Backtrack: Silkworm Firewater

Sometimes I think I hate Silkworm. Firewater, which is largely regarded as their greatest album in a catalog that’s full of as many great moments as overlooked ones, is a difficult, confrontational, awkward, lumbering bible for being a good drunk and living well in shitty circumstances, or failing that, at least coping with them enough not to go crazy. It oscillates wildly from of-the-moment grunge pastiche to sloppy but often transcendent guitar solos, from flat vocals about life and death to flat vocals about the ethics of being drunk. The album cover looks bargain bin ready, a mid-90s panorama of nonsensical themes that ultimately boil down to an extremely literal depiction of booze being treated like medicine: a bald man, cheeks shiny, lays on a cot, splayed at a weird angle as a faceless doctor pours what looks like very dark whiskey into his mouth through a funnel.

The Wikipedia entry for the record is distressingly brief, just noting that it was recorded two years after vocalist Joel RL Phelps left the band, before mentioning that Steve Albini engineered the record (he worked with them for the bulk of their career) and that it was their first on Matador. I say distressingly because that short entry further marginalizes an album that was sometimes feels like it was written to be marginalized. Can you imagine being 14 and trying to relate to twilight-of-your-drunk-years lyrics like “what drunk with any common sense at all would mix his beer and gin like that?”

So maybe Silkworm isn’t for teens with nascent or nonexistent drinking problems but for people weathered by their own weird lives. That’s okay, Silkworm aren’t pretending anything.

Don’t look for illusions of rockstardom from them either. I figure most people, at some point in their teenage lives, entertained some fantasy of being a rockstar. Maybe it was only for a minute, but that impetus to wow people with your art seems pretty engrained in the fabric of our attention-seeking neurosis. Nothing feels more validating and realer, I guess, real because heavy emotional moments as conveyed through art do not always lend to becoming a rockstar so much as they lend themselves to therapy and/or depression. This is something that Silkworm, in all its incarnations, understood. It’s probably what drew Ladyhawk, who I wrote about last week, to their music. Every member of that band talked to me about Silkworm at some point with a reverence that was normally reserved for Neil Young or a really cool uncle. After I got burned out on those Ladyhawk records, I wanted something that had that same intangible wizened quality but was still kind of mopey, Silkworm offered it messily and without concession.

The thing about Firewater, though, is that it’s a smart album. It’s self-aware. Funny. Dark. Kinda mean. It’s not working with the listener, or probably the label, or anyone really. The concessions that it does make — the fact that album opener “Nerves” is basically a Nirvana rip that then transitions into a song that not only does not cleanly flow from the previous but actively sounds like it’s coming from a different record or even the work of a different band — are barely there. In the hands of a lesser band or a newer band, a band that didn’t already decide that they hit some sort of collective bottom (whether or not they actually hit bottom is beside the point — Silkworm were, as a whole, making songs that came from a place dark enough that the inherent humor in their work just exacerbated that darkness, like how when something gets bleak enough all you can do to cope is joke about it) this would feel strained.

You know that thing that gets said in probably at least a movie a year, maybe daily on TV shows — to paraphrase: “How can you love someone else when you don’t love yourself?” That’s basically the music of Silkworm in a nutshell. I can’t speak to any member of the band’s personal life, but on record they were a bunch of sadsacks that figured out a really long time ago that being a sadsack doesn’t go anywhere good. You lose friends and sanity and perspective and eventually you’re just a bummed dude without any ground to stand on. To survive, you have to be funny about it, and you definitely have to have perspective that reaches beyond base cynicism toward something more nuanced. Silkworm had all this fairly constantly throughout their long, knotty career, which moved from drunken advice — seriously, what are you doing, don’t mix gin with other stuff, also maybe don’t be a dick, also life is weird, just accept it — and complicated sentiments about religion and the world and relationships sung plainly without pretense. Silkworm never became rockstars because they never planned on being rockstars. They were never going to be easy either, but listening to a Silkworm record is like getting talked at by an incredibly smart wasted guy at a shitty bar. At first you have no idea what is going on, and then you lock into their rhythm and everything starts to make a lot more sense.

Tags: Silkworm