‘Meaningless’ at 20: Jon Brion Looks Back on His Obscure Solo Masterpiece
One of the best records of the early 2000s is almost impossible to find online. You can purchase a copy of Meaningless — producer Jon Brion’s only solo album, released 20 years ago this month — from CDBaby or find a low-quality rip on YouTube. But unless you’re a die-hard fan, there’s a good chance the album’s gemlike songs of anxiety, unrequited love, and depression passed you by entirely.
“I think he’s a phenomenal musician and has an incredible sense of melody,” Aimee Mann, who co-wrote a song on Meaningless, tells Rolling Stone of Brion. “I always wished that he would write more songs and make more records because I loved him as a singer-songwriter.”
During the past 25 years or so, Brion has built up a solid reputation as a producer, guest musician, and composer. He’s worked with Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine), Kanye West (Late Registration), and Mac Miller (Circles) — and scored everything from 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to 2017’s Lady Bird. But back in the Nineties, when oddball acts like Daniel Johnston and Royal Trux were scoring major-label contracts, Brion’s talent as a solo artist caught the eye of an A&R man from Lava Records. The resulting album, Meaningless, fell victim to the era’s fickle music-industry climate: Though it boasted a lush Beatles-meets-ELO production style, and frankly genius melodies, it was shelved due to a lack of “hits.” The experience likely discouraged Brion from attempting any further solo efforts.
“I thought to some extent that if some faith was counted [in the record] on the part of [the label], it would have done OK,” Brion tells RS. “And if it had done OK, there probably would have been more of them.”
When Brion first flirted with the idea of making his own album he was in his late thirties and already deep into his musical career. He’d played with bands like the Bats and the Grays, done ample session work, produced artists like Mann, and lent his scoring talents to films like 1999’s Magnolia (which earned him a Grammy nomination). But when a rep from Lava dropped by Brion’s residency at L.A.’s Largo, he was taken with his virtuosic talents as a solo act.
“Well, the Nineties had a little dichotomy going, which I was happy to take advantage of,” Brion says. “The Nineties were sort of the closest thing we’ve had to a moment that happened in the Sixties, like, ‘OK, nobody expected Nirvana to be hugely successful.’ And on the heels of that, some creative people got signed like Beck and did really well. And what that causes in the industry is this sense of, ‘Shit, maybe we don’t know what’s popular; we better sign a lot of things. And the things that are hitting are so successful, we can afford to spread the money out.’”
Brion had ample music on hand for a possible solo record — not that he’d really planned on releasing one before. Instead, his music-making was pure habit, part of his existence. “I think it’s kind of true of anyone who has the disease of writing,” he says. “It’s a very romantic thing to have finished stuff or have it received well, but for the most part, that’s not the reality of writing. You know, it’s this combination of avoidance and immersion. These disparate states are a constant of your life. I think it’s more just the fact that I happened to get signed and there needed to be a record [that these songs came together].”
Brion used the record’s front-end budget to buy equipment and set up a studio in his home, where he recorded vocals and instrumentals for 10 out of Meaningless’ 11 tracks. “That was actually kind of wonderful,” he says. “Get up, make a tea, wander down in your pajamas, and play drums. I actually found it quite pleasant and sort of romantic at that point.” The only song to feature other musicians was “Trouble,” which boasted Jim Keltner on drums, Benmont Tench on piano, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. The resulting track resembles an orchestral pop tune in a depressive fog, so it’s not surprising that Brion pal Elliott Smith covered it on more than one occasion.
The album also features a co-write with Mann, “I Believe She’s Lying,” which Brion calls his “fear-of-commitment anthem.” The funkiest song about romantic failure ever put to tape, the track demonstrates how well the once-couple collaborated. According to Mann, Brion excels at sparking ideas, while she’s better at finishing them.
“We always worked well in that way together,” Brion says. “The way we wrote together was often, one of us would start something and get stuck and play it for the other and go, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ And, usually, the other person would have a workable answer, sometimes a really good answer, or at the very least a suggestion for a jumping-off point. So, in that case, I had the music and I had more than half the lyrics, but I was just sort of stopped. She heard the lyrics and was laughing her ass off and made a great suggestion. ‘As soon as we’re committing we’re admitting our mistake’ was her line.”
Grant-Lee Phillips, another frequent Brion collaborator, stepped in for the most upbeat song on the record, “Walking Through Walls,” a confident romp whose theme he says belies the not-so self-assured nature of its co-writers. The track was written in Phillips’ Burbank, California, living room, which was kitted out with red walls, leopard skins, velvet drapes, and the musician’s ample collection of magic books and posters. “I had a lot of magic posters and one of them was a large Houdini poster. It said ‘Houdini, the World’s Handcuff King — Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini prisoner,’” Phillips recalls. “And so that line, ‘Nothing on this earth can hold me,’ came quite directly from that poster.”
The rest of the record is a blur of idiosyncratic gorgeousness, touching on breakups and heartaches (“Ruin My Day,” “Hook, Line, and Sinker”), and memory and nostalgia (“Meaningless”), as well as a truly spectacular Cheap Trick cover (the Dream Police track “Voices”). But the label didn’t hear a single, so they scrapped the record and passed the rights back to Brion. “I thought maybe within the environment it could be decently successful,” the musician muses today. “I didn’t think anything would be in the Top 10 in the environment that was that moment. But I certainly didn’t think it was off-putting.”
As it stood, Brion released the album in January of 2001 on his own Straight to Cut-Out imprint, and aside from a handful of original songs for movies like 2004’s I Heart Huckabees (“Knock Yourself Out”), he’s yet to put out enough solo music for another album. When asked if he’d ever consider releasing a proper follow-up to Meaningless, Brion is cagey. “I’ve been in danger of it once or twice,” he says.
His once-collaborators seem more enthusiastic than the man himself. “My guess is that there’s probably a ton of tapes in storage spaces somewhere — partially recorded songs and beginnings, and songs that just need to be mixed and so on,” Mann says. “I remember hearing him play songs at Largo that were like, ‘Oh, my God, I wish that you would record this song.’”
Phillips expresses a similar sentiment. “I’m such a fan; he’s just a really special guy to begin with. As a musician, there’s really no one like him. I mean, there’s a lot of people who play a lot of things, but John’s plugged into some other part of the universe,” he says. “I think it’s a great record. I just wish there were more Jon Brion records, you know?”
Brion says he’s not averse to eventually remastering and releasing the album — perhaps making it more accessible to fans new and old. “I’ve heard people bring the album up to me now with the sort of tone reserved for something,” he says. “You make stuff hopefully to be pleasing and to please yourself. So, if you just try to make something good, you’re kind of fine. It’s not going to devalue over time. It’s just a piece of human expression.”
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