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Oct 19

All one can do is die (CRASH TEST DUMMIES – “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”)

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(#2 in April 1994)

Fortune is the issue here: the blind bad luck of the song’s kid subjects, the random chance of us ever hearing about them. “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” is a fluke, but a fluke brought forth from a particular moment, the end of the alt-rock gold rush. First there were the years when major labels pushed Nirvana’s peers, rivals and sometimes elders out across the world (even I bought a lumberjack shirt). Later, alt-rock became modern rock, a settled category in the US and barely a concern elsewhere. But alongside all that were the chancers, the one-hit wonders, the unlikelies, trawled up by the industry’s tuna nets as it tried to meet MTV and radio demand. Green Jelly. Ugly Kid Joe. 4 Non Blondes. This.

It’s clear why “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” worked on a superficial, additive level. Brad Roberts’ resonant, resigned baritone has something of the pitch-dipped growl of Cornell or Vedder – but it’s set to a stately, attractive arrangement (care of Jerry Harrison) that owes more to the gentle folksiness of REM’s market-stomping Automatic For The People. REM’s achievement on that record was to wear their craft on their sleeve, making everything Michael Stipe sang sound both homespun and hard-won – a distillate of a decade making music and a lifetime hearing it.

“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” comes on like it has its own wisdom to impart, or at least a story to tell. But it’s a far weirder record, an exercise in deflected expectations and a track which makes a virtue of running out of things to say. The title sets up double expectations – someone humming a tune, someone acting noncommittal – and the song fulfils both. Where you expect a fourth verse to be – tying the song together, offering a lesson – there’s only the lament of the backing vocalists. “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” comes on like a parable unmoored from its creed, or a comic cancelled before the heroes even meet. But its overt refusal to untie its own knots is the point of the thing.

Alternatively, it’s just an annoying novelty. Some people really hate this record, and the usual case against “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” is that Brad Roberts’ singing is unendurable, a wracked procession of half-familiar vowels, crammed into words like wrong jigsaw pieces. And yes, he’s mannered – there’s a reason I’ve never felt tempted to try a second Crash Test Dummies song. But in the course of a single hit, that’s a strength – the abstraction of the delivery makes the song work just as an exercise in texture and never mind anything else. Roberts sings “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” as if he’s as confused by it as his listeners are, dragging himself through his song’s broken-backed cadences, his tarry voice filling words like “she” and “shook” with gulps of woe and shudders of dread, as if the vignettes he’s presenting have implications that are almost physically unspeakable. Shaggy dogs can be black dogs too.

6 out of 10

(Less Popular are reviews of songs which did not get to #1, originally published on the Patreon and requested by patrons. Thanks to them for their continued support!)

Comments

  1. 1
    Nick Heath on 22 Oct 2019 #

    LOVE(d) this song. And you know what, the album isn’t bad either.

  2. 2
    Implodingme on 30 Oct 2019 #

    I always thought this tune was weirdly self-important, strangely arresting and oddly… Well, odd.

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