In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, because there are new Coldplay and Conor Oberst records, songs we put on when we want to mope.
In Jon Brion’s gloomy waltz “Ruin My Day,” the musician’s choice of words makes all the difference. It’s a fantastic maneuver that I noticed for the first time while revisiting the song for this piece: For the majority of its running time, “still” is the most important word in the refrain—“You can still ruin my day”—an acknowledgment of the passage of time and the lingering presence of heartbreak. But there’s a barely perceptible shift in emphasis in the song’s final measures that highlights the “can” over the “still”—so barely perceptible that I may have made it up. But it’s had a huge impact on my interpretation of the song, one that cleverly reverses the blame at its center. In that light, “Ruin My Day” is less of an admonishment and more of an invitation, permission for the song’s subject to sully another 24 hours in the singer’s life.
Plenty of songs capture the immediate intensity of a breakup, but “Ruin My Day” is about a duller pain. It’s about the one you can’t shed, the one that keeps needling you even though you’ve done everything you can to put it out of your head. But until enough time passes to wipe that pain from your memory banks, the world is a minefield of reminders—stuff as mundane as a telephone or a broken promise. The tyranny of memory is all over Brion’s spectacular collection of sad-bastard power-pop, Meaningless, heard in the love-sick bounce of “Her Ghost” as well as the album-closing cover of Cheap Trick’s “Voices.” That lyrical preoccupation made Brion a fitting choice to score Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; “Ruin My Day” is Meaningless’ finest show of the mood-creating abilities the musician demonstrates in his soundtracks. It’s certainly one of the record’s most cinematic arrangements, with orchestral crescendoes as overcast as any Brion has crafted for the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.
But I keep circling around to the idea of choice within “Ruin My Day,” especially with regard to this Hear This theme. It’s an obnoxiously New-age way of looking at things, but moping can be as much of a choice as selecting a certain song on an iPod. The older I get, the more conscious I try to be about this, especially as someone who wasn’t great at controlling my emotions as a kid. These days, if I choose to give in to my sulkier side, I try to make sure I’m doing so through a conduit like Jon Brion. The songs on Meaningless can bring me down whenever they’d like.