Berg's Back with Lyrics from Hell

by Alan Niester, Globe and Mail, February 27, 1993

When Moe Berg and his band The Pursuit of Happiness first blasted its way onto the pop charts in 1988, it did so with a crafty little number called I'm An Adult Now. It was almost a novelty song, with Berg speaking more than singing lyrics like "I can't even look at young girls anymore. People will think I'm some kind of pervert." Funny, original and yet basically wise, the song immediately established for Berg the reputation of being the Canadian music industry's enfant terrible, and won for him and his band rave reviews and a burgeoning international reputation.

But little has really happened since. A follow-up album, One Sided Story, failed to build on the reputation established by the Love Junk debut, and nearly three years have passed since its release. But finally, this week saw the release of the long-awaited comeback album The Downward Road. And judging from the material on this new album, it seems that Berg, the chief singer-songwriter and raison d'Ítre for the band, really is an adult now. Lyrically, the album is more direct, mature, sophisticated, and in some ways more controversial than anything that has gone before.

Talking over a death breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and French fries, Berg insists the delay between the second and third albums (caused largely by the band's changing record labels) shouldn't really hurt.

"I have what I suppose is a naive attitude," says Berg, who came to Toronto in 1985 from a small town just north of Edmonton. "I believe that if you put out a good record, people should like it. It doesn't matter if it's five years later or a hundred years later. I may be completely wrong about this, but I believe it's the way things should be, so I cling to the belief."

So far, it's a belief that seems to be proving correct. Cigarette Dangles, the single that was released to radio a few weeks ago, established itself almost instantly. An infectious pop/rocker, it's built on a searing lead-guitar line, and a chorus that seems to have been lifted directly from some mid-seventies Todd Rundgren album.

But lurking behind the catchy melody are, quite literally, lyrics from hell. "Cigarette Dangles - makes me hard/ kidnap me, throw me in the back of your car/ take me to your room where the flowers hang like bats/ poison me with liquor then break out the party hats." In short, it seems to be a long way from the comic observations of I'm An Adult Now, or "your love is like greasy fried noodles," a simile taken from an earlier song called Food.

To some degree ("a very minor degree," Berg notes), The Downward Road is actually a concept album, one dealing with what Berg refers to as the "descent to adulthood." For Berg, now in his early thirties, life doesn't necessarily get better as one gets older. Anything much past age 18 is seen as a life in decline. "When you're a kid, an early adolescent, you're in a state of grace. You have no responsibility. Your whole life is ahead of you, and everything that is important in life is just something you imagine, it's not something you've been able to acquire, or even have a real concept of. But once you find out how things really are, I think you lose that state of grace."

Berg took the album's title The Downward Road from a song by the Staple Singers, and he credits that outfit by including a sample of the original number to introduce the album.

But what comes after is pure 1993 Berg. Crotch-grabbing images abound, from the kinky lust of Cigarette Dangles (a song inspired, incidentally, by an image of "Kim Novak in a nightie") to the day-to-day earthiness of Nobody But Me, where sex and drugs are casually juxtaposed with making tea in the morning and "holding your hand in church."

Berg is one of the few lyricists in rock whose lyrics can stand on their own. When told this, he says, "I accept that as a complement, but only just. It's not really much of a complement to say that your lyrics are slightly more intelligent than regular rock records. I'm not gonna win a Nobel Prize for that."

But although Berg's lyrical side has grown considerably over the past few years, musically, The Pursuit of Happiness (his second band) still connects with its established sound. The group, which includes guitarist Kris Abbott, bass player Brad Barker, drummer Dave Gilby and vocalist Rachel Oldfield, has always had a fascination for the work of seventies wunderkind Todd Rundgren. His influence is noticeable in the songs themselves; he produced TPOH's first two albums, and although veteran Ed Stasium (The Smithereens, Living Colour) handled production this time out, Rundgren does add some guitar lines on The Downward Road.

"As far as the Todd influence goes, that was there long before we did any records with him," Berg admits. "He's just been such a big influence on me. I make no bones about it. It would be ridiculous of me to say, 'Oh yeah, well I like him, but I don't think we sound anything like him.' Everybody sounds a little like somebody."

Berg sees himself as working in a genre that has history and tradition, and he and his band-mates are simply updating the tradition in much the same way that traditional English folkies, such as Fairport Convention, for example, update but build upon their own chosen musical genre. Berg was greatly inspired by the music of the sixties.

"I was four years old when I bought my first record, which was House of the Rising Sun by the Animals. During the sixties, I was obsessed with radio, because that was when it was really good. The very best music that could be heard was regularly on the radio - The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who. It represented the cutting edge. So I memorized the Top 40. I knew what label each song was on, just like the guy in the movie Diner. I still have hundreds of old records that I still play regularly."

But asked whether he believes that rock music is a genre that is largely tapped out, that all the best songs have already been written, he is adamant in his reply.

"You're only limited by your own imagination. Even stuff that sounds real traditional can be fresh- sounding, like that song by Dan Baird, I Love You Period. It's more the intensity a song is performed with, the commitment the artist has to it, and whatever freshness and intelligence can be brought into play. To claim that all the best rock has already been written is like saying all the great books have already been written, or all the best works of art have already been made."

Copyright © 1993 Globe Information Services


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