I was sitting in a bar with my friend Dave, and I told him I had started listening to new music again and was looking for recommendations. Dave said, “Recommendations, eh? I love when people ask me for recommendations because I always know, in my heart, that I have one really great recommendation that I can use every time and they’re always going to like it.” And he recommended to me the 2009 album Break Mirrors, by Blake Mills. I’d never heard of Mills at the time. If you haven’t heard of him either, cruise around on the internet and you’ll find that he makes his living as an electric guitarist and he’s played with a ton of people – Band of Horses, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, and currently Fiona Apple. But he also has a studio and he used it to record Break Mirrors, a singer-songwriter album that on first listen feels earthy and humble but has a secret swagger to it, and an offhand craftiness, and more original ideas than on most records I’ve heard in the last three years.
I listened to Break Mirrors for the first time on a road trip I took back from my parents’ house in the grey early part of this year. It’s a great road trip album, actually. “Cheers” does mournful suburban nostalgia way better than most, and “It’ll All Work Out” feels like a semi-sprawling American mini-epic, spanning a large stretch the country and a large stretch of one family’s history, but with a randy, kind of down-in-the-mouth humor that keeps it from feeling self-consciously grand the way a song like “America” by Simon and Garfunkel does. “Hey Lover” is the kind of buoyant and hilarious pop song that always makes me want to jealously punch the person who wrote it. “Wintersong” feels like a ragged, lo(er)-fi take on Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac to me, way smarter and slyer than when contemporary rock bands usually try to do that sort of thing. The whole record was a wonderful journey, perfect for Route 128 in the late morning in January, all greys and washed-out browns, with a cup of very strong coffee in your system. Finally, at the record’s end, came “History of My Life.” It’s tough to choose my favorite song on Break Mirrors, but “History of My Life” is neat because it’s both so pretty and so ballsy; specifically, Mills gets at a really uncomfortable truth about himself, his listeners, and, I think, about the entire genre of (this word should be retired) “indie” music.
The first three words in “History of My Life” are “hot-pink catamarans,” a nifty and evocative image but one that also fits right into the indie landscape of 2009, Break Mirrors’ release date, a.k.a The Year Preppie Broke. Okay, maybe that year was 2008, but my point is that the tail end of the 2010s (a decade so unimaginative that we even failed to come up with a snappy term for it), marks the moment the indie world embraced privilege. Privilege had been part of indie rock all along of course, but, up until around 2008 or 2009, you didn’t talk about your trust fund, or about who was the heir to what fortune, or who was descended from what celebrity. No matter your background, you pretended you were a crusty punk-rock man-of-the-people. Then all that pretending got a little stale and humorless, and things needed to be shaken up, because rock and roll is really more about sensationalism and irreverence than it is about idealism. And that’s what opened up the indie scene to preppie imagery, to colors like pink, to yachts and to catamarans – all ironic at first and then, like everything that starts out ironic, un-.
You could rant and rave about how shitty this is – how “indie” derives from the word “independent,” how the genre descended from post-punk and, at least in theory, from politically-engaged punk groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. You could talk about indie rock turning from part of the solution into part of the problem. You could point out that, in a world where illegal downloading and companies like Spotify are more or less torpedo-ing musicians’ ability to make a living, basically everybody who isn’t a trust fund kid or an heir is getting squeezed out. You could climb up on a soapbox and scream that this is as perverted a version of “independent music” as is Rick Santorum’s vision of Christianity. But then you’d sound like an old fart. Also, here’s one weird thing you’d be wrong about, and I don’t like to admit this but it’s true: peoples’ talent doesn’t necessarily correspond with their economic background. For every dirt-poor farm kid like Bob Marley, there’s a Joe Strummer, who for all his working-class posturing grew up rich. Man, I just laugh and laugh when people rag on the latest actress/writer du jour for being rich and having “famous” parents (that I’ve never heard of) – as if this is the first time that’s ever happened, as if it’s an outrage, as if their own iPods aren’t crammed with music written by people from way wealthier backgrounds (and some of that music is even good!).
Obviously it’s tremendously irritating to see some entitled rich kid get handed a career just because they asked. And obviously it’s deeply dispiriting to think of the yawning chasm between the way that rich kid lives and the way the person who assembled his iPhone lives. It is, quite simply, not right, even though people tend not to question it and even mostly don’t want to talk about it. What’s brave and uncomfortable about Mills’ song is the way he not only talks about it but deliberately chooses the wrong side to be on. It’s the trick Randy Newman used so often and so well, writing about something horrible from the self-justifying perspective of the person who is doing the horrible thing or allowing the horrible thing to happen. In this case, the side Mills chooses is the side that most of us happen to be on.
Here’s my favorite part of “History of My Life,” kind of the centerpiece of the song:
I’ve been smiling so long
that I couldn’t hardly see
my parents weren’t in love,
but they were still taking care of me,
and I’ve taken much more
than some people ever see in their lifetime.
I love how he has it both ways in this verse; it’s both self-loathing and weirdly defensively proud of something indefensible, namely a kind of unquestioning selfish entitlement. But there’s pain there too, and compassion, in the sudden realization that for his whole life his parents were staying together just for him, just for the little child emperor. Earlier in the song, Mills juxtaposes the image of the pink catamarans with begging pelicans onshore, eating piles of trash filled with peoples’ “disappointing gifts from friends.” It’s a hilarious, Morrissey-like line that nails the spiritually disgusting phenomenon of a spoiled kid, bummed out by his expensive array of presents on Christmas day.
Whether or not this is earned, whether or not we should feel for him, Mills lets the narrator grow in the last verse of the song. His realization about his parents marks a turn, and the imagery starts evoking time passing, of spring coming:
And maybe I know something that’s turning the sea around,
And the sun that’s sprouting seeds from underground.
And someone is coming to rely on me somehow…
This last line is sung by a giant, gospel-like choir of voices. Responsibility has come into the narrator’s life. It’s not all about him anymore. He’s not just the kid bummed out that his expensive present isn’t the one he wanted. He feels compassion and love. He cares about other people. He’s thinking about his parents, what they did for him. He’s realizing how much of a bum he’s been. Hopefully it’s the start of something.
*This isn’t strictly just 2012; it includes some 2011 stuff I just couldn’t leave out.