My Life is A Sham, I Pretend That I'm Me - a look back on American Music Club's "Love Songs for Patriots"

In a pre-iTunes world (well for me anyway, in college) before you could just impulse buy songs on a whim whenever, I used to buy a lot of CDs that I probably didn’t need to buy. Many of them have since found their way to either a) our basement, or b) various used CD stores in an attempt to get, like a dollar or two for them when we’ve done a mass purging of books and other media.

There was a record store in the town I went to college in—Dubuque, IA—but there, for a short time, was a Borders Books, which I went to almost weekly with one friend or another, usually on a weeknight after dinner, or on a Sunday afternoon.

I would just kind of aimlessly browse, the way college students do, and look through the rock/pop section to see if anything jumped out at me. Most CDs at Borders were available to preview through listening stations, so more often than not, you weren’t, like, blindly buying something without hearing anything from it. Just like the 15 or 20 second previews of a few songs. This was hopefully enough to either make or break the purchase.

One CD that I bought, completely on a whim, in the late winter or early spring of 2005, my senior year, was Love Songs for Patriots by the American Music Club. I knew very little about the AMC at that time. I think the somewhat quaint cover art attracted me to it—also, it was on Merge Records—INDIE ROCK Y’ALL. So after sampling a few snippets, I plunked down my $15 or whatever for it and went on my way.

This was a decade ago folks. And the album itself is slightly older than that—celebrating a decade in October of 2014. So it kind of means a lot, to me anyway, for a record to have made it in my collection for ten years—to not have been demoted to the “b squad” of music in the basement, or to have been traded in for less than a third of what the retail price was. It’s always remained in the “A’s” of our meticulously alphabetized compact disc collection.

So if you are reading this and don’t know who the American Music Club are—here’s their deal. And no, it’s like they are BMG or Columbia House. That’s a joke my wife always used to make when I would talk about this record back when we were young and still courting. AMC was from the bay area, and slowly crept their way into the college rock scene of the late 80s and early 90s, with their biggest success arriving in 1991 with Everclear—a record Rolling Stone named its album of the year, and named frontman Mark Eitzel songwriter of the year.

The band released one major label record in 1994 and it tanked, and they split up for roughly a decade. Eitzel went solo, releasing a number of albums—one on Warner Brothers, the rest on Matador.

AMC got back together in 2003, and recorded Love Songs for Patriots. They recorded one other “reunion” album in 2008—The Golden Age; it was not nearly as good, and the band has been relatively in active for the last seven years.

It’s easy to write them off as a “west coast REM”—especially with their early stuff. They are also credited as helping with the “slowcore” movement, though there is honestly way too much happening in any AMC song to call it slowcore.

Coming into a band with their reunion album is kind of not the best way to get to know a band—and a bulk of their back catalog is pretty much out of print, and not available from downloading with ease in iTunes. So for the most part, Love Songs for Patriots is kind of my only really true experience with AMC.

And that’s okay. Because it’s pretty darn good. And has aged pretty darn well.

Because nostalgia, and because I’ve been thinking a lot about the lyric “We’re so small compared to our hearts” a lot lately, for other reasons, I thought it would be good to revisit Love Songs to see why it’s something that, to some extent, as endured for me as a record.

It’s a long record—clocking in at slightly over an hour. And it’s a concept album, to some extent, about living in a post-9/11 world (hence the title, and a lot of the themes in the songs.) It begins pretty ominously, honestly, with Eitzel barking out the lyrics, “Ladies and gentlemen it’s time, for all the good that’s in you to shine,” while some fuzzed out bass throbs in the background. It’s by far the nosiest track on the record—not really setting the stage for what’s to come, but definitely grabbing attention right away. Eitzel, as a vocalist, understands his dynamics—there’s the hushed tone of “Another Morning,” the drunken, speak/sing pleading of “Patriot’s Heart,” and the heartbreaking, soaring strains of “Home” and “Only Love Can Set You Free.”

As a record, start to finish, it’s not flawless. Both “Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Patriot’s Heart” are not clunkers, per se, but injecting the dissonance early on, it breaks up the tone of the record—specifically the tone set when “Love Is” starts—beginning a pretty phenomenal run leading up to “Home.” It’s rare that four songs, sequentially, work so well together—but this is one of those cases. It’s transcendental magic, actually—hyperbole aside.

The album doesn’t so much fall apart after it passes the halfway mark, but the quality dips quite a bit as it reaches the end, with the only real standout being the starkly titled “America Loves The Minstrel Show,” complete with the surprisingly frank opening line: “My life is a sham, I pretend that I’m free. My life is a sham, I pretend that I’m me.”

For the last decade, it’s not like I listened to this album every day or something, but it’s definitely something that’s stuck with me over time. Obviously, right when I first bought it, I played the heck out of it, and still favored it pretty heavily after college for about a year or so maybe, but after that, I think it just started to reside in that “A” section of our CDs, and then was something that I looked fondly on—like, “Oh, that was an album I sure liked.” Even when I was on the radio for like three years, it’s not something I really tapped into, playing “Home” only a smattering of times throughout my tenure on the air weekday afternoons.

So why has this stuck me? Well first of all—when it works, it really works. Like, this album can be good as hell when it wants to be. Production wise, it sounds slick but not obnoxious. It’s just meticulous, I guess. Even for some of the more simpler songs, there’s still a lot of sonic layers to peel through—you can tell that a ton of thought was put into how this recorded needed to sound. And at times, it sounds huge.

And I think that size, both sonically and in ideas, is another reason why it’s something that I still reference. There’s, of course, the whole post 9/11 concept behind it and whatever and boy that’s great, but there are some pretty poignant lyrics that really stay with you and ruminate over time—“Nothing ever seems to make you happy. Are you miserable, babe, or are you just plain mean?”; the aforementioned “My life is a sham—I pretend that I’m me”; “Listen—it takes a baby years to know what’s going to make it stop crying”; and then my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind for the past few weeks—“We’re so small compared to our hearts.”

Here’s the thing with Love Songs for Patriots—it doesn’t ask questions and it doesn’t give answers. It tells stories, and maybe, if you’re like me, you’ll see small reflections of yourself within those stories. It can be an incredibly somber album at times, a cathartic album, and a huge, beautiful, slow motion statement. It’s about love, obviously, but it’s also ambiguous enough that lyrical, Eiztel leaves practically all of it to the listener’s imagination to figure out. And more importantly, if you sit with it for over a decade, as I have, it becomes a snapshot of time—both the time it represents, the time it was released, and the time you spent with it.

If you're so inclined, Love Songs for Patriots is still available on CD and as a digital download from Merge.