When I talk about important music, Harvey Danger is always one of the first bands I mention. Usually no one in the room has heard of them. Sometimes, people will sing a few bars of “Flagpole Sitta,” usually the part that goes, “I’m not sick/ But I’m not well.”
But it’s so much more than that.
I am a Harvey Danger fanatic. I’ve got all the deluxe editions, I talk lovingly (and often) about B-sides and deep cuts, and I honestly think Sean Nelson is among the best lyricists of our time. He talks of disaffection and irony without being insincere; he manages to be literary without being an ass. Both of those things are nearly impossible.
However, I know how intimidating it can be to delve into a new band not knowing where to start. Here is a chronological history of the brief—but powerful—career of Harvey Danger. Depending on your personal tastes, this will give you an idea where to start.
Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? (1997)
One of Merrymakers’ greatest strengths is its sense of humor: when other bands were writhing and indulging in apathy, Harvey Danger was railing angrily against it. This record is perfect from top to bottom, starting with the blistering guitar riff of “Carlotta Valdez” and ending with the haunting, sparse, “Radio Silence.” (This is also the record that has the song you probably remember.) My favorite song is the scathing, “Terminal Annex,” which has probably shaped the way I handle anger and disappointment in my adult life more than any other single piece of art.
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Here’s something beautiful, now smash it to bits.
Save your little wheelchair empowerment films.
Save your swoons, I’m spoken for.
It isn’t pretty to think so, but I can’t feign interest now.
I’m dreaming of the fistfight I never got into,
Thinking of all the mean shit I wish I’d said to you…
…Like a zero drowning in a sea of higher numbers.
The song creeps in with an almost tentative guitar part, only to blow out the speakers on the chorus. Like many Harvey Danger songs, it deals with the balance between what you expect, what you get, and what you deserve—all while alluding to literature and pop culture. (Hemingway lovers will see a reference up there.) I’m blown away every time I listen to this song, and by the time I get to the breathless conclusion, “You want ego? I will show you ego/ I’m jealous now,” I’m changed. Almost like going to a yoga class, this song straightens me out and untangles me in a way that little else does.
Other standouts include “Private Helicopter,” “Wooly Muffler,” “Jack the Lion,” “Old Hat,” and the haunting “Problems and Bigger Ones.”
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I recommend you start with Merrymakers if you’re into loud guitars, you’re ready for some pretty killer literary jokes, and you like doing things chronologically. Otherwise…
King James Version (2000)
Any record that starts with an aggressive kickdrum and the line, “I had a lovely brunch with Jesus Christ” is going to be interesting to say the least. That song—“Meetings with Remarkable Men (Show Me the Hero)”—is full of funny quips (and a scene featuring a characterized Kip Winger), but is also full of strange wisdom: “Don’t despair, your mother loves you/ Don’t be proud, she’s got to.” Many of the songs follow that pattern: “You Miss the Point Completely (I Get the Point Exactly),” “Authenticity,” and “Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” are all deeply funny in their own ways. But my favorite song on the record is called “Why I’m Lonely.”
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“Why I’m Lonely” is a thoughtful song that purports to answer the question of why the narrator feels so disconnected. As the narrator struggles with the woman he loves—“I told her that everything she does is divine/ And she replied with a blank expression, an object lesson in making me feel benign… Independence and indifference are the wings which allow the heart to fly”—he builds the picture of why a man would be lonely.
Sean Nelson, vocalist, pianist, and writer, is such a ludicrously talented writer, he appears to throw it all away with the last line of the song: “That’s not why I’m lonely.” This song has been on an infinite loop in my brain for years.
This record is a little less ferocious musically; in fact, there are moments where the vocals verge on glam. There are also a few beautiful piano pieces, especially “Pike St./ Park Slope.” If you are interested in records that use a sense of humor to build deeper, more thoughtful connections, especially guitar and piano driven rock ‘n’ roll, King James Version is for you.
But what if you like power pop?
Little By Little… (2005)
Little By Little… is my personal blind spot: this record is so good, I can’t understand why it isn’t the bestselling record of the decade. I can’t imagine anyone would not fall in love with it. It kicks off with the jaunty, “Wine, Women, and Song,” a run-down of all the artists the narrator has been romantically entangled with, and then goes straight into the anthem, “Cream and Bastards Rise.” Nelson’s trademark sense of humor is present throughout the record, but there are also deeper moments of contemplation like the ominous “What You Live By” and a heartbreaking look into the mind of a sad narcissist, “Little Round Mirrors.”
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But for me, one of the most important songs of my life is “Happiness Writes White,” perhaps the purest love song of all time. A reference to Philip Larkin in the title, the song is an absolute celebration of the kind of love that keeps you up at night not for passion, but to enjoy a few more minutes of each other’s company.
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I tried to put it into words, but the words sound like mistakes
I tried to find a set of chords, but you know how long that takes me
I can’t trust my fingers
I can’t trust my tongue
This work is too important, and we’re no longer young after all…
This song physically lifts me up: when it comes on the radio, I smile involuntarily. I sit a little straighter. And to me, it gets at the heart of my relationship with Harvey Danger: I have a true, pure love for this music, and I feel like when I’m listening to these songs, I’m in a world with no irony, just natural emotions and thoughts. I feel like these songs make me smarter and more aware. And if that’s too heavy—they sound great.
You can download Little By Little… for free at the now-defunct harveydanger.com, and they also have a B-sides record—Dead Sea Scrolls—that is better than most people’s studio releases.
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