Legend has it that John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” after a student from his former high school sent a letter informing him that the boy’s teacher made the students dissect Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon then set about writing his most opaque lyrics yet, including tidbits from acid trips, a Lewis Carroll poem, and a police siren. One biography says he remarked to a friend while writing it, “Let the fuckers work that one out.”
Sometimes, though, a song about a sea creature is just a song about a sea creature. In the bright opener of The Naenae Express’s eponymous debut, the guitar-pop band sings about a sea anemone. In a line with infectious phrasing, they say, “Sea anemone you’re no enemy of mine / Taking your time just sitting on a rock / Or hitching a ride on a hermit crab.” Repeating “you don’t bother me” and “what a nice way to live,” it might sound like the underwater setting of a children’s book if the music didn’t so readily resemble the sunny daze of so-called slackers such as Mac DeMarco—too easily evoking an image of smoking weed outdoors on a summer day.
And then again, maybe “Sea Anemone” is more than a song about a sea creature. In the same sunny tone, the song’s second verse says, “Since the ‘80s the Americans have been picking you up and putting you in a box…not where you belong.” Could it be a New Zealand-based band’s take on American greed and neglect of the environment? A metaphor for the pressures of modern life? Who knows, but it does seem that we should be at least a little suspicious; on The Naenae Express, nothing is quite as it seems.
Throughout the EP, the band has a habit of building up a contained little world then tearing it down. On “Rain Delay/Save The Bees,” for example, they tell a simple story set over a basic guitar structure about a sports match that is postponed for the weather then begins when the rain clears. As soon as the match starts, however, the narrative shifts to a cat on a fence beside the field that is more interested in watching the bees. All of a sudden, the chorus changes from, “we’re in for some fun” to a fiery round of “save the bees.”
Maybe then, the second song, “Dream State,” is the key to understanding, a meta comment on the starry-eyed world of their music with its sea creatures and buzzing bees. “In a dream state,” they sing, “you just make up the laws as you go along.” And maybe when the music builds in a fuzzy swell and swallows the voice at the end, it’s the real world busting in. And, along those lines, when “Overlander” breaks into that catchy three-note riff from the song “Brazil,” perhaps it’s not just a fun musical quote, but instead a nod to the use of that song in the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, which deals in dystopias and the blur between reality and dreams, and so on and so on…
Then again, maybe The Naenae Express is just a collection of delightful and down-to-earth little stories told in sun-soaked, jangly psych-rock, created not to delve into the mind, but to tune it out. In the words of John Lennon, let the fuckers work that one out.