“Can a Song Be Your Favorite on the Album Because of its Positioning within it?: Popaganda.”

Once upon a time, there was a band called Head Automatica. And they were… well, what were they? They were loud, pretty much, if that narrows it down. They were a dance-pop sextet with a lead singer, Darryl Palumbo, whose other band was the hardcore-leaning Jawbox, who’d employ iconic hip-hop producer Dan the Automator for on the “beats” for their first popular rock album [Decadence (2004)]… really… and shed him for their sophomore effort, Popaganda (2006), favoring pop-punk in the vein of Green Day or Weezer. 

Popaganda, from the looks of it, is to be the last thing ever released by the band, pinning them, of course, as nothing if not epochal. I would in fact draw comparisons to Big Star, with them, at least on the point of both bands having a wealth of classic songs and an apparent complete incompetency in promotion on the part of their record labels, seeing as, to this day, 90% of even rock fans have idea who they are. [Of course, what’s really tragic about this in HA’s case would be that, by and large, 2004 was somewhat of a golden age of popular rock, with The Strokes doing a nice job of parting the Red Sea of the indie (Interpol, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene) and mainstream (Franz Ferdinand, My Chemical Romance, Authority Zero) things that were going on.]

Per Google searches, Palumbo is still doing stuff with his hardcore band Jawbox, so it stands to reason, by universal law, that they’ll eventually, or have, put out something I can stand. Until I ascertain this development to have happened, anyway, it stands as nothing short of a cosmological tragedy that Head Automatica’s career is to be relegated to a mere two albums. The amount of great songs on these albums is worldwide elite stuff, on the level of Green Day’s Nimrod or Better than Ezra in their prime, if you will [namely Deluxe (1995)]. In college I had this roommate was kind of artsy, this fat dude from a Maryland suburb of DC who would listen to David Bowie and wear a shirt that said “Who arted?” One time he walked in while my Decadence CD was pumping out “Solid Gold Telephone” and he complimented it on its decidedly weighty chord progressions, emphatic vocals and manifest element of tension and release, in so many words. “Brooklyn is Burning” is a hilariously misanthropic slice of edgy dance rock and “King Caesar” is possibly the best song of their career, a second-person kiss-off to a narcissist that The Strokes would have been peacock proud to have written [1].

All this, and I haven’t even gotten into the band’s followup, Popaganda, a crisp, concise document in pop-punk which is to be the central focus of this post. Like with Decadence, I purchased Popaganda, on CD, new and unopened, the year it came out, at a retail store. In this case, it was Tracks, in Bloomington. I took it home, popped it in, found “Graduation Day” passable but not surpassing the best five or so songs on Decadence, found “Laughing at You” just more weird humanistic tension, and then started really settling in by “Lying through Your Teeth.” This third track kicks off a string of elite, crisp rock numbers on par with “Stuck with Me” through “Panic Song” in Insomniac. I have one memory of being at work and having Popaganda on, during “Scandalous,” and having it ironically, even tragically, being the perfect soundtrack to this middle-aged couple on vacation and buying us all shots, with my loud music blaring from within the kitchen. And I don’t think I could have put any better than I think the original Rolling Stone critic did, when he discussed the tragic brilliance of “God” and its allusion to Palumbo’s personal bout with Crohn’s Disease. “God” is a chilling second-person plaint to a manifest deity, full of irony and gut-check hyperbole (calling to mind Morrissey’s “I Have Forgiven Jesus”; to be sure) set to defiantly Apollonian major chords and an expedited, confident approach to structure that calls to mind Green Day’s “Worry Rock”; coincidentally another track-seven on an album. And yes, I am getting to the tenuous territory of album positioning shortly. I mean, it stole the thunder from the real titan here, “Shot in the Back (The Platypus),” with its heartbreaking lilting, liquid-y guitar sound, its professional-grade revue-ready and precocious drumming by Larry Gorman and its da**-near invincible face-to-face bout with mortality on the part of Palumbo, rendered lyrically.

But this brings me to a more important matter: album sequencing. “Million Dollar Decision”; a stock, catchy, expedited and brief hock of catchy, radio-ready rock music, true to Popaganda form, directly follows “Shot in the Back (The Platypus),” the album’s emotional centerpiece, and precedes “She’s Not it”; an unsettling, even homicidal foray into the realm of satyr. 

Let me preface this rather bizarre argument I’m about to make by referencing another artist entirely: Sharon Van Etten. And let’s talk about emotional centerpieces. Van Etten’s got this song, “You Shadow”; probably my favorite song in her whole catalogue, culling as it were from 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow. “You Shadow” is track eight on Remind Me Tomorrow. And, you’ll never believe me, but I put that song on a lot of playlists, and I’ve never positioned it anywhere other than from slot 18 to 21, hence molding it to the percentage range of 68 to 84. 

In other words, if “You Shadow” is playing on one of my playlists, it’s guaranteed that the playlist, as a whole, is presently between 68 and 84% completed. I once made the theory that songs have zodiacs and maybe “You Shadow” is like my Virgo type thing (which happens to be my own sign, hence my obnoxiously analytical approach to everything). It might have to also do with the climax portion of a movie, although, I think, in terms of the rock album, this poignant sequencing slot might correspond more closely with rising action, as in, say, the scariest portion of The Shining, for one. Don’t we need music in order to traverse life’s most heinous episodes, especially if we can’t drink at the present moment? 

“Million Dollar Decision” FOLLOWS “Shot in the Back (The Platypus)”; an act which theoretically should be impossible. And it does so by reverting to the band’s extant, default blueprint: straight-ahead power pop with a penchant for unflagging embrace of tragedy and heartbreak, particularly within romantic realms. “Shot in the Back” is a love song to himself, on Palumbo’s part, essentially. So on “Million Dollar Decision”; the singer learns to part with what he loves, and let it go, operating on a full-band plane with the people who are witnessing, firsthand, all his catharses and transformations, and bolstering them with opaque, robust groove. And from wherever you’re sitting, the whole thing just seems to crumble before your very eyes: it’s pliable to the point of not even making an impression, right down to the central message in the chorus remaining firmly esoteric, and the whole experience generally begging the question, “What just happened?” It’s like an ayahuasca trip. But it’s significant that it lies between the imperial emotionalism of “Shot in the Back” and the surrender-to-darkness battle cry of “She’s Not it”: it caps off the section of this album that represents identity and self-affirmation. Located within this stark phenomenological bunker, “Million Dollar Decision” is the least approachable song on Popaganda, by way of juxtaposition, and so, given some exposure, requires the most artistic synergy and genuineness to support understanding and internalization. 


[1] Along these lines, no thanks to their legendarily inept record label for releasing the apocalyptically banal “Beating Heart Baby” as the single, basically deliberately pigeonholing these songwriters and pub rockers as bad, coked-up club music.  


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