I recently read a Pitchfork review in which the writer lamented how pointless it is to write about music without including all of the emotional associations that come from the times, places and experiences that are forever linked with the music in the listener’s mind. He said it was confounding to write about the Beastie Boys without talking about his personal history with them, and it was the last review the guy ever wrote for the site.
I remember the first time I heard Cake. I was sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan at a gas station, listening to the radio, when “The Distance” came on. It was instantly arresting. Who was this guy, sing-rapping with such laconic, syncopated coolness, riding upon menacing waves of dirty surf-funk guitar? John McCrea’s voice was instantly recognizable, and Cake’s style instantly unique. I think I bought Fashion Nugget about a week later, and it became an important fixture of my high school existence, like anyone else my age who watched MTV or listened to rock radio. Cake was impossible to avoid in the Fall of 1996.
My strongest connection with the band came much later, though. In the Summer of 2003, when I was practically couch-surfing, I ended up staying at the home of a rich internet friend. I was uncertain about my immediate future, had no money, and was on bad terms with my parents, giving the situation a strange emotional tone that felt like a mix between a vacation and a period of exile. During this stay I had a lot of time to be alone and reflect, and I became re-acquainted with Cake’s first album, 1994’s Motorcade of Generosity. Regardless of any personal attachments, I still think Motorcade is their best offering. It’s low-budget and low-fi, and intentionally played on ragged instruments, but the quality of the songwriting and the level of energy was never matched on their subsequent releases.
“Jolene” is the crown jewel of the album. With lyrics evoking the intense, uncontrollable longing of young love and the universal adolescent desire to escape from parental control into the seeming freedom of the undiscovered world, and an unrestrained jam session at the end filled with Cake’s trademark “oh yeahs” and “alrights,” the song epitomized both everything that was great and authentic about the band, and everything I longed for and wanted to change about my current situation. Sometimes music is just the right thing.
The next year, Cake came out with Pressure Chief, their most tepid album. Its strongest song, the hip-hoppy “No Phone,” featured McCrea expressing a strong desire to be left alone. He seemed to be sick of playing the rock star role, and the content of the record showed it, with a few strong tracks being surrounded by a lot of low-energy duds. The jaded half-smirk which had seemed to accompany the band’s wry lyrics and iconoclastic style faded into a bitter frown on most of Pressure Chief, and it seemed like it was time for the band to call it a day.
Six years later, John McCrea is still sick of us. But this time he sounds happier about it. The smirk has returned, along with a sense of playfulness that was sorely missed. “Every camera/every phone/all the music that you own/won’t change the fact you’re all alone,” McCrea croons, and the band shouts back, “ALL ALONE!.” This sounds like Cake in their salad days, but also like a retake on “Rock and Roll Lifestyle” made by a guy who’s tasted success, grown disgusted by it, and then (mostly) let the bitterness go.
It’s also undoubtedly political commentary. Anyone who pays attention to Cake’s website would be aware that their news feed consists mostly of liberally-minded news updates, postings about fans planting trees gifted by the band, and tips on being environmentally responsible. It’s a bit much, but Cake has always been a very Northern Californian band, and it’s hard to begrudge them their ideals. McCrea was quoted saying that this song is a response to America’s current political climate, one in which people on all sides seem to be sick of each other and polarization is the rule of the day. The song seems to be Cake’s answer to the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I think they should have played it there, but Jon Stewart probably would’ve found it too cynical.
McCrea has also been quoted saying that Showroom of Compassion, the new album this song will be on, will sound “very different” from any other Cake album, and will feature a lot of piano playing. “Sick of You” may be a common occurrence for a late-period band: a temporary harnessing of the original energy which drove them to their craft. It certainly doesn’t have a piano in it, and the new album’s title is certainly a wink towards Motorcade of Generosity. I know deep down that there will never be another “Jolene,” but regardless of whether or not the new album disappoints, I’m glad that Cake is still kicking around in the American popular consciousness. We could do far worse these days.