The Critic’s Conundrum Part II: Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line

Guest post by Dave Arey

If there’s one rule in music criticism, it’s that everyone loves a good story. As much as things should be about the music, they rarely are.

Ra Ra Riot has had a good couple weeks following the August 19 release of The Rhumb Line. The album currently has a score of 78 on Metacritic, including a four-star review from Rolling Stone.

Some of this praise is well-deserved; The Rhumb Line is certainly an intriguing effort from an up-and-coming band. However, if you read any of the band’s positive press, it’s hard to ignore the drowning death of drummer/co-songwriter John Pike, and how it has profoundly affected the band’s coverage.

Pike’s story is one that music critics are sure to jump on. For one thing, it’s certainly unique – not every band deals with members who die prematurely. It also provides a specific way for critics to interpret The Rhumb Line.

Consider “Dying Is Fine.”  Even though the album can be seen as a eulogy for Pike, “Dying is Fine” was written far before his death — and as such it looks toward the future, not the past:

No more of this living dying
Just scientific analyzing
Forgive us oh life
The sin of

Death oh baby
You know that dying is fine but maybe
I wouldn’t like death if death were good
Not even if death were good

There are a few different things going on here, and they have very little to do with physical death. On one hand, “Dying is Fine” borrows liberally from an e.e. cummings poem (even the “oh baby” is directly taken). That means that the song is a shout-out to Cummings, and it also comes with some sense of detachment, since the sentiment being expressed came from someone else first.

Also, there is a clear division between “dying” and “death,” the former being physical but the latter being spiritual. Physical death wouldn’t be a big deal, since it’s bound to happen. Spiritual death, on the other hand, is something worth fearing.

In the end, “Dying Is Fine” is really about a common theme — living life to the fullest and doing what you want without fear. Physical death is, as Cummings said in his poem, “perfectly natural.” There’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing you can change is how you live. So do what you want and stop thinking about it.

Given what happened to Pike, any song with the word “dying” in it is going to recall vivid (and obvious) images. However, if you divorce the song’s lyrics from the story behind the album, you could just as easily see it as an expression of someone’s hopes and fears and questions about the future. Pike’s death took a complicated song and gave it a simple explanation.

MP3: Ra Ra Riot – “Dying Is Fine”

Advertisements

3 responses to “The Critic’s Conundrum Part II: Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line

  1. Interested Reader

    How about some more posts?

  2. Check out my interview with Mathieu Santos of Ra Ra Riot at captainmelody.blogspot.com. Let me know if you want to link up.

  3. I just joined this site, and happened upon your blog while searching for the lyrics of Re: Stacks. I’m really enjoying it so far. You have excellent music taste and a great literary sensibility (the Cummings shoutout was a great call). Hope to read more from you in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s