This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, a look at some of our favourite pop punk albums, from the genre’s Big Bang in 1994 through to just before we launched in 2016.
“To get a little academic for a second, the primary emergency of gay history in its first decades was to uncover and to restore histories of gay movements and of gay heroes. And while the culture of academic research has certainly moved on from that, the public conversation really hasn’t.”– Ben Miller, Bad Gays, Episode 1: “Ernst Röhm”
“be gay, do crimes”– unknown
Say Anything are a strange band in the history of pop punk, not least because, well, are they a band? Max Bemis, lead singer and sole constant member, wrote all their lyrics and most of their music, and his work is, if not autobiographical exactly, then certainly confessional, in a way that reminds me alternately of Sylvia Plath and Eminem. He mentions people in his life by name in his songs a lot, particularly his wife and children in his later career, and usually without bothering to explain who they are for the unfamiliar listener. But other members of Say Anything have co-written music on most of their records, and many of them just credit Say Anything, rather than breaking down who did what. On the sliding scale between a solo project with a band name and a regular band with a primary songwriter, I tend to file Max Bemis and Say Anything in the same folder as Robert Smith and The Cure, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats: bands that consist of one person and whoever they’re making music with at the time, too collaborative to be solo projects, but too mercurial to feel like a regular band.
Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is widely acclaimed as one of the best pop punk albums of all time and particularly regarded as one of the crown jewels of Bush-era emo, but they’ve pretty much never had a major hit. Not even …Is a Real Boy, which didn’t chart in a year when Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday and even The Offspring (on their seventh album!) made the Billboard Year-End 200. Good Charlotte had two albums on it, and Green Day moved from #86 in 2004 to #2 in 2005 as the worldwide success of American Idiot turned it into one of the best-selling albums ever. My Chemical Romance released their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004 too, and also missed the year-end chart, but in 2005, they joined Green Day in the top 200 with Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Bowling for Soup and Jimmy Eat World. Say Anything had no such luck.
…Is a Real Boy had by far the biggest single of Say Anything’s career, “Alive with the Glory of Love”, a staple of alternative rock radio then and of alternative rock playlists now, but not a song that caused much of a ripple in the zeitgeist: it peaked at #28 on the alternative chart. Every subsequent Say Anything album has charted, but every subsequent Say Anything album except In Defense of the Genre, their sprawling double album full of collaborations with other pop punk and emo artists, also sold fewer copies than …Is a Real Boy. Almost twenty years later, …Is a Real Boy is still the album they’re primarily or even exclusively known for. They’ve had two other singles chart – “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Hate Everyone” – but “Alive with the Glory of Love” is still the closest they’ve come to a hit song. It’s not an uncommon story, really, but it just feels kind of ridiculous that a band this influential and iconic within the genre, who’ve collaborated with Gerard Way, Hayley Williams, Tom DeLonge, Matt Skiba and dozens of other beloved pop punk, emo and indie artists, have never really been that popular. It’s not like they’re critical darlings either: the reception for most of their albums after …Is a Real Boy skews positive, but it’s usually mixed and frequently polarised. I guess they’re kind of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but even Marmite sells, for God’s sake.
…Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, possibly the best pop punk album ever, and certainly my favourite, but it’s also been a bit of an albatross around Bemis’s neck. A lot of the band’s later experimentation is a fairly transparent effort to escape the shadow of …Is a Real Boy by refusing to even have a core sound. The second verse of “Judas Decapitation”, from their 2014 album Hebrews, is a screed aimed directly at the archetypal bad Say Anything fan who venerates …Is a Real Boy and hates the work the band has done since Bemis became happier, healthier and met his wife, Sherri DuPree of Eisley: “I hate that dude! / now that he’s married / he’s got a baby on the way / Poor Sherri!” Bemis is open about suffering from bipolar disorder and famously experienced a severe manic episode from the stress of making …Is a Real Boy, so there’s always been a dark undercurrent to the idea he needs to “go back” to making albums like it, as if he can’t make good music unless he’s untreated. You can hear the venom in his voice as he spits out the last lines of that verse: “be nineteen with a joint in hand / never change the band / never ever be a dot dot dot real man”, with the “dot dot dot” in the wrong place, just to piss them off even more. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Bemis announced a sequel.
Oliver Appropriate, released in 2019, is the band’s presumptive final album, released a few months after a lengthy statement in which Bemis came out as queer, revealed he was retiring from touring for health reasons and announced the end of Say Anything as a recording project (though the third paragraph promises they’ll “return one day to play festivals and scoff at our career”.) Like many concept albums, the concept “lore” is almost entirely secondary to the experience – I’ve never read the liner notes of any concept album ever – but unlike, say, The Black Parade or the concept albums of Cursive (one of Bemis’s more transparent non-pop punk influences), it has a fairly clear narrative, even clearer than pop punk’s definitive concept album, American Idiot. Oliver is a washed-up, single, middle-aged, ex-punk rocker punching the clock at a marketing job and spending all his free time and money on drink and drugs, drifting from bar to bar, club to club, party to party, falling into bed at the end of the night with whatever woman will have him.
Then he sees Karl at a bar, and it’s like a bolt of lightning right into the darkest part of his heart, the secret place he’s been hiding his attraction to men from himself and everyone else. It’s a beautiful album about the misery of alienation, the agony of the closet and the thrill of first love. It’s also a very dark horror story: the album ends with Oliver drowning himself in the San Francisco Bay with Karl’s body.
Oliver Appropriate got very little coverage either in the press or from critics: there were many, many more articles about Bemis’s coming-out than anything else to do with the album, and most of those were just “huh, well, there you go, good for him”. I’m honestly kind of glad. There’s been something of a moralising, puritanical turn in pop culture criticism over the last several years, not unique to our time in history, but extremely unwelcome nonetheless if you give a shit about art. Instead of talking much about e.g. a movie’s aesthetic qualities, a mind-numbing amount of contemporary criticism is little more than political metacommentary on whether it challenges or reinforces the attitudes and norms of its audience through “good” or “bad” representation, or psychoanalysis of the artist(s) who made it (or, at least, audiences and artists as imagined by the critic). I don’t pretend to preach about this with clean hands: to take just one example, my piece on Split stretches to make a case that it’s not just a bad movie, but a socially harmful one, and looking back, it feels ridiculous. If I liked Split more on its aesthetic merits in the first place, it’s doubtful I’d have felt the same, because we all give the art we like a moral discount on stuff like “promoting inaccurate views of mental illness” or whatever. In fact, I know I wouldn’t, because M. Night Shyamalan’s previous film The Visit was about scary old people with dementia, and I think it’s one of his best. I just didn’t like Split and I wanted to give my case against it a bit of heft, something that would reach a fan who obviously enjoyed its filmmaking more than I did, so I retroengineered reasons to hate it even if you like it.
Queer art has suffered particularly from this turn, for reasons far beyond the scope of this article or this author to explore in detail, but which I’d briefly summarise as a pathological insistence within certain too-online queer communities on constantly modelling the “right” way to be gay, trans, etc. in the futile belief that if only we can make the straights think we’re nice enough, hatred and bigotry against queer people will fade away. But the notion there’s a “right” way for queer people to exist is hatred and bigotry against queer people, no less so when it’s self-inflicted. It’s just the same old shit of telling other queer people that they’re “making the rest of us look bad”, pandering to prejudice in the hope of being told you’re “one of the good ones”, but applied to art and, inevitably, to the artists who don’t toe the party line.
Back in early 2020, an emerging writer named Isabel Fall had a fantastic short story published in the sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld, named for and riffing on the most cliché of transphobic memes: “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”. It’s about a soldier fighting in a future war who has her gender surgically reassigned to “attack helicopter” to make her a better combat pilot. It’s a great bit of fiction, thoughtful, funny and provocative, taking this tired joke and using it as raw material for a sharp, insightful story about, among other things, how inclusion in an immoral society often entails complicity in its crimes. She was absolutely savaged online for it, accused not only of promoting transphobia, but directly harming trans people, to the point she asked Clarkesworld to pull it rather than endure the deluge of abuse. I wish I could say it was just random trolls on the Internet, but it wasn’t. Major professionals in the sci-fi industry publicly attacked her, including the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, Vanessa Rose Phin, the head of Canada’s National Association for Speculative Fiction Professionals, Arrin Dembo, and bestselling sci-fi and fantasy author N. K. Jemisin. Fall is a trans woman, but chose not to disclose this in her author’s bio. Dembo was one of many who took that non-disclosure as permission to publicly speculate that Fall was actually a cisgender man. The atmosphere of paranoid speculation grew so deranged that Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld, felt he had to clarify in a statement about the story that Fall wasn’t a neo-Nazi, simply because she listed her real birth year of 1988 and some people convinced themselves it was a reference to Hitler. One writer compared the title to a gun, saying the original meme was designed to do harm and could only ever do harm.
Fall’s case was a particularly egregious and public one, but the same story plays out every day with small independent artists online without attracting similar attention or scrutiny, particularly those who dare make art about queer people having filthy, dirty, kinky sex, or who write stories featuring rape, incest or abuse without an accompanying foldout pamphlet clarifying the author absolutely does not approve of sexual violence. The people who believe this kind of shit are not a majority of any community and not representative of anyone but themselves. But they’ve managed to have a disproportionate influence on criticism because, like them, most people who write criticism spend way too much time on the Internet, where they read their dumb opinions, internalise them and spread them around, online and off. It’s how we get shit like the fourth season finale of Orange is the New Black – one of the best episodes of television ever made, incidentally – being accused of being homophobic because it depicted the murder of a lesbian character by a guard or the multiple reviews I read of Joey Soloway’s memoir about making their show Transparent that went beyond calling it a bad book or Soloway a bad person to making gross insinuations about whether their non-binary gender identity wasn’t really just a bit of hip, trendy attention-seeking from a privileged, narcissistic cis woman. It’s a disgusting way to treat other people and a pathetic way to look at art that spits on the marvellous history of challenging, transgressive, vulgar queer art: Ulysses and Naked Lunch, Salò and Pink Flamingos, the photography of Mapplethorpe and Opie, the poetry of Pietro Aretino and Audre Lorde, Fun Home, and, for better or worse, Morrissey.
This is the tradition of queer art that Oliver Appropriate draws and builds on, explorations of exactly the elements of queer experience that moralists and bigots alike demand be suppressed and denied. Its opening track, “The Band Fuel”, begins with strumming acoustic guitar, so close to the mic you can hear the scrape of fingers on the strings, as Oliver wakes up in his apartment:
New York release me from my strata
the morning streams out an afterbirth of vodka
the dream of Julian Casablancas
gyro salesmen and a stranger in my blanket
awoken by drones
“The Band Fuel” and the rest of the album’s first act – “Daze”, “Pink Snot” and “Greased” – take the time to lay out Oliver and his situation before introducing the complicating wrinkle of love. Drug and alcohol abuse are a familiar theme for Say Anything (see: “The Writhing South”, “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur”, “17 Coked Up and Speeding”), but rarely so forefronted. The soft vocals of “The Band Fuel” build slowly as it paints a vivid picture of Oliver’s apartment – full of “flies and filth”, with “a chaise lounge of cans” where Oliver wakes, “Evian bottle filled with urine in my right hand” – then slams into “Daze” with Bemis bellowing the chorus:
it’s been days since I have slept a wink
I’m gaunt and dehydrated, I can’t even think of
days without something in my nose
it’s been days, it’s been days
Say Anything are not known for their brevity – one of their signature songs is a six-minute tirade about hating hipsters and yourself – but Oliver Appropriate keeps it under three minutes for all but two of fourteen songs, and it gives the album a very different feel from the rest of their work, not just tighter and punchier, but frantic and desperate and urgent: it sounds as much like a breakdown as their earlier song “Kall Me Kubrick” sounds like a manic episode. Oliver howls about “clambering with spindly digits for the sting of fucking serotonin” over jangly guitar and bright, fuzzy synths on “Daze”, then sings a jaunty ode to the virtue of snorting pills in “Pink Snot”, before crashing into the eerie, downbeat, rambling “Greased”: one verse on the sad spectacle of watching “the Southern fried boys” of indie “fade into the liberal bourgeoisie” in middle-age, one verse reflecting on Oliver’s own misogyny.
This is part of what makes Oliver Appropriate one of my favourite works on the agony of the closet in any medium: it doesn’t present being closeted as Oliver’s sole or even main problem in life. It’s just one of several threads in the tapestry of his suffering, along with his guilt about using alcohol to get women in bed when he was younger, his (extremely well-placed) anxiety about not living up to his punk ideals and the cold spectre of alienation that permeates the album, the emptiness of bourgeoise life in a commodified world manifested in those goddamned drones. We don’t get the first, oblique reference to Oliver’s sexuality until the second verse of “Greased”: “and everything they told me was wrong / is still in my heart to turn me on.” We don’t really learn a lot about Oliver’s life outside his substance abuse and struggles with his sexuality, since all but one of the songs are filtered so entirely through his point of view – we don’t learn he works at a marketing think tank until he gets fired from it – and he doesn’t really give a shit about anything but his pain and how to numb it. But his flecks of commentary, most of all those directed at other middle-aged indie has-beens, fill out his character with a rich, specific pathos. When he screams “I’m a stereotype / it’s been years since I have known / summertime / decades since I’ve prayed”, you can practically hear the wear in Bemis’s voice, the nicks and tears on his vocal cords, and it’s a gut punch every time I listen.
Say Anything were one of the more experimental bands in pop punk, especially in later years: their 2014 album Hebrews is a magnum opus of the genre made without any guitars, while 2017’s I Don’t Think It Is charted the strange territory between pop punk and hip hop, one of the few acts to come at it from the pop punk side rather than the hip hop side. (Kanye West is a fan, according to Bemis.) To some extent, Oliver Appropriate is less experimental than those albums, but to another, more accurate extent, it folds their innovations back into the more straightforward pop punk sensibilities of their early days. It’s not a guitar-free album, though it largely favours the synths of Hebrews over electric guitar as a contrast to its acoustic guitar-driven riffs, and it carries on IDTIS’s freer approach to song structure, especially once Karl enters the picture and Oliver suddenly needs to start singing love songs.
“Ew Jersey” sets the scene for their meeting: Oliver heads out for a night on the town with his old bandmates, “a band that’s coming back from a fake hiatus / hoping that the girls clinging to the bar / know who we are”. Now that “Greased” has cracked the dam, Oliver sings “tonight I’ll kiss a boy / to a round of clapping”, but he’s already planning to fuck the gay away with the nearest available woman: “Emma’s by the stairs / nodding off or napping / take her to my bed and leave her in the morning”. Pitchfork’s largely warm review of Oliver Appropriate contends that, unless you know the facts of Max Bemis’s life – his addiction issues, his lifelong struggles with severe mental illness, his recent coming-out – the album’s narrative is “muddled and morally ambiguous at best”. Leaving aside the insinuation that moral ambiguity should be counted against an album’s quality, I find that claim pretty hard to swallow, not least when it may be the only album in Say Anything’s discography that doesn’t feature the real names of Bemis or any of his family or friends. (They even use his name in their magnificent cover of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money”.) That simple, sharp turn from the idea of kissing boys to finding a girl for a meaningless shag conveys so much about Oliver in so few words that I just can’t imagine needing footnotes to get it, especially when it’s expanded on at length in the very next song.
“Mouthbreather” is the moment that Oliver first sees Karl “at the bar with my ex-girlfriend / hangin’ off her arm / fresh off the boat” and the album changes into something far less familiar. Over warm, playful keyboard and bass riffing, he sings through his queasiness at his own response: “brine in my gut / feelin’ like a slut / knife song again / knife song again”. (As well as a lovely turn of phrase, this also seems like a joke about hipsters loving The Knife.) “Smooth my brow across the floor / and lift my chin,” he sings, suddenly aware of his own body, “they’d introduce me:”
A female voice that first appeared in the background of the outro to “Pink Snot”, played there by Brianna Collins of Tigers Jaw, reasserts herself here, now played by Bemis’s wife Sherri, calling Oliver a mouthbreather call-and-response style during the chorus. The song slows down as she sings it first, high and ethereal – keyboard falls away, leaving just the bass, then the drums come in, but only lightly, a heartbeat rhythm on the kick and hi-hat, a marching rhythm on the snare – right before Oliver thinks the unthinkable thought: “I think I like you”. It’s as close as I’ve heard music come to sounding like that slow-motion moment of love at first sight, when the air thickens in your throat and the light falls like shards of glass, when everything fades away but them and you.
It isn’t immediately obvious from either the album itself or the description of the plot in Bemis’s retirement message what the female voices represent, but I read them as a single character, a personification of Oliver’s repressed sexuality at different ages. The character emerges overtly when Oliver sees Karl and disappears after Oliver kills him. The lyrics sung faintly by Collins, largely overwhelmed by Bemis, in the outro to “Pink Snot” are “the pills, not me / you made your choice now / oh / you let me be / won’t deal no more / oh / you made your choice now”, which sort of scan like the words of a lover left behind. But Collins’ aching performance, especially when she sings “let me be / won’t deal no more”, and the way Oliver’s repeated, sardonic assertions of his superiority over other drug addicts (“not me / I’m the pill man”) all but drown her out, just sound like Oliver piling ironic, self-deprecating arrogance onto something he really, really doesn’t want to think about, let alone feel. Collins sounds (and is) younger than Bemis, while Sherri sounds (and is) the same age. Max and Sherri’s children, Lucy and Coraline, appear later on “The Hardest”, singing along with Sherri. And just after she comes to the fore in the chorus of “Mouthbreather”, Oliver goes straight to predicting another evening of meaningless sex with his ex:
I’m leaking pheromones and she’s super stoned
she’ll be taking me back to her spot
iron out some kinks, make some flower drinks
watch a Paul Walker film while we make out
wonder if he got bored too
she thinks I watch the TV to last long
but he doesn’t bore me
doesn’t bore me like her
But that isn’t how it plays out: instead, the pace of the album picks up even more, three songs in less than six minutes. “When I’m Acid” stomps in and turns the self-deprecation and arrogance up to eleven as Oliver mocks himself (“a vehement atheist / who believes in God when I’m acid”) even as he’s psyching himself up to flirt with Karl. “God, I’m smart and I’m worth hating” he sings on the chorus, switching to “Fuck, I’m hot and I’m worth hating” in the outro. “Captive Audience” opens with a piano riff that sounds like an inverted “Werewolves of London”, switches into showtune vamping with flares of strings as the sparks fly and Oliver wants more and more to skip the flirting and get out of there (“this push and pull / so damn rehearsed”). It climaxes with simple piano and acoustic guitar chords that build and crescendo as Oliver waits desperately for Karl to make the first move so he doesn’t have to:
it’s time for you to make a move
you make me sick, it’s all for you
no need to cleanse, no common sense
just you, my captive audience
“Your Father” is the only song on the album that Bemis didn’t write, nor does it feature him as lead singer or Oliver as its viewpoint character. Karl Kuehn of Museum Mouth, friend of Bemis, drummer on this album and writer of this song, takes the lead to play his namesake, with Sherri backing him in perfect unison almost the whole time. “One night with me is bringing back the memories / of that old room where you started fucking the fear” and as they sing together, the emotional stakes of the story become clear: being with Karl is also forcing to Oliver to be with himself. “Two broad shoulders and two hands as big as mine / I bet you think I bet you know the end is near / and maybe it is / ‘cause people like your father don’t take it lightly when we kiss.” Oliver faintly repeats “lightly when we kiss” in the background, echoing in the distance as, for one moment, that repressed voice within him drowns him out for a change. It’s a tragic, heartbreaking song, the way he can’t even enjoy this moment of authentic desire and love without already looking ahead to its demise. “So now you either follow, let go or bury below / but you can’t escape the sinking feelings you don’t outgrow.” (“Below, below,” Oliver sings, foreshadowing his choice.) Oliver sees himself clearly for the first time in years, reflected in Karl’s eyes, and he already knows that when the time comes to choose whether or not to become himself fully in the world, he’s going to flinch. It’s all over before it’s begun. In cartoonist Tim Keider’s now-iconic turn of phrase, “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known”, and Oliver isn’t ready to submit.
Oliver’s night with Karl passes in a blur: these three songs are all under two minutes and fly by with toe-tapping, up-tempo rhythm. “Send You Off” slows things down for the morning after. It’s the turning point where Oliver could choose his happy ending, and doesn’t. “You ask me to do this again / I say I think I just date girls / and you’re not a girl, right?” he sings, sheepishly admitting he doesn’t really get “this confusing spectrum of modern sexuality.” He mockingly recites his stereotypical neuroses on the chorus – “mom loves me too much / and my daddy not enough / and I grew up nouveau riche” – and admits on the bridge that, like Karl said, he knows the end is near: “I can’t sustain / but I’ll try / if it numbs the pain”. He’s turned away from Karl, perhaps, but he’s still left alone with himself, and he doesn’t know if he can keep this up anymore. He knows as soon as he’s made the choice it was the wrong one:
because Bowie’s my excuse
so I can brag of how I tried
but all I want to do
is send you off and get you high
get you high
Then, he gets fired.
“Fired” is the most comedic song on the album (not the funniest, that’s “When I’m Acid”), just Oliver with an acoustic guitar lamenting his recent unemployment, which is kind of odd for the song that shifts the album into a horror story. Oliver Appropriate begins like a bougie Trainspotting, until the intervention of Karl turns it into a romance. A more conventional take on this story would probably either have Oliver reconcile with Karl or kill himself. But this isn’t just a story about a closeted man. He is also – not unrelatedly, but separately – a drug addict and alcoholic, a washed-up loner with no friends but those he drinks and fucks and snorts the pain away with, an ageing and downwardly-mobile white guy with untreated mental illness, and a dickhead. Losing his job is the spark that sets him off, but his repressed sexuality isn’t the only explosive material within him. His pain might push him to kill, but his anger, resentment and narcissism cleared the path.
“It’s a Process” sounds like nothing else on the album, its verses a wall of electric guitar, chugging on rhythm, wailing on lead. Oliver goes to Karl’s house, desperate for his new drug. He can feel Karl is home in his liver: “it demands moonshine / to bind / the truth / that I / was fine before you made me know myself.” But Karl rejects him, seemingly unwilling to take a chance on someone still unwilling to be honest with themselves – “Couldn’t you settle for ‘Maybe, sort of, what? Why? How?’” – and Oliver makes his final terrible choice: “char my member in the furnace / still not dead, but it’s a process.” The characters start to blur and blend at this point in the album. Oliver wails on the chorus, asking over and over “What does he got that I don’t?” and it’s obviously about another guy Karl likes, but also about Karl, and the answer is the same in both cases: a sense of self strong enough to support a relationship with another person. Oliver can’t or won’t see it. In lieu of an answer, he sings “all I know, you’ll never love me.”
Say Anything have a few songs I’d call scary: “Spidersong” is a body horror love song that’s creepy in a primordial lizard-brain way; “Property” is sung from the perspective of a controlling, misogynistic husband; “Nibble Nibble” invokes the image of a child predator for a screed against the generations that sold out their children’s futures. But the second verse of “It’s a Process” beats them all with the ten most chilling words in the band’s discography: “Do you know I have the right to own a gun?”
One night with Karl forced Oliver’s repressed desire into the light, and so, to put it down again, he kills Karl. “The Hardest” is the most impressionistic, least narrative song on the album, with looser, more associative lyrics (“all that they forged / Aryan scourge / Israel engorged / (amidst pollution)”) over sparse acoustic guitar in the verse that blooms into an ethereal chorus as Oliver sings to both Karl and himself:
I’ll slit your throat and leave you gaping
I’m the hardest part of being alone
I’ll leave you torn, I’ll leave you waiting
I’m the hardest part of being alone
Oliver sings alone on the first verse, promising to never expose his innermost self again, the devil on his own shoulder: “if you should doubt / in your own form / I’ll reinforce that / (I’ll convince you).” But the female voice emerges once more in the second verse, lamenting in response that “I could be brave / I could be free / I could be me / (but it’s my funeral)” as she dies with Karl. Sherri joins Max on the second chorus, their vocals doubled up and stacked on top of each other, simultaneously haunting and soothing, but Max falls away with most of the instruments for the refrain, sung by Sherri alone: “you break our bleeding hearts wide open / you’re the hardest part of being alone.” Warbling away in the background is their younger daughter, Coraline, her baby sounds run through auto-tune, while their eldest, Lucy, repeats “being alone” for the outro. She asks if it was good, and it feels like the seed of Oliver’s suffering, his desperate need for external approval and validation, all the more tragic for the excitement in her voice.
Oliver Appropriate opens with Oliver asking “New York release me from my strata”, and this sense of being trapped comes up again and again in different forms: “I’m a stereotype” in “Daze”, trapped by his conformity to expectation; Brianna Collins singing “you made your choice now” on “Pink Snot” as if it’s already too late for Oliver to choose himself over drugs; Oliver complaining he’s “pigeonholed” on “Ew Jersey”; the repetition of “knife song again” in “Mouthbreather”, as if caught in a loop; Karl’s warning-turned-prophecy that “you can’t escape the sinking feelings you don’t outgrow” on “Your Father”. “The Hardest” is about being trapped with yourself, the person you spend literally all your time with, the only person you absolutely must learn to live with. The hardest part of being alone. Oliver says his “fey complaint / (is self-delusion)”, but his real delusion is thinking he can cut off just some parts of himself without hurting the rest, that the soul can survive amputation. He can’t, and it can’t, so he takes Karl’s lifeless body to San Francisco and drowns himself in the Bay.
“It’s a Process” is scary in a modern way, but “Sediment” is classic creepy, gothic even: “the smell of your body”, Oliver sings, alone again at last, “is making me heave and gag.” Like Quasimodo coiled around Esmeralda’s corpse, waiting to starve to death at the end of Notre-Dame de Paris, he’s gonna hold on until he follows Karl into the dark. “As we sink into the East Bay / Brooklyn dirge / thank God I’m done with this.” The story starts with him begging for freedom from his strata and ends with him burying himself alive in the deep dark of the ocean floor. Even now, New York is ringing his ears, the funeral song at his suicide. The person he could yet become, smothered to death by weight of who he’s already been. “Now my pain is all just gravy / as you drown beneath the waves with me and sing / now we are the sediment / now we are the sediment.” There’s a crescendo of clattering drum and guitar after the second chorus, all building to the spoken word outro. Oliver wakes up “with the humming glow of a hundred Percocets”, sitting by a lake with Karl:
you turn to me and ask if I’d like you to stay
that I can have anything here
I say “I should have dissolved in you, but I made us statistics
they can write us off, but I don’t fucking deserve you”
you look confused, but after a very awkward pause
you kiss my cheek and then walk off
left alone now, I start to age backwards
and I’m viciously hungering for someone
to love me the way my parents never did
there must be someone who can somewhere
maybe I’ll take a walk and see, after all, it’s so big
it goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on
Oliver sets off into the great expanse after death as an old woman sings “Beautiful Dreamer” in the background, perhaps to him. It’s an ending that risks it all on the evocative in lieu of straightforward answers, and thank God, because the result is one of the most beautifully mysterious portrayals of the afterlife I’ve seen in any medium.
I don’t think representing life, reality or truth are the point of art. The point of art is to be beautiful. But to the extent representation matters, the demand that queer characters always be admirable or aspirational or affirm the “correct” attitudes about sexuality and gender obscures both the internal diversity of queer people and the infinite variance of queer experience. If queer liberation depends on constantly maintaining a good image in the eyes of the straight majority, it isn’t liberation. It’s a hostage situation. Oliver Appropriate goes to a dark, fucked-up place to articulate a dark, fucked-up feeling, the self-loathing unto death that closeted queer people suffer all the time, and, frankly, any aesthetics or criticism that deems those feelings too damaging or dangerous to the public image of the queer community for artists to express can eat shit. I know I’m supposed to put a bit more of an argument behind it than that, but people who see art and pop culture more generally as something that must be subtracted from, rather than added to, are so alien to me I don’t know where to begin. No one would say if asked that they think one of the biggest problems facing art, or queer people, is an unacceptable abundance of different and varied ways for people to express themselves, but that is the effective position of people who think there are some kinds of queer stories that shouldn’t be allowed out where straight people can see them. It’s ahistorical, intellectually unrigorous, incredibly disrespectful to the traditions of queer art, rooted in loathing of queer people and so embarrassing it makes me physically cringe when I see it.
It also just seems super boring, like the attitude toward art you would develop if you were trying desperately to come up with a way to never enjoy it again. I still think it’s strange the final album of a band this influential and iconic in their genre didn’t get much attention from the critical press (or anyone else), but it might be for the best if that’s the environment it would have been received in. I can only hope that, in a more hospitable season, it will take its place amongst the canons as a classic work of queer horror and one of the best pop punk albums of the century so far.