Listen to this track by Dorchester Massachusetts indie-pop concern The Pernice Brothers. It’s “Working Girls”, the lead track off of their 2001 album World Won’t End, their second full-length record.
The record was released on their own label after a brief hiatus between this one and their debut, plus side projects from principle songwriter Joe Pernice. Previous to this band, Pernice and his brother Bob had been in alt-country band The Scud Mountain Boys. With this new fraternally monikered band formed in 1997, it’s the jangly sunshine of a mid-to-late sixties strain West Coast pop that is the primary set of colours to be heard.
With that sound established, the lyrical content of the tunes is less of the hopeful variety, and more in line with themes of quiet desperation. This song is one of the best examples of that tension between sunshiny music, and distinctly cloud-covered words. Who is the central character here, and what does this song have to say about her? Well, that she’s a dreamer in a dead end job, unable to remove herself from her course. How many people do we know like that? Perhaps none that will confide in us about their situations, or even admit it to themselves. Maybe we can relate to her more directly than we’d like to ourselves.
As such, maybe it’s not just this one person being sung about in this tune. And maybe too this isn’t just about being frustrated in one’s job, either.
Songs about loneliness and isolation while the world apathetically ticks on are many in the history of pop music. This seems to be where The Pernice Brothers work best, with songs full of brightness musically speaking while tackling themes of alienation, isolation, and self-defeat with aplomb. This tune is practically a case study in that dynamic, with a character who is engaged in “contemplating suicide or a graduate degree” in the same dispassionate thought, feeling “sullen and seventeen”. The issue of suicide aside perhaps, looking on one’s daily routine with this same sense of dispassionate resignation is pretty common for everyone at times. This adds a layer of meaning to the tale that may make it our own story as we listen, that is, if we take notice of all that passed the jubilant tone of the music happening around it.
This adds another layer still, with everything seeming to be OK on the surface, while severe dissatisfaction roils underneath it. With all of the breathy pop vocals from Joe Pernice, the ebullient and jangly guitars, and the sumptuous strings, it’s easy to miss the story of this girl altogether, going unnoticed even as she is unnoticed by those around her. It takes a few listens to figure out how alone she feels, how desperate, and how little meaning she can find in her own life as she scribbles “I was here” in the restroom “to prove she was alive”. Even the chorus of this song assures us that all the working girls are fine. Nothing to see here. Yet, there is so much to see; all the lonely people, as another song once said.
There’s a cultural point being made here about how easy it is in our world to get lost in anonymity, to become the person seen everyday at the office, at school, or on the bus, but who is not ever really known or connected to others. Pernice is a talented enough songwriter not to underline it too harshly as a work of social commentary. That would miss his own point about how hard it is to notice this stuff and how easy it is to accept that everything’s fine, just as the realization that this jangly pop song is actually desperately sad tends prove it. With all of the complexity and wonder in our world of technology and how easily made connections to others are by using it even by 2001 and certainly by 2015, human loneliness endures, with those looking for ways to prove they are alive every day and often not finding them.
The Pernice Brothers are an active band today. You can learn more about them pernicebrothers.com.
And speaking of short-story style tunes, Joe Pernice is also an author. Check out his Goodreads page for selected titles.