In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Now that we’re a few weeks into our new year’s resolutions, we’re featuring songs about giving up.
It’s rare to find the musician (or artist of any stripe, really) who doesn’t secretly dream of something more. Whether it’s more financial success, larger critical acclaim, or even something as simple as playing in front of just a few more people, these daydreams animate the actions of more than a few performers looking to achieve something beyond what they have, by whatever metric they choose to measure their artistic careers. It’s something Poster Children singer-guitarist Rick Valentin has called the Golden Nugget Theory: the idea that there’s some measure of success that exceeds your grasp, and you won’t be happy until you’ve attained it. The secret, in this theory, is to realize there is no such thing. You can either be happy as you are, or you can remain eternally frustrated. By this standard, those who feel like they never got a fair shake are in the worst position of all: Dreaming that there’s some better world where they achieved popular success, only to remain sadly stuck in this one.
Weirdly, a group of art-damaged Belgians ended up being the ones to make a pop song that captures the defeated resignation of the failed musician. “Hotellounge (Be The Death Of Me)” recounts, in quavering voice, the perspective of a singer at a run-down lounge in some anonymous motel, churning through the days feeling like a never-was who has given up on even attaining the level of a has-been. “This elevator only takes me down,” it begins, accompanied by a spare drum beat and plunking lumber of a bass line. It continues, recounting how she hates the situation, even if it’s technically one of her own choosing. “’Cause it’s so hard to keep the dream alive,” she eventually admits, as the song builds to an explosion of distorted buzz, even as it maintains the steady rhythm that mirrors the plodding life of the lyrics’ tragic protagonist.
This art-pop melancholy comes courtesy of Deus (always formatted dEUS by the band), a group from Antwerp who signed to Island Records in the early ’90s (the first Belgian indie band to ever sign to an international major label). Drawing on a bevy of American outsider-art musical influences from Frank Zappa to Tom Waits, the group managed a trio of remarkably accomplished and accessible albums in that decade that nonetheless retained a signature oddity and expansiveness, musically and thematically. Diverse without sounding haphazard, the band’s first album, Worst Case Scenario, is bursting with ideas, perhaps none more poignant than “Hotellounge” and its testament to the quiet desperation of the torch singer who never found fame, whiling away her life with a quiet dignity that nonetheless looks to the future with grim finality. Deus is still making music, and making a living doing so—thankfully, it avoided the fate the band laid out so eloquently on its debut album.