Freud labeled the three aspects of a personality the id, the ego, and the superego. I’d call them Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche. As their wonderful and witty
Nurds demonstrates, the Roche sisters collectively make such a perfect team because they are, individually, so distinct – both from one another and from the rest of the world.
Most people relate to the Roches first through their humor, and Suzzy is clearly the family clown. She kicks off the album – and the laughter – with the title tune, which confesses the pain of teenage klutziness (“Then I went to high school/It really hit me hard/I started finding out/They were calling me retard”) and celebrates Nurd pride (“I’m so glad I am one”). The LP’s comic highlight is “The Death of Suzzy Roche,” a hilarious, mock-Brechtian ballad about the price of fame, narrated by a surly laundromat supervisor sick and tired of the way Princess Suzzy demands star treatment in his establishment. “She hands me a ten dollar bill/Asks so sweetly if I will/Give her some change,” he snorts. “Give her some change?/I’d like to bang her head/Against a windowsill!” He ends up knifing her, actually, with the moral of the story still ringing in the air: “Everybody in the laundromat is equal, Suzzy Roche!”
When the initial giggles subside, you start noticing what beautiful vocalists the Roches are. This is especially true of Terre, who’s both the sleek, blond beauty of the group and its best singer. Marvelously unscathed by its wrenching workout on Robert Fripp’s
Exposure, Terre’s voice soars into the stratosphere on her own “My Sick Mind” and provides the swinging forward thrust in “It’s Bad for me,” the Cole Porter composition that’s the record’s vocal showcase. In Maggie’s exquisite a cappella arrangement, “It’s Bad for Me” delivers two minutes and 43 seconds of sophisticated, Boswell Sisters-style time changes and three-part harmonies.
After their joking and singing, the trio’s third level of artistry is songwriting. Terre’s “Louis” is an excellent example of the Roches’ writing style. The key line is “And all his affairs are economic.” Now,
economic is hardly poetic in sound, meaning or rhymeability. But “Louis” is about a longtime bohemian who’s just come into a lot of money and suddenly feels awkward around friends who seem to have turned shy and judgmental. Terre ingeniously captures that social awkwardness in musical terms simply through her careful melodic placement of the word
The Roches’ chief songwriter, though, is Maggie, whose charms, unlike those of her sisters, aren’t so immediate. Indeed, it takes a bit of familiarity to breed respect for Maggie’s brilliance. In interviews, the Roches have said that, as children, they invented their own version of the Beatles for family entertainment, with Terre as Paul, Suzzy as Ringo and Maggie as both John and George. It wouldn’t surprise me if some Roches fans are worried that, on
Nurds, the balance is off: with comic Suzzy apparently more dominant than Maggie (who wrote or cowrote most of last year’s
The Roches but has only three tunes here), it’s as if Ringo ran the Beatles instead of John. This impression is deceptive, however. If Maggie’s presence seems slighter, it’s because her compositions are deeper and more inscrutable than usual. At first, you’re apt to pay more attention to “The Death of Suzzy Roche” or “It’s Bad for Me” the same way a kid will turn straight to the funnies because he doesn’t understand the front-page news. But after a few listens, Maggie’s numbers become seductive puzzles, and untangling them yields great rewards.
“This Feminine Position,” which ends the album, is simultaneously a subliminally dread-filled discussion of original sin and a near-Joycean meditation on being pregnant – as the song says (not without bitterness) “that most feminine position.” As if to leaven its metaphorical metaphysics, Maggie throws in a bunch of bad puns (though they tend to be double-edged). “We can discuss the other women you’ve des[s]erted/With your sweet and sour sauce” is funny and suggests a mother-to-be’s food fetishes, yet there’s something mournful and heart-rending about the double play on riding the subway and changing your life in the tune’s last line: “Too fat to turnstile [turn style].”
If Suzzy is the funniest Roche and Terre the prettiest, then Maggie is the Roche-iest. In fact, her songs sometimes don’t make sense except as ruminations on being a Roche. “The Boat Family,” for instance, is probably an abstract companion piece to Suzzy’s “Nurds” in examining the trio’s shared sense of social inadequacy. “One Season” is more explicit and inward, a psychologically raw poem about being the eldest child (“I am the only tree/And everybody leaves”), the mysteries of kinship, sibling rivalry and familial commitment. It’s impressive how Maggie makes these mental notes so musical. Melodically, “The Boat Family” is a deadpan parody of Irish folk ballads (e.g., the traditional “Factory Girl,” which appears on
Nurds), thus underscoring its own self-mythologizing. The central section of “One Season” (“We go on arguing…”) is sung in precisely dissonant harmonies that perfectly reflect the painful claustrophobia of families.
Self-examination – as ruthless as a Catholic’s or a Communist’s – is a Roches trait not limited to Maggie. One of the Roches’ most effective tricks is to present a cheerful surface and the zing the listener with some small truth so direct that it’s devastating. In the middle of “My Sick Mind,” a seemingly goofy number about the dumb things a person’s mind does, Terre sings:
Myself in the mirror
Before I came out tonight
Changed clothes several times
And now I feel
As though I put on airs.
What a splendid summation of how minor events set off despair and self-loathing! It’s lines like these that makes the Roches not just entertaining but downright terrifying. They get you to laugh while they’re cutting up your heart with a razor blade.
Rolling Stone, December 25, 1980