i had pretty much forgotten about 311 as a concept until my friend posted a song of theirs on facebook yesterday. it was perfect timing, too—the day before 3/11. i remembered kind of liking them, but never really looking into them. I think I’m a few years too young to personally remember how they were largely viewed, whether it was grouped alongside the limp bizkits as the worst and most mockable of the mainstream, or next to sublime as not-too-awful stuff that frat boys incorrectly referred to as “reggae” and thought was way better than it actually was. i do remember hearing them on the local alt-rock station, which complicated that view of them as well. i was at work and didn’t feel like listening to a full album so instead of investigating them further, i decided to go back and assess the five songs i could remember by them off the top of my head.* what i found was a band that was somehow unique and ultra-generic at the same time, unexpectedly crazy, and never less than enjoyable.
*i later remembered “beautiful disaster” and “don’t tread on me” but i’d already written nearly 1,000 words about 311 and figured we could all do without more.
5. love song
the original has never been one of my favorite cure songs to begin with, and the only thing that this cover adds is a slightly slower tempo and some upstrums. since 311’s reggae affectations were only ever just that, the cover doesn’t come off as stylistically different than the original, just vaguely more unpleasant.
4. all mixed up
the interesting thing about 311 is how their lyrics manage to make what are probably really simple, platitudinous ideas almost impossible to parse. not due to any degree of complexity, but because there’s seemingly no logical or philosophical connections between the various cliches that they string together. “all mixed up” is the most confusing in this regard. it starts out as pretty straightforwardly motivational - trust your instinct, let go of regret, bet on yourself, etc. but it turns pretty quickly into equally generic boasting - “we come with the funky style that gets us known for the show/and we’ll mix the hip-hop reggae if we say it’s so” (describing their own style [incorrectly] is a recurring theme with 311 - more on that later). the chorus has the aggressively meaningless line “thought a freak might be the thing, but the first could be the last.” there are some nods toward sex but it’s not a theme that seems properly situated anywhere in the song - lines like “now it’s morning but last night’s on my mind” and the amazing “many moons since we first did the do” come out of nowhere with no follow-up. the song bounces so hyperactively between second-person motivational platitudes and first-person stunting that it’s impossible to take either part seriously, or even to register them in the first place. the barrage of signifiers that add up to precisely nothing is almost poststructuralist.
nick hexum might be an awful lyricist but he’s a passable white pseudo-reggae-rapper. he stays in the pocket throughout the song and the “watch me now” ad-lib that he uses to segue from the chorus into the verse is pretty perfectly placed. his voice is too unintelligible to get the full effect of the lyrics’ wackiness without reading along, which is more effort than anyone should ever put into listening to 311.
3. come original
this song is unique among my personal experience with 311 in that it actually seems to be about something, or at least it purports to be about something. thankfully, 311 can be just as loopy in terms of focus as in nonsense. basically, the idea behind the song is that all musicians have an obligation to bring something new to the table – in other words, “all entertainers come original.” what makes it great is the lengths that the song goes to present the band as an icon of originality that other artists should all aspire to. 311 wasn’t the most derivative band, but certainly weren’t the only reggae-affected rap-rock band from california in the 90s. but they’re intent on describing just what it is that apparently makes them unique. in one of the only times i’ve heard them string together four lines into a coherent thought, they describe their style – “funk slap bass mixed with the dancehall and/hip-hop beats and punk guitar and/deadly on the mic is the one SA/the name is 311 and you know it ain’t easy.” It’s gloriously inaccurate; their percussion is pretty funk-indebted, not at all hip-hop, and there’s not much that’s “dancehall” about them. But that’s at least vaguely related to the supposed idea of the song—it eventually devolves into standard awesome-weird 311 shit; the best part is when nick hexum claims that “green plants, they’ve got mad life, they’re sentient.” and then there’s a prog guitar break out of nowhere and everything fucking awesome about 311 is made apparent.
so we’ve established that 311’s lyrics are absolutely batshit, but the thing is, i only really figured that out after looking up the lyrics. All that I remembered, and all that I wager most people remember, are the choruses, which are kinda dumb to be sure but nowhere near the level of fucked up that these songs can reach. “amber,” though, is known for how wacked-out it is—“amber is the color of your energy” is basically the only line that anyone remembers, and approximately no one understands it. but the thing is, this is perhaps 311’s best use of that nonsense—they foreground it, rather than hiding it behind funky guitars and catchy choruses, and use it to establish a cool, laid-back, vaguely otherworldly atmosphere. it helps that the verses don’t have much weirdness themselves, but just work to set up the chorus. instead of forcing its nonsense on you, it eases you into a place where it still might not mean anything, but doesn’t feel so out of place.
man, what is it about the line “know that we have always been down” that’s so vaguely terrifying? is it the first-person plural and the use of “we have” instead of “we’ve” that makes it sound like it should be immediately preceded by some biblical threat? “my name is legion, for we are many. know that we have always been down, down.”
this is the song where the dopiness of 311’s lyrics becomes nearly transcendent. with “all mixed up” and “come original” it’s at least somewhat clear what idea they tried to start with, regardless of how quickly thereafter it went off the rails. “down” just throws you directly into the chaos with no more warning than the word “chill,” abandoning even the reggae affectations that can help ground some of their imagery in the realm of white boy rastaism, opting instead for a groovy as hell fuzzy rap-rock sound. the song opens with the line “light on my side as my ego becomes/a funky child with some words on my tongue,” flower-child imagery and braggadocio combining in a pretty amazing way. “have you ever made out in dark hallways” is another of those out-of-nowhere sexual lines, the setting of “hallways” oddly specific in its unsexiness. the best is “when i scatter my spit i dream of juice.” most of the really out-there 311 lyrics at least share something of a common new-agey theme, but this one is weirdly, grossly bodily, just almost-but-not-quite sexual enough to be really unsettling. no two sequential lines in this song connect in any obvious logical way. it’s a fractured mess, so disjointed and surrealistically hackneyed that it becomes almost thrilling, or, at least and without a doubt, unpredictable. it’s the apotheosis of 311, everything great and terrible about them at its absolute greatest and most terrible. a dreadlocked explosion of impenetrable imagery and directionless nonsense so convoluted that it should be impossible, but somehow isn’t. it’s right there, staring you down with its fuzzy bassline, too hype on its own nonsense to realize that no one knows what the fuck it’s talking about.