By Venus Rittenberg, Editorial Director
Key tracks: “Jordan, Minnesota”, “Kerosene” and “Fists of Love”
Big Black is one of several musical projects led by legendary producer Steve Albini. Albini’s fingerprints are all over alternative music, a great example being his production for Pixies and Nirvana, however, his production is all over the place, even producing for slowcore/alt-country artist Jason Molina. He has helped shape the world of alternative music and continues to do so. However, his own bands, of which there are several, have also had a massive influence on music. When making his own music, Albini tends to stick to noise rock and post-hardcore. Nothing on Atomizer reaches the same epic highs as Shellac’s “Prayer to God” or the emotional depth of “Tiny, King of the Jews” from Songs About Fucking, but in my opinion it is easily his masterpiece.
Recently, I made a tweet semi-jokingly that when it comes to picking between the two studio Big Black albums, people who prefer Songs About Fucking tend to be the misogynist/incel type of music fan and people who prefer Atomizer tend to be “mentally ill.” If you’ve read some of my past writings, I’m sure you can guess which I prefer.
What makes me make this distinction? Well, Songs About Fucking definitely seems to be the more popular album. I can’t really fault people for this either. Its album cover and title make it incredibly shocking, and it immediately demands attention. It’s not like Songs About Fucking is that much worse either. I definitely get more out of Atomizer, but I do like Songs About Fucking.
The difference for me really comes down to the lyrics. I’m sure you could make a guess as to what subjects Songs About Fucking covers, and while you wouldn’t be wrong, only a couple of songs are actually about fucking. The rest of the album covers other forms of depravity, such as killing people, ergot poisoning and cats. Atomizer is a different kind of fucked up. Atomizer deals with topics that sadly a lot of people have been in proximity to such as police brutality, depression and alcoholism. Perhaps it’s just my friends and I, but Atomizer feels more real than Songs About Fucking.
Hopefully one of the less relatable tracks is the opener, “Jordan, Minnesota.” The title of this song is a reference to a scandal that swept the tiny town of Jordan, MN, related to a pedophilia ring. Although this scandal ended up to be built upon falsified information (and as a result Steve Albini has condemned this song), the lyrics are still one of the most shocking and horrifying depictions of child abuse ever written. The song is so intensely fucked up that my good friend and ACRN general manager Jonah Krueger said that he skips it every time.
Skipping it (or sitting through it) leads you to “Passing Complexion,” a song about racial passing. If “Jordan, Minnesota” demonstrates the most extreme lyrical horrors of Big Black, “Passing Complexion” presents the musical extremes. The guitar on this track is raised two entire octaves, creating one of the most unique guitar parts I’ve ever heard. Furthermore, the end portion of the song features Albini letting out some amazing screams over the insane guitar riff, just adding to the intensity of the song.
The longest track on the album, “Kerosene,” is brutal. It features Big Black’s signature guitar tone with a violent riff that puts a listener on edge. Lyrically the song taps into the mind-numbing pain of boredom and depression, when life has become nothing but staring at walls and ceilings for hours on repeat, doing and thinking of nothing but wishing the numbness would end, “Nothing to do, sit around at home / Sit around at home, stare at the walls / Stare at each other and wait till we die.” “Kerosene” is an anthem for when the ennui becomes so intense that one resorts to self-harm and impulsive sex. Albini’s solution to the numbness is to play with arson and sex. Albini has said that the line “she’s something to do” refers to “hav[ing] a lot of sex with the one girl in town who’ll have sex with anyone.” It’s pretty clear what the line “SET ME ON FIRE!” refers to. The song perfectly captures what it’s like to live in boredom for years in complete depression with little to do but seek out intense thrills and risks, like developing a fetish for being burned.
On the topic of fetishes, 2 tracks later sits “Fists of Love.” Although the song is frequently understood to be about domestic violence, which is understandable for a song that repeats “feel my fist” over and over through Albini shrieking like a maniac, he has gone on record saying the song is actually about the equally shocking topic of fisting. The song, like “Passing Complexion,” is also a rather deranged musical number, featuring pounding guitars and plenty of yelling. “Fists of Love” illustrates the Big Black conundrum perfectly. The lyrics to so many songs are so vague that they frequently end up being misinterpreted. Much of my information from what the songs are actually about are from an interview Albini did where he goes through the lyrics of many of his songs through a feminist lens, clearing the air on many misinterpreted moments. It is a fascinating read for any Albini fan.
“Stinking Drunk” follows “Fists of Love” and is a song about relapsing on an alcohol addiction. Genius calls it “a song about falling off the wagon.” “What brought me to this? / Been so long / Forgot what it’s like,” Albini yells in the buildup. The song ends with him yelling “get drunk” repeatedly. It’s a tragic song about an upsetting, yet not uncommon experience for those who struggle with addiction. Musically, it is as dark and industrial as any other track here. The instrumentals are less intense than on the other songs, putting the focus on the grim lyrics.
Atomizer is dark and intense. It’s not an album I find myself listening to too often because it really is macabre. However, it is Albini’s tightest, most-cohesive project. There is not a second of music or a word of lyrics wasted. Everything has its purpose, and the purpose is the mantra of Big Black: to project raw, uncut emotions. Rage, horniness, sadness, etc. They are all human emotions, but dark, taboo ones, and Big Black thrusts them into the light to an uncomfortable degree. Albini’s musical experimentation matches the energy of his words, and the result is unique, foundational and inspirational within the scene in which his music is situated. Albini is nothing other than a genius, and Atomizer is the biggest gem in his crown.