Cartel - Q&A

Originally published 2007, February 28.

Cartel is a pop-punk band. On their most recent release, Chroma (2005), it appears at times that they're trying to be something more, but it is unclear whether this is due to a failed attempt at artistry, or is just a humble low shot aimed to add some flair to an otherwise standard album.

The majority of Chroma is a fairly solid collection of pop-punk tunes, some slow paced, some radio hits, most very catchy. There are a number of stand outs: "Say Anything (else)" and "Honestly" are infectious anthems, and have been released as singles and in soundtracks. "Matter of Time" and "Burn This City" are personal tales that musically mix things up. "Save Us" is the first ballad, followed later by "Minstrel's Prayer". In between are a collection of fun, but otherwise forgettable tunes. For the last two tracks, however, things take a turn towards becoming a concept album. Their titles are "Q" and "A" - presumably the "question" and "answer".

Some reviews of this album have been very critical of the lyrics, which consist of most vague complaints about life, and weakly defined oppressive forces (typically referred to only as "they"). It's a very valid complaint; while not focusing on a definite lyrical target allows the listener to apply much of the content to their life as they see fit, it makes it difficult to guess if these songs are talking about anything in particular at all. While track 11, "Q", doesn't defer from this, it does at least hint that something more is going on in the artist's mind.

Certain lines bring this thought forward: "through all this time, I've been reaching out blindly" and "I don't know anything" as well as if "if you're not getting answers ask better questions". But most of all the chorus: "I'll never know, and you never will, still I'll never know, and you won't until someone stands up. Then you'll get some answers." Question indeed.

Then the final track "A", starts off with the critic-baiting challenge of "you can take this however you want", along with a guitar playing a simple three note repetition of C-G-C, which sticks with the song as it evolves into a ten-minute epic, complete with drum machine and voice modifiers, in a manner reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World's "Goodbye Sky Harbor". But most surprising of all is when "A"'s first verse is immediately followed by the chorus from "Q": "I'll never know, and you never will". After dipping into a verse again, the music morphs into "Save Us". The singer repeats the song's refrain of "Can you save us? This can't go on without the meaning and the rhyme." Soon after the song changes again, this time into the chorus from "Burn This City": "Our days were numbered by nights spent on too many rooftops. They said we're wasting our lives, but we're not."

More changes follow, then some instrumentals, once again digging into previous songs with something not from another song's chorus, but instead from a quaint verse line near the end of "Matter of Time": "When what you what is what you're getting." Interestingly, this is a reversal from the phrase's original form, "Cause what you what's not what you're getting", suggesting that the previous song's pessimistic message was displaced by a more hopeful persuasion.

The final surprise comes from material that's not even Cartel's. Out of nowhere, the chorus from the Beach Boys' "I Know There an Answer" shows up, again slightly tweaked: "We know there's an answer, but we have to find it by ourselves."

But what's the point?

If this album is really trying to say something, and not just falsely posturing as a work of art, it may just be that the only way to feel out an answer to the general qualms of life is with something equally as vague and insubstantial. In a way, the vapidness of the message is also a description of the album itself. Mysterious and catchy, but ultimately superficial.

I've been mulling over this album for a while, probably too long in fact, and I think this is the only possible conclusion that makes sense. The only answer to be drawn from a collection of catchy tunes by a whiney singer backed by a strum of power chords and breakdowns, is a complete non-answer. And really, isn't that a really great metaphor for pop-punk in general, and about as concepty as the genre can get?

Overall, very worth listening to, and spending time thinking about. 9/10