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Thread: Robert Christgau

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    Default Robert Christgau

    Robert Christgau: Logical and Irrational type

    My ex-boyfriend thought he VI'd SLE (or ILE)

    ‘Christgau names Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and The New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time. In music critic circles, he was an early supporter of hip hop and the riot grrrl movements. In the 1980s, Christgau was a fervent booster of Afro-pop, a stance that alienated him from some in the critical community, as he seemed insufficiently interested in American and British rock music. In the 1990s, however, Christgau's interest in indie rock seemed to increase.
    Christgau readily admits to disliking the musical genres heavy metal, art rock, progressive rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, and jazz fusion, but in rare instances has recommended albums in most of these genres.
    In December 1980, Christgau provoked angry responses from Voice readers when his column approvingly quoted his wife Carola Dibbell's reaction to the murder of John Lennon: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?"’

    - Robert Christgau reviews (Marianne Faithfull)

    Easy Come Easy Go [Decca, 2009]
    Thank you Hal Willner. She's so much more powerful here than on her Polly Jean Harvey-Nick Cave flub of 2005--in part because the old songs outweigh the Meloy-Neko-Espers numbers included to prove the old bat is still hip to the jive, but also because detailed orchestration as well as dramatic commitment renew even the filthy Bessie Smith title tune, done classic blues style but with Lenny Pickett's sarrusophone providing a sprightly bass groan. It seems crazy to say that her "Down From Dover" equals Dolly Parton's or her "In My Solitude" Billie Holiday's--they're great singers and she's not. But working together, Faithfull and Willner convert them into pop artsongs that make their own kind of sense in the company of other very different pop artsongs, including Brian Eno and Judee Sill compositions previously beloved only by their mutually exclusive cults. Not the Espers one, though. Eclecticism has its limits. A

    Broken English [Island, 1979]
    A punk-disco fusion so uncompromised it will scare away fans of both genres, which share a taste for nasty girls that rarely extends to females past thirty with rat's-nest hair and last night's makeup on. The raw dance music isn't exactly original, and sometimes the offhandedness of the lyrics can be annoying, but I like this even when it's pro forma and/or sloppy, or maybe because it's pro forma and/or sloppy, like Dylan when he's good. "Why'd ya spit on my snatch?" indeed--the music's harshest account of a woman fending with the world. A-

    Strange Weather [Island, 1987]
    Scornful of the notion that realism entered pop music with rock and roll (a/k/a "the blues"), Hal Willner introduces Faithfull to a world-weary band of Lou Reed/Tom Waits sessioneers and hopes everybody'll like the same songs he does--by Leadbelly and Henry Glover, by Dylan and Jagger-Richard, but also by Kern and Dubin-Warren. The result can rightfully be called rock Billie Holiday. Faithfull's nicotine-cured voice serves the material instead of triumphing over it; its musicality equals its interpretive intelligence. Just because she's jaded doesn't mean she can't be a little wise. A-

    Faithfull [Island, 1994]
    There's a bald expediency to this compiled-by-Chris-Blackwell-himself overview: what kind of a legend leads an 11-track best-of with the five keepers from her career album, now 15 years behind her? Yet though even the new Patti Smith cover has nothing on "Broken English" or "Why D'Ya Do It," every more recent song (as well as the iconic twice-15-year-old Jagger-Richards ingenue move "As Tears Go By") beats Broken English's filler. So slice it this way. For the first half she's a wreck, spitting imprecations at the world. During the second she regains her dignity. And since dignity is rarely as much fun as wreckage, there's a definite thrill in hearing her make something of it. A-

    - Robert Christgau reviews (Dolly Parton)

    Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975]
    In her productivity and devotion to writing Parton is like a nineteenth-century woman novelist--a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott. What's best about her is her spunkiness and prettiness (Jo crossed with Amy); what's worst is her sentimentality and failures of imagination (Beth crossed with Meg). And this is the best of her best. At least half of these songs have an imaginative power surprising even in so fecund a talent--images like the bargain store and the coat of many colors are so archetypal you wonder why no one has ever thought of them before. The psychological complexities of "Jolene" and "Traveling Man" go way beyond the winsome light melodramas that are Parton's specialty. And even when the writing gets mawkish--"I Will Always Love You" or "Love Is Like a Butterfly"--her voice is there to clear things up. A+

    The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970]
    The clear little voice is camouflage, just like the big tits. When she's wronged, as she is in five of this record's six sexual encounters (four permanently premarital, one in which hubby throws her into a "mental institution"), her soprano breaks into a cracked vibrato that for me symbolizes her prefeminist pride in her human failings ("Just Because I'm a Woman") and eccentricities ("Just the Way I Am"). Not all of these mini-soaps are perfectly realized and "In the Ghetto" is a mistake. But as far as I'm concerned she rescues "How Great Thou Art" from both Elvis and George Beverly Shea, maybe because a non-believer like me is free to note that the one who ruined her only happy love affair (with her fella Joe and her dog Gypsy, both of whom die) was the Guy in the Sky. A

    Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971]
    Beginning with two absolutely classic songs, one about a mother's love and the next about a mother's sexuality, and including country music's answers to "Triad" ("If I Lose My Mind") and "The Celebration of the Lizard" ("The Mystery of the Mystery"), side one is genius of a purity you never encounter in rock anymore. Overdisc is mere talent, except "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)," which is more. A-

    Robert Christgau reviews (Ani DiFranco)

    Ani DiFranco: Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe, 1995]
    Although her girlcult loves her madly, the guys I know smell trouble every time she opens her mouth. This has nothing to do with her face, body, or sense of style. It's her words, the sheer volume of them, jetting out in expressionistic torrents as if she feels free to say any goddamn thing that comes to mind. But give DiFranco the chance and she may just make you like her ancient formula for self-indulgent songpoetry. Augmented only by a drummer this time, her acoustic guitar and electric bass produce a one-of-a-kind sound, and those torrents take shape as literal accounts of a mercurial inner life with more love than anger in it. So if she's not my type and maybe not yours, big deal. At 24, she already has seven albums hanging from her nose ring, and they're getting good enough that we need her more than she needs us. A-

    Ani DiFranco: Dilate [Righteous Babe, 1996]
    On an album loaded with quotable quotes, my favorite is the refrain (well, she says it twice) of the six-and-a-half-minute "Adam and Eve": "i am truly sorry about all this." I mean, she knows--knows what a pain in the ass she is, knows how much space her emotions take up, knows she once banged a power line with her stickball bat and blacked out the entire eastern seaboard. She boasts about her integrity, her vulnerability, her joy. She jokes about them too. She has a friend's mom phone in obscure verses of "Amazing Grace." She utters, I kid you not, the most vituperative "fuck you" in the history of the music. She is herself, and for once that's more than enough. A-

    Ani DiFranco: Living in Clip [Righteous Babe, 1997]
    DiFranco has always been beat-happy. From the beginning you can catch her speed-strumming just for the rush, but in general her guitar figures and her sense of rhythm are both much quirkier; older folkies would have diagnosed them as symptoms of some awful nervous disorder. In the spare and agile Andy Stochansky, who isn't averse to powering up but more characteristically states and embellishes a single eccentric line with brushes or mallets or lightly wielded sticks, she may have found the best folk-rock drummer who's ever lived, and this live double-CD, which draws liberally on her formative folk-punk years for those who only caught on with Dilate, is his showcase. Joined as well by the supplest of her several bassists, Gang of Four stalwart Sara Lee, DiFranco proves herself not just miraculously arch and sisterly and sexy and effervescent, but a bandleader who has wiggled free of deadening acoustic-with-backup commonplaces--and evolved from the truth of "Smile pretty and watch your back" to that of "We lose sight of everything when we have to keep checking our backs." A-

    Ani DiFranco: Little Plastic Castle [Righteous Babe, 1998]
    Here's hoping she gets used to fame, a theme the coolest new-famous are now canny enough to sidestep or caricature. But DiFranco doesn't have much use for ordinary standards of cool, which is one reason she's new-famous, and for the nonce, she can do no wrong. Always underlying her bull-session eloquence, a hook no matter the message, is the supple, seductive, self-amused musicality that puts her records across. A typical touch here is her choice of world-jazz-ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell to decorate the 14-minute spoken-word finale "Pulse": "you crawled into my bed/like some sort of giant insect/and I found myself spellbound/at the sight of you there/beautiful and grotesque/and all the rest of that bug stuff." "That bug stuff"--who else would dare it? A-

    Ani DiFranco: Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe, 1999]
    Reports that she's fallen in love with the mirror are rank last-big-thingism. She's still the girl who ran away with the circus because bearded ladies do honest work, and far from going too far, her 13 climactic minutes of poetry-with-jazz attest to her unflagging esprit. She should let her junkie jones be for a while. But not her class jones. The rich are always with us. A-

    Ani DiFranco: ¿Which Side Are You On? [Righteous Babe, 2012]
    After a decade of futzing around, of music so overthought that even her best-of couldn't make a case for it, this one's like re-encountering a friend who drifted away after she took a bad job or married a jerk. Both of which might have happened--nobody she signed to Righteous Babe did much for her bottom line, and the nuptials that ruffled her feminist faithful in 1998 ended badly in 2003. Now, finally, her first album since she married her five-year-old's father is as fresh as Lisa Lee at the top of the key. With Uncle Pete signing on via banjogram, the title song announces a political renewal so focused on the three-syllable F-word that it includes an E.R.A. anthem. But for DiFranco the political has always been personal, which doesn't mean private and can mean intellectualized, as in "Promiscuity." The singing on the homelessness tale that opens is as emotionally accomplished as its assumed first-person is formally atypical. The one that reads "If yr not getting happier as you get older/then yr fucking up" is her true credo. A-

    - Robert Christgau reviews, etc.:

    The Big Girls Understand
    Pursuing the girl-identified lowdown on Ani DiFranco, I bought coffee for four Stuyvesant seniors, who cleared one thing up quick. That March Roseland concert with all the boy-girl pairings? It was an aberration. The guys they knew there had been dragged by their female friends, and the Portchester show just two nights later was the familiar femmefest--no halters-and-Spandex, back to spaghetti-strap tanktops and big jeans. Amanda had recognized nearly every girl on line. The faithful were still going Ani that extra mile.
    Nevertheless, even these loyal fans have to wonder how long that will last. DiFranco has exploded about as big as a DIY artist can. Living by the credo "If you want to challenge the system, don't go to bed with it," she's filling Roseland and the Capitol the same week and clearing $4.25 per album, about twice the normal superstar rate. True, her new live double-CD (not tape-available, the panel tsked), Living in Clip, charted at 59 the same week Alanis wannabe Meredith Brooks, for example, debuted at 25, and even allowing for all the action a bootstraps label like DiFranco's self-owned Righteous Babe slips under SoundScan's net, she could probably earn more with a major. But really, who needs it? At 26, she's already richer than she dreamed possible, and if she's not exactly accountable to no one--not with employees and two backup musicians and a manager--she's absolutely her own boss. In fact, she's like nothing the pop world has ever seen. Why should she give that up?
    My panel soon convinced me that DiFranco won this unprecedented independence by telling tens of thousands of teenaged girls exactly what they wanted to hear--as individuals first, then quickly as members of a community that functioned both as their "safe place" and as DiFranco's most effective promotional tool. Not laid-back enough for folk or slack enough for punk, these were bright, moderately genteel kids who didn't think pretty meant no ugliness or agape meant no anger (or no eros either); most of them were actively left-liberal or rad, usually by birth. Although the timing may be a coincidence, note that they gathered around DiFranco in the wake of Nirvanamania, at a time when "alternative" rock wasn't just aggressively male, but all of a sudden a staple of commerce. Socially progressive and emotionally eclectic, her brassy charisma intensified by the giddy insecurity beneath it and put across by the toughness beneath that, DiFranco had struggled to a place that her fans found a credible alternative-to-alternative goal.

    Ani's appeal was in the words, not the music, Sarah and Sophie and Orli and Amanda each insisted--musically, she could have been lots of female folksingers. I demurred, and won concessions, but listening back to the albums she single-handedly released in 1990 and 1991, Ani DiFranco and Not So Soft, I agree that her rhythmic bite wasn't always so pronounced--although it's certainly there album-one-cut-one on "Both Hands," an observantly reported nothing-happened breakup song that remains an Ani touchstone. The defining charm of those first two records is indeed in the lyrics--not their wit or invention or metaphorical pyrotechnics so much as their skillfully turned-out nakedness, their articulate reflections on a fully engaged young life. And of course, it's in the words as sung. The sweetness and power flashed by DiFranco's strong voice can always accommodate anger, vulnerability, silliness. Few female folksingers--few singers of any sort--can snarl or giggle or dish or sidetalk to such varied musical or intimate dramatic effect.

    Any folkie, especially with a feminist side, can enjoy DiFranco's explorations of feeling, expressions of autonomy, and indictments of injustice. But the questing not-quite-grrrls who actively identify with her songs identify even more acutely than others do with Alanis's, or Selena's. "You feel like she's talking to you," Sarah said. "Girls feel that if only they could just meet then they'd be best friends." But for the panel this was an old relationship, and they needed more. "How long can you like one person?" Sarah asked sensibly, and so she was trying other "`chick music,'" especially Dar Williams, who "has just become a secret code." Amanda was into jungle and trip-hop, Orli "folk, classical, jazz," and Sophie folk and punk, specifically Team Dresch. But all of them knew younger schoolmates going through earlier stages with Ani. And at least in multieverything Manhattan, where this Buffalo-gal-with-nosering came of age, these feelings were intensified by her utterly out-front bisexuality. "People want to be Ani," Orli said. "No, people want to fuck Ani," Sophie amended.
    Except perhaps for that last, however, music lovers who don't happen to be feminist folkies, much less teenage girls, might wonder what's in in this for them. Or they might just want to know why 1996's Dilate, Ani's seventh album, has generated 200,000 of Righteous Babe's 750,000 total sales. Is this the natural growth of an unforeseen core market for feminist postadolescent bisexual protest-confessional? Or has DiFranco generated an intrinsic aesthetic that transcends identity-mongering? But this is a false dichotomy. Identity is content for everybody, not just those within its confines/embrace, and pop has always commodified the titillating touch of strange. Just like the Klezmatics and Lemmy Kilmister, DiFranco opens up a secret subcultural life--in her case, one in which the old folk and punk idealisms enjoy genuine fusion.

    As it happens, in fact, my DiFranco connection wasn't a girl, but an over-40 male computer genius of vast musical understanding. Yet despite his valued say-so--not to mention "Letter to a John" and "The Diner" and the well-earned "Face Up and Sing," in which she wishes somebody would entertain her for a change--I resisted 1994's Out of Range. And relistening, I know why 1995's Not a Pretty Girl proceeded to hit me so quick. On Out of Range DiFranco gets distracted by piano, accordion, even horns from the sound she's been edging toward since her first forays with drummer Andy Stochansky on Imperfectly in 1992. On Not a Pretty Girl--which intersperses nine Stochansky tracks where she overdubs the bass with five solo ones, including a spoken-word abortion tale in which she declines suicide because she "got shit to do"--she nails it. And on Dilate, she takes it home.

    Like just a few recent folkies--Beck of course, fellow upstater Ed Hamell, maybe Dan Bern after she gets done producing him--DiFranco has always been beat-happy. From the beginning you can catch her speed-strumming just for the rush, but in general her guitar figures and her sense of rhythm are both much quirkier; older folkies would have diagnosed them as symptoms of some awful nervous disorder. In the spare and agile Stochansky, who isn't averse to powering up but more characteristically states and embellishes a single eccentric line with brushes or mallets or lightly wielded sticks, she may have found the best folk-rock drummer who's ever lived; assuming she doesn't want to marry the guy, she should at least negotiate a no-trade clause. On Living in Clip, where the two are joined by the supplest of several bassists, onetime Gang of Four stalwart Sara Lee, DiFranco proves herself not just miraculously arch and sisterly and sexy and effervescent, but a bandleader who has wiggled free of deadening acoustic-with-backup commonplaces. On record and at the exhilarating if demographically atypical show I saw, the lithe economy of her little trio has a distinctive, almost jazzy flexibility, except that the riff-heavy conception is perfectly amenable to rocking out, on acoustic guitar if necessary.
    As with Lemmy Kilmister, though, the sound would be empty without the words. In fact, the one reason Living in Clip isn't the perfect introduction is that it dispenses with crib sheets. But the lyrics are loud and clear anyway. This is linguistic craft as a means to character--DiFranco's character. Pointing out that "When Doves Cry" (a formerly ritual show-closer that kicked out the jams at Roseland) is DiFranco's only cover, my otherwise sophisticated panel insisted on autobiographical verisimilitude: all right, maybe "Letter to a John" wasn't true, they didn't think she'd ever lap-danced, but if it came out that, for example, Ani-the-person wasn't really bisexual, it would be like Milli Vanilli or something. And they're right to care. Aesthetes are free to believe she's merely constructed this headstrong, mercurial, sensual, edgy, alert, pissed off, affectionate, waggish, empowered, needy, indomitable, fierce, leftwing, hyperemotional, supercompetent persona. But self-expression goes into it too, and you have to wonder whether she can keep it up.
    Ani DiFranco began her career as a feisty everygirl--a young Lower East Side underdog braving the world of men. DIY or not, she's an underdog no longer, and she's not so young either, two familiar contradictions certain to render her a more distant role model and object of desire. Since this inevitable development spells trouble for any maturing star, there's no knowing what it might mean for a woman who's like nothing the pop world has ever seen. Will she transform herself from surrogate best friend into tart grand-aunt? Drop confessional irony for role-playing fictionalization? Repersonalize the political? Or will she merely repeat herself for a burgeoning but ever less discerning cult of adoring teenagers? Grant her this much--she'll do it her way.
    Village Voice, June 10, 1997

    Ani DiFranco: Embracing Stability, Remaining Outspoken

    by Robert Christgau

    For any Ani DiFranco fan amazed by her one fine album a year between 1995 and 1999, the many albums she put out in the '00s just weren't up to par. So her new record, Which Side Are You On?, comes as a surprise and a tremendous relief.
    The first words out of her mouth are the most striking she's uttered on record in over a decade. The opening track, "Life Boat," is sung in the voice of a homeless woman who's pretty jaunty, considering:

    Every time I open my mouth or take off my clothes
    I'm raw and frostbitten from being exposed
    I got red scabby hands and purple scabby feet
    And you can smell me coming from halfway down the street

    Clearly DiFranco wanted to get our attention and knew how. The rest of the new album goes on to be more personal, but one way it's more personal is set up by that homeless woman: It's consistently political, and so feminist it risks using the term on the title track.
    That song is a rewritten version of the folk chestnut, accompanied by Pete Seeger on banjo and some horn players from New Orleans, DiFranco's current hometown. The singing is direct in a way it's seldom been recently because, as her political outspokenness signifies, she feels grounded again. Often, Which Side Are You On? could pass for a love album to her husband and producer Mike Napolitano.
    DiFranco began the '00s in a marriage that ended in 2003. She ruminated and worked on her guitar playing, in addition to winning an album-packaging Grammy. In 2007 she gave birth to a daughter, and in 2009 she married Napolitano. It would be too simple to claim that domestic stability got her back on the right track. Maybe it's just that, as one new song puts it, you get happier as you get older if you do things right. In any case, I'm happy for Ani DiFranco, who's never deserved anything less.

    Key to Icons

    An A+ is a record of sustained beauty, power, insight, groove, and/or googlefritz that has invited and repaid repeated listenings in the daily life of someone with 500 other CDs to get to.

    An A is a record that rarely flags for more than two or three tracks. Not every listener will feel what it's trying to do, but anyone with ears will agree that it's doing it.

    An A- is the kind of garden-variety good record that is the great luxury of musical micromarketing and overproduction. Anyone open to its aesthetic will enjoy more than half its tracks.

    A B+ is remarkable one way or another, yet also flirts with the humdrum or the half-assed.

    A *** Honorable Mention is an enjoyable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well treasure.

    A ** Honorable Mention is an likable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well enjoy.

    A * Honorable Mention is a worthy effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well like.

    A Neither may impress once or twice with consistent craft or an arresting track or two. Then it won't.

    A Choice Cut is a good song on an album that isn't worth your time or money--sometimes a [Neither], more often a [Dud]. Some [Choice Cut]s are arbitrarily personal, others inescapably social. Sometimes one is so wondrous you'll be tempted to spring for the high-priced package anyway. More often it would fit sweetly onto a compilation you can only pray will include it.
    A Dud is a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought. At the upper level it may merely be overrated, disappointing, or dull. Down below it may be contemptible.
    A Turkey ({Tu}) is a bad record of some general import, although no artist should be saddled with more than two in a decade. What distinguishes a {Tu} from a [Dud] is that it's reviewed and graded. I'm aware of no {Tu} lower than D, and a few even get a B, a grade reserved for Voice Dud of the Month, whereas the annual Turkey Shoot works down from B-. But such distinctions are, as the saying goes, academic. In this age of grade inflation, all of 'em flunk.

    'Christgau is perhaps best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which have been published on a more-or-less monthly basis since 1969, in the Village Voice, as well as a brief period at Newsday. In December 2006, the column moved online to MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. In its original format, the Consumer Guide consisted of 18 to 20 single-paragraph album reviews, each of which was given a letter grade ranging from A+ to E-. "Christgau's blurbs", writes Slate music critic Jody Rosen, "are like no one else's – dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang."
    In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the Consumer Guide; it now contains six to eight reviews graded upper-B+ or higher, one "Dud of the Month" review graded B or lower, and three lists: Honorable Mention (B+ albums deemed not worthy of full-paragraph reviews), Choice Cuts (excellent tracks on un-recommended albums), and Duds.'

    - Robert Christgau reviews (Taylor Swift)

    Red [Big Machine, 2012]
    So if Stephin Merritt can make a big deal out of 69 love songs, why can't Taylor Swift make a fairly big deal out of 16? His being formally savvy in his pop-polymath way and hers being formally voracious in her pop-bestseller way? Need either deal be autobiographical? One hopes not in both cases, although verisimilitude has its formal aspects for bestsellers. Swift hits the mark less often than Merritt--65 or 70 percent, I'd say. But one could argue that the verisimilitude requirement forces her to aim higher. I like the feisty ones, as I generally do. But "Begin Again" and especially "Stay Stay Stay" stay happy and hit just as hard. That's hard. A-

    Fearless [Big Machine, 2008]
    "You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," declares the 18-year-old Nashville careerist. You can tell me that's worse than icky if you like; I believe in two of the three (prince charmings, no), and I think it's kind of icky myself. But I'm moved nevertheless by what can pass for a concept album about the romantic life of an uncommonly-to-impossibly strong and gifted teenage girl, starting on the first day of high school and gradually shedding naiveté without approaching misery or neurosis. Partly it's the tunes. Partly it's the musical restraint of a strain of Nashville bigpop that avoids muscle-flexing rockism. Partly it's the diaristic realism she imparts to her idealized tales. And partly it's how much she loves her mom. Swift sets the bar too high. But as role models go, she's pretty sweet. A-

    Speak Now [Big Machine, 2010]
    The 14 songs last upwards of 67 minutes, some 4:45 apiece; they're overlong and overworked. And I believe what I read about their origins in the romantic and other feelings of America's Ingenue for identifiable major and minor celebrities, which may thrill her fanbase but means approximately nothing to me. Even in their overwork, however, they evince an effort that bears a remarkable resemblance to care--that is, to caring in the best, broadest, and most emotional sense. I even like the one about Kanye West--including when I remember that it's about Kanye West, which usually I don't. A-
    Last edited by HERO; 04-18-2013 at 12:48 PM.

    Kristen Pfaff and Kurt Donald Cobain didn't like the scene anyhow

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    And I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more.

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