Is This Love For Real? - Head Automatica's Decadence turns 15
The summer of 2004 was a strange, transformative time for me.
It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college—the summer I stayed on campus, holed up in a sweltering dorm room watching way too much cable television, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch nearly everyday, and a bowl of Easy Mac for dinner.
15 years later, I can still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without issue; but even before becoming vegan, after that summer, I couldn’t look at macaroni and cheese the same way ever again.
I worked two on-campus jobs—in the morning, I would work for a few hours trying to clean and organize various parts of the theatre building—like the furniture and prop storage, the costuming room, or the scene shop; then, after showering and eating lunch, I would spend the rest of the day in the A/V office.
During the summer, on campus, there wasn’t a lot to do in the A/V office. If I remember, there was some equipment maintenance, and the occasional small event happening that would require a microphone and speakers set up—but other than that, there was a lot of what was, more or less, goofing off with my boss, Mark, in his tiny office in the basement of a building at the edge of campus.
In the early days of file sharing, and illegally downloading music, the campus had kind of cracked down on a lot of sites and services for students to use. That summer, however, and I wish I could remember how, or why, I started doing this, but using the A/V office’s computer and audio recording and editing software, I began streaming music from a very early version of Rhapsody, continually accessing the service through two-week free trials that I would subscribe to through burner email addresses I’d create.
While the audio was playing, I would record it onto a Mini-Disc, then I would play the Mini-Disc back into the computer and capture the audio, splicing it up, and burning it to a CD-R.
It was a ridiculous and time consuming process, but it was something to fill the afternoons when we didn’t have much else going on. Mark, from what I can recall, thought the whole thing was pretty cool, and it wound up being the way I discovered a lot of new music that summer.
One of the albums that I streamed, recorded, edited, and then burned, had been a long gestating and highly anticipated release that summer—Decadence, the debut effort from Head Automatica.
On paper, as many things tend to, the description of Head Automatica, pulled from the group’s Wikipedia entry, sounds like an absolute train wreck.
Launched in 2003, the group was a ‘side project’ for vocalist Daryl Palumbo—the volatile, dynamic singer from the much-loved post-hardcore group Glassjaw. Head Automatica, in its earliest incarnation, was simply Palumbo alongside an unlikely collaborator—Dan Nakamura, the hip-hop producer known as Dan The Automator1. The group’s history alleges the two met a party, and began discussing the project—an outlet for material that reflected Palumbo’s interest in both hip-hop and Britpot.
Hip-hop and Britpop.
It sounds like those two genres of music should have nothing to do with one another, but by the time the group’s debut, Decadence, arrived in August of 2004, after numerous delays, and in its final form, the record is a surprisingly compelling and cohesive blend of both of those genres, among myriad others.
And perhaps the most surprising thing of all is just how well a bulk of Decadence has aged, 15 years later, sounding just as energetic and bombastic as it did the day it was released.
I’m not really sure how advertising on social media outlets works.
I mean, I have a vague idea—buying into the growing suspicion that your mobile device is always listening to you, and once you start talking about something, you’ll see ads for it; or if you do an internet search for something once or twice, within minutes, your Facebook feed will suddenly be flooded with suggested posts from a company promoting the very thing you were searching for moments ago.
Earlier in the summer, I found I was being targeted on both Instagram and Facebook with ads alerting me to the fact that what appears to be a relatively small, boutique label, Headphone Records, was involved with reissuing both of Head Automatica’s albums on vinyl—the group’s sophomore album from 2006, Popaganda2, as well as its predecessor, Decadence.
Decadence is an album that I, truthfully, hadn’t listened to in a very, very long time, despite the fact that somewhere in my home, I still have that burned CD from the summer of 2004. And even though I hadn’t listened in a very long time, it’s an album spilling over with an idiosyncratic, self-aware sense of humor and infectious melodies that I still think about all the time, and have, for many years.
I didn’t even bat an eyelash as I added the Decadence reissue, pressed onto purple vinyl, into my shopping cart, and placed my order.
What I didn’t realize during the summer of 2004, and only discovered very recently, upon diving into the reissue of Decadence, is that Head Automatica, leading up to the album’s release, already had a mythology built up around it.
Part of that had to do with Daryl Palumbo—a gifted vocalist with the ability to go from a gorgeous melody to a larynx shredding scream in a split second, he had amassed a cult following thanks to his position as the frontman for the tumultuous Glassjaw. So Head Automatica, even though on paper sounding drastically different from his day job, already had a built in audience.
Decadence, at one time, was slated to be titled Tokyo Decadence (which might explain the final product’s aesthetic), and it was originally scheduled for a February 2004 release before being pushed back until August.
This is also where the mythology around the album, or at least the evolution of the album prior to its release becomes confusing. The track listing between the early incarnation—which wound up on file sharing sites—and the final sequencing, is very different. Songs with audacious titles like “Negro Spiritual,” “Zack Morris is My Hero” and “Tara Reid is A Whore” are nowhere to be found, but when searching those titles online for clues, the internet provides lyrics to songs that wound up on the album under different names, like “I Shot William H. Macy,” “Head Automatica Soundsystem,” and “Please Please Please (Young Hollywood),” respectively.
The cumbersome, self-effacing “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Straight Edge” became “Disco Hades II.”
And then there are songs that were cut from the record completely—now out there in the world (and probably have been for years) via YouTube, like “Tip Your Hooker” (originally tracked as the album’s conclusion), “Mondo Cannibal,” “198X,” and “French Television Dub.”
It’s difficult to see how these songs could fit into the context of the album at all, with the way it was presented in August of 2004. “French Television Dub” is built around a reggae beat and guitar chord progression, though it becomes a little more palatable as it moves forward, and the same could be said for “Mondo Cannibal”; “198X” is probably the most accessible and immediate of this batch of lost tunes—slithering over a slow drum beat, and a distended, borderline psychedelic guitar.
“Tip Your Hooker” is musically interesting, albeit slow; it also does open with some very cringe inducing near rapping from Palumbo—something he also indulges on the album proper.
Palumbo, right out of the gate on Decadence, makes no attempt to hide his fascination with Britpop and New Wave—like, it’s a little ways into the record before you hear anything that slightly resembles a hip-hop influence, and even when it does appear, it’s arrives in the form of the way the beat to “Brooklyn is Burning” is constructed.
“At The Speed of A Yellow Bullet,” Decadence’s opening track, is perhaps one of its most energetic—often seeming like the whole thing is going to buckle under its own explosive enthusiasm, though it never does. It’s also a bit of a misnomer, especially if it’s your first time hearing this record and all you’ve been told about it is that it’s a hip-hop influenced side project from ‘the guy from Glassjaw.’
The song, if anything, owes more to Palumbo’s interest in New Wave and Britpop—he often cited in interviews his love of Squeeze and Elvis Costello, and you can hear that kind of late 1970s and early 1980s power pop, post-punk vibes coming through loud and clear with every punch of the snare drum or quick strum of the electric guitar.
“Yellow Bullet” is a good opening track, sure—it does a fine job of grabbing your attention with how bombastic and catchy it is—but it’s far from the album’s best, or most memorable moment.
The same could be said for “Brooklyn is Burning,” the first taste of what the album is capable of sounding like when it shifts into it’s hip-hop influences and aesthetic—it, much like its predecessor, and much like a bulk of the album (and this is not a fault) is constructed around ‘the hook.’ Decadence, at its very core, is a big, bright pop record, and these are dynamic ‘pop songs,’ all varying in style enough that it could wind up sounding like a completely unfocused effort, but they are thankfully all held together as best as they can be by Palumbo’s charismatic vocal delivery.
It’s been a number of years since I think I was able to successfully come up with something to bestow this title upon, but for a while there, I had a habit of picking a song that I would dub my ‘summertime jam’ for the year.
The first time that I am aware that I had, in fact, picked a song to refer to as my ‘summertime jam,’ was the summer of 2004.
“Beating Heart Baby,” the third track on Decadence, is by far, the album’s finest moment, and 15 years after I first heard it and was completely taken by it, the song is still an incredible accomplishment in ‘pop’ songwriting.
Within the last few years, certain Pitchfork writers, when writing specifically about pop music, have started dissecting if the artist in question as ‘earned’ the key change that occurs in a song. The first time I remember seeing it was in reference to a Lady Gaga single that they panned pretty heavily; a quick internet search shows something ‘barely earned’ a key change on a list of the site’s top singles of the years 2000 to 2004 (an old article, when the writing on the site still had a sense of humor.)
Another search result picks up a piece about K-Pop ‘essentials.’
Like, I get it, but I don’t get it. It’s a gimmicky songwriting device in a sense—does Bon Jovi earn the key change at the end of “Livin on a Prayer”? No, they don’t. Did Michael Jackson earn it at the end of “Man in The Mirror,” when it comes in as the choir sings the lyrics ‘Make that change’? Maybe—it’s an audacious move.
Did Whitney Houston earn it at the end of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”?
For a little over three minutes, Palumbo places the listener of a state of pure power pop perfection with “Beating Heart Baby,” and by the end, during the final refrain, he’s earned the song’s key change.
“Beating Heart Baby” is still a blistering, energetic slice of pop music—so good that, outside of the key change that pushes the vocals up even higher, he’s earned the enormous grandeur of the bridge section that breaks the song down, only to build it back up again, with even more enthusiasm (if that was possible) prior to the song’s end.
Lyrically, since this is a pop song, “Beating Heart Baby” is, as you probably expected, a little on the insipid side, and possibly a little problematic in a vague way—like, the way myriad pop song lyrics are. “You want nothing to do with me,” Palumbo exclaims in the song’s first verse. “I don’t know what to do with you ‘cause you don’t know what you do to me.”
The thing about a song like “Beating Heart Baby,” as well as a bulk of Decadence’s material, is that it’s not meant to be taken super seriously—at the end of the day, it’s a pop album with ‘power pop’ and hip-hop leanings at times, and it’s an album that is fun, and wants its listener to have fun too. And that concept is sometimes something I forget—that music doesn’t always have to be something sad that I take seriously, or something that I don’t listen to and truly enjoy, only listening from a critical standpoint.
It’s okay to have fun, and Decadence, even with all of its faults, was, and still is, a fun album.
Palumbo’s day job, Glassjaw, went for roughly 15 years without putting out a full-length album—or doing much of anything for that matter. Following 2002’s major label Worship & Tribute, the band went silent until they began self-releasing singles, then an eventual EP, in 2011. After numerous attempts, the group released its third LP, Material Control, at the tail end of 2017.
Times had changed, as far as dealing with abuse and misogyny within the music industry—especially in the ‘emo’ and post-punk scenes, at that point, and Palumbo was called out, and rightfully so, about old Glassjaw lyrics during the interview cycle for Material Control.
Lyrics like “suck on the end of this dick that cums led,” and “You can lead a whore to water, and you can bet she’ll drink and follow orders,” made me uncomfortable when I was 17 and had purchased Glassjaw’s debut album; they certainly were wildly inappropriate and offensive in 2017.
Palumbo more or less apologized and wrote it off as being immature, young, and angry when he was writing the material or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence—but there are still questionable lyrics to be found on Decadence, including the still cringe inducing “I wanna fuck you in your god’s hands when your praying bites the dust,” from “Please Please Please (Young Hollywood),” a song that also features the line “let me devalue what’s inside you,” in the refrain.
It’s not a good look—it wasn’t in 2004, and it’s sure not now. However, it can be a tough call to know how much of it is satire, based on the already exaggerated affect the album has.
“Please Please Please” is the scuzziest out of all of Decadence’s 11 track—it slithers along with a synthesizer and guitar that are intertwined, coming across as being both highly sexually charged, but in a deviant kind of way—accessible and infectious, but perhaps the song you want to keep at an arm’s length.
With the way it’s sequenced on the vinyl reissue, the first side concludes with “King Cesar,” which, musically speaking is much like the rest of the record—catchy as hell, however, it features some of the album’s worst lyrics—“Hip hip hooray, you’re our saving grace—here’s to you and your poker face,” Palumbo sings in the song’s refrain.
So, like, structurally speaking, within this reissue, the album tends to get a little more diverse, and a little stronger, the further it goes—saving some of its most melodic, surprising, and memorable material for the second half.
The album’s second side begins with “The Razor,” which owes probably the most to the New Wave and power pop affect Palumbo and company are fascinated with. It features a gigantic, sing a long refrain, and fragmented, surprising lyrics like, “Your body is a weapon, and you’re afraid it might get out.”
Sequentially, Decadence is built to play through almost seamlessly—many of the songs overlap, ever so slightly, from the end of one into the beginning of another; in other cases, there’s a collision where one ends, and the other abruptly begins. Such is the case with the ending of “The Razor,” which gives way to a snarling electric guitar, and the dizzying, writhing “Dance Party Plus,” which features a mildly miscast appearance from Rancid vocalist Tim Armstrong.
The double shot of “Disco Hades II,” a jovial shuffle that finds Palumbo playing the role of an affable lothario, and “Solid Gold Telephone,” is probably one of the album’s most impactful pairings, with the latter tapping into an unspoken melancholy (perhaps in the chord progression and key its in during the refrain) not heard elsewhere on the record, and it comes as a pleasant surprise.
Decadence is bookended, of sorts, with its most bombastic and frenetic pieces—“I Shot William H. Macy,” is like a cacophonic funhouse mirror image of “At The Speed of A Yellow Bullet.” It’s aggressive in ways like nothing else is on the album, and the dissonance and volatile nature of its reminiscent of Palumbo’s work with Glassjaw, but however intense the song gets, it’s still constructed with a hook in mind, and is still surprisingly accessible.
Ending in a slight organ flourish, the casual winding down of the drumming, and guitar distortion, Decadence actually concludes with a joke—an in-joke of sorts, and it’s one of the things that I have thought about, regularly, since the first time I heard the record.
With just how delayed the album was in release, and how many times early iterations of it leaked online, “I Shot William H. Macy” wraps up with a voice mail from Palumbo’s friend Christian Palko—the rapper named Cage. “Yeah man, the Head Automatica album is hot,” he says in the message. “I just downloaded it—apparently it’s too late for me to make the album because it’s sitting on my desktop as we speak.”
And truthfully—every time I download an album, I think of that very expression as I look at the .zip file, sitting on my desktop, waiting to be unzipped.
The summer of 2004 was a strange, transformative time for me.
It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college, and as summer began to wane, and the leaves on Clarke Avenue, in Dubuque, Iowa, began to fall, I found myself spending more and more time with people who were younger than I was—other students in the school’s Theatre Department, but who were either sophomores, or just arrived freshmen. Maybe I was having some kind of life crisis at the age of 21—maybe I was trying to hang onto a specific feeling for just a little bit longer.
On nights we didn’t have rehearsal for a play, or even on nights we had rehearsal, after we were finished, Decadence was one of a handful of records that could be found blaring from my staggeringly enormous stereo—a five CD changer with gigantic silver and black speakers. It, along with Jay-Z’s The Black Album, Per Second, Per Second, Per Second…Every Second by Wheat (another A/V office, ripped from Rhapsody find), and Hot Fuss from The Killers, could all be found in the stereo’s disc carousel, soundtracking nights of playing Super Nintendo with my friends Mike and Colin—lengthy runs of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, or NBA Jam—Tournament Edition in a dimly lit dorm room, the pixels moving across the wall of my room, thanks to an antiquated, weighty Sony projector I had found during my time on campus over the summer.
As terribly unkind as time has been to The Perks of Being A Wallflower, there’s that section where the narrator describes the feeling of listening to the song “Landslide” while standing in the bed of a pick-up truck as it drives through a long tunnel—he describes it as a moment where he felt ‘infinite.’
Decadence is not an album that grew with me, or that I took with me through time, to where I am now. It is a strange artifact, though, because it’s also not something that I completely left behind either, like I have with so many other albums from my lifetime. Time hasn’t been unkind to it, but it also hasn’t aged gracefully—it really hasn’t aged at all. It still sounds just as fresh and enthusiastic as it did 15 years ago.
I don’t have a lot of specific memories associated with listening to Decadence, but it’s more of a reflection of a time, and a feeling—there’s a lot of nostalgia for me, like there is with anything I associate with the autumn; some of it’s good, some of it’s bittersweet. It was a fun record 15 years ago, and if nothing else, it is still an incredibly fun listen today—a sharp contrast to a majority of what I spend my time listening to.
Decadence takes me back to those seemingly endless nights in dorm rooms playing video games with friends that I will more than likely never have the chance to see again, but in those moments, those late nights, not worried about what was going to happen next, I swear that we were all infinite.
1- So, like, this is mostly speculation on my part because there’s no, like, ‘definitive oral history’ of this record, and this, as an aside, would have been too difficult to force into the retrospective because of the direction it wound up taking, but by the time Decadence was actually released, it seemed like Dan The Automator’s role had been diminished slightly, or was one based on less creative input. He’s listed as the producer and ‘programmer’ for the album, but there are a few tracks where there is additional production—he is also not listed as a member of Head Automatica, as a ‘band’ in the liner notes. My hunch is that Decadence fell prey to what occurred with another hard rock vocalist’s side project (Chino Moreno’s Team Sleep project), meaning the longer the album was delayed in release, the more the label interfered and requested a different sound or different people in the studio. This might explain how the album leans so heavily into power pop, as opposed to the original, moderately experimental vibe of the songs left off the record.
2- I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject, but by 2006, my interest in Head Automatica had diminished slightly, and when Popganda was released, I took one listen to the album’s first single, “Graduation Day” (an enormous slice of power pop) and said no thanks. It is also worth noting that the group allegedly recorded a third album entitled Swan Damage, which, due to Palumbo’s contract disputes with Warner Brothers Records, has been shelved indefinitely.