The Marshall Plan
Eminem Falters With Encore

So I’m flipping back through my archive, and I’m re-listening to some old records, because I can’t quite put myself into a 2000 frame of mind. I need to ask you all this, though, because I don’t think I imagined it.

Eminem used to have something to say, right?

Back when The Marshall Mathers LP came out, it seemed like we were welcoming a new master of the form. I even named Eminem’s second album as the best record of 2000, feeling pretty confident in my assertion that Em was, in fact, underrated as an artist because of his subject matter and frequent profanity. Marshall Mathers was a grand-scale satire perpetrated on the music business and on its lambs-to-the-slaughter fans, willing to emulate whatever the stars told them to do. It was an exaggerated pile of lies from the mouth of a multiple-personality maniac with a cop-out for every occasion.

And it was thrilling.

Even musically, The Marshall Mathers LP was a good pop album. It’s no secret that Em’s flow is best when it’s fast and sarcastic. He’s got lyrical tricks most MCs never learn, and his internal rhyme structure is second to none. You never know which direction his rhymes will go, largely because you never know which of his personalities will come in to lead the lyrical train of thought next. Some gave me grief about my praise of this record, but I stand by it. As a rapper, a writer, and a cultural theorist, Eminem is almost absurdly talented.

So what happened?

In 2002, he released The Eminem Show, the final act of his opening trilogy, and it broke the mold of his first two by drawing back the curtain. Instead of pathological liar and certified nutjob Slim Shady at the wheel, this one featured just plain ol’ Marshall Mathers, regular guy. He laid bare the joke behind The Marshall Mathers LP in his opening shot, “White America,” and went on to discuss fatherhood, family and emotions. It was the rap equivalent of an Ani Difranco album – here’s what’s going on in my life right now, as plainly as I can state it.

He even started to show signs of social responsibility on tracks like “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” on which he admitted that he wouldn’t let his daughter listen to his songs. The Eminem Show was a good finale, a decent last bow out. After all, what can a magician do after he’s explained his tricks? Nothing but pack up and go home, of course, unless the audience demands an Encore.

Eminem’s fourth album was more than two years in the making, and it proves conclusively that the demand for his work has outlasted his supply of worthwhile material. The 23-track Encore is so long that three songs spill over onto a second disc, and I can count the ones worthy of release on one hand. With several fingers left, including Em’s favorite one. Its title is appropriate – Encore feels like a collection of leftovers from the last record, played as half the house is heading for their cars.

The joke this time seems to be that Eminem fans will buy whatever half-hearted, uninspired work he turns out. There is ample evidence throughout this record that Em didn’t even try. The lyrics on Encore seem to have been made up on the spot, rambling as they do through every thought that crosses Mathers’ mind. “My 1st Single” repeats belching and farting noises while Em sings “poo poo ka ka” seriously and brags about ruining a catchy song with silly verses. And you haven’t heard anyone waste a beat like Mathers does on “Big Weenie,” which sounds like something Alanis Morissette would have written in her notebook in second grade.

Roughly half the record is given over to stream-of-consciousness freestyles about… pretty much nothing. Shady makes his one token appearance on “Just Lose It,” sadly the sprightliest track, and without his guidance, Eminem just isn’t very funny. His targets are broad and simple this time, too. I mean, Michael Jackson? I tired of making fun of Michael Jackson when I was in a high school band. And get this, Em reserves a whole song (“Ass Like That”) to shoot back at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I’m not sure Mathers got the memo, but Triumph is a puppet. He’s not real.

To be fair, Mathers does swing for the big boys once or twice. “Mosh” is a sustained burst of venom aimed right at George W. Bush, on which Em suggests that the president should be given an AK-47 and sent to fight his own oil wars. But mostly, the barbs are blunted and the humor is scarce. Encore is the first Eminem album that really isn’t any fun at all.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if diary-entry Marshall Mathers weren’t so boring. He gives a dry cataloguing of rappers with grudges against him in “Like Toy Soldiers” that’s a chore to plow through (despite the catchy Martika sample), and even musters up an honest-to-gosh apology on “Yellow Brick Road.” His ode to Kim this time out is “Puke,” a very silly trifle that doesn’t even touch the Shady-fueled murder fantasies of previous records. And his lullaby to his daughter Hailie, “Mockingbird,” is sweet, but doesn’t pack the punch of “Hailie’s Song.” Even the violence fantasia, “One Shot 2 Shot,” is riddled with fear and social conscience. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course, but it is less dangerous and less interesting.

Essentially, we as listeners are the single girls of the world, and Eminem has become the nice guy we all say we want. The truth is, of course, that we don’t want the nice guy, we want the unpredictable, scary, potentially violent guy, because he’s just more interesting. Even the shoot-the-audience finale of this record can’t balance off the nearly 80 minutes of lazy, sensitive, confessional drivel before it.

Now, normally, I am the undying champion of the nice guy. So why in this case am I less interested in Mathers without his psychotic, lying alter egos? I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the music. Rap is a lyric-driven art form, much like folk music, and without a captivating perspective fueling the lyrics, the repetition gets dull. The music on Encore is stark, simplistic and hookless. The focus has to be on the lyrics. With his words, Mathers could have taken the blank slate of his backing tracks and shaped them into something gripping.

But no. Mathers has dispensed with his fascinating lies and manipulations, but hasn’t replaced them with anything. He rambles, he talks about what a dangerous rapper he is without once proving it, and he sounds afraid to offend. He writes about his life without giving you a window into it, often adding syllables and lines just to fill up space. Drawing from life is fine, of course – most of my favorite artists do little else – but what separates the artist from the guy on the street is perspective. Mathers has the skill, but he’s failed to present a compelling point of view.

And this from the guy who was all point of view four years ago. The best we can hope for is that Encore is a transitional album, a bridge from the Sybil-esque carnival of the first three into something else. It seems more likely, though, that the master satirist only had the one trick, and he’s all out of things to say. Eminem is too talented a rapper to waste his time on albums like this. Let’s hope he finds his focus soon, because Encore is the least interesting and least forgivable thing he’s done.

* * * * *

This is the second column I wrote this week. The first is more bloggy, dealing with a wedding and a celebrity death and other personal-type non-music-review things. It’s in the archive if you’d like to read it.

Next week, we play catch-up as a prelude to the following week’s Top 10 List.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Love and Death
It's Better Than Fun, It's Blog!


If I learned anything at all this weekend, it’s that I look pretty sharp in a tux.

Sure, formal wear is annoying and binding and it instills in one a total fear of soup or pasta sauce or any other kind of sloppy food, but you get six guys in tuxes all lined up, and they look snazzy. Especially if they’re all wearing sunglasses. Indoors.

I have been to a lot of weddings in recent years, but Sunday’s was the first time I have been in one – both a wedding and a snappy tuxedo. This was special for me partly because I introduced the bride and groom. I lived with Gary Porro all four years of college, and he was kind of a quiet guy who didn’t meet people very easily. (Which was a shame, because if you get to know Gary, it becomes immediately apparent that he’s one of the best people on Earth.) I was in several plays with his new bride, Lisa Assetta, and it was through that connection that the two of them met. Although romance did not blossom until many years later, I still take full credit, because that’s the kind of jackass I am.

So the wedding weekend arrives, and I get on a plane and fly to Boston, and within two hours, there I am at Gary’s house pulling old windowsills out of his walls. Seriously, not only does he make me put a tux on, but he puts me to work. The nerve of some people. And Lisa’s brother Guy is probably right now hanging drywall in those rooms, for free, while Gary and Lee (her preferred nickname) sun themselves in Hawaii. Who says good help is hard to find?

I’m kidding, of course. Oh, I did pull windowsills out of old horsehair for seven hours, but it was fun, and it gave me a chance to tell my story about the day I hung drywall for money. (Short version – the guy who hired me asked what kind of work I’ve done before, and I answered that I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines. He looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to teach you to hang drywall today, and when I’m done, you’ll never have to write for a living again.” And he meant it.) More importantly, as anyone who knows them will attest, Gary and Lee are the kind of people who would jump in front of a moving train for their friends. If anyone deserves total happiness (and a good, solid, insulated home), it’s them.

Lee’s dad sure seems to agree. If the hugeness of the wedding is any indication, Lou Assetta has been saving for this since he first heard the phrase, “it’s a girl.” I would guess the whole thing cost twice as much as my car. The reception was held at the Tewksbury Country Club, a mammoth and beautiful wooden hall with balconies and rafters and fountains. The band was Java Jive – three keyboards and some horns that played a mix of stuff from Harry Connick to Garth Brooks to OutKast. It was your classic wedding, full of food and dancing.

I most enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t connected with in a while. Bill and Sara Yates, who are still up in Maine and are about to have their first child. (Bill, a big Star Wars fan, was hilariously jealous of Gary’s idea to use the Imperial March as his processional music.) Calvin Sanborn, the coolest priest I know, who lives in Manhattan. (We also got to meet Cal’s great, funny boyfriend, Dan, for the first time.) Joe Wellman, another Mainer who is also expecting a child with his lovely wife Andrea. Jeff King, Jamie Grover, Jay Hutchinson – it’s fascinating to see where life has taken all of my college friends.

Then there was the conclusion of the Penguin Project, and now the truth can be told. Bridesmaid Christine Guertin has this stuffed penguin, see, and she calls it Juggernaut. She’s so attached to this penguin that it’s been an ongoing game of ours (myself, Gary and a bunch of other college buddies) to steal this penguin and put it through some form of torture. We’ve hung it from ceiling fans, thrown it down stairs, and chucked it out of third-story windows, all to see the look on Christine’s face. Well, about a year ago, we hatched this plan.

We stole the penguin from her house.

And we treated it like the garden gnome in Amelie, sending it places like Texas and Mexico, taking its picture and sending Christine emails from Juggernaut with the photos attached. Juggernaut has his own Yahoo account, and has been more places than I have. Life got in the way of the prank a bit – it should have been better than it was – but it was always supposed to culminate at Gary and Lee’s wedding. And so it did.

Midway through the reception, the lead singer of Java Jive produced Juggernaut, complete with little sunglasses and straw hat, and handed him over to a thoroughly embarrassed Christine while singing “Friends in Low Places.” Many pictures were taken, much video was shot, and it couldn’t have gone any better than it did. Many thanks to Christine for being a good sport about it, even when months would go by without word from her beloved penguin. As usual, the look on her face was worth it.

As the party wound down, I took a moment away from admiring my tux in every reflective surface I could find and really looked around. And then I looked at Gary and Lee, smiling and dancing and meeting people. If anyone doubts that you can physically see love, you need to see these two. I flashed on them cracking each other up during the wedding ceremony, and on Gary mouthing the words to “True Companion” to Lee during their first dance, and just to the way they look at each other. Gary is fond of saying that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be truly happy. I think he proved himself wrong on Sunday.

Congratulations, guys. You deserve every joy.

* * * * *

…And Death

When I was a teenage metalhead (yes, another one of these stories), I loved Pantera.

Here’s the thing. During the early ‘90s, the pantheon of metal bands started to fall apart. Metallica lost a limb when Cliff Burton died, and starting with 1991’s Black Album, they limped through more than a decade of uninspired crap. Megadeth had no such excuse, but they decided to suck anyway, and stuck to it for five increasingly awful records. Anthrax was still Anthrax, more or less, but they lost singer Joey Belladonna and started writing Seattle songs. Brazil’s Sepultura was still pretty great, but what about American metal? Wherefore art thou, Headbanger’s Ball?

The shining light amidst all the pop flotsam was Pantera, a group of four southern rednecks who never compromised their mission – pure, straight-up metal, complete with screaming vocals and shredding solos. They started out with a different singer and a more Judas Priest-style sound, but come 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, new singer Phil Anselmo locked in and Pantera made a classic metal record. And then they outdid it, twice, with 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power and 1994’s astonishingly heavy Far Beyond Driven. (It may be safe to say that Driven is the heaviest record ever to debut at number one on the Billboard chart.)

Vulgar, in particular, is linked with certain images in my mind – most ominously, the image of Steve Souza, my co-worker at Superior Junk Comics and dorm-mate at college, intoning the hook line of “This Love” at random moments. Seriously, this guy would come up to you and say, in a low, imposing, creepy voice, “I kill myself for you, I kill you for myself.” And then he would walk away. He also would blast “Fucking Hostile” from his dorm room pretty often.

I was a much bigger fan of the uncompromising Driven, especially its speed and complexity. “Shedding Skin,” “Five Minutes Alone,” “Strength Beyond Strength” – these were some of the best metal songs ever. And the not-so-secret weapon of Pantera was guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, he of the screeching harmonic and the pulverizing riff. You could listen to Pantera just for the aggression, or you could parse out what Dimebag was doing and get a satisfying musical experience out of it. Their stuff was intense in all the best ways.

And best of all, they never sold out, not even a little bit. Their last album, 2000’s Reinventing the Steel, was a 40-minute statement of purpose, all thundering riffs and unstoppable metal power. It was a big middle finger to the corporate nu-metal that Pantera unfortunately inspired, and it turned out to be their swan song. Pantera’s breakup was acrimonious, of course – you just knew these guys wouldn’t part ways with a handshake – but Dimebag Darrell and his brother, Pantera’s awesome drummer Vinnie Paul, moved on. They formed a band called Damageplan and released their debut in February.

And now comes news from Columbus, Ohio, that Dimebag Darrell is dead, shot in the back of the head while onstage with Damageplan. Apparently an outraged fan stormed the stage with a gun, screamed something about Darrell breaking up Pantera, and killed him, along with four others. And he may have killed more people had a heroic police officer not taken him down first. Sickening stuff, and really unfortunate end to a great career. So I just wanted to say thanks to Darrell from my younger self, and rest in peace.

* * * * *

And the Greatest of These…

I have just written a story for the local paper that warmed even my cynical little heart.

The local middle school up here has a special education class that meets daily. Eight students, with disabilities ranging from autism to down’s syndrome, get together and learn about everyday things that will help them be more independent as they grow older. They learn hygiene, nutrition, and how to balance a checkbook, among other things, and they seem to have one of those rare teachers that really enjoys what she does. It’s a fun class to sit in on.

Anyway, as a project for the last few months, the students have started their own business. They called a vendor and got vending machines installed in the school hallways, machines full of pens and pencils that can be purchased for as little as a quarter each. Every day, these students rush to the machines, empty out the money, count it and deposit it in their business bank account. They’re learning about deposits, budgeting, ordering supplies, and basically running their own company.

That’s not the cool part, though. The students have just made their first purchases with the money from their business, and guess what they bought?

Gifts for needy families.

Seriously. Special education students have worked for months to buy Christmas gifts for needy children. If that doesn’t bring a snark-free smile to your face, I don’t know what will. ‘Tis the season and all that, but I have rarely seen a more tangible example of goodwill towards men than this.

And on top of that, scientists may have found a cure for tuberculosis. Life is good.

See you in line Tuesday morning.