Empty Bottles Broken Hearts
The Murder City Devils
Reviewed by John Brady
Monday, December 21 1998, 10:59 PM
"Recall that at one time rock and roll' was a euphemism for fucking. Rock and roll was a threat to decency and worrisome in its effect on young people."
-- From the Sub Pop promotional package for Empty Bottles Broken Hearts
Empty Bottles Broken Hearts is the second full-length release by Seattle's Murder City Devils. It follows up on the band's first self-titled LP released on the Sub Pop punk imprint Die Young Stay Pretty in 1997.
Empty Bottles is a scorcher, offering up twelve songs of alcohol-fueled, blistering punk rock. Lead singer Spencer Moody yells and howls about death, alienation, liquor and the wild abandon of life with such intensity and heat that the paint threatens to peel right off of your walls. If that weren't enough, the rest of the band pounds out riff after glorious punk rock riff. And they do it with such obvious delight in the primordial power of rock and roll that you can't help smiling as you mosh around your living room.
Critics haven't failed to notice the Murder City Devils' rock and roll enthusiasm either, both on their recordings and at their shows. Indeed for many scribes, the Devils have not only put out a fine album, but have re-invigorated rock and roll, saving straight ahead guitar rock, snotty lyrics, punk rock sneers, and tight black pants held up by those shiny studded belts from the dustbin of cultural history.
Which is a really interesting interpretation, if you ask me, one that speaks volumes about our present pop cultural moment. After all it hasn't been that long since Nirvana's Nevermind was released, launching the so-called "grunge" revolution and propelling rock and roll, its fashions and its political attitudes to the center of popular culture.
Or was it really a revolution? The fact that we have to christen new saviors of rock and roll so soon after Cobain and company's rise implies otherwise. It suggests that grunge's sudden entrance onto the cultural scene was more flash than fire. Not a lasting revolution but the last gasp of a cultural medium that was once the dominant language, in which young people in the capitalist world imagined their desires, expressed their political and social attitudes and seduced each other.
As a language of youth culture, rock and roll remains powerful. Rock bands still move a lot of units, after all, and plenty of young kids still know how to cop a punk rock attitude. But rock and roll has been joined on the pop culture stage by other genres, most notably hip-hop and the various derivatives of electronic dance music. Together, all three presently vie for the attention of the world's youth. This now crowded pop culture stage befits our age, one characterized, as political and social theorists never tire of pointing out, not by the hegemony of one ideology or culture, but by plurality, hybridity and flux.
There's no going back. I doubt we will ever return to the point where one genre of music will dominate youth culture like rock and roll did for most of the post-war period. This state of affairs raises interesting questions about the potential political content of specific youth cultures.
Rock and roll, as the marketing execs at Sub Pop duly note, was once synonymous with rebellion, sexual and otherwise. Yet, if rock and roll is no longer the dominant cultural medium, can it still express youthful dissent and dissatisfaction? Can the other genres -- hip-hop and electronica -- pick up the slack and give adequate voice to the political aspirations of young people? Or have we arrived at a cultural moment in which the plurality of styles and subcultures produces a cultural noise above which no coherent political sentiments can be heard?
I'm not sure what the answers to these questions are. But I think there is a lesson to be learned just in posing them. In this post-rock and roll cultural period, we can no longer count on any genre to be automatically political, to automatically express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Much more so than before, culture has to be made political. This might mean much more work for today's cultural producers, but it might just make for a more explosive youth culture.