From the Archive: "Matt LeMay Recommends The Green Pajamas"

Illustration by Sarah Howell.

I’ve never had to rediscover All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed. In the eleven years since the album’s release, I’ve listened to it reliably at least once a month, usually closer to once a week, sometimes two or three times a day. Were my continued interest in the album purely nostalgic, this would probably say more about me than it does about the record itself—but listening to All Clues never evokes a specific time, place or person for me. If anything, the particular inflection of the record seems to have changed as I’ve grown up. It’s one of very few albums that I consistently recommended without reservation, and one of even fewer albums that I can describe as “emotionally edifying” without feeling like a complete asshole.

I read about All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed in the seemingly infallible pages of Magnet, right at the tail end of the magazine’s 1990s heyday. I likely ordered it along with seven to ten other CDs from cdnow.com, as was the style at the time. My first couple weeks with the album were spent fixated on “Morning in Myra’s Room"—something about the way Magnet had described that song led me to believe that it would be my favourite, and I was more than happy to prove myself right. In retrospect, I realise that I had actually spent a good deal of time imagining what "Morning in Myra’s Room” would sound like before I ever heard it; my obsessive replaying of the song was probably a means of reconciling the song itself with the imaginary song I had looked forward to hearing.

Once I felt comfortable diving into the whole record, I did what any self-respecting teenage boy would do and listened carefully for “crush songs”. My interest in girls and my interest in indie rock developed largely in tandem, each presenting itself as an insatiable curiosity bound to be misunderstood by those around me. If somebody asked me what music I listened to, I would answer, “oh, jeez, I don’t know… weird stuff.” If somebody asked me what girl I liked, I would answer, “oh, jeez, you know… nobody.” The true answers to both of these questions were equally zealous, spittle-flecked, scrawled in blood—but I could never, EVER bring myself to just say them. Finding a song that seemed to contain some sideways reference to a girl I liked was a chance to externalise my tormented emotional world without having to say “OK RACHEL IT’S RACHEL I HAVE A CRUSH ON RACHEL.” It was just a little secret kept between me and, say, They Might Be Giants’ “I’ve Got a Match”.

All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed proved a difficult album for “crush songs”, as it is riddled with both specific physical descriptors (hair and eye colour) and actual women’s names. I thought that “The Secret of Her Smile” could be my “crush song” for a girl named Piera, until I realised that the song’s chorus contains the name “Samantha”. Totally ruined—and this was after I had convinced myself that Piera had “Danish bones” per the song’s second verse, even though I still have no idea what would make a girl’s bones more or less Danish. Jeanette got “Queen of Sunshine”, then “Death by Poisoning”, then “Deep Blue Afternoon”, then “Death by Poisoning” again (Jeanette got almost every song at one point), but I could never fully project her into any of them. Much like my teenage brain, Jeff Kelly’s lyrics were full of pale, moonlit flesh. But Kelly’s voice as a writer was so distinctive—the Catholic guilt, the gothic imagery, the velvet and silk—that I could never quite hear it as my own.

Perhaps it was this sense of distance that compelled me to write The Green Pajamas a fan letter—to this day the only honest-to-goodness fan letter I’ve ever composed. I’ve written my share of utterly earnest “hey, I love your music and I’d love to work with you” letters, but only The Green Pajamas have received a letter from me with absolutely zero agenda other than to express my appreciation. I remember nothing about the letter itself (actually an e-mail), other than that it was titled “A Fan Letter, I Suppose” and that it described All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed as an album that “seems to exist in a world of its own”—perhaps my way of unconsciously acknowledging that I was unable to make the album fit into my world. I received a lovely response from the Pajamas’ Joe Ross, but was mostly satisfied just to have sent the letter in the first place. I wasn’t looking for positive feedback—which, considering both my personality and the age I was at the time, is actually quite something.

By the time I got to college, my quest for “crush songs” had given way to an interest in “bad relationship songs”. “Crush songs” only really work because you can easily elide any differences between the person you imagine your crush to be and the person you imagine a song to be about—“yeah, you know what, her bones are TOTALLY Danish.” When you’re flailing through real-life relationships with real-life people, the gap between romantic fantasy and lived experience can become almost comically exaggerated and cruel. Suddenly, the most resonant and disarming lyrics weren’t the ones that could maybe sorta describe the girl I liked, but rather the ones that definitely described the shitty things I knew about the relationship I was in. Once again, I was looking for music that already knew the things that I couldn’t admit to the world at large—and, once again, All Clues didn’t quite fit the bill. There is absolutely nothing on All Clues that could be labelled as incisive, biting, uncomfortably true. Which, thankfully, means that there has never been a time when I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the album. Even in the midst of a horrifically deluded relationship or a miserable breakup, I could count on All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed to not be an emotional minefield. There would be no cathartic “FUCK YOU, RECORD, YOU KNEW THIS WAS A BAD IDEA ALL ALONG.”

So, here’s the question that I’ve been grappling with: if All Clues Leads to Meagan’s Bed has consistently failed to resonate with me in the egregiously self-absorbed ways that I generally gravitate towards, why do I listen to it all the damned time? Why have I never really stopped listening to it for eleven years, even though I’ve never considered it my “favourite” album?

The first and easiest answer is that All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed is simply an exquisite record. The vocal melodies are beautifully constructed and masterfully delivered, the instrumentals are arranged with architectural precision, and the songs have great bridges. Kelly writes guitar parts that breathe, all ebbs and flows, warm and biological. Maybe that’s why the ridiculous attention to detail on All Clues never seems cold or clinical: each little flourish and ornament seems like part of a single living organism. It’s only recently that I’ve even begun to pay much thought to what All Clues actually sounds like; it took me until last year to notice that the delay trails on the line “walls of jade” in album closer “Deep Blue Afternoon” repeat throughout the remainder of the verse. Only now am I noticing just how precisely the hand percussion tracks on “Queen of Sunshine” are panned.

Still, my love for All Clues goes beyond aesthetic and/or musical appreciation. The more abstract reason that I keep coming back to this record, I think, can also be found in “Deep Blue Afternoon”, when Kelly sings “she’s the start of everything, she’s the heart—heart of my being / and I love her so desperately, sometimes it’s hard to keep breathing.” The line itself isn’t that remarkable—what’s remarkable is that you believe him. Kelly does, in fact, sound breathless—but he also sounds eerily grounded. He isn’t singing about some doomed romantic fantasy, he’s singing about the Real Thing.

The convergence of youthful passion and grown-up certainty is an absolute rarity in pop music, and with the exception of a few stellar tracks on the Narcotic Kisses compilation, All Clues is the only time The Green Pajamas hit it head-on. The band’s earlier output does make for a fascinating counterpoint, in both its heavier-handed psych-rock affectations and its insecure and obsessive lyrical concerns. Kim the Waitress—the closest thing The Green Pajamas have ever had to a “hit”, owing to a relatively high-profile cover by Material Issue—is fraught, bitter and frighteningly possessive compared to the band’s later work. The call-and-response of “she’s pretty / and it bothers me” in the song’s bridge perfectly captures something I once related to far, far more than I would generally care to admit. Compare that with “The Secret of Her Smile” on All Clues, where unattainable beauty is no longer threatening or bothersome, and you get a pretty clear picture of Kelly’s maturation as a writer. As I get older, I’ve come to relate less to the fidgety bitterness of earlier Green Pajamas songs, and more with the moments on All Clues that once seemed the most distant and uncool.

Although the way I hear All Clues changes quite regularly, my eagerness to recommend the album to anyone and everyone has never really wavered. I’ve put a song from the album on almost every mixtape I’ve ever made, which would be blasphemous in the case of albums that are closely associated with a specific person and/or time. When I was a senior in high school, I recommended All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed to a friend’s fourteen-year-old sister, knowing absolutely nothing about her taste in music. It became her favourite album. I’ve long since fallen out of touch with both that friend and her sister, but I sometimes wonder if she’s now hearing the record the same way I did four years ago, at age twenty-three.

It would be corny to suggest that All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed taps into something universal about the way we want to love and be loved… but, eleven years later, this record still seems to know a lot of things that I don’t yet know. There are very, very few albums that manage to be deeply romantic and emotionally mature at the same time—usually “love” as in “love song” is deluded, damaging, dangerous, fucked up, enjoyed at the expense of the outside world or reality. Not so here. Somehow, Jeff Kelly found the thread that ties together childhood infatuation, teenage lust, and grown-up love—real, life-sustaining grown-up love. That I often think about this kind of love is a little secret kept between me and All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #11. Click here to buy the issue.

Matt LeMay is a Brooklyn-based and New York-born writer, musician and recording engineer. He is a senior contributor to Pitchfork Media, and the author of a book in the 33 1/3 series about Elliott Smith’s XO.