Gareth Liddiard has spent the better part of two decades writing some very good sick jokes.
His lyrics are forever fluctuating between several tenets of comedy, from the “funny because it’s not funny” principle that guides a tune like ‘Oh My’ to the bare-faced punchlines nestling like tumours inside ‘Jezabel’, a number that features a character lamenting about their washing getting wet in the same breath they use to mutter obscene warnings like, “cancer’s airborne now.”
But of all his dirty jokes, none cuts with the same soggily savage power as ‘Why Write A Letter That You’ll Never Send’. The song’s very punchline is an invocation of suicide, but every line drips with a kind of surrealist, cruel tension, coming across like the theme tune that John K. might have written for Ren & Stimpy if he were hooked on crystal meth.
Lines like “Who cares about the Vatican … And who’s surprised they went and chose / A Nazi for a pope?” land largely because they’re true, and the song’s jagged brand of comedy frequently flirts with the observational. Ultimately, Liddiard’s right, and we know it: who does give a fuck what the guy from U2 thinks?
Of course, none of this is particularly subtle or nuanced comedy – but the good belly laughs never are, and a line like “Who cares about the Holocaust? … All its memory does / Is keep the History Channel on air” has the same backwards-but-real mirth of Groucho Marx’s gag about never being part of a club that would have someone like him as a member.
Throughout it all, the letter writer’s claims that they’re only trying to make the world “a much less painful place” grow heavier and darker, as we discover that our good Samaritan is less likely to be talking about donating to charity or buying some cookies from the Scouts, and more likely talking about removing himself from the equation entirely.
Indeed in this way the song harks back to ‘Oh My’’s chorus, a song in which the speaker encourages the listener to ‘get your tubes tied / Or even better yet, go commit suicide.’ Both are equally good bad jokes with the same effect: to null the listener into awkward, stunned laughter.
We’re used to songs telling us to go out and spread love, but we’re not used to them suggesting the opposite: tunes with the very purpose of annihilating their listener, Liddiard swaggering into our lives like an anti-John Lennon, full of dark promises and darker insinuations.
It’s a theme that is made that much funnier (read: that much darker) by the song’s instrumentation, a chugging set of riffs that blows the tune wide open. The furiously over the top melodrama and menace provided by Fiona Kitschin, Mike Noga, Steve Hesketh and Dan Luscombe turns the song’s snigger into a sonnet and then back again, enhancing the stylised antagonism that puts us both alongside, and in opposition, to Liddiard.
Or, maybe not Liddiard. The central tension of ‘Why Write A Letter’ is based on a deliberate blurring of personalities. Liddiard is not strictly the ‘author’ of the song’s chorus, or indeed the overwhelming chunk of its verses: the song is a story within a story, a ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ with a suitably so-insane-they’re-sane speaker nestled in the text like a snake in the underbrush.
And yet of course, in a literal sense Liddiard is the speaker – it’s his voice – and in a not-so literal sense he also bloody is, cause the majority of the central ‘letter’ seems to allude to Liddiard’s past work. “We won’t need bees or seed banks / In the Arctic for a while” mirrors the apocalyptic fancy of ‘Oh My’ and ‘Jezabel’, while “it’s all bad news up there on deck” is a potential reference to ‘Shark Fin Blues’ and the nautical theme therein.
So who are we listening to then? Liddiard? The letter-writer? Someone else entirely? And how many questions come as a result of those questions: Are we ever really listening to a human being’s actual thoughts when they sing? Aren’t even the most autobiographical of tunes delivered with a certain remove? Isn’t everything for show? We’ll never know Liddiard or his speaker on a personal level, so who the fuck cares which one of them is singing at us?
As with the rest of ‘Why Write A Letter’ none of these ‘questions’ have answers: the aim is not to provide anything resembling a thesis. Even in its conclusion, the song doesn’t offer any ease or resolution – the final verse is less a bedside confessional than it is a spit in the face. Is the letter-writer dead? Has the world been made a much less painful place? Does any of this fucking matter?
Ultimately, as the song’s final few “away”s fade out, the last joke falls resolutely on us, the kind of saps ready to write an 800 word-thinkpiece looking for an answer that isn’t there. On us, those fools who have only just realised the song’s title doesn’t even have a question mark on the end of it.
The Drones are playing as part of Fairground Festival, which runs from Friday December 2 through to Saturday December 3. For more info, check their website, here.