#43 – “A Self Called Nowhere” (1994)

John Henry

A.S.: This song is incredible.

L.K.: It really is. This unholy combination of faux-Boston accents and circular lyrics and that trippy chorus… none of it should work, but it does. Really really well. The verses feel like they’re not even from the same song, relative to the chorus.
A.S.: This song has one of the strangest chord progressions of any pop song I know. It goes through arguably four different keys on one whole repeat – G minor, A minor, Bb minor and Eb minor – all great keys, too.
L.K.: It’s a really weird song!
A.S.: For as strange a song as it is, it could have been even stranger, as evidenced in the Dial-A-Song version of it, which slows down, begins to collapses on itself, and gets cut off at the end. I almost wish they’d kept that original ending – it would’ve made an already somewhat threatening song into something completely nightmarish.
L.K.: Yeah, that DAS ending is pretty terrifying. By the time they got to the demo that appeared on one of the podcasts, it was mostly just a less-polished version of the final studio track. Man, I always forget about the brass section on this track, but it’s got those great John Henry horns too. That album really had more of a “sound” than most of their previous ones did, and I don’t think it was solely the result of them switching to a full band format.
A.S.: The horns were a great addition to the mix – obviously they’d used horns throughout their career but they add a lot of depth to just about every song on John Henry It’s a pretty distinctive horn sound too, given the band’s proclivity for baritone/bass saxophone.
L.K.: I wonder if the horn-dependence of most of John Henry is related to why the band only plays a handful of tracks from that album anymore…
A.S.: Which would probably account for why this gem hasn’t been unearthed since 1998.
L.K.: However, I mean, it’s not like the horns are even essential to this song, they’re just kind of there to add flavor. They’re a five-piece band, something could be covered by somebody.
A.S.: I’m sure Dan Miller could translate the lick after the chorus to guitar very well.
L.K.: I’ve never heard a live recording of this song, actually, but I really want to now.
A.S.: Looking at the list of performances, it’s only allegedly been played four times since John Henry‘s release, the last of which was done at a Tower Records in-store, so it probably wasn’t even a full band setting (which this song absolutely benefits from)
L.K.: Man, I know I’m just repeating myself, but this is such a good song, but the accent he sings the verses with… never really made any sense to me.
A.S.: Yeah, it’s one of those splendid mysteries about the song.  I mean, with something like “Wicked Little Critta” it makes almost too much sense, but why this song?  I honestly prefer not to know. Same deal with the lyrics; I have no idea what exactly they mean but I’d care not to know.  I just love the (as you noted) circular nature of them – tearing down the garage to make room for the tore-down garage.
L.K.: I only bring up the inexplicable accent in the verses because it seems to disappear in the choruses, but John Linnell is not known for his ability to maintain accents very reliably while singing (I know it’s from much later, but “I’m All You Can Think About” starts off faux-British and then gradually becomes less so)
A.S.: Again supporting how separate the verses and chorus seem. Speaking of the lyrics, do you give a shit about the “id/it” debate that seems to follow this song around?  Because I honestly don’t.
L.K.: I have no idea why anybody thought it was “id” to begin with. The printed lyrics say “it”, it sounds like “it”, “it” rhymes whereas “id” does not, Flans said it was “it” on Tumblr.
A.S.: It seems like a real non-issue.
L.K.: Yeah. It’s just stupid listeners trying to be pretentious.
A.S.: “Id seems way too academic to me.” – John Flansburgh.  If “id” is too academic for the Johns…
L.K.: Hey, remember, the Johns always hasten to claim that they are a lot dumber than people think they are. But yeah, the id/it debate is a total non-issue and I hate to even give it legitimacy by bringing it up here, but it’s “it”. That is the lyric. End of story. The idea that it’s a typo is nonsense because wrong lyrics abound in the TMBG discography, and they’re generally way more seriously wrong than a one-letter typo.
A.S.: Like entirely different verses, in “Dog Walker”‘s case.
L.K.: Or “Piece Of Dirt”, which was also from a different version of the song. (Also I have the gatefold LP version of Join Us, and the “dicks” is indeed missing from the printed lyrics to “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, though not “dicktown”, leading me to believe it was a mistake rather than censorship.)
A.S.: (Odd, because “dicks” is in the CD version.) But yeah, I don’t really have much else on “A Self Called Nowhere” other than that it’s pretty unlike anything else in the band’s catalogue, and that I wish I could express just how great it is.
L.K.: This is always the unfortunate thing any time a really great song comes up… it’s just us blubbering about how great it is. I feel like we aren’t really doing it justice.
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