BEAUTY PILL’S LATEST “THE DAMNEDEST THING” IS A MASTERPIECE
By Nathan Leigh
April 23, 2020
“What if the thing that gets you killed / Is also the thing that helps you live?”
Like most punks of a certain age, I went through a phase during which I ravenously consumed every single note to come out of Dischord Records. For me, that particular phase happened to be around 2003. I was home for winter break during my sophomore year at UConn, and after engorging myself with the full Fugazi catalog, I stumbled on a single song by a band I’d never heard of: “Copyists” by Beauty Pill. The band would release the You Are Right To Be Afraid EP later that spring, but the single was posted on Dischord’s website in advance. (it was an mp2, I’m old.) Here was a band that was using sound itself as an instrument in their songs. It was neither lo-fi nor hi-fi, it was just deliberately what it was; it was beautiful, it was raw, it was totally unique. As a student studying theatre sound design and playing in punk bands on the side, this was a revelation. They were taking the DIY ethos of punk and applying in service of music that was obsessed with beauty and transcendence rather than anger. It had the same honesty, energy, and wry humor as the punk rock that made up the bulk of my diet, but it was fucking gorgeous. It had never occurred to me prior to that moment that such a thing was possible.
In the years since I’ve gratefully devoured every new missive. With each release, the band succeeds at performing the impossible magic trick of becoming more like themselves without vanishing into navel-gazing. Though the band’s lineup has shifted over the years, songwriter and co-lead vocalist Chad Clark has been the constant. Their 2015 album Describes Things As They Are made frequent appearances on Best of the 2010s lists for good reason: it was an album that improved with each listen. After five years and more listens than I could possibly count, that remains true. Despite having been a band for 20 years now in varying incarnations, their latest single “The Damndest Thing” is the most Beauty Pill damn thing you’ll ever hear.
The accompanying video is a full on assault of charm. Every reason one can give for loving the band is evident: the warmth of both sound and personality, the unexpected sonic and musical twists and turns, the humor that dares to look death in the face and giggle without ever devolving into morbidity. Visually, it functions as a sort of Ted Talk meets Pop-up Video. It’s delightful.
The song was inspired by the photographer William Eggleston, an artist with whom I confess unfamiliarity prior to hearing it. “The Damnedest Thing” is a song full of questions with no answers. It wrestles with separating addiction from artist, a specific interrogation of the question so many of us struggle with these days about separating art from artist. Like so many of the best Beauty Pill tracks, there’s a fascination with death born out of Clark’s own longtime battle with heart issues. That proximity to mortality manifests less as macabre or even sad, it’s more curiosity. If death is a fact of life, arbitrary, inexplicable, unavoidable, and final, Beauty Pill’s music looks to find wonder in the fact that life happened at all.
Chad explains to us: “A few years ago, I read a New York Times article about William Eggleston, the legendary photographer. The writer of the profile plainly presented Eggleston’s acute alcoholism. Eggleston seems pretty open about it and … almost at ease with it. Eggleston suggests in the interview that he does not believe there is any relationship between his alcoholism and his artistic genius. They’re two wholly separate things, he insists. I don’t know William Eggleston and I’ve never met him, but I imagine that the private truth is fraught with more anguish and torment than he was willing to share in that interview.” Never one to miss an opportunity to praise the work of his bandmates, Chad adds: “Side note: the stormy sound at the end of this song is a “guitar duel” between me and Devin Ocampo. My guitar is on the left and Devin’s guitar is on the right.”