In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with “radio” in the title.
As much as Steve Albini has earned a reputation for his direct, sharp-tongued critiques of music and the business of making music, his lyrics in Shellac are often inscrutable. Even a song with a straightforward title like “The End Of Radio” and lyrics like “It’s the end of radio” isn’t entirely clear—especially when Albini sounds like he’s improvising for eight and a half minutes.
Is it a critique of radio? An elegy? A stream-of-conscious exercise around a theme? Is he just trolling listeners by repeating “Can you hear me now?”—the catchphrase from a then-ubiquitous ad campaign?
It doesn’t have to be just one of those; “The End Of Radio” could be all of that. It’s easy to think Shellac was making a statement by using it to open its first album in seven years, Excellent Italian Greyhound. Then again, what’s the statement? That Shellac will continue to do whatever the hell it wants? That message had been received long before 2007.
Bob Weston’s three bass chords drive “The End Of Radio,” with drummer Todd Trainer rolling on his snare intermittently like he’s soundchecking. (“And that snare drum, that drum roll means we’ve got a winner!” Albini crows at one point.) Albini’s guitar is silent much of the time, save for the few moments the trio locks in and the song coheres into something forceful. In live performances, Albini generally hangs on his mic stand, guitar at his waist, while he barks words like “This is a real goddamn emergency!”
Albini isn’t a nostalgic person, so it’s unlikely he’s wistful for a medium he described to Exclaim as a “commodity” swallowed up “by the plundering, oligarchic capitalists.” In that Exclaim interview, his explanation of “The End Of Radio” stretches nearly 500 words, and touches on everything from the small-time celebrity of the local radio DJ to the vertical integration of the medium by huge corporations that own the station, own the music being played on it, and make the equipment being used to play the music. But, he admits, “The song doesn’t have a particular point; it’s just a series of vignettes or glimpses into the phenomenon of radio.”
Or a series of non-sequiturs: “This microphone turns sound into electricity!” “This one goes out to a special girl, but there is no special girl.” “Is it really broadcasting if there is no one there to receive?”
“The End Of Radio” isn’t one of Shellac’s best songs, or even a particularly good song, but it is unmistakably, unapologetically Shellac. An eight-and-a-half-minute track that “doesn’t have a particular point” opening a band’s first album in seven years? Who else does that?