Three-Minute Records is a periodic feature at Pop Culture Has AIDS where we take a closer look at great, notable or interesting songs in pop music history.
By any considered measure, The Old 97’s are declining as recording musicians. Their career to date forms an almost-perfect bell curve, with early albums Too Fare to Care and Wreck Your Life building to their peak of Fight Songs and the impeccable Satellite Rides. Then, as Rhett Miller started doing double duty as a solo artist (his solo albums peaked at the same time as the band, then instantly began declining), the Old 97’s albums suffered, with each post-Rides album representing a step down from the prior release.
This narrative fits how we think of musicians today — that they build to an early peak and then become stagnant or overreach. It’s too neat a story, though, and one that doesn’t fit nearly as many bands as we’d like it to. That would, after all, make it a lot easier on us because we could then apply a simple pattern to the way we think about art.
Bands “decline” in our eyes for a lot of reasons: we grow tired of them, we become attracted to a new flavor of the day, we want them to be more like they used to be — or less like they used to be, they lose the ability to surprise us.
Too often, I think, we dismiss bands that we’ve decided are past their primes or in the twilight of their careers. But just as Derek Jeter is capable of putting up an unexpectedly great season at age 38, so can aging bands produce unexpectedly great music.
In 2010, the Old 97’s released The Grand Theatre, Volume One, which a handful of critics heralded as a return to form — the 97’s are quickly gaining on Pearl Jam as the band with the most “return to form” albums, per the boy who cried wolf.
While Grand Theatre is a fairly mediocre album, it does contain four or so songs that could fit on one of the 97’s best albums: “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You),” “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins,” “You Were Born to Be in Battle,” and especially “Champaign, Illinois.”
“Champaign, Illinois” isn’t a quantum leap forward for Rhett Miller as a songwriter or for the band as players. It doesn’t represent an evolution or even a progression in the Old 97’s career. It’s not going to change the way anybody thinks about the band. It’s just an Old 97’s song. But it’s a really good Old 97’s song.
And it’s the kind of song that gets lost with the way we consume music today, with the way that we write off bands after we decide they’ve peaked. We tend to forget that bands are still capable of creating great songs (or even great albums) when they’re produced some material that’s less than their best.
“Champaign, Illinois” features a melody cribbed from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” — Dylan even receives a songwriting credit. (Perhaps borrowing from the masters is a good way to go for aging bands — R.E.M.’s “Hope” subconsciously borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and is one of that group’s best late-period songs.)
A classic alt-country, twangy riff welcomes us to the tune, and then Miller’s voice and words take over, front and center:
All your life you wasted
On dreamin’ about the day
Worker bees kill off their queen
And carry all her eggs away
Oh and if you die fearin’ God
And painfully employed
You will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois
Miller introduces the idea of an afterlife condemned to a sleepy, dull, Midwestern college town — there are a lot of depressing examples of that form, but Champaign, Illinois sounds the best in rhyme.
His vocal melody is wistful and yearning — like a lot of Miller’s melodies — and the combination of tune and lyrics works perfectly. Miller’s written obliquely about the afterlife before: “Now I hear that you have gone to heaven/And if there’s one I’m sure that’s where you are” from Satellite Rides‘ “Am I Too Late?” But anyone who drops Delillo references in lyrics seems unlikely to be a believer, so we’re dealing in hypotheticals and metaphors here.
With this song, Miller isn’t just arguing that Champaign is Purgatory for those too impure for something better; he’s arguing that we all end up in Champaign, Illinois.
His verses take us through the various potential travails and imperfections in life — work, love and alcohol, those with which all of us must contend at one point or another. And none of us can do it particularly well, which means we’re all headed to the cornfields and Sears and small-town politics of some bullshit Midwestern town.
Where John Mellencamp looks at towns like this and sees romance in the handjobs behind the Tastee Freeze or whatever, Miller sees a vast emptiness to be feared.
Roll on blacktop highway
In circles towards the sun
Springfield’s in the distance,
and that’s the last big one
After that comes judgment,
Yeah and judgment will be swift
You will be eliminated,
But here’s a parting gift
Miller taps into something modern with “Champaign, Illinois” — a generation-specific urge to flee our hometowns, to not turn into our parents, to not wind up on a dead-end cul-de-sac. I know that when I die, I sure as fuck don’t want to go to Champaign.
Also, if you think I’m not going to write about a song that contains the lines “Up north in Chicago/Where booze makes no one blush,” you don’t know me very well.
Here’s a live version of the song:
And for a rollicking good time, check out this oversensitive, provincial reaction to the song from “Champaign-Urbana’s online magazine.”
I say no thanks Mr. Miller — this is definitely not an anthem worthy of this town (or Dylan really). If someone’s going to write a song about Champaign being a hell on Earth, they should at least extend the courtesy of having lived here for an extended period of time.
Ha ha ha ha ha. Right! And how dare Billy Joel write “Goodnight Saigon” without ever having set foot in Vietnam? And how dare Michael Chabon write “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” without ever seeing a real-life Golem?
Previous Three-Minute Records: