THE CARS: THE CARS (1978)
1) Good Times Roll; 2) My Best Friend's Girl; 3) Just What I Needed; 4) I'm In Touch With Your World; 5) Don't Cha Stop; 6) You're All I've Got Tonight; 7) Bye Bye Love; 8) Moving In Stereo; 9) All Mixed Up.
The fate of this album is decided in two seconds flat. Two seconds! One — and you have yourself a dry, distorted guitar tone playing a classic old school blues-rock lick that would sound perfectly at home on a T. Rex or a Stones record (in fact, it's pretty much the same chord sequence that Keith Richards plays in ʽStop Breaking Downʼ). Two — and you watch as it contrasts with a robotic synth tone and a wobbly astral pulse that seems to come directly from a Kraftwerk tune. And there you have it: a simple, immediately effective, and amazingly symbolic synthesis of traditional rock'n'roll with an entirely new type of music. For all of New Wave's diversity, did any artist ever succeed in getting his point across in a matter of two seconds?
Not that the charm of ʽGood Times Rollʼ does not expand to the rest of the song. The melody keeps developing, but always with this strict preservation of a democratic balance between the «old» (as represented by the rhythm and lead guitar work of Ric Ocasek and Elliot Easton, respectively) and the «new» (as represented by Greg Hawkes' smoothly, but mechanically flowing rivulets of synth phrasing). And then there's the lyrics — the song title takes up a well-worn R&B / rock'n'roll cliché and sends it up in an ironically modernist way: we all remember Ray Charles telling us to "let the good times roll", but we could hardly imagine him adding "let them knock you around", much less "let them make you a clown". That's The Cars for you — vapor-headed and optimistic on the surface, bittersweet and acid-tongued half an inch under the surface.
You can rarely, very rarely understand what sort of emotional reaction these songs are supposed to extract — mixed reaction, for sure, but one thing that was there from the very beginning is a certain sense of fatalism, acceptance of life as it is, together with the fact that, no matter what you do, you will commit stupid and dangerous things, and you might just as well relax and enjoy them before they inevitably drag you to your doom and stuff. The entire album is drenched in that attitude, a mix of hedonism and apocalypticism that The Cars obviously inherited from one of their biggest idols, Roxy Music (together with the penchant for brutally sexy + intentionally tasteless album covers) — except they're nowhere near as «artsy» as Roxy Music, with the melodies more simple and straightforward and the vocals not even beginning to approach the exaggerated mannerisms of Bryan Ferry.
They're really quite simple lads with no puffed-up ambitions — if that much is not yet made obvious by ʽGood Times Rollʼ, then ʽMy Best Friend's Girlʼ, an unconcealed tribute to the songwriting style of Buddy Holly, clinches the case. If not for the robotic synths popping in every now and then, and if not for odd references to "nuclear boots" and "drip dry gloves", nothing would indicate that the song could not have been written in 1958, and when the chorus is followed up by that little Carl Perkins / Buddy Holly / George Harrison rockabilly line, it's like the twenty years in between 1958 and 1978 never happened. Yet, when you think about it real hard, Ocasek's vocals are very much 1978, with that subtle melange of idiocy, paranoia, and irony — and the contrast between the exaggerated happiness of the melody and the overall tragic message is starkly modern. Like, there's nothing about the song, really, that suggests tragedy except for the surprising resolution of the chorus (Ric's "...but she used to be mine!" comes across almost as if he were too embarrassed to admit it before a judgmental world), and yet it's all about the same kind of resigned fatalism as we just had in ʽGood Times Rollʼ.
Once the formula has been established, The Cars do not see any reasons to depart from it, but the album remains melodically diverse enough to not let us mind it in the least. For ʽJust What I Neededʼ, which they probably selected as the lead single because its thick-robust riffs were as close to commercially viable Boston-style arena-rock as this album ever gets, bass player Ben Orr is selected as vocalist, and he is indeed a better choice for carrying a muscular song like that, but the mood and message remain the same — where Boston would sing "I guess you're just what I needed" with the presupposition of «it's such a miracle that I got just what I needed», The Cars sing it with the presupposition of «well, uh, it's kind of lucky that I probably got just what I needed, but, you know, if I didn't, it wouldn't be much of a problem, really, because, like, you can't always get what you want and stuff». It should be ascribed to a certain level of musical genius that they manage to sound terminally bored and exciting / energetic at the same time.
As the record goes by, our interest is further kept up by means of quirky sonic experimentation (ʽI'm In Touch With Your Worldʼ, crammed with as many fun sound bites as these guys could get from their month in the studio), occasionally increased tempos (ʽDon't Cha Stopʼ, a sex song that neatly separates the rest of the record into two equal parts — pre-copulation frustration and post-copulation depression), and, finally, what should be the album's best song once you get fed up with the big hits on all the A-sides: ʽMoving In Stereoʼ, whose cold synths, doom-laden bassline, and lengthy instrumental coda make it straightforwardly grim, unmasked by uptempo rhythmics or merry singalong vocal choruses. It also contains a great, often overlooked verse, that I believe is essential to understand The Cars and their understated awesomeness: "It's so easy to blow up your problems / It's so easy to play up your breakdown / It's so easy to fly through a window / It's so easy to fool with the sound" — precisely the kind of things that so many bad artists exploit in their music, and precisely the kind of things that The Cars preferred to avoid even when they were being at their most psychological. ʽMoving In Stereoʼ is no exception — it's a fairly depressing tune, yet it achieves that effect without resorting to any of the usual clichés associated with depression (well, except for maybe that booming bass, but you'd never accuse the song of having a stereotypical «Goth» sound anyway, with or without the bass).
Such a simple-sounding record, on the whole, and yet so perfect in its intelligent humbleness that no «simple pop-rock» album from the era, with or without New Wave trimmings, can truly compete with it: everything else is either too obsessed with musical innovation and serious message (which is not at all a bad thing, but leaves the niche of pure intelligent entertainment uncomfortably empty), or too drowned in primitive emotions and genrist clichés, or is simply less interesting from a musical standpoint (like Tom Petty, for instance). An obvious thumbs up, the worst thing about which is that the band's subsequent career could not hope to live up to the debut — having pretty much said it all in all the ways they knew across these nine tracks, Ocasec, Orr, and company would never again conquer another peak of comparable height.