It’s interesting that Rivers Cuomo notes in the sleeve for the Alone II demos compendium that by the time this little piece was composed — spring of 1997 — his ambitions to quit rock and become a classical composer by age 30 had already begun to wither. Even at the late date of 2008, when he wrote these notes, Cuomo was making excuses for himself: the first consideration he noted was that, while studying classical composition at Harvard, he was mostly just writing scholarly papers rather than composing much of his own material. Secondly, he felt that he couldn’t connect with the kind of classical they were brewing there in Boston: while Cuomo dug the emo-Romantic sounds of Puccini and Tchaikovsky, he found that “Harvard music…was modern, 20th century, atonal, serial, non-catchy and non-emotional.”
Of course, Harvard’s just one place he could’ve honed his craft, and a truly determined individual rarely dismisses artistic practice out of hand because of one or two bad teachers. Indeed, the truth comes out with Cuomo’s third point: his Puccini mancrush had done nothing but cause him pain, as the relative commercial failure of Pinkerton‘s Madame Butterfly-inflected rock’n’roll was, by early 1997, confirmed to be a no-go on the charts. And while one artist might have withdrawn deeper into his craft, perhaps dropping the rock and going full-out on the classical front as Cuomo had originally planned, this failure sharply stung the young man. How this would impact his songwriting was something that, in April 1997, remained to be heard — but by semester’s close, Cuomo had his heart set on the English major after all.
I mention all this as a preamble because this little piece, while “not a real song” (Cuomo’s words), reflects that the auteur’s experimental and explorative tendencies had not let up. His mind frayed to its limits by Ivy League academia, Cuomo made a sound collage out of a voicemail from his classmate Lucia, who had called to give him the details on an assignment that was given in a class he had missed, layering her voice at different speeds to create an altogether disorienting effect — culminating after 30 seconds with an anguished scream from Cuomo. (Whether or not it was one Cuomo intended to make, “Harvard Blues” serves as a witty comment in and of itself: at Harvard, even the blues are more intellectual than musical.)
In any event, this stands as a nice little lo-fi transition piece, which is how it functions just perfectly on Alone II: a great segue into the exhausted-schizo piano pop of “My Brain Is Working Overtime.” I almost regret that the randomized format of Teenage Victory Songs forces me to separate these tracks into separate discussions, but alas… The point remains: whereas the Cuomo of just a year or so later might find such a pursuit to be a waste of time, the Cuomo of ’97 was still interested in adventuring into sonic territory he had previously yet to chart. And though it would bear far less modest (and brilliantly inspired) results in the form of contemporaries like “Lover in the Snow” and “Rosemary,” this little audio paste-up is just as much a reflection of that creative curiosity as anything else.