews. I'll probably pick it up at some point. Let me know what you think.