Understated Classics #26: Come On Die Young by Mogwai

I’ll tell you about punk rock: punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and ah… and ah… heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies and the bodies and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds of young men who give what they have to it and give everything they have to it and it’s a… it’s a term that’s based on contempt, it’s a term that’s based on fashion, style, elitism, satanism and everything that’s rotten about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know Johnny Rotten but I’m sure… I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did. You see, what sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise is in fact the brilliant music of a genius, myself . And that music is so powerful that it’s quite beyond my control and ah… when I’m in the grips of it I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt like that? When you just couldn’t feel anything and you didn’t want to either. You know? Like that? Do you understand what I’m saying sir? (Iggy Pop, Canadian TV, March 11th 1977.)

And so it begins: this sample of Iggy Pop sets “Come On Die Young” – the second album by Mogwai – in motion. It received a lukewarm reception on its release 15 years ago but to me, it’s a classic. The sentiment of its title, the mellowness, and the stacks of noise that punctuate throughout all combine to make a record that I am fiercely loyal to. It is beautiful and dark and has got better and better with age.

“Come On Die Young” is consumed with what happens within the empty spaces in our lives. Even the title is an exhortation to remove the dead space from our lives, to live a life with a similar meaning to those who die young. It’s actually the name of a Glasgow street gang, the album’s title coming from the same milleu as their debut “Young Team”.

That intro “Punk Rock:”, the title track “cody”, and “Helps Both Ways” – a moody instrumental that feels like the interior of a haunted house, an atmosphere enhanced by the sound of american football commentary – open the album in a slow and stately manner. This tryptych and that jet black cover with the wrong-looking face leering out at you evoke a melancholy fit for rainy days.

Things surge to life with “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia”, a noisy swinging lilt with the cymbals mixed high and some magnificent effects pedal abuse. It’s pretty and meanacing at the same time. Every time I listen to this album I’m always amazed at how good the drums sound on this album. Next track “Kappa” broods and threatens to erupt but it never does: the odd squall of noise aside, I always think it sounds a bit like a bizarro cover of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.

The whole album explores interstitial spaces: that empty room with the tv on, the rhetoric of the punk rocker echoing out to defend his art to chat show viewers in suburban living rooms, and the tunes that never quite settle in to a rhythm like “Kappa” and “Waltz for Aidan”. It’s all beautifully executed, even if it did non-plus the people enthused by the power and fury of “Young Team”.

The second half of the album is more noisy, based around four longer pieces (“May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door”, “Ex-Cowboy”, “Chocky” and “Christas Steps”) and two two-minute interludes. “May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door” is nothing short of a masterpiece, it picks up every element of the album to that point and then runs with it while adding one more crucial element: a heartbreaking melody. It is truly the most beautiful piece of post-rock you will ever hear and I own all the Fridge albums, so I should know. There is also a truly bizzare cymbal sound at points, miked up so every third one is this sort of alien “thwock” and proof, if any were ever needed, that production is as essential to great records as the music itself. Meanwhile we revisit our interstitial spaces: on 6:00 a sample of “please hold the line” begins to repeat as the track gently begins to disappear, until it is the last thing that remains.

“Oh! How the Dogs Stack Up” throws in an interlude of distorted piano and vinyl effects before “Ex-Cowboy” begins the final half hour of “Come On Die Young”: the descent into deep darkness that had been threatened throughout. It’s a track that builds into sheets of noise from the calmest of lulls and then fades back again, several times. This side to the music pushes a button inside me though, or it used to, and the noisier elements used to ratchet up my anger. It’s not always a nice feeling. Over the years though I’ve come to appreciate the structure and I don’t feel quite so tense listening to it. This is just as well because the section of noise that begins around six minutes in sounds like the sound barrier being broken (by guitars!) over and over again. But just like pain and anger, the noisier parts are only temporary.

“Chocky” begins with a roiling torrent of noise mixed very low beneath a slow piano line, sounding like two records played at once and combining the quiet and loud together. Eventually disembodied voices enter and the noise dominates for a while, before the piano line returns even stronger and the rest of the band enters too. You can still pick out that foam of noise underneath and you’re always held there tense, waiting for it to surge back and take over. However, in a great act of restraint it never does and merely remains there, a quiet whisper of raging feedback that only rises to engulf your headphones and speakers at the very end.

Finally “Christmas Steps” all but closes the album (“Punk rock/Puff daddy/Antichrist” flips the Iggy Pop sample backwards and deflates into the weary trumpets and noise for a fitting finale) with another beautiful and heartbreaking riff. Around 4:00 a monstrous bass riff takes over, getting quicker and quicker (sounding like Metallica on ketamine - much like the actual Metallica did at Glastonbury a few weeks back) before a real raging guitar cuts in. They save the power and the darkness for right at the end, yet there’s real melody in there too – you can hum the riff that shreiks across over the Ketametallica noise – and they also manage to cut back and forth between that intensity and the slower sections (augmented by violin lines of great beauty). Something that’s all rage one moment is a thing of beauty the next, it’s the whole album in miniature.

This was an important album to me. It was one I would I put on if I were upset, but nowadays I see so much beauty under the noise I wonder whether it was much more of a comfort than I realised.

“Come On Die Young” was reissued as a deluxe vinyl box set earlier this year. I bought a copy (despite being skint) but shipping was delayed because of a fault with the pressing. However I’m hoping that it will arrive this week. There’s a stack of additional material attached to the re-release and once I have ploughed through that, I will write up an addendum to this post with more info on those tracks (and whether the remaster affects the original album in any way).

Thanks to Amy Dupcak for having the text of the Iggy Pop quote on her blog.

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· Understated Classics, Music, Mogwai, Fourteen, Rock

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