This might be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to come right out and say it: 3 might actually be my favorite Violent Femmes album. A couple of caveats to go along with that admission: I only own two Violent Femmes albums, this and the self-titled first record. And also, this was the first one I bought and listened through front to back. I’m aware that the prevailing wisdom states that they never matched the raw originality of their first release and it is therefore their greatest output and everything thereafter only fed on the popularity of the debut. But hear me out; I want to make a case for 3. It is a very subjective and personal case, but it’s the one I have.
Non-alphabetical aside: I promise that, tomorrow, I’ll get back to albums with actual words in their titles. I know the last three days have included ★ , 1984, and 3 as album titles. Tomorrow, I’ll do my best to use my words.
Violent Femmes’ 3 was released on January 10, 1989. I graduated high school in 1989. As anyone who has ever graduated high school can attest, it’s a time of transition. I was 17 or 18 when I bought this record, one of the first CDs I purchased that wasn’t part of any Top 40 playlist. (To put it in perspective, the first CD I bought when I got my very first CD player in 1989 was Milli Vanilli‘s Girl You Know It’s True, so I think it’s fair to say that my musical tastes had also undergone a period of transition in the few months after I graduated high school.) And when you’re 17 or 18, everything can seem earth-shattering. A boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you? End of the world. Your dad is a jerk? End of the world. Guilt over mistreating a loved one? End of the world. While I realize some people actually used their teenage years to have fun (!!!), I was one of those self-serious kids who thought all my life decisions had to be made within the next year or two.
So, when Gordon Gano sang, “I’m just like my father, but I am much worse…”
Or when he sang, “Every time I try to sleep I have nightmares, thinking about getting together with you…”
Or when he sang, “It hurts, it hurts, it hurts to be like Cain…”
Or even when he sang, “I hope you got fat, ’cause if you got really, really fat, you just might want to see me come back…”
All of these lyrics resonated with the self-serious seventeen year old I was in the summer of 1989. I’ve seen other reviewers cite this album as a return to form for the band, the original Violent Femmes lineup of Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie, and Victor DeLorenzo, hence the title. Remember, though I’d heard “Blister In The Sun” and “Add It Up,” I wasn’t so familiar with them that I had a real reference point in 1989. For me, that summer, this was what Violent Femmes sounded like. And I liked it. And I related.
Songs like “World We’re Living In” resonated on a less personal, more global level discussing the AIDS crisis in a manner that is no less relevant 28 years later. It’s sister-song, “Dating Days,” was positively prescient in predicting the complete demise of meaningful interpersonal relationships among American youth.
The album isn’t without its own brand of humor. In “Fat,” Gordon Gano wishes obesity on an ex-lover. Not because he hates her, but because it might narrow her options and “a little extra weight would never look no nicer on nobody else but you.” In “Telephone Book” he channels renegade country where the tome in question “took me down to a burning rage / I wrote your name on every page…” Of course, he follows up what could be seen as a tongue-in-cheek nod to obsession with the admission that, “I did some bad things to myself, and my health.”
In retrospect, all these years later, yes, the album is a thoroughly indulgent litany of complaint and self-pity. But for how many kids in their late teens/early twenties is that still the case? Sure, it’s not the raw teenage libido of their self-titled debut, but it was six years later, so I would hope they had moved on a bit. Is it juvenile and immature and petulant and morose? Of course it is. So was I in 1989.
Violent Femmes’ 3 is a very personal record for me, a Faraday constant to my misspent and much-lamented youth. There is no way for me to argue its merits objectively. If I were to try, I might struggle to make the case that it is every bit as good as their first record – but believe me, I would struggle to make that case.
The record ends with “See My Ships,” a solo acoustic number full of ominous Christian imagery and end-of-days predictions that channels both prophet and supplicant. I’ve always felt that the album should have ended with “Nothing Worth Living For,” even if that title gives away the entire content of the song. That song is one aspect of this album, at least, that I can say I’ve grown out of being able to relate to.