Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: The Elected’s Me First
by Chad Jewett
Me First exists in a world of semi-sweet disappointment, a night-scape of resigned charm where even the most candy-coated harmonies are actually salted caramel. Essentially serving as a solo debut for Blake Sennett, co-founder of Rilo Kiley, The Elected’s first album arrived almost startlingly complete, a dispatch from a million small towns full of bravely sad and forever bemused young people. The songs seem to sigh; they meet their own ache with the kind of aplomb that I’m not sure I’ve heard before or since. Me First is a concept album of the intense, world-building variety; it’s just that you might recognize that world on your after-work errands. Though written and recorded after Rilo Kiley’s extensive touring in support of The Execution Of All Things, Me First feels like the categorical opposite of a “road record;” unless that road is “Main Street.” You’ve probably felt the album’s very particular brand of exhaustion on certain Thursdays, during conversations you feel like you’ve already had, word for word, on the kind of drives you dangerously tune out of for the familiarity of the landscape. The Elected released their first album in February, a salient month for season adjustment ennui, even if the record’s first track, “7th September 2003,” feels more exactly right for the tone of it all. Me First is an indian summer kind of record; its galaxy is forever outdoors, though it also seems to be forever feeling a coming chill.
“7th September 2003” begins with the mélange fuzz of a radio dial between frequencies, bouncing amongst Blake’s voice, running scales, a throb of digital drums, and an ethereal swatch of operatic alto. The outburst settles itself into the song’s alt-country shuffle and already we have a synecdoche for the record itself, an album that bravely crosshatches laptop crunch and middle American organics better than any record I’ve ever heard. In ways it feels like a kid brother to The Magnetic Fields and certain moments on 69 Love Songs, except that Stephin Merritt always seemed to be utterly theoretical in pushing the digital and the analog together. Sennett appears to actually find the admixture compelling; it gives the album’s moment of Americana a sense of heightened stakes, dosing major key twang with bright, coded wonder. Later in the song, synthesizers will whorl beneath a Nashville-tart guitar solo. Simply put, the ways in which the album synthesizes what Sennett could create (with the help of Jimmy Tamborello) on his computer, and the stuff his characters might hear from a gas station cashier’s office, is utterly gorgeous.
“7th September 2003” cooks down into the rustle of an acoustic major key, buttressed by the cursive twang of lap-steel guitar, as Sennett boils everyone’s hometown into a box on a calendar. “I was driving around with my worst friend; it was the 7th of September / The day that I surrendered, and fifteen more ‘til my birthday.” Concepts like a “worst friend,” or words like “surrender,” are what give this album its wearied heart. Sennett is a genius for detail (his guitar work on Rilo Kiley is the band’s not-so-secret ingredient), and “7th” plays like a passenger-seat tour guide, pointing out the weird houses in your town that you never bothered noticing. Harmonies rise gorgeously in the chorus, all sounding breathless and sad. The song turns to missives about just-missed love, and more resignation, as Sennett coos “On the last night of summer I got you alone / We talked until dawn and then I walked you home / And I said ‘Baby, there’s someone out there for you. And maybe he saves his best side for you.’” Like I said, the album absolutely lives on the “last day of summer” – with all the sweet sadness that implies.
“Greetings In Braille” and “My Baby’s A Dick” seem to stretch out on those same suburban walks. Lines like “And the memories are picture cards, one night stands, breakdowns” and “If you see me, down at the liquor store, please don’t tell my dad” play out above the tired out-breath of harmonica, barbed in both their simplicity and specificity. Try listening to these songs without picturing the stop-light adjacent spaces of your own town, the vaguely sad cross-streets where this stuff plays out every night. “My Baby’s A Dick” operates as a shuffling two-step, but over the hollowed out pong of programmed drums, creating a space where the song’s leaned-over rhythm becomes utterly propulsive, even if it’s the kind of evening-time country that should feel anything but. The Elected reinvent the wheel. “When you’re gone, I don’t think I’ll miss you.” I don’t think. “’Cause it seems that you miss me now that we’re through.” It seems. “And it’s late in the game / And you’ve got to improve / And I’m starting to miss you now that we’re through.” I’m starting to miss you. Me First is the kind of record that exists solely in liminal spaces. Summer is about to end. Later, on “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up” (a perfect title for this album’s mix of funny sadness and sad funniness), a sockhop tenor saxophone will scronk away like the last quarter in a jukebox, as if to remind you that these post-afternoon spaces have always existed, and their young-love stakes were always operatic. Most of these songs feel like one drink away from last call, or thirty minutes shy of sunset. It’s a record that finds comfort in being tired, and its sounds seem always pitched to capture that mix.
“A Time For Emily” continues in that path of electronic folk weariness. Pianos sound toyish over the skitter of programming; there’s a surfeit of melody, to the point that the entire thing feels like one big hook. Harmonies sky and curve around Sennett: “You’ve got no friends and I’ve got no resolve.” They echo sentiments like “You said I didn’t care at all.” A trumpet hums its own melody before analog drums break the song’s delicate, bedroom pop open. “Was it so long ago? I asked you to stay beside me all through the years / The death of this mess finally came around with no relief this year. / Congratulations you just fucking disappeared.” Notice how all this trouble over who left whom seems to have everything to do with placedness? With leaving? You just disappeared. The trumpet returns as a complete horn section, solidifying the beautiful way in which “A Time For Emily” blooms, moving, like so many songs on the album, from the introspection of indoor spaces to the unsure ground of our front lawns.
It’s a movement the album implements over and over again, most strikingly on “Go On,” a song that The Elected never stopped playing live (until they themselves stopped playing live). “Go On” begins with more of “A Time For Emily”’s laptop clatter before arcing into broad-shouldered country swoon. Those synapse-fired drums return for the first verse, recede for big choruses, crush into plastic bits before a big bridge, are swept away. Where electronic interludes are so often used to pulse anxiety, Me First seems to mainly value programmed drums as a form of defamiliarization. It makes the comfort of alt-country feel new and otherworldly and beautifully thrilling. It also gives Sennett opportunity after opportunity to clear his throat. When all of that clutter drops away, it can always feel like he’s getting to the heart of the matter: “My old girlfriend’s studying medicine. ‘Would you save my life if I got sick?’ / ‘Haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been? Of course if you have the right insurance for it / ‘And I think if we got back together again, you know, give it a run, you know, you were my first love.’ / ‘You’re very drunk and we were very young. I’m going to see this guy and it might be love. / Yeah, I think he might be the one.’ / ‘If you get married can I come? I gotta see this.’” I quote that moment at length because it’s the exact time and place where Me First exists, a town’s worth of awkward reunions and half-hearted declarations. It might be love. I think if we got back together again. The song blossoms like a hot-house flower around that “I think he might be the one” bit of irony. Sennett only sounds bitter on the words “I gotta see this” – the one moment where he gives up sounding like a charmingly patient second choice and lets himself go. It won’t happen again, but it will echo throughout the album’s second half.
Indeed, that bit of frustration lingers on songs like “C’Mon Mom” and “A Response To Greed,” where narratives illuminate family traumas and the sadness of going home. “C’Mon Mom” plays a balancing game between drum machine bloops and major key Telecaster trickle, twisting above the panging sadness of lines like “C’mon Mom, I’m so scared / All the things you told me are coming true.” “A Response To Greed” lives in the same bit of haunted, Neil Young-esque prairie as Rilo Kiley’s “Hail To Whatever You Found In The Sunlight That Surrounds You.” People fall apart: “That’s just the trouble with long term goals and dreams / They’re always being revised: my sister still cuts her arms, my brother’s still at the garage / And we’ve given all that we can mom, and it’s either sink or swim…”. These songs shiver in the interludes you spend in your own backyard, taking in the emotional quiet.
Me First ends with the intangible comfort with which it began, a cramped world where young people in danger of growing old are forever sighing and smiling at once. “Don’t Blow It,” featuring Jenny Lewis (fellow Kiley member Jason Boesel drums throughout), is this album’s version of a love song, and Sennett deserves way more credit than he ever received for knowing that a sentiment like “don’t screw it up” is this album’s version of a happy ending: “So when the right time comes don’t blow it.” Fender Rhodes piano dances atop a bed of programmed drum glass, synthesizers and George Harrison liquid guitar slide in like unassuming worst friends. “I’m that voice that you’re hearing in the dark / The one that knows your name.” More charmed, sad familiarity. “And I’m that choice you’re making with your heart / And I’ll take all the blame.” Sennett is funny. Anyone who’s seen The Elected live knows this. The band also has a loyal following (as does Sennett’s former day job, Rilo Kiley). I searched out a copy of Me First on vinyl, and prices hang around two hundred dollars. In later interviews, you got the sense that maybe Blake Sennett took what would seem like indifference to his solo music to heart. Jenny Lewis rose to stardom on her own records. The Elected still has a cultish following. Frankly, wouldn’t you prefer the latter? Doesn’t it stick around? I don’t blame Sennett for feeling that disappointment, because man did I root for him. I also perpetually hope that he’ll see the bright side of the fact that a room full of people in Boston gleefully had his back, even if we were fascinated by the prospect of an electric picnic (this sounds like an EPCOT restaurant). But if disappointment and a humble, tireless love are what surround The Elected, doesn’t that just mean that Me First got it amazingly, unshakably right?
Me First is simply a miracle of a record. It’s one of my absolute favorites. That it arrived so complete in its own sense of self, so flawless in its construction of small town nostalgia (remember, this translates to “the pain of returning”), so substantial in the way it painted early night skies and last second glances, still baffles me. It’s the kind of record that I have a few different imagined movies stored away for. Or I can picture walks between the vine-latticed brick of college buildings. Or I can think about the passing moments of “British Columbia,” a quiet acoustic missive, compressed to the air of a twilit bedroom: “It always takes longer than you think it will to settle in.” Later, Sennett will sing: “At best you’ll be blind and gray, A warm climate for your last days. / Should have never let her go, but you were always better alone. / Some people never learn until it’s too late.” But I prefer thinking about that earlier thought, about how there’s always a tomorrow for records like Me First. It always takes longer than you think it will.