Alive to Every Smile, the new Trembling Blue Stars release, is not as obsessed with Annemari Davies (TBS frontman Robert Wratten's ex-girlfriend/bandmate) as the band's past records have been, but Davies is still all over this one. Alive is very much about grief--just what fans want from Wratten's very lovely band. The LP ends with the sad sound of waves crashing against a lonely shore, and it begins with the following self-indictment: "You've got to stop fucking her up. You've got to grow up " ("Under Lock and Key").
Is smart, clinical production and a safe lyric sheet the kind of grief sorrow-hungry music fans want nowadays? Are people so afraid to let ugliness rear its very real and human head (musicians and consumers alike) that Alive to Every Smile is the sad pop stuff that's going to pass muster and snake its way into every sensitive type's top-ten list for 2001? Judging by the recent excited word-of-mouth on Trembling Blue Stars, it's likely.
From "Little Gunshots": "How can you argue with what happens when our eyes meet, the spot we hit, the way we leave each other hungry? How can you argue with you and me? You're waving from a leaving train and every part of me screams your name: think again, please, think again." That's not a bad lyric, it's just too precious. Part of Wratten screams her name (the part of him that would say, "BITCH GET OFF THE TRAIN, I'M NOT DONE WITH YOU!"), but that part is kept inside of him, nowhere to be found on this record.
So Wratten is moping, staring at his pretty shoes, and the girl is on the train. Maybe their relationship is over, regardless of Wratten's obsessions, and the song (the entire record, in fact) is just a bittersweet document of a man facing loss, moving slowly into a place of emotional acceptance.
But acceptance is anticlimactic in self-referential, suffering art like Wratten's. Pop songs are brief, without any real narrative, and Trembling Blue Stars have all the makings of a great band. So, do we want to nod our heads at a little epiphany in a four-minute ditty, or do we want a real shot of something, whatever that something may be? Give us bliss, terror, joy, sorrow a sublime, wide-eyed moment whatever. Music doesn't have to be sad, but when it is sad, it should be genuinely moving. Otherwise, it's just familiar emotional rehash. And nobody likes a whiner.