Day Eighty-Seven: "Traffic Jam" from Alapalooza
Alapalooza came out a full decade after the release of Al’s self-titled 1983 debut, which itself contained a few tracks that were a few years old, including “My Bologna”, which was originally released at the very tale end of the 1970s by Capitol Records, and the four tracks on the Another One Rides the Bus EP, most notably the version of the title song recorded live for the Dr. Demento Show that we can all agree is the single most legendary recording, not just of Al’s early career, but of all time.
Al returned to the theme of vehicular dysfunction and automotive headaches on Alapalooza’s “Traffic Jam” and the vast differences between the two recordings say a lot about where Al’s career was at this point. Al had come a long way, baby, not unlike those women who choose to kill themselves through smoking. That progress was reflected in his transportation choices in song.
On “Another One Rides the Bus”, a young and broke neurotic is forced to endure the trials of Job that constitute the average ride on a public bus. By “Traffic Jam”, however, the aggravated crooner has his very own automobile so he can enjoy a more solitary form of vehicular torment. But that’s only the start of the glaring differences between the two songs.
“Another One Rides the Bus” is all about volume, force and simplicity, about one angry geek screaming his pain while murdering an accordion while Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz hammered away on a beat-up accordion case. It’s a young man’s recording, more punk than anything the Sex Pistols or the Clash ever did.
“Another One Rides the Bus” was Al and Jon versus the world, but by the time “Traffic Jam” rolled around, Al had the players, and the resources, and budget to really fill things out. “Another One Rides the Bus” featured only an accordion, an accordion case being hit and a whole lot of yelling and energy. “Traffic Jam” doesn’t just have a guitarist, it contains multiple solos and some of the most impressive shredding in Al’s discography.
“Traffic Jam” has a surprisingly full, breezy synth-pop sound, complete with New Wave keyboards, even as its comic conceit is suspiciously similar to “Another One Rides the Bus.” Both songs are symphonies of kvetching that find an unhappy man complaining about the indignities of his commute.
We’re in a whole other lane this time around, literally and metaphorically. So there’s a more elevated level of aggravation. Instead of having to stand with the perverts in the back, our irritated motorist must wrestle with an obnoxious yuppie jabbering away on a cell phone, no air conditioning and a busted radio.
“Traffic Jam” depicts stopped-up traffic as a circle of hell but also an eminently relatable form of irritation. Who among us has not known the blood boiling irritation of being stuck in the kind of traffic jam that renders the road, in Al’s words, “one big parking lot?” The irritated driver behind the wheel could be in Godard’s Week End, Fellini’s 8 1/2 or that one R.E.M music video ripping off 8 1/2: like those frustrated souls, he seems to see the traffic stoppage he’s in as a permanent state of existence, not just a temporary headache.
Like “Another One Rides the Bus”, “Traffic Jam” humorously chronicles a situation no one would ever want to find themselves in, but the song’s breezy melody and jaunty good spirits make it incongruously pleasant, a fun exploration of an experience the singer clearly would not wish upon his worst enemy.
“Traffic Jam” is about as breezy and inconsequential as Al’s music gets. It could easily have been relegated to b-side or outtake duty, but its place here helps illustrate Al’s evolution from enraged outsider to slick professional. Even at his fizziest and dizziest, Al’s enormous growth as a songwriter and a recording artist was unmistakable.
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