Six-Star Songs: Better Pills, “Valium” (2017)

For the inaugural post of my new blog, I have chosen to feature a song that is very near and dear to me. Better Pills’ “Valium” addresses the complications of a life on benzodiazepines, and the band delivers a sincere performance that is equal parts comforting and exhilarating.

The mastermind of Better Pills is Brent Gorton, a terribly talented songwriter, musician, and recording engineer from my hometown, Albany, New York. Alongside another gifted songwriter, Aaron Smith, Gorton has roots in The Stars of Rock, an indie lo-fi duo that churned out hits in the late nineties and into the early aughts. Gorton has released music under a couple other monikers including Youth and the Drug Explosion, and “Valium” first appeared in 2014 as the opening track on Hiroshima Gift Shop. That version’s four-track flare and quirky vintage drum machine work made a lasting impression on me, but then all hell broke loose when Better Pills released Call the Local Cops, which consists entirely of an April 2016 practice session that included the raucous version of “Valium” presented here. (Don’t let the word ‘practice’ fool you: both the performances and recordings on Call the Local Cops are masterful from start to finish.)

Brent Gorton performing with Better Pills in 2012 (photo courtesy of Keep Albany Boring)

In both versions, “Valium” starts out with a lighthearted, fun-sounding first verse, but where the chorus of the original flows naturally from the verse’s vibes, the Better Pills version lashes out into a stomp-inducing chorus with thick guitars that annihilate every last drop of worry and doubt within earshot.

When I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, this song would occasionally pop into my head amidst swirling fears of a future cooped up in a psychiatric hospital. All I really knew about diazepam a.k.a. valium was that it was a drug people took for mental illness, so for a long time when I listened to this song I vibed mostly off its raw emotion, only making out a smattering of the lyrics: “Does it even matter how many I take? Things are getting better if I can stay awake…Makes me feel OK…All I need now is valium.” Gorton also eludes to the principles of acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) in the first verse when he sings, “I don’t need a cure for darkness, I only wanted to be happy some of the time.” One of the cornerstones of ACT is accepting that discomfort is a part of life, and that trying to avoid discomfort, trying to ‘be happy all the time’ actually ends up creating more discomfort and more suffering in the long run.

Whether Gorton is role-playing or confessing in “Valium” is beside the point. The way in which this version bounces between upbeat verses and gut-wrenching choruses perfectly captures the confusion, despair, and strangely satisfying apathy of living with mental illness.