#51 – “Meet James Ensor” (1994)

John Henry
L.K.: Oh jeez. The roll continues.
A.S.: Where do we begin with this one?
L.K.: Where do you begin? Well for starters, James Ensor is very much an actual guy, and you can go to a (good) museum and check out some of his works. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for one, has some of his paintings.
A.S.: He’s a very celebrated fin de siecle artist, I believe our very own Cleveland Museum of Art houses at least one of his works as well. I know the CMA has Max Ernst‘s Le Dejeuner Sur L’herbe, but he’s the subject of another song by another band… But I believe there’s an Ensor there as well.

L.K.: It’s all freaky trippy stuff with skulls and death symbolism, so I mean, the appeal to TMBG is kind of obvious there. I believe Mr. Flansburgh first heard about everybody’s favorite Belgian painter in one of his college art classes. See kids, a BFA is good for something… if you want to start a rock band.

A.S.: I mean, every great band was comprised of art students. This is why I will never be in a great band.
L.K.: Despite most rockers being art school grads, most of them then didn’t turn around and write songs about painters though.
A.S.: And what a song this is. One of the best things about it is Ira Glass discussing the song in Gigantic as the song that really made him sit up and take notice of the band.  And then when he had the chance to ask them why this song exists, the Johns responded in a very circular manner: “Yes, he is a great painter!”
L.K.: I am still mad at Ira for forgetting the best line of the song though: “He lived with his mother and the torments of Christ.”
A.S.: “He lived with his mother and the torments of Christ.” Just to show that we both agree that this is the best line in the song.
L.K.: How do you beat that? You just can’t beat that. It’s such an outstanding line, phrased so prosaically. It really is a very mundane sort of song, lyrically. Here’s this guy, he’s a painter, he’s famous, everyone loves him, now they don’t anymore.
A.S.: Well, except for our favorite line… and commanding the listener to dig him up… before there was junk.
L.K.: True…except that Flansburgh seems to legitimately enjoy Ensor’s work. So it’s not like an obnoxious ironic type thing. “Here’s this really shitty painter, you guys.”
A.S.: There’s nothing in here that would imply otherwise!
L.K.: Yeah, but I don’t know, maybe people would misinterpret that as thinking that Ensor’s art would be the sort of thing that would belong in a junk store.
A.S.: I think that’s kind of a stretch. Flansburgh modeled the lyrics to be in the vein of Ensor’s work – digging his grave, torments of Christ.  It’s a great set of lyrics, telling a rather straightforward story of an artist, but throwing in these excellent little head-scratchers along the way.
L.K.: Yep, as he has mentioned in some interviews. Totally unrelated, but this song is really fun to sing and play on guitar.
A.S.: Guitar and accordion! It’s just a fun song.
L.K.: It’s pretty easy to play on guitar which always makes me wonder why Flans gets lazy and seems to quit on the chords about halfway through. Oh, it’s fun on accordion too, and has the distinction of being one of the few songs I can actually successfully sing harmony on. There’s just this great sort of catchy simplicity to the music, like the “guitar solos” at the bridge being replaced by the Johns just making noises more often than not.
A.S.: Yeah, that little coda thrown in at the end is a really great touch. I hear a lot of Violent Femmes in this track, especially in the arrangement, notably Brian Doherty’s drumwork on this track, using brushes and using the snare prominently a la Victor DeLorenzo.
L.K.: I think Gordon Gano is a friend of the band, although I think that might’ve come significantly after this song was released.
A.S.: That is true; I don’t doubt this is a direct Femmes homage.
L.K.: Is it weird if I say that my favorite version of this song is probably still the one with just John and John and the accordion on the floor of a hotel room?
A.S.: Nah, people have said much weirder things about TMBG.
L.K.: It was the first version I heard, but there’s just such a weird quiet intimacy to it.
A.S.: That’s the version on Severe Tire Damage, right?
L.K.: Yep.
A.S.: That is a really nice, quaint version of it.  I prefer the studio version, but I’m not picky.  It’s just a great song no matter how it’s performed.
L.K.: Yeah. It seems to be one of TMBG’s go-to songs for radio appearances or other stripped down things because you really just need the two singers and an accordion to do it. The drums are just a nice added touch.
A.S.: As much as I love Dan, Danny, and Marty, it’d be nice to see a bit more of just the Johns performing at shows. The Mohegan Sun Lincoln show was nice because we got a chance to hear them do three songs as a duo.
L.K.: I feel like the Johns are a lot more comfortable when they’re not all by themselves though, so we should probably just be content with the couple duo pieces they occasionally still do.
A.S.: True – it is a nice feature of the live shows though, as you said, the intimacy of the duo performances is particularly endearing.
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