Ain’t That America?
The Hold Steady and John Mellencamp Transcend Americana

Ignore that date up there. Though this is the column for Wednesday, July 16, I am writing it on Saturday, July 19, and I have just watched Act III of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for the fourth time.

What is Dr. Horrible? It’s Joss Whedon’s new project, a three-part short musical film about a super-villain in love. Whedon, the genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, has a new show coming out soon called Dollhouse. But during the Writers Guild strike last year, when he couldn’t work on Dollhouse, Whedon and his brothers wrote this.

That link is only good for today, unfortunately – Whedon describes Dr. Horrible as an Internet miniseries event, the three acts released for free, one at a time, two days apart, over one week. But tomorrow, they’ll be gone. You can still buy the three acts from iTunes, but the free screening will be finished. It’s kind of an ad for itself – Whedon and his team plan a DVD release of Dr. Horrible, packed with bonus features, sometime in the future.

So what the hell is it? Whedon fans will be excited to hear that it’s another full-fledged musical, like his brilliant Once More With Feeling from Buffy’s sixth season. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as the titular doctor, Felicia Day as his love interest Penny, and Nathan Fillion as his smarmy nemesis, superhero Captain Hammer. It’s designed like a series of video blog entries, sort of, from Dr. Horrible’s point of view. He wants to get into the Evil League of Evil, but he also wants to romance the sweet Penny, whom he meets at a local laundromat in his civilian guise.

Trust me, go and watch it, because from here on, I’m going to have to go to the spoiler space. Okay?


Good. Now I can tell you this: Dr. Horrible surprised the hell out of me.

The decision to release this thing in three acts was a massive setup. Acts I and II were light and sweet and funny, for the most part. Act I in particular left a big wide grin on my face for a full day, as I sang the freeze ray song in my head. (“With my freeze ray I will stop… the world!”) Harris made Dr. Horrible a likeable geek, a lovable loser, and when Captain Hammer beat the crap out of him at the end of Act I, I laughed, but felt bad for the poor guy too.

Act II mostly concerns the bad doctor’s attempts to woo Penny away from the snarky Captain Hammer, and there are some terrifically sweet moments there. The opening song is wonderful, a Broadway-worthy juxtaposition of emotions, and Penny’s theme is beautiful. Throughout the first two acts, Dr. Horrible balances his desire for Penny with his attempts to get into the Evil League of Evil, and when the two storylines intersected at the end – Horrible needs to kill someone, and after a particularly nasty meeting between the two of them, he chooses Captain Hammer – I expected a fun romp in Act III.

And so I sat in open-mouthed astonishment as the third act, which premiered this morning, took a dark, dark turn. As it turns out, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a tragic origin story, a tale of mounting doom that ends with a sucker punch. Dr. Horrible does attempt to kill Captain Hammer, but everything goes wrong, and Penny dies. This, then, becomes the murder that gets Horrible into the Evil League, and he spends the last few minutes becoming his new, more sinister self (and singing about it).

The last shot, though, is a killer – Horrible sings the final words (“I won’t feel a thing”) with no musical accompaniment, staring into the camera as if posting his last blog, his eyes hollowed out and defeated. He got everything he wanted, in the worst possible way. It’s devastating stuff, and a total inversion of the tone from the first two acts. Taken as a whole, the film is downright depressing, and even some of the more lighthearted moments from Acts I and II take on new significance after seeing Act III. It’s an inexorable train ride to despair, and no one leaves happy.

If you’re not expecting it (and you’re not), the shift in tone is jarring. Act III adds a weight that this film almost doesn’t deserve. Overall, though, it’s another singular (and singularly brilliant) project from Whedon. Who else would make a film like this? The music is terrific, especially the Sondheim-esque work from the third act, and the dialogue sparkles throughout.

While Nathan Fillion is suitably smarmy and Felicia Day is reliably sweet, it’s Neil Patrick Harris who steals this show. I think it’s great that Harris is now known much more as the sarcastic Barney from How I Met Your Mother than as Doogie Howser, and Dr. Horrible should go a long way towards showing people what a good actor he really is. Beyond that, though, Harris can really sing – he carries some of the film’s best tunes, like “Brand New Day,” the menacing turning point that closes Act II. His work here is funny, charming and subtle, and he completely sells the left turn into darkness in Act III.

Still, I’ve been recommending Dr. Horrible to people all week, under the impression that it would remain light and funny. Even a sad-yet-magical ending would have sufficed, but I was completely gobsmacked by the tragic events of the final act. It’s still a terrific slice of Whedon brilliance, but in the end, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog turned out to be a different kind of movie than I was expecting (or, to be honest, hoping for), and I’m still working through it.

Instead of just making me laugh, Whedon has once again made me think and feel, and it’s the rare artist who can surprise me like that. But seriously, Joss, just once, can’t you give your characters an unqualified happy ending? How about it?

* * * * *

When it comes to music, there are few descriptors that send me running in the other direction quite like “Americana.”

I’m not sure why that is. I quite like some artists tagged with that label – Ryan Adams’ more country-leaning efforts, for example, or Wilco’s older stuff. But if you tell me your band plays American folk-rock, it will probably take some convincing to get me to listen to it. I think it’s probably because my brain is not wired for simplicity – I need more than three chords and a lyric about a freight train to sign on.

So when I first came across the Hold Steady, a New York quintet by way of Minneapolis, I hesitated. Someone described them to me as “more Springsteen than Springsteen,” and that was quite the wrong thing to say. I’ve never understood the acclaim the Boss seems to effortlessly generate. His songs are simple, his stories pretty basic, and when he steps away from the excellent E Street Band, he stumbles down a sub-Dylan path. (Don’t even get me started on Dylan.) I’m just not the right audience for fist-pumping poetry about blue-jean-wearing America.

Oddly enough, I rather like the Hold Steady, though. Like a lot of people, I first discovered them thanks to the blizzard of hype surrounding their third album. It sports a title I immediately hated – Boys and Girls in America – but I swallowed that and checked it out. And it’s fist-pumping poetry about blue-jean-wearing America, but it’s played with conviction and force, and the songs are much better than anything Springsteen has foisted on us in many years. (“Radio Nowhere” notwithstanding – that’s a great song.)

The band’s fourth album, Stay Positive, is even better. For one thing, it’s louder. A lot louder, in fact – this record keeps the E Street Band sound, with pounding pianos and occasional horn sections, but adds in a raucous Husker Du influence. Opener “Constructive Summer” could actually be a Bob Mould song, so driving is the guitar line. The album rarely gets there again, but the vibe remains – almost every inch of this album is covered in gloriously loud guitars.

You could call the single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” Americana, but try hanging that description on “One for the Cutters,” the next song. It’s a disheartening story about a sad girl who becomes an accomplice to a crime, and while its verses are fueled by harpsichord twitters, its choruses augment thick guitars with chiming mandolins. It’s a powerful song, revolving around the dispassionate line, “When one townie falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?”

“Dispassionate” is actually a good word for singer Craig Finn, who tells these stories without much emotional connection, detailing the meandering lives of hollow-eyed drifters very well. Even “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” about watching a friend disintegrate, offers few details – its narrator decides that “the sutures and bruises, they’re none of my business,” and finally concludes, “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don’t die.” This is the prettiest the Hold Steady get.

Ironically, Stay Positive is a pretty bleak album, although you’d never know it without the lyric sheet – the music charges forward with anthemic power. Even the title track, on which the band shows off the value of a good “whoa-oh” chorus, is about watching a music scene deteriorate and trying to keep a good attitude. The most unnerving number here is “Both Crosses,” about a woman with visions of crucifixions. Finn slips in a Billy Joel reference (“You Catholic girls start much too late”) that takes on chilling new resonance in the midst of this sacrilegious drug dream.

The Hold Steady isn’t about memorable hooks or choruses here – the songs burst forth on a torrent of words and drums. But the overall effect is almost monolithic. Stay Positive is an album of stories and set pieces, and while I’d be hard-pressed to find the glimmers of light in the lyrics, the record as a whole feels like an uplifting portrait. The theme is stated early, in “Constructive Summer” – we are our own saviors, and we can all be something bigger.

The record ends with three bonus songs, all indexed as one track, and they’re just as good as anything on the album proper. Stay Positive sticks to its template throughout, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this a modern take on Springsteen’s street-level singalongs, but once again, the Hold Steady has crafted an album full of anthems with phenomenal conviction. Their sound is made up of a lot of elements I dislike, but somehow, they put them together in ways I love.

But maybe I’m overstating my negative reaction to Americana. After all, I remain a pretty big fan of John Mellencamp, and there is no one who does heartland rock like he does. I can’t explain my affinity for his music, since it’s everything I profess to dislike: simple, traditional, loaded with cliches, and dedicated to a certain American viewpoint. And yet, I have every Mellencamp album, and I plan to buy them all until one of us dies.

Part of it may be an association with my younger days. I first encountered Mellencamp in the early days of MTV – his videos for “Jack and Diane” and “Pink Houses” are etched into my memory. The first Mellencamp album I bought was 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, mostly because I liked the video for “Cherry Bomb.” I didn’t understand the record when I was 13, but hey, I was young and I was improving. And I apparently liked its mix of instruments and down-home tunes well enough to keep buying.

I didn’t know then that I was listening to the golden age of Mellencamp. In recent years, his work has slipped into tedium – after the bizarre and wonderful career renaissance of Mr. Happy Go Lucky, the former John Cougar made one record after another full of simple, commercial pap. His nadir was “My Country,” which still graces Chevy truck commercials aimed at the football audience. The album that song is taken from, last year’s Freedom’s Road, is just another Mellencamp record, lacking in anything one might call inspiration.

All of which makes Life, Death, Love and Freedom such a fascinating surprise. I wasn’t expecting much – the title is terrible, and the disc appeared on shelves only 18 months after Freedom’s Road. But this is Mellencamp’s finest work in many, many years – definitely since Mr. Happy Go Lucky, and probably since Big Daddy. Like the Hold Steady, Mellencamp has turned out a bleak, dark album here, but instead of his usual three-chord rock, he’s cast these songs in spooky folkscapes. It’s a quiet, brooding, creepy record, given tremendous atmosphere by producer T-Bone Burnett.

At its center is Mellencamp himself, his raspy voice damaged by decades of cigarettes, and his mood darker than night. He’s obsessed with death here – opener “Longest Days” is about withering away from a wasting disease, “If I Die Sudden” gives detailed instructions for his own funeral, and “Don’t Need This Body” finds him “washed up and worn out for sure,” contemplating just how little time he has left. (Keep in mind, he’s only 56.)

These meditations are set to spectral folk and blues backings, played mainly on acoustic instruments, and largely without drums. It’s an enveloping listen, especially when Mellencamp duets with Karen Fairchild – it’s like the darker side of Burnett’s work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. “A Ride Back Home” is, technically speaking, not much of a song, but the instrumentation and the vocal harmony turn it into something special.

Mellencamp does turn his vision outward towards the end of the record. The already infamous “Jena” is here, on which Mellencamp excoriates the town of Jena, Louisiana, in the wake of the racially charged “Jena Six” trial. “Oh oh Jena, take your nooses down” isn’t exactly a nuanced reaction, but it makes the point. “County Fair” is another in a long line of Midwest story-songs, but it’s a good one, and the closer, “A Brand New Song,” provides the one ray of light on the album.

Life, Death, Love and Freedom is a John Mellencamp album unlike any other. It’s a dusty, dark, vicious, chilling work, one that easily rises above the mediocre, simplistic rock Mellencamp has been releasing for years. I hope he can keep on this track – I don’t necessarily relish the thought of him staying in whatever head space birthed some of these lyrics, but the specter of death has brought new life to his work. This is the best Mellencamp album in a long, long time, and although it certainly fits the definition of Americana, I find it riveting.

Next week, it’s a reissue-palooza. Now go watch Dr. Horrible!

See you in line Tuesday morning.