"Better not try and fall asleep now..."

Sean Lennon's second album Friendly Fire (Capitol, 2006) opens with its best song "Dead Meat," which sets a pessimistic though elegant tone:

"Dead meat, don't you know you're dead meat?
You just messed with the wrong team
Better not try and fall asleep now, yeah"

Maybe I like the album so much because of how it explicitly departs from his previous effort, the fantastically sprawling and eclectic Into the Sun (Grand Royal, 1998). Whereas that record wound a sonic labyrinth amid longer songs and a parade of styles, this one stays in the same key throughout, making its point with repetition's subtle variations. Lennon's production is rich, with emphasis placed on the melodies built up between the live band and his own voice. The sweetness in much of his singing contrasts against the bleak emotional landscape of his lyrics. He ends the album, for instance, with a move toward self-isolation:

"Stay away, I'm not myself, no one can help me now"

But this final verse is immediately wrapped in a beautiful, slightly-fuzzy guitar solo that takes us back to a final phrase: "I've lost my way, don't follow me..." There's a sense on this record that no moment should be wasted. The 10 songs go by quickly, all of them relentlessly introspective and melancholic. I hear them, though, not as sadness but as a type of lyric realism. The melodies help avoid a descent into pure despondency, attuned as they are to sublime moments via guitar, piano and voice. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lennon talks about a period when he would always wake up and listen to Brian Wilson's "Our Prayer" before starting his day. You can hear that same attempt at creating a spiritualized music in many of the melodies on this album.

While most reviews of Friendly Fire have alluded to the autobiographical references of the lyrics, I keep hearing them through an allegorical filter. I can't help but interpret the moods of these songs as reflecting the bleak and strange circumstances the world finds itself in today. I suppose that's a personal matter, but again the bleakness of these songs isn't so much a lament as a portrait of self & world. This doesn't make it a sad or pessimistic album, merely a realistic one. Lennon's style remains enjoyably psychedelic but it does so in a restrained, self-reflective way.

Last week, I happened to be walking through Manhattan as the sun was rising one morning. I found myself humming the tune "Wasted" from his first album as I walked. I hadn't heard it for a while but the melody came to me and seemed to echo the effect of the sun slowly filtering onto buildings just south of 14th street. The light seemed to emanate from the buildings themselves, pouring onto the sidewalks and their trickle of pedestrians. It's a song that keeps itself within a piano & voice melody loop, letting repetition build up toward a sense of inspired grace. It's nice to find that same desire in this second LP.

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