Given that he lived in a Hoboken train station for two years, hopelessly broke and constantly drunk, F.M. Cornog has some pretty compelling things to say about money. Garbageheads on Endless Stun, his fifth full-length released under the moniker East River Pipe, is about all the stuff money can — and can’t — buy, and what happens to the people behind the cash, both the haves and have-nots. Given the subject matter, you’d expect the record to be pretty bleak. And you’d be right.
Take “Where Does All the Money Go?” It’s Cornog’s most vitriolic statement on the album. Inveighing against millionaires and “slobs in SUVs,” the song ends with an unexpectedly joyous chorus celebrating “sweet, sweet crime.” Is Cornog saying class discrepancies and criminal activity are locked in some sort of cause/effect relationship? Is he suggesting crime as a legitimate, justifiable solution to the cold cruelty of wealth concentration? I don’t really know. But I do know catchy when I hear it, and, like most of Garbageheads on Endless Stun, “Where Does All the Money Go?” is catchy with a capital K.
That’s right: those two years in bumtown haven’t tempered Cornog’s preternatural gift for melody and hook craft. Sounding not unlike Robert Pollard spending the day with Stephin Merritt, a typical East River Pipe song is comprised of a handful of guitar chords, a scoop of engagingly chintzy keyboard mush, Cornog’s thin voice, and maybe a drum machine track to keep the parts assembled. The finished product is amazingly polished and pretty, considering Cornog recorded and mixed the album on a circa-1988 analog tape deck.
Cornog takes this scrubbed-clean approach to his lyrics. Favoring a distinctly linear song structure, he makes every word count — he’s the Emily Dickenson of the 8-track. This technique lends itself to ambiguity and uncertainty; Cornog’s lyrics, like the best poetry, are little puzzles waiting to be decoded (if not completely demystified). The aforementioned “Where Does All the Money Go?” falls under this category, as does the provocative “I Bought a Gun in Irvington,” the album’s darkest song. “I pulled the trigger just to watch them run,” boasts Cornog, right before assuring us they were “sick pricks, I swear.”
In keeping with the album’s theme, “Irvington” is about the power money can buy — the power to end another person’s life, and the resultant feelings of that deed (such as … pride? joy? I honestly wouldn’t know — trust me). But who is the one wielding this power? The song’s eight lines offer few clues; I feel as if Cornog is writing from the point of view of an upper-middle-class Columbine-esque outcast, and I can kind of back it up. But of course such ambiguity is the point; it allows for multiple interpretations of the same source material, thereby strengthening the art. “I Bought a Gun in Irvington” isn’t a particularly catchy tune, but it is nevertheless a remarkable song.
A couple of the other tracks on Garbageheads are just as good: “Monumental Freaks,” “Stare the Graveyard Down,” and the closer, “It’s Always Been This Way.” Too often, however, Cornog’s high-concept-low-word-count lyrical style, while admirable, results in obvious and silly writing. “The Long Black Cloud” has exactly the kind of lyrics you’d expect, starring the Long Black Cloud in its most challenging role yet — depression (there’s a stretch). “Arrival Pad #19,” despite beginning with a thrilling minute-and-a-half of mainlined pure-pop, similarly falters with a goofy spoken-word bit (“You are now a metal man/ Incapable of being touched/ Incapable of being penetrated,” etc. — I kept waiting for Cornog to bring his hand to his forehead and melodramatically wail “Oh! the drudgery of modern existence!”).
Such faults keep Garbageheads on Endless Stun decidedly out of the Hall of Great Records. But there’s a lot of rich, good stuff here, songs you’ll spend days poring over and weeks humming. Since pulling himself out of the gutter, Cornog has already made four good-to-really-good records, an incredible feat by itself. And like the others, album number five is definitely worth your time — and money.