Discover more from Songs & Stories
I Ain't Tellin' You No Lie
on the timeless brilliance and time-bound sound of "Hook"
Artist: Blues Traveler
Like other songs that could be mentioned, I had forgotten about “Hook.” And then I watched as Benjamin Bratt, playing a merciless killer in Rian Johnson’s Poker Face, calmly recited the entirety of the whip-quick third verse in a mesmerizing one-shot monologue. Now I can’t stop thinking about it.
If you’re not familiar with “Hook,” a bit of education is required: Blues Traveler was an alt-rock band that improbably rose to fame in the mid-’90s. Their schtick was that their particular brand of mid-’90s alt-rock featured sick harmonica solos. The whole thing was a matryoshka of increasingly narrow niches. Yet, somehow, for a hot second, Blues Traveler—the bluesy alt-rock band with metal-ass harmonica riffing—was fucking huge.
I’m tempted to say that the success of Blues Traveler defies belief, except this kind of thing does seem to happen occasionally: A few years after we hit Peak Blues Traveler, Americans collectively decided that we loved ska, and so Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Might Bosstones became huge stars.1 On a smaller scale, in 2011 the indie intelligentsia became obsessed with the weirdness of tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l, an inexplicable fascination that allows me to quote an excellent passage from Chuck Klosterman:
[tUnE-yArDs’] singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, “Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?”
When was the last time you thought about Blues Traveler? How about tUnE-yArDs2? Was your answer a long time ago or maybe even never? The point is, music is often very, very circumscribed by its time and immediate audience. And so, yes, “Hook” is very much of its time. No one is hearing it for the first time today and thinking, “Ah yes, a new song.” It’s the exact opposite of timeless.3
The lyrics of “Hook,” which are worth a read, are all about the theory that pop songs are lyrically empty because lyrics don’t matter in pop music.4 The only thing that matters is the melody, more specifically the chorus refrain because, as John Popper wisely notes, “the hook brings you back.” In his innately '90s song, Popper does an excellent job of communicating this timeless truth:
It doesn’t matter what I say / so long as I sing with inflection / that makes you feel I’ll convey some inner truth or vast reflection / but I’ve said nothing so far / and I can keep it up as long as it takes / and it don’t matter who you are / if I’m doing my job, it’s your resolve that breaks / because the hook brings you back
Popper is explicitly talking about pop music, but he knew that the truth he was picking at runs more deeply than that. The song’s extremely ‘90s video features the depiction of an autocratic politician reciting lines like “I am being insincere / in fact, I don’t mean any of this / still my confession draws you near.” This song is almost 30 years old. Relatedly, a certain blustering, fabrication-happy politician who famously used empty words and a highly addictive hook5 was indicted last week.
Oh, and Popper set the whole thing over the chord progression from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” also known as that song that all your friends and cousins and siblings and neighbors and roommates and parents walked down the aisle to. “Canon in D” was written almost 200 years ago, and was based on ideas from 200 years before that, and yet it undergirds a huge amount of contemporary pop music. And here I am, some asshole in an empty corner of the internet, giving Popper shit for not being timeless.
Well, two things can be true. Both lyrically and musically, “Hook” is based on timeless ideas, but the song itself, in its totality, is a relic of its era. And that’s fine! (I happen to love that particular era, actually.) But it also means that some people are going to look back at what was cool 30 years ago and hate it. As Benjamin Bratt came to after grinding it into his brain for that monologue, and as Poker Face start Natasha Lyonne apparently always has. But Popper’s done so much great work here—work that enriches and deepens and even exceeds the song containing it—that I’m going to call bullshit on that assessment.
I give “Hook” four out of five stars.
A decade ago, I wrote a lot about how this made Reel Big Fish very sad. And this particular nesting doll goes one layer deeper than ska when you consider the certainly-related swing renaissance that included the likes of Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. The ‘90s were truly a wild time for music.
My god, is that stylization ever obnoxious to type.
Hammer that subscribe button because you’ll want to stick around for an upcoming post in which I discuss a song from a different 1994 album that actually is timeless. How’s that for a teaser?
Let’s cut to a shot of me after I wrote the words “lyrics don’t matter” and meant it. Yeah, that’s about right.
Popper even got this hook right, that foresighted bastard: “So, desperately, I’ll sing to thee of love / sure / but also of rage and hate and pain and fear of self.” Until researching for this piece, I had not considered that John Popper, in addition to being a talented vocalist and harmonica player, was a wizard poet. I’m considering it now.