Monday, September 13, 2010

"Is That All There Is" (1969)

69. Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is" (Oct. 11, 1969, #11)

Peggy Lee's tender parable of nihilism is so artfully done that even still, all these years later, it can leave me feeling bludgeoned, exhausted, and downright weepy. Part of it likely stems from the simple but unexpected cabaret elements of the arrangement, stripped down to basics, a piano, a banjo, some strings, eventually a horn, and Peggy Lee's smoky voice, which all conspire to retain a whiff of the Weimar decadent. The song selects its targets carefully and builds on them for maximum effect: fire, circus, love, and finally the implications to be logically drawn therefrom on death itself. The trick is not just those choices, though they are enormously important (I mean, think about it, fire? Watching the house burn to the ground? That was disappointing? Really? And yet, who doesn't know the feeling?). No, even more important, I think, is the way she (and/or Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote this too) frames them to be so convincingly inconsequential as experienced. Circuses, for example, are something that adults have always appreciated vastly more than children—my own visit to one as a child was at least as disappointing as reported here (though now I appreciate Felliniesque trappings with the best of them, another matter entirely). And who doesn't know the disappointments of love? But there's something uniquely awful to contemplate in the chorus, where the dagger is really slipped in—somehow that weary "Let's break out the booze, and have a ball" never fails to chill me, perhaps because boozing itself so inevitably produces the reaction documented here. Meaning, in short, that there's no escape at all, is there? And that's why the last thing considered in this song is the last thing to be contemplated at all, ever. And why it's probably more appropriate than I could ever say to end this on an ellipsis...

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