One of the greatest new punk sounds at the turn of the 80s was the vocal combination of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in X. I think of John singing the melodies in a hectic cowboy tone while Exene moans along with him like a ghost, like a goth, like an ex-singer even. Now that I listen again to Wild Gift, I recognize that Exene sings on pitch much of the time and that she and John swap poetic tunelessness back and forth; still I’m stuck on what I’ll call the great X hook, that semi-harmony of John haunted by Exene that keeps coming around.
“Universal Corner” shifts cunningly back and forth between regular singing and the great irregularity; the hook is under tight control.
So what’s its effect?
Tuneless or tune-losing singing induces several uncertainties in us that a well-designed song might take advantage of. We don’t know if the singer is hampered somehow so that she can’t hold notes (this would express vulnerability or suffering). We don’t know if her primary intent is to sing or to speak—if she were speaking, she might be telling us something rather than performing a song (is there a real person trapped inside the performer, asking for help?). Or she might be on the other side of singing, as it were, being carried away by some force—and what would that force be? A crushing disillusion? What does that bode for the rest of us?
Another point for the experienced listener to ponder is that the great X hook is interestingly close to a familiar raggedy rock harmony—think Mick and Keith in “Brown Sugar”—which raises the possibilities that (1) the X hook is really the same thing but a little more raggedy, or (2) it’s trying but failing to be that, or (3) it’s ragging that.
You could say that “Universal Corner” is concerned in a way with womanly degradation, too, but it is so not “Brown Sugar.” It’s sexually heated but not raunchy; noirishly desperate but not cynical. The meaning of its problematic male-female singing hook (and thus its vision of real male-female conjunction) is opposite the meaning of two lewd males egging each other on. So there must be a fourth possible relationship: that the great X hook is at the distant antipodes of the “Brown Sugar” effect, like an inverted mirror image. That’s how I take it.