Yesterday I sat outside the café of Surry Hills’ Single Origin Roasters with a high-spirited if under the weather Patience Hodgson, lead singer of Brisbane-based band The Grates. Meeting Patience was more like being collected by the patron-saint babysitter of the after school program of my infinite lyric-driven deconstruction of The Grates three-album canon than it was like being with a pop figure, an icon, which squared with her assessment that she’s not a rock star, although, she conceded, “people know me.”
Individually, Patience and I each had infinite things to say about the canon of The Grates, me working to meet Patience where she’s at by means of my encyclopedic synthesis of years of wearing in the music of The Grates like tennis shoes for elasticity and magnetic fit. Together, though, we came up with a theory – new to both of us – that posits a logic behind the singularity of what The Grates do: most basically, that The Grates create a new breed of classic pop song middle path, a way of being in and of the crowd that pulls in all possible influences and ideas and that often holds two opposing ideas at once, which is diametrically opposed to the immersive and willful ignorance that characterizes what the pop song is most often permitted to be. Basically, The Grates have figured out how to make negative-space pop songs, pop songs that dance with their ghosts. We took a few minutes, as we talked, to figure out how this works.
Patience and I germinated this theory by talking about “Two Kinds of Right,” the song we agreed was the strongest on The Grates sophomore album, Teeth Lost, Hearts Won. Patience explained that she finds herself, as a matter of course, surrendering and fighting – that the navigation of any set of feelings is inherently a balancing act - and that any influence is a relevant one. Patience and I worked our way through a few other songs, thinking about how a middle road is maintained by means of its inclusion of all things. We thought about the anthemic “Welcome to the Middle,” a virtual homage to the idea, as well as the atmospheric reach of “19 20 20,” which features a main man who’s: “up yeah he’s stealin’ stars / my baby put all his faith in mars,” literally working to the limits of his galactic wingspan to maintain the features of a socially relevant position.
To bring the theory back to its origin, “Two Kinds of Right” itself defines its protagonist by means of a larger galaxy, Patience singing: “And it’s so easy to see / When it’s bigger than me,” the very idea of being “Two Kinds of Right” suggesting that any position, any way of being is inherently a synthesis of its influences, themselves outside of, larger than, what the protagonist can contain. This position is echoed further in the bridge of “Burn Bridges,” the kickoff song of Teeth Lost, Hearts Won, which asks very basically: “What’s the sum of everything?” an appeal for the inclusion of all influences if ever there were one.
Patience and I recognized a tendency in other bands interested in creating a multidimensional pop song to pull the listener out of “the middle” and into an alternative position – to create a protagonist who is in opposition to the weekend everyman of, to bring it back to 2010, a song that makes a classic middle road like “Telephone,” or “Tik Tok.” The Grates, while grouped often in that dangerous family of “alternative” bands, aspire to make what Patience referred to as “a pop song, but more than a pop song,” holding up the same everyman relevance to the listener, but bringing along the referential kitchen sink that most pop songs actively obfuscate.
The language of “fighting,” for instance, is shared by The Grates and by Ke$ha, in “Tik Tok,” in which she challenges: “Tonight, I’mma fight / ‘Til we see the sunlight,” a position mediated by Patience in “Two Kinds of Right” through her balance between the fight and the surrender. Whereas both “Telephone” and “Tik Tok” advocate for the exclusion of outside sources – to be left alone, to stop the calling, to push boorishly forward, to not come back – “Two Kinds of Right” isn’t afraid to take stock of what is, to indiscriminately let it all in.
There’s a profound and tricky radicalism to what Patience advocates for by means of there being “Two Kinds of Right,” particularly as it pertains to the classic capacity of the pop song to hold the road of one clear idea, one ham-handed trope. The Grates, in this way, make an argument, over and over again that the pop song can be about the multifaceted process of living, about exploration and inclusion as opposed to taking on a fanatical and diminishing performance that banishes the dimensions of living, the uncertainty of the resolution of a given moment, the many ways any one situation could go.
In so doing, The Grates have figured out how to make a pop song that is, as Patience put forth, “a pop song, but more than a pop song,” one that itself surrenders to and fights its understanding of what a pop song is most commonly asked to do and that asks the listener for the same bravery in turn. In short, The Grates have figured out how to make a pop song that holds us as listeners to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous adage that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
There aren’t a lot of pop songs that raise the listener to the level of first-rate thought. As Patience reminded me yesterday, there are a lot of things that the music of The Grates does, but this one may be the most resolutely innovative, the most quietly radical. Certainly, it raises the stakes of what a pop song can accomplish and how deep into the valley of our own compartmentalized thoughts it might encourage us to go.