The Joup Friday Album: The Paper Chase – God Bless Your Black Heart

paperchase“Good things die all the time.”

Dark and ugly times call for dark and ugly music.

And I’m trying to remember maybe where we were at collectively in 2004 when John Congleton and The Paper Chase released their third full length album God Bless Your Black Heart.  What was the backdrop?  What was in the ether?  Or for that matter, what was in the hearts and minds of the band members who created it at that moment?  On the surface, the record is a scorching, screeching, often disharmonic concept album that seems to be about the end of a relationship, filled with all of the bitterness and resentment that that would entail, each discordant note echoing the declarations of pain and hate.

Taking some inspiration from Roger Waters at his most bitter (specifically Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and Waters’ solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking*), the record sounds like the manifestation of the aggrieved man.  Congleton snarls and whines moving from morose self-debasement to utter contempt for his subject, the other, his nasal delivery often threatening to crack at any given moment.  He’s hurt and he’s lashing out, giving in to his more malicious instincts, and becoming this seething embodiment of male toxicity.  He mocks and threatens violence on “One Day He Went Out for Milk and Never Came Home.”  He basks in hints of perverse sexual fantasy and further degradation on “What I’d Be Without Me.”  He relishes the sweet and fleeting vengeance of slut-calling on “Your Ankles to Your Earlobes.”  And he sneers throughout the whole affair.  All of the ugly things we carry in our hearts come spewing forth, an awful muck from which there is little repose.  And on that broken-hearted surface level, the record kills it, a spiraling mood of rage and depression.

Beneath that though lies an undercurrent of domestic abuse, hints and signs of domination, control, and possessiveness sprouting like weeds throughout the whole of the album.  For every mewling cry for sympathy, there is a cruel put-down or outright threat to counter it.  For all of the “woe-is-me” posturing, there is just as much jealous anger.  And Congleton is wholly aware of this, playing the petulant villain who sees himself as the victim.  He is the monster all along, wading in the wreckage of his own undoing, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the impotent snake oil salesman.  The bubbling southern gothic tone that presides over the album only adds to this impression.  Blurbs and samples of religious zealots and hypocrites play alongside lyrical images of closeted pornographers, sinister, hateful old people, and a veneer of traditional hospitality.

God bless their hearts indeed.

But it goes even deeper than that.  The whole ugly “break-up record” concept plays like an allegory for something more far reaching, as it touches on the current state of our culture and all the mean-spirited realities therein.  All of that inner ugliness is just a reflection of the world at large.  And on that macro level, the record is like a dagger trying to cut the cancer out before it consumes us all.

“It won’t stop the war.”

So, where were we in 2004?  Only three years removed from 9/11, we were knee deep in an illegal war in Iraq and on the cusp of a second term from an actively hostile and confoundingly stupid administration, while all the while an impending bubble-burst and recession lay on the horizon.  And maybe this is really no different from any other point in American history, the cold reality of whatever present we currently inhabit being perpetually glossed over by jingoistic rhetoric and flashy entertainment, yet imminent western decline has felt tangible for decades now.  This notion is nowhere more evident than on the centerpiece of God Bless Your Black Heart, the anguish laden “Now, We Just Slowly Circle the Draining Fishbowl,” a song that never fails to break me every time I listen to it.  All of the turmoil and anger directed outward and inward on the rest of the record suddenly become more universal in scope.  At once, every single one of us is to blame for everything.  We are all the perpetrator, and we are all the victim, shambling, broken shells caught in an endless cycle of hurt and emptiness, made so much worse for the fact that it’s ultimately all so meaningless.  Using imagery of broken soldiers returning home after a war, having left too much of themselves behind on the battlefield, or nothing at all, Congleton paints a picture of hopelessness and desperation that feels all the more prescient in hindsight.  It’s the first moment on the record where he sounds more resigned, the first instant where he faintly sheds the façade of his toxic male ego.  And it’s heart wrenching, but it doesn’t last long.  The ugliness always comes home again.

Over the course of their entire catalog, The Paper Chase always managed to harness that ugliness, both in terms of sound and theme, into something much larger than the sum of its parts, particularly on God Bless Your Black Heart.  A noted producer and sound engineer, Congleton’s aesthetic for his music uses all manner of noise and discordance to ground his thematic points home.  Creepy, warped samples of contemptuous laughter, overzealous sermons, buzzing flies, and a woman screaming add discomfort to the album’s songs, an audio reflection of the bleakest parts of our souls.  Utilizing different microphone effects on his vocals, he sometime sounds as if he’s drowning, or far away, or looming just overhead like an abusive husband waiting on the other side of the door.  It all makes for an ominous listening experience that’s accentuated by the band’s jagged and angular melodies.  Even on moments where it feels that the music may break free from the murk, as on the closing guitar section of “Your Ankles to Your Earlobes,” it’s just a false reprieve, the guitars suddenly playing out of tune and falling apart in a wail of noise.

By album’s end, all is basically lost.  All of the jealousy and pain, the anger and rage and abuse do not so much subside, as they become lost in the endless hum and hiss of the cycle.  The narrator, along with the rest of us, fades away, a mournful string section on “Dying with Decent Music” playing the world off in one final dirge.

We are consumed by our own bitterness.

God Bless Your Black Heart is a statement on the hopelessness of the human condition, the predictability of malignant possessiveness and selfish egotism, the ultimate fragility of maleness, and all of the vicious, toxic bullshit that it creates, and it feels even more relevant now than ever.

So…this is America?

Again, where were we in 2004?  Where are we in 2018?  Toxic masculinity is as much a plague on our culture and collective psyche now as it ever was, and probably even more so.  There will always be abusers.  And broken hearts and broken people will seemingly drift the earth like ghosts forevermore.  I guess at least John Congleton is still making music.

“Let them die while some decent music plays.”

Oh yeah, tag Amy.  Break us free from the muck.


*Probably not a coincidence that the band covered that album’s “Go Fishing” on their 2003 What Big Teeth You Have EP.


Thomas H Williams

Thomas H Williams

From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit

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