There are certain moments in your life when you realize that you've stumbled across something special that's going to stick with you for a while. It could be at a bar, locking eyes with the most beautiful person you've ever seen. Or at a concert, hearing a band you'd never heard of before that you find yourself so taken with that you have an inkling they're going to soundtrack some very important events in your future. Regardless of the who, what, when, or where, we've all gone through those moments when we first see or hear something and we know without knowing: We've stumbled across something special.
I remember vividly the first time I heard Jon Brion. I was thirteen and listening to Aimee Mann's I'm With Stupid. I was taken from the get go with the sounds - There was an inherit idiosyncratic quality about Mann's music that I fell in love with and was desperate to find out where it came from. And at the end of the album, on a hidden track, I got my answer: Jon Brion. The first bit of Brion's vocals I heard was a thirty second snippet, tucked away at the end of I'm With Stupid, after closing track "It's Not Safe", when Brion, amidst an array of masterfully played guitar, twinkling instruments, and radio static, sings "But you're the idiot who keeps believing in luck." That was all I needed to hear because at that moment, I just knew it: Jon Brion was something special.
I spent my high school years after that obsessing over Brion, cultivating tracks he'd produced, buying cds simply because he guested on them. It was a mix of his musical oddities and John Lennon-esque voice that had me so rapt with Brion's music and it's fairly common knowledge that Brion's gone on to score some of the most amazing films of our generation, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Stepbrothers. Brion's tour de force of a score for the David O. Russell shit-show that was I Heart Huckabee's remains my favorite soundtrack to a film I hated and I do believe that "Knock Yourself Out" might be the best song ever written. This is all widely known. What isn't widely known, however, is that Jon Brion released an amazing solo cd called Meaningless in 2001.
Meaningless was originally slated for a major label release but, much like Mann's Bachelor No. 2 and Wilco's genius Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the disc was deemed unsuitable for a wide release for whatever ridiculous reason - Commercial viability? Pure spite? - and eventually, Brion released the CD himself to criminally little fanfare. Meaningless should have been a hit. It should have watched over the other releases from 2001 from a perch high atop every best-of list. It should have been raved about in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly and it should have made Jon Brion famous in the mainstream's consciousness. At the very least, it should have gotten a vast amount of attention from NPR and the indie scene. Meaningless, however, went almost completely unnoticed and it's not incredibly uncommon to talk to a Brion fan who hasn't even heard the record. To me, this is tragic because not only is the album one of my favorite records of all time but I hold it as the best produced album I've ever heard. Fact of the matter is that Brion is a great musician but he's a genius producer, as evidenced by the vast number of huge hits he had a hand in (Kanye's "Golddigger", anyone?) and his talent shines better than it ever has, and perhaps ever will, on Meaningless.
Brion has an uncanny ability like no one else to be able to write a song in just about any genre and make it impeccable. While Brion's ballads and pop songs tend to garner him the most attention on his soundtracks (See the remarkably affecting "Here We Go" from Punch Drunk Love and the aforementioned "Knock Yourself Out" for great examples), Meaningless proves just how amazing of a musician Brion is. The album starts on a clever note with "Gotta Start Somewhere", an introspective song worthy of any indie rocker but peppered with affects that are distinctly Brion, from an interspersed whistle to the opening of a robotic voice, stating the time. It's with the second song, "I Believe She's Lying", that Brion really gains his foothold, letting his mile-a-minute wordplay and offbeat production elements take center stage. Why this song wasn't a huge deal is beyond me.
Brion's lyrics, consistently strong, are at their peak on Meaningless, hitting personal notes for me at every turn. I imagine this is due primarily to the fact that, instead of only being given one or two songs as Brion usually has on soundtracks, he's got a whole 45 minutes to "do his thayng and be proud" as Gayngs would say. Additionally, for the first time, Brion gets to write from his heart completely, instead of having to tailor his songs to fit a movie's emotional mood. That fact shows song after song on Meaningless with the heartbreaking tenderness of "Hook, Line, And Sinker" and the earnest beauty of "Same Mistakes", which finds Brion admitting to doing wrong in past relationships and hoping he doesn't repeat his patterns. "Meaningless" appeals to the better nature of anyone who's ever broken up with someone, commenting on the way that places and things that once held no meaning become a constant reminder of your ex after the dissolution of your relationship. "Ruin My Day" has found itself remarkably apt in my life with it's sentiments of being over romantic feelings for someone but still being bitter enough about the shoddy treatment that you were subjected to ("You're telling me now that you regret how we never connected, as if you forget that it's me you regret you rejected."). I think it's an affect that Brion has on almost everyone who counts themselves an avid fan of the producer. Brion's songs, while doubtlessly based on personal experiences, have enough vagueness about them to make anyone relate to their sentiments but keep enough of Brion's trademarked witticisms to make you feel as if they're so specific to his experience and yours that you're the only person who can relate to them.
I'd be silly to think if that was the case, of course. Regardless, I can't help but feel that, as a girl who's been unable to shake the ghosts of her romantic past, "Her Ghost" is a song that could have been written about me and, in my kingdom of daydreams in which I am dating Jon Brion, was. Not that I daydream about dating Jon Brion. Not that it'd even be relevant if I did daydream about him, which I don't. Moving on...
It's sad that Meaningless didn't turn Brion into a viable commodity, an artist just as in demand solo as he is when composing. The album has all the markings of a great album, with nary a weak song on the entire disc. The fact that the album closes with a mind blowingly beautiful cover of Cheap Trick's "Voices" just adds to the disc's already vast appeal. From start to finish, Meaningless is a masterpiece and while it's not nearly as beloved as it should be, that fact only adds to it's appeal, giving me a fervor when talking about it, anxious to expose another friend to the beauty that Brion released with his 2001 album.
It's no secret that I have two goals in life: Interview Will Sheff of Okkervil River and see Jon Brion live. To me, Brion is nothing short of a genius, one of (if not the) best musician and producer of the past fifty years and Meaningless is testament to that.