Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Certain Songs #1473: Paul Westerberg – “Hillbilly Junk” | Medialoper

Album: Come Feel Me Tremble
Year: 2003

Because of the lo-fi sound as well as the seemingly tossed-off nature of the songs from Paul Westerberg’s basement tapes period, you might not notice just how much work he put into a lot of the songs.

After all, it wasn’t like he had a whole band down there with him, which meant that even a darkly funny Chuck Berry knockoff like “Hillbilly Junk” had to be thought through, especially when you realize just how many instruments were on the damn thing.

Listening to it right now, I count at least two electric guitars, bass, drums, two different vocal tracks, and if you listen hard enough, there’s also a honky-tonk piano, to boot. And yet, “Hillbilly Junk” practically sounds like it was written 20 minutes after it was recorded, to quote a phrase. But, of course, that might have something to do with the lyrics.

Gonna get higher
On that hillbilly junk
Gonna get higher
That hillbilly junk
Gonna get tired
That hillbilly junk
Hillbilly punk
On and on and on

With the opioid epidemic surfacing as a major news story in recent years — especially in stories about Purdue Pharma basically turning a blind eye to the havoc wreaked by their products — you almost forget that OxyContin was being called “hillbilly heroin” even before the the turn of the century.

Whether or not Paul was singing in character or from personal knowledge, the jaunty music and almost celebratory vocals are in dead contrast to the undertone of sadness in the lyrics, making “Hillbilly Junk” a weirdly disconcerting listen these days, and I can imagine that it brings up some memories for some people that aren’t necessarily the best.

But at the same time, it’s also incredibly catchy — I love the guitar stings that kick in just before each time he sings “hillbilly junk — and the high-pitched backing vocal is kind of a gas throughout, somehow both grounding and totally surrealistic.

“Hillbilly Junk”

“Hillbilly Junk” (Excerpt from Come Feel Me Tremble)

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