Heartbreak Kids

That's not despair in the air, it's Pollen

The album's centerpiece, "Girls Love Robots," is, ironically enough, the least directly confessional song found on Chip. Told from the perspective of a disillusioned romantic, the narrator extols the virtues of an automatonic existence while cursing the frailties of the human design -- chiefly, the inability to repair a broken heart the way you would fix a motherboard.

"Followed the directives/All I found was obsolescence/Flesh and bone will fade like any other/Manufacturer malpractice, given hearts and ammunition/You can't promise you'll always love me."

Writing in a clipped robotic tone ("When human beings break, there's no clear process to repairment") and conjuring up a bevy of morose images, the song is less David Lynch and more John Hughes by way of Philip K. Dick.

Let's talk about girls: The members of Pollen, from left, Kevin Scanlon, Bob Hoag, Dan Hargest, Chris Serafini and Mike Bennett.
Susan Jordan
Let's talk about girls: The members of Pollen, from left, Kevin Scanlon, Bob Hoag, Dan Hargest, Chris Serafini and Mike Bennett.

Musically, the song is powered by a blissful union of Hoag's propulsive backbeat and Hargest's tortured wail. Scanlon and Bennett's guitars assault in waves and, just as its bridge ends, the song climaxes in a torrent of backing "ahhs" and descending chords to create an utterly herculean pop moment on a record full of them.

In an era increasingly encumbered by its own sense of postmodern irony, there is nothing sardonic or wry in the new Pollen record -- they aren't pining for romance in song and bedding porn stars in real life. The songs on this album really are about girl trouble -- though such a description tends to marginalize the album's true depth. Put another way: Chip is about the agony of heartbreak, or, as a friend once noted, the agony by which all other agony is measured.

No matter how unfashionable such intense introspection may seem, it is a vital discourse, one that's woven into the tapestry of popular entertainment. It's a concept that those espousing the merits of "classical" art have never quite understood. Yet it's why I find more pathos and meaning in a modest ditty like Big Star's "Thirteen" than the most epic Wagnerian opera.

That "pop" music or culture holds such an important place in our society is incontrovertible. You needn't look further than the way we canonize our icons on postage stamps and in museums for evidence of that. But there is a deeper force at work that may explain why something as innocuous as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" could have had such a colossal cultural impact.

Perhaps the most astute observation of the phenomenon was made by British author Dennis Potter in a 1994 BBC television interview taped shortly before his death. In explaining the role of the popular arts, he hit upon an essential truth lost on most observers.

"I wanted to write about the way popular culture was an inheritor of something else," noted a frail and cancer-stricken Potter. "You know, that cheap songs, so called, actually do have something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate."

It is that sense of illumination that can be found in the "cheap songs" of the Stooges and the Dolls, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. It's why the familiar opening beat to "Be My Baby" still reverberates as loudly today as it did 35 years ago, the reason the raw, ethereal beauty of "God Only Knows" can still elicit tears, and why I can't sit still when "I Wanna Be Your Dog" comes on.

For all our "it's only rock 'n' roll" sentiment, music can impart profound truths. I know, because I spend my days and nights with people whose lives were either saved or destroyed because they heard the Ramones when they were 15, saw the Replacements on TV or stumbled into a bar one night, witnessed some local rock dionysus playing guitar and were forever changed.

That's not to say that Chip is some sort of rock 'n' roll watershed -- it's not. It's just a very good record by a very good local band. But like all great albums of its kind -- the best being Brian Wilson's Beach Boy opus Pet Sounds -- it's music composed in the hearts and minds of boys occupying the bodies of men. How else could you explain a line like the one found in the album closing "Olive-Eyed": "Every person in this world can drop dead except for you."

Though it's not a literal conceit, the lyric is a staggering evocation. It may seem the skewed dedication of a teenager, yet the line is filled with such adolescent conviction -- it's so stupid and so real -- that you have to wonder how many times the same sentiment has been exchanged between starry-eyed 16-year-olds in the back seat of a car.

Hargest's reading of the lyric conveys such overwhelming innocence, you realize they're the kind of words that could only be expressed by someone who has not yet been touched by the inevitable heartache, disappointment and cynicism that come with age.

In a day when the notion of romantic idealism seems like a relic, it makes you wonder if some element of truth can't be found in such an outrageous pledge, if somehow there isn't more in the back-seat promise of two naive lovers than all the grown-up, well-read, educated psychobabble that passes between adults.

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