“Prison” by Steven Jessie Bernstein (No. 99)

The second entry in my top 100, Steven Jesse Bernstein’s Prison, takes a sharp and dark turn away from the late-80s poppy techno vibe of Information Society.

Sometime in the early 90s, after learning about my love of Charles Bukowski’s work, and Henry Rollins’ books, gave me a dubbed cassette of Prison. If you like those, he said, you’ll love this. And he was right.

The album opens with a jazzy, bassy beat. It’s a few seconds before the nasal, sardonic voice of Bernstein begins the spoken-word delivery of “No No Man (Part 1),” painting a street scene with drunks, hookers, and longing, but also remembering the innocence of just watching the stars as a boy.

My favorite track, “More Noise Please,” is the anthem of anyone who’s worked a night shift or been unable to shut out the world’s noise just to get some sleep:

Myself, I could not sleep last night 
and I could not close the window, either. 
I tried to tear the window out of its frame and put it in a closed position, 
banging and ripping with a hammer and a screwdriver, 
standing on the window ledge in my socks, three stories up. 

But the window wouldn't come out, the factory was screaming 
and the trucks were rumbling and the whole world was praying for silence 
and it was up to me to shut the window and 
I couldn't get it down. 

I was just making more noise.

Bernstein was a poet, not a musician. The project to record Prison started as a live performance at the State Penitentiary Special Offenders unit in Monroe, Washington in 1991. The music was added separately by Steve Fisk, for the Sub Pop label. Bernstein didn’t live to see the album completed – he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat at the age of 40.

Prison is dark, but beautiful. It’s a masterwork of a career cut far too short.

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