Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pearl Jam, Interpol and Neutral Milk Hotel: What does 'Untitled' mean, anyway?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 11:06 AM

rkelly_untitled_coversmall.jpg

What does it mean for a song to be untitled? Was the artist just lazy? Was the song a half-formed sketch? When R. Kelly renamed his 2009 album from 12 Play: Fourth Quarter to Untitled, he told an audience during a performance, "I'm working on a new album and I'm calling that muthafucka Untitled. Y'all call it what y'all want."

Maybe that's the appeal of the untitled song: We can make it mean whatever we want it to mean. Songs are meant to be consumed, meant to rattle us and stir things around. But without the foundational concept, untitled songs stay with us in different ways, as if there's something incomplete or unfinished about it. Untitled songs tease us with little mysteries that will never be resolved.

Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights opens with an untitled song (or, more correctly, a song named "Untitled"), which is a bold move for a new band's first track on its debut. Giving little to latch onto, the fragmented lyrics and anxious guitar work become our only means of understanding:

Surprise, sometimes, will come around

Surprise, sometimes, will come around

I will surprise you sometime.

I'll come around

Oh, I will surprise you sometime.

I'll come around when you're down.

The vague lyrics of the track and its label-defying title give us a soft open to the rest of the album: a kind of tone setting that functions like a preface. In another way, it lays down the gauntlet, introducing us to an album that's much more about mood and atmosphere than concrete ideas.

Speaking of mood and atmosphere: All the tracks from Wolfgang Voigt's Gas albums are untitled. Titles would weigh down music that is supposed to be like ribbons of airy, abstract noise. Even though the LPs are titled and adorned with evocative artwork, both the names and the Black Forest images befit the various tones of the albums. Together -- the packaging, the untitled music and the titled albums -- give rise to deep contemplation and rumination.

In a similar vein, for Panda Bear's second solo release, Young Prayer -- which came on the heels of his father's death -- the Animal Collective co-founder left all nine songs untitled. Noah Lennox said he wanted the album to be of a piece: "All the music is directly connected to the words, and I did the words first, and they were really the foundation of the whole thing and dictated the structure and stuff." The songs are dolorous and mournful, exquisite and wispy, and the result is an album whose pieces constitute an integral whole.

Pearl Jam has not one but two untitled songs in its catalog. One is a slight piffle of a song -- a short minute-and-five-second sketch featuring the line War all crazy, we're all crazy for war from its album Yield. The other song, also known as "The Color Red," is the great one. The lyrics are a little on the point, but the sum total of the Vedder's sentiment and emotion, in addition to the music behind the lyrics, makes this untitled piece great.

On In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel's uplifting "Ghost" is followed by the joyous "Untitled," both of which are preceded by the dark and sorrowful eight-minute centerpiece "Oh Comely." "Untitled" is celebratory even though it features a vituroso bagpipe performance and only wordless vocals.

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