Wipers - Youth of America Music Album Reviews


Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the gnarly, psychedelic, and insurrectionary sound of the Portland punk band’s best album.

When Greg Sage roars “it’s no fair” midway through Youth of America, the vowels long and colicky, it’s not exactly a noble moment. Complaining about unfairness rarely is, because even if it’s accurate, it’s still a badge of comfort. “No fair” are petulant words, stagnant words, the conclusion of people who have set up camp in their perceived burdens. “No fair” is not a phrase of a revolution, because fairness is built on shifting sands; it’s not as steely a protest as “unjust” or “wrong.” And the people to whom life truly has been cruelest don’t have the time to complain about it; they’re too busy trying to outmaneuver the system that failed them. Now that’s no fair.
Ronald Reagan talked about fairness a lot. When he wasn’t dismantling corporate accountability, scorning the AIDS crisis, or staging pre-Trumpian dog-whistling rallies, he loved to harangue his audience about what was truly fair. “With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength,” he intoned in his January 1981 inaugural address, “we can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.” In his second inaugural address, in 1985, he talked with a sepia-toned sentimentality about generals dying at Valley Forge, Lincoln pacing the White House, and a lonesome Wild West settler singing the song of America, one “hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.”

When Portland’s Wipers released their second album in May 1981, the shadow of Reagan’s conservatism was only beginning to spread. But the writing was on the wall: He’d spent his first 100 days shoving through so many revisions to tax policy and restrictions on federal power, he was accused of effectively squashing the concept of an activist government full stop. The sense of selfishness was demoralizing. An anticipatory static filled the air; the specter of “no future,” that familiar credo of punk, wore a Windsor knot.

By this time, also, the “youth” in question had already heard plenty of punk—enough for its most stinging, mutinous qualities to have calcified into a formula. Punk, while still radical in its political messaging, was moving decisively in one direction: shorter, faster. Not everyone was pushing out 21 songs in 35 minutes, like the overachievers in Wire, but bands were doggedly dispatching songs quicker than the punk class before them; this included Wipers’ 1980 debut, Is This Real?, which followed all the spiny punk tropes and, upon release, sank without a ripple. Down in Los Angeles, a movement was brewing around Black Flag, who were about to shift the median with their debut album, Damaged, and its songs barely over the 3-minute mark.

It didn’t take a Rimbaud scholar to see that gloomy, 10-minute, Krautrock-inspired songs would be a tough sell in the early-’80s punk economy. But Sage, a scientific-minded contrarian—he’d started building recording equipment and playing guitar in the third grade after seeing a movie about Thomas Edison—tested his hypothesis anyway. And on Youth of America, Wipers all but acknowledge the absurdity of their approach. You hear every roll of the dice, and the slight inhale of disbelief after they land; it builds the train while it’s already in motion, laying each link of track just before derailment.

Punk had never quite shown its seams like this before, its questioning of itself and its construction; it had never felt like such a righteous search for answers that was more concerned with asking the questions. The simultaneously thriving post-punk and no wave scenes had also taken mallets to the conventions of punk, but they’d had no problem casting aside the politics and guitars, as well. In Youth of America’s six grim, unhurried songs, Sage is weighed by his own dilemmas and asks them overtly: How can he change? What of this world is worth saving, and what possible advice can be wrung from that stone for the next generation? What can be said of this violent country as it enters a new era of turning that contempt inward? Why did he take on this role, anyway, and when will he finally cross the rubicon where his listeners need to save themselves by rebelling against him, already a geriatric punk at 29 years old?

Mirroring Sage’s outlier status: Portland itself. Far removed from the switchboards of American punk—New York, D.C., L.A.—the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t become a rock destination for another decade. Until a Wipers superfan named Kurt Cobain threw a baby into a swimming pool (and copied Sage’s penchant for flannel), the scene was off the grid; it was filled with D.I.Y. savants like Sage who disdained conformity and showed it with clever, cutting music they had no intention to scale. (When the Seattle scene exploded in the early ’90s, and A&R execs descended on seemingly every band in a 200-mile radius, Sage still refused to follow the “grunge” slipstream, famously turning down an opening tour slot for Nirvana.) It was truly a place of creativity for purpose, not product.

To understand Youth of America, it’s best to start at the conclusion. “When It’s Over”—a clear mission statement on the album across a blasphemous six minutes—is, in many ways, the most insurrectionist track on the album: It opens with over three minutes of an anxious, abrasive instrumental. Sage’s guitar wields full narrative reign—his chords open brashly, in the type of rapid churn that Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers mastered. But then, in a surprising upheaval, he adds longer, musing tones that challenge the air over Dave Koupal’s bass and Brad Naish’s drums; soon the guitar has its own wandering spirit, its own melodic refrain, building its power in a direct nod to motorik momentum. The instrument is a clearly defined character, demanding its own experience.

Hearing it feels like opening a window and letting cool air rush in—there was space in punk songs for this, all along? For a full single’s worth of exploratory eloquence from a lead guitar? And for all its wandering, the guitar’s thick, tetchy distortion never wobbles; Sage built his own recording equipment to achieve that steadiness, including his own vacuum tube direct boxes.

Minutes into “When It’s Over,” when the guitar cedes to Sage’s voice, the transition is abrupt enough to almost feel bashful, a second-guessing of the kind of ego that allowed that irreverent open; piano supports his low, Bauhaus-worthy gothic grumble, so deep the ear must strain to make out his laments. “In the land of dreams, I find myself sober/Wonder when it’ll all be over,” he moans. When the guitar skitters back in, it’s at first noisy yet deferential to the words, clanging back on its first motif with tinny, sinister restraint; it feels like a dramatic battle between instrument and vocalist, a battle for the soul of the track—and perhaps the listener’s, too. The stakes rise and never resolve; Naish adds a clawing, claustrophobic pulse. The guitar ultimately regains its full audacity—mirroring Sage’s voice while it also gains intensity, screaming, “Will you be laughing when it’s over?”—and the song ends on its miserable questions, asked at a fever pitch. Nothing is solved. Tensions end flared.

Of the available ways to convey numb detachment from society—many already explored by the inaugural ’77 punk class, from self-identified brothers from Queens to trussed-up hucksters from London—the exhausted disdain in Sage’s voice stands apart. His words on the comparatively poppy “Taking Too Long” offer more of a quiet, paternal disappointment than a scolding. “What was coming from the sky?” Sage demands. Missile or omen, the result is immutable: “You never, ever change your mind.” It’s almost graceful at times in its sour melody, a pinch of sugar dissolving into acid. Throughout the song, it feels like some active condemnation will follow—what was the point of punk if not to call out hypocrites overtly?—but it never comes.

Of course, posting questions and passing judgments alone can backfire. Sage seems to acknowledge this on “Pushing the Extreme,” which has a taunting, declaratory quality absent from much of Youth of America. It’s macabre in a slightly cartoonish way, and makes its most obvious overtures to fully igniting a class war. “Through your mirror there is such vanity/Through the light, it broke to me,” Sage sings, scolding some Patrick Bateman wannabe over ghostly percussive mixing that shoots cymbals around like shrapnel. The sentiment is mirrored with even more gothic intonation in the unapologetically bratty “No Fair,” in which Sage mutters at the rising ruling class—“Take a piece of our lives, didn’t think we’d care?”—over Koupal’s bleeding basslines. In 1981, all the ascendant yuppies—their avarice, selfishness, and pinstripe suits—were prescient targets. This was well before the era would earn its “Decade of Greed” shorthand for its many braided strains of gluttony. And the approach also cuts succinctly into Sage, Koupal, and Naish’s overriding ethos of Youth of America: Rise up now or face your doom.

There’d been many hollow promises of better futures by the ’80s, but the decade’s problems demanded swift and decisive rebellion. In Youth of America’s title track, Sage yells to a generation, his voice raw and unaltered, “The walls are coming down/The walls are crumbling down on you.” It’s somehow simultaneously modest and hubristic to suggest his most useful role is at a lectern, that he is the one who must awaken that fury in others. Amid the deep, convulsing distortion of bass and guitar, he adds a stark political science lesson: “They attack you from the right side/Down the left side.” But that distance quickly collapses: “It is time we rectify this now/ We've got to heal it now.”

The track likewise threatens to collapse on itself midway, in spirals of funhouse feedback and ghostly echoes of melody that suggest psychotropics and exhaustion in equal measure. The post-punk freefall stretches and seethes for nearly two indulgent minutes before the floor drops out, leaving only minimal bass and guitar; Sage stomps back to the mic to intone more civics: “The rich get richer and the poorer get poorer. Now there’s no place to go,” he mutters dourly. The track’s remaining five minutes are an inversion of the kraut- and psych-rock leanings from earlier in the record, when repetition bred power. In “Youth of America,” pointedly, repetition only underscores the futility of inaction: What could these kids expect, if they did nothing? More of the same diminishing returns: Sage groans the title, and his guitar sputters out strangled, pitiful half-lives of the previously robust melody. Koupal and Naish’s rhythm section’s stevedore bass section falters. The third act crumbles exactly as the narrator predicted, leaving the audience to stew in their own complicity. It’s a frantic prophecy of undoing that simply wouldn’t translate to brevity; “Youth of America” defends every moment of its 10 minutes and 27 seconds, maintaining its fearsome intensity and leaving an ominous chill in its wake.


For all of Youth of America’s vigor, its informed despair and pleas for action, the plundering decade ahead continued apace. Wipers’ refusal to follow the punk tides came at a cost; audiences slept on the album in America and most of Europe, despite John Peel’s ardent support; Sage moved to Arizona for no other reason than he liked how it looked from the freeway. Moored in the still-sleepy Pacific Northwest scene, ahead of its time and removed from any notions of commercial viability, it would take years for the record’s now-devoted cult to assemble. But then, sparking widespread, telegenic insurrection isn’t exactly a fair rubric for an album; revolution can be less an eruption than a lighthouse beacon, shining in every direction until it exposes those brave enough to make the journey. The liberation from dark authority Sage begs for isn’t owed; it must be achieved through hardship. Listening to Youth of America today, it still feels like the roar of incoming unrest, of the better world that will have space to rise once we refuse to bow to undeserved power. And each of us must ask ourselves: Are we still young enough to challenge the old guard?
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Wipers - Youth of America Music Album Reviews Wipers - Youth of America Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, July 19, 2020 Rating: 5

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