13
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.

  3. 3
    Garry McK on 4 Jan 2020 #

    We played Keep A Lid on Things a lot on radio after this. From the next record IIRC. Whimsy nonsense in an era of faux-poignant, overly-polished guitar modern American Rock.

  4. 4
    Dave on 10 Jan 2020 #

    Trying to work out why this song was so formative for me — it’s still one of maybe six or seven songs I have memorized in its entirety. I haven’t actually been publishing any of my writing anywhere, but found myself writing about it yesterday so here goes:

    I remember thinking a lot about the parents in “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” the song by the Crash Test Dummies that I sang to my sons as infants. My natural singing register is already an exaggerated croon so its melody fit my range and temperament (earnest and goofy). But I also memorized the lyrics as a child and never forgot them. Something about the story sparked my own imagination to fill in the many gaps. The story is a set of sketches, one or two details standing in for narratives that are somewhere between folk tale and after-school special.

    There are three characters: a boy whose hair turns bright white from a car accident, a girl with birthmarks all over her body, and a boy whose domineering parents nonetheless let loose at church. The first two stories, about the car accident and birthmarks, seem to set the stage for the third, an almost confessional-sounding verse after two acts of God. That the song is about God seemed obvious to me, the absurdity of there even being one that I imagine is more acute with belief, not less, since atheism lends itself more naturally to dismissal and disregard. The name of the Crash Test Dummies album, “God Shuffled His Feet,” reminds me of a picture I drew as a kid in Sunday school of God dressed with a top hat and cane tap dancing with a nervous smile.

    Most commentary I read on the song now takes the storylines to be more or less random, but to me there is a clear arc between the stories, outlining different genres of tragedy—sudden trauma, chronic irritation and insecurity, and a more deliberate dysfunction borne of parental projection and abuse.

    That latter reading (of the third story suggesting abuse) is tangled in the video for the song, which gave parents to the literal protagonists in a school play depicting the song’s events. The third kid’s parents, in particular his impressively mustachioed father, are just the sort of killjoys the song imagines. The parents look offended at the play’s frivolity, even as they reluctantly stand to applaud at the end and their unshakable disappointment reaffirmed my sense that there was something categorically different about that story. Like the other two were trying to dress up the third in fairy dust as a distraction. Then again, the other two are pretty sad, too, if you read them more literally. (But in the bridge, those other two even tell you that the third kid has it “worse than that.”)

    Three ways of experiencing trauma: two of them not ascribable to malevolent actors, whether sudden or chronic, and one the trauma of upbringing itself, the trauma in the mistakes everyone makes as they try to describe or shape or contain the world for their children.

    In our family, trauma was hardly malevolent, especially you didn’t believe in God pulling the strings — it was frictionless, blameless, and I’m thankful for that in a way, not having some other person on whom to project a pain that has nowhere else to go. (My mom died when I was young, but we had a happy enough family life otherwise.)

    Mostly I thought about the third boy, this boy whose parents made him come directly home right after school and when they went to their church they shook and lurched all over the church floor. How could this be worse than a car crash that turns your hair white or having birthmarks all over your body? (Not that there’s anything so bad about that, and in fact I like the way that no one actually says anything about the birthmarks; it’s not about the reaction to the birthmarks but the hiding of them, the fear that someone might say something.)

    The sketchiness is strength here. The suggestion of something sinister is more affecting than a better-rendered narrative, which might tend toward something that more closely resembled a lesson or moral. The whole point is that you can only imagine (in fact, have to imagine) what’s happening with that boy. Something bad. But the song leaves it vague and unresolved, as in the end we all kind of have to when these kinds of things happen, especially when it’s no one’s fault but even when it is.

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