Towards the end of ‘PUSH IT DOWN’, my favourite track on Benjamin Shaw’s new album Megadead, an educational VHS presenter’s voice sample says “For some reason, she doesn’t fit into the picture. But she doesn’t know why.” The girl in question has a dress which is just as nice as the other girl’s dresses, and a comparable sense of humour. “There’s a mirror, go on and look at yourself”, she is urged, “see if you can discover what it is”. The implication is obvious: unlike her peers, this girl isn’t smiling.
It’s a relatable story. Don’t you sometimes feel like something is wrong, without knowing what? And don’t you, too, wonder why others don’t seem to like you? The problem, though, is that we cannot always look into the mirror and see a our face as if it were a frowning emoticon that can be changed into a smiley with the touch of a keystroke. In reality, we only ever have an inside view of our thoughts and emotions which are all too easy to get lost in. It’s a mirror maze. There is no external vantage point from which we can ‘push it down’; we are more like sailors blowing into the sails of their own ship, hoping to move forward that way.
Here, I feel, lies the essence of Shaw’s bedroom pop. The genre itself is defined by its image of isolation; the bedroom a metaphor for the space inside our own head. Instead of a mirror, it contains a computer screen which neither offers a clear view of the outside world, nor a reflection of the outer self. On ‘Blue Teeth Thursdays’, Shaw sings of “All of these telescopes focused on land / And I be just focused on me”. If there is any way of turning a telescope at ourselves, it is through the externalising process of creating. Megadead recalls the likes of Sparklehorse, Eels and East River Pipe, the quintessential underdogs of life. Like their best music, Shaw’s songs can be strangely encouraging. The sardonic ‘Push It Down’ does bring a smile to your face, and ‘Melanomates’s “gonna smash this whole place up” has a reckless positivity. The message of ‘A Brand New Day’ would be obvious, were it not for the robot-voice uttering “It’s a brand new day” as if it were a command, a strict regime of optimism by the spoonful. The external view can also become such a dystopian custodian, who cannot see what goes on behind the frowning face.
The story of the smiling girl gets a reprise on the final track ‘hole’, with autotunes like Kanye West in his Bon Iver-inspired moods. This time, the vignette features two girls talking to each other, rather than a narrator; the external/internal dichotomy has dissolved into something loose and interactive, and infinitely more complex. “You’re supposed to do what I do! You’re supposed to show me how I look,” the first girl whines, as the mirror of before is replaced with a fellow human being. “No,” the second girl objects, “you listen to me for a change! For years I’ve never had emotions of my own. I can’t show you how you really look, because when you’re around me you put on an act. You wanna see how you really look? This is it: your hands held forward, your shoulders slumped.” It’s a rare moment of clarity on an album full of self-doubt. I like to imagine both girls as reflections of the same person, acting as their own mirror and thus achieving the trick of pushing off from nowhere. It’s an uplifting ending for a beautiful and creative album.
-- Caspar Jacobs, September 13, 2018