Sleigh Bells as guilty pleasure
The emerging critical consensus in favor of Sleigh Bells seems to regard them as nevertheless kind of emotionally absent and shallow, entirely superficial. While I can appreciate the reasons for wanting to make this point (why should we have to find complex emotionality in music for it to be valid?), and while I admit I might be personally biased insofar as there is a very sweet song on the album named after the person I’m currently in a (temporarily) long-distance relationship with, I nevertheless can’t shake the feeling that, for some critics, this might be a sort of bet-hedging. (And, for the record, I did this very thing myself, in the past, so perhaps I am just projecting.) There’s going to be a backlash against Sleigh Bells; hell, it’s already started. And the sound is ultimately so new (we can’t even agree what it’s a combination of yet, what its references are) that we don’t know if it’s going to slip comfortably into an aesthetic tradition or just be regarded as a sort of novelty record in a couple years’ time, and should the latter occur, we don’t want to be the people that stumped for its permanence, caught out there on the Internet with our pants around our ankles. Or maybe this is unfair: maybe we aren’t actually sure that we want this to last beyond this album. We see it as a kind of dead end, and want this to be the only example of the sound, because it is kind of tiring.
But I’d like to at least make the case for the possibility that there is very much a there there on Treats, and I think it lies at the intersection that Mark Richardson identified in his excellent review: the contrast between the overwhelming sound of the music and the calmness of Alexis’ vocals. Treats is a teenpop album in a very literal sense, because it seems to be primarily about the inner and outer lives of teenage girls. And what makes it different, and more realistic, is that it’s not about boys. It’s about girls’ complicated and difficult but often rewarding friendships with other girls. One of the few times boys are mentioned, on “Rill Rill,” it’s to explicitly deny their relevance to the conversation: “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces? / What about him? / I’m all about them.” And this is where indie comes in. The dread heritage of twee allows them to talk about a subject generally outside pop’s lyrical playbook because it would be regarded as a kind of childhood without romance involved. And so, to talk about what a girl wants, other traditions have to be introduced. “Riot Rhythm” seems like a clear reference to “Rebel Girl” to me: “There goes my best friend…she stands up, takes the heat.” Friends get mentioned in at least* three songs, and the difficulty resolving the paradox of teenage friendships comes up too. Friendships are by definition supposed to be causal, but they take on an intensity among adolescents that leads to confusing feelings, which seems to be the theme of “Rachel.” At the same time, a lot of the songs address the pressure teenage girls face to be perfect, from “Mama say / ‘You can do your best today’” (in “Tell ‘Em”) to the song “Straight A’s” (a phrase which also pops up in “Rill Rill”) to the breakdown in “Kids,” a high-pitched girlish voice saying “Did I ever need a vacation just to get away for a while. / *screams* / Wait, did I forget my sunglasses?” And then, later, “Everything was just perfect.”
That this is spoken is key, because the sung lyrics are much more confident and assured. And that’s where the contrast between the music and lyrics comes in, and why it’s the combination that makes the album seem to be so much about the teenage experience. Around you, all is chaos, loud and intense and violent and new, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to overcome it or understand it. You just have to stand very still at the dead center, being as cool and as in-control as you can, even if the content of your thoughts betrays the way you’re expressing them. Your voice may be small compared to everything else, but as long as it stays still, it commands a certain power.
Like I said in my post about their show, that power is also there in the music. It may seem cah-ray-zee to us, but it’s actually very precise and spare. It’s just that the digital clipping splatters that preciseness all over the top and bottom of the waveform and makes it sound splintered. But take that away, and there’s often not much more than a few drum hits, a guitar line, a keyboard riff, and the vocals. Sleigh Bells models what it’s like to be a teenager by taking something small and blowing all out of proportion until it obtains a ridiculous, overwhelming majesty and force. Even if it doesn’t make any obvious sense, the intensity is something you have to grapple with, or at least laugh at, which is what I did the first time I heard the really, really loud part at the end of “Infinity Guitars.” I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to take Sleigh Bells seriously all the time, any more than we’re meant to take teen dramas seriously if we’re not a teenager. But that doesn’t mean they lack meaning or are disposable any more than the fact that the plot of Romeo and Juliet is essentially a serious of foreseeably awful decisions by teenagers diminishes its power and grace. If we succumb to the temptation to regard Treats in a merely aesthetic way (or, for that matter, as the rollout of a marketing strategy), I think we do it a disservice. The joy there, to me, seems undeniable. What else is present?
* I am notoriously bad at deciphering lyrics, and the extreme compression on the Sleigh Bells album makes it even harder, so I’m just going off what I can make out.