Prolonging the Magic is CAKE's third studio album, released October 6, 1998 on Capricorn Records, their last on that label. It produced their most successful single to date in Never There (which made number 1 on Modern Rock Tracks), though the album only ever reached #33 on the Billboard 200.

Album Credits

At this point, CAKE's lineup was:

John McCrea - lead vocals/guitars acoustic and electric/Organ/Moog synthesiser/composition of all tracks (except where noted below)
Vince DiFiore - trumpet
Gabe Nelson - bass/mandolin/piano/electric guitar
Todd Roper - drums/percussion/backing vocals

CAKE's first guitarist Greg Brown had just left to join Deathray, and various session guitarists filled in for him on electric guitar:

Jim Campilongo
Xan McCurdy
Rusty Miller
Tyler Pope (of !!!)
Chuck Prophet

McCurdy became a permanent member, and remains CAKE's second (primarily electric, as opposed to McCrea's acoustic) guitarist at the time of writing. Pope, Campilongo and Prophet also did arrangements for the album, as did Greg Brown. Other guest instrumentalists were Mark Needham (percussion), David Palmer (keyboards) and Greg Vincent (pedal steel). Prolonging the Magic was produced by McCrea and mixed by Needham, Craig Long and Kirt Shearer. The album was apparently mastered by a Don C. Tyler, who may well be the same person as 'Don C. Taylor' who mastered CE. The engineers were Jay Bowman, Joe Johnston, Craig Long, Scott Reams, Rafael Serrano, Kirt Shearer and Gabriel Shepard. Design was by McCrea and Keara Fallon.

Track by Track - an overly thorough and highly subjective analysis (italics denote single releases)

1. Satan is my Motor (McCrea/Pope/Nelson) - 3:12

I agree with fellow CAKE fan SyntaxVorlon about this song describing a secret malevolent intent towards a woman. Here the allegory is of a car is used to describe different components of the protagonist's personality ("I've got a mind that can steer me to your house/and a heart that can bring you red flowers/My intentions are good, and earnest, and true/but under my hood is internal combustion power/and Satan is my motor..."). The most obvious interpretation is that the Satan here is lust, which establishes something of a theme for the album - sin and a certain amount of self-loathing.

The title of this song led to the album being given a parental advisory sticker - a 'clean' edition was issued with the song title changed to just 'Motor'. Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't censor the title as well, given the insidious effect of witchcraft on the foundations of decent, wholesome Christian society.

2. Mexico - 3:26

A farewell by someone leaving the country for Mexico. Self-loathing much in evidence here, as McCrea expounds on his failure to live up to the vivacity and passion of the girl he left behind ("I was bright but she was much brighter/I was high but she was the sky/Oh baby, I was bound for Mexico"). Aptly enough, there's a mariachi sound to the the trumpet line between the verses.

3. Never There - 2:38

The album's first and most successful single is a Latin-influenced ode to an unsuccessful long-distance relationship, complete with touch-tone phone noises in the chorus, presumably made by DiFiore on a synth. McCurdy's lively guitar (I think it's him here, anyway - he's certainly fantastic when the song's played live) and the funky bass really move things along, and DiFiore's synth-backed trumpet solo is fantastic, particularly as it's followed by a rap-like moment from McCrea ("A golden bird that flies away/A candle's fickle flame/To think I held you yesterday/Your love was just a game").

The video, directed by McCrea, is arguably the most conventional the band have yet produced. It features CAKE playing the song in a country and Western bar, with couples dancing to it. This is intercut with sequences of McCrea as a trucker (with the pig from the album cover on the side of his truck) desperately trying to call his faraway girlfriend (who is shown by a pool with other men and ignoring all phone calls). Eventually McCrea hires a PI, who catches and photographs her cheating.

Usage elsewhere: Friends - The One Where Rachel Smokes and the film Shallow Hal. Also, this song, along with instrumental versions of Open Book fromĀ  Fashion Nugget and several other songs from PtM, was used in the film Sidewalks of New York.

4. Guitar - 3:40

"If I threw my guitar/out the window/so far down/would I/start to regret it/or would I smile/and watch it slowly fall?"

CAKE have written a number of songs which criticise the music industry, particularly on Comfort Eagle, as well as of course Rock'n'Roll Lifestyle. To me this one is fairly clearly about frustration with the industry, as McCrea waits in someone's flat, ignores their phone calls and contemplates throwing his guitar from a high window, hurt by their dismissive treatment of him. It seems possible Guitar was inspired by dissatisfaction with the experience of being a band with a successful single, and it anticipates the move to a bigger label for their next album.

In a recent interview, he admitted he had considered quitting the band to be a farmer (he'd be in good company...).

5. You Turn the Screws - 4:13

One of the more interesting and typically CAKE-ish songs on here, You Turn the Screws is a commentary on the corrupting nature of power, particularly as one matures. A jazzy piano/trumpet intro gives way to a minor-key bass/guitar melody. McCrea, in a suitably 1990s way, seems particularly concerned with the corruption of cultural ideals - "You turn the screws, you burn down the bridge/flimsy as it is, it's justified./You shake my hand, you break up the band, flimsy as it is, it's natural punk rock/Red, white and blue.../You turn the screws". Given the reference to 'punk rock' and the music-industry themes mentioned above, it seems likely that the song is at least partly aimed at record company executives (as with Comfort Eagle).

The final accusation - "how can you say you'll be happy when you turn the screws?" suggests the angry, self-righteous protagonist could one day fall victim to the forces of conformity, a bit like the righteous punk in Clampdown by The Clash.

Usage elsewhere: instrumental version in Sidewalks of New York, beginning occasionally used as a buffer on NPR.

6. Walk On By - 3:45

As Tom Moon pointed out in his review for Rolling Stone, this is fairly clearly modelled after a country weeper. It bears no relation to the Burt Bacharach song of the same name, though it covers many of the same themes (as with Jolene on Motorcade of Generosity, which is not a Dolly Parton cover).

7. Sheep Go To Heaven - 4:44

The album's final single takes its refrain from Matthew 25:

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

The song seems to be written at least partly from the view of a satyr and to favour being a goat rather than a sheep ("I just want to play on my panpipes/I just want to drink me some wine./As soon as you're born you start dying/so you might as well have a good time"). "The carpenter can take you out to lunch" is thought at the other place to refer to Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter, where the carpenter represents Christianity, who invites oysters (followers) to lunch only to devour them.

There's also a quote from Waiting for Godot in the line "and the gravedigger puts on the forceps", which is arguably advancing

The music video, directed by Mark Kornweibel (who also directed those for Jolene and Rock'n'Roll Lifestyle), is rendered in a South Park-style animation technique. SPOILERS AHEAD: It shows employees of a greeting card company writing the greetings. One disgruntled man has to stay behind alone. The un-KISS-like CAKE are shown as a KISS tribute band playing in a busy bar filled with various groups modern (frat boys, jocks, goths) and ancient (Vikings and Romans), and everyone's having a good time when the angry greeting card guy turns up with a machete. During the bridge, he massacres everyone in there, sending their souls up to heaven. The killer is caught by the police (his lone companion, a poodle, dies in his flat). Meanwhile CAKE ascend to heaven to meet the others (an angel drops McCrea's trademark fisherman hat on his head). The killer is tried, convicted and executed by electric chair. His soul falls to hell, where he looks nervously around as everyone else parties it up in heaven.

Usage elsewhere: instrumental version in Sidewalks of New York. Also features in an episode of Daria (of course!), which has used various CAKE songs.

8. When You Sleep - 3:58

McCrea asks a string of questions about where someone's fingers go in this fairly low-key track. Partly seems to suggest that someone's personality can be gauged from tiny unconscious gestures, though there are also undertones of something else.

Usage elsewhere: instrumental version in Sidewalks of New York, and, as with You Turn the Screws, on NPR.

9. Hem of Your Garment (McCrea/DiFiore) - 3:43

A funk bassline drives this self-loathing lament, with a chorus and title derived from another religious source - the gospel song Touch the Hem of his Garment, itself based on references in the Bible to fringed garments with tassels (Tzitzit). Jesus' garment is referred to in several places as having healing properties, including in Matthew 9:

20 And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment:
21 For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.
22 But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.

However, the protagonist is "intrinsically no good/I have a heart that's made of wood/and I am only biding time/Only reciting memorised lines/And I'm not fit to touch the hem of your garment...". He sees himself as heartless and cold, unworthy of the addressee's attention even if it will redeem him.

Usage elsewhere: The film Me, Myself and Irene.

10. Alpha Beta Parking Lot - 3:30

What with this, Satan is My Motor, Carbon Monoxide and Wheels on Pressure Chief, Stickshifts and Safetybelts on Fashion Nugget and Race Car Ya-Yas on Motorcade of Generosity (and that title itself, of course), there are automotive themes and references everywhere in CAKE's oeuvre. Probably the best comparison, though, is to Long Line of Cars on Comfort Eagle, as both derive a degree of pathos from the tedium and pollution of their settings - where Long Line of Cars describes a relationship beginning to crack in the context of a traffic jam, Alpha Beta Parking Lot describes being dumped in a car park.

The 'Alpha Beta' thing had me stumped for a while. At first I thought it was some sort of allegorical thing about the confines of language, but it turns out to be a Couplandian consumerist reference. Alpha Beta was a chain of American grocery stores/supermarkets, which used the name from 1917 to 1988 - more details here.

11. Let Me Go (McCrea/Campilongo) - 3:56

A bouncy, upbeat love song, with a certain degree of innocence. The protagonist sees his beloved in terms of her less obvious qualities ("When she talks she moves her mouth, instead of her lips"), but she seems to find him likeable but perhaps a little clingy ("Let me go, and I will want you more").

The spoken French in the background towards the end of the song is difficult to make out, but I'm not sure that necessarily matters...

12. Cool Blue Reason - 3:27

The darkest song on the record, especially coming right after Let Me Go. The protagonist is clearly in deep shit ("Cool blue reason , and as he considers his situation rationally he realises it's even worse than he previously thought: "Cool blue reason comes into your life/There's one more dead in Kansas and it's probably your wife". The song fades out with the line "only 8 more hours left to go", which in the context seems almost to be a relief.

13. Where Would I Be? (McCrea/Nelson/Joe Snook) - 3:53

At last, redemption. As the protagonist's world collapses around him ("houses are sliding into the mud/rivers are raging in your blood"), he can still find solace in his beloved, who is almost like God to his prodigal son. "Where would I be without your arms around me?" asks McCrea in the final seconds of the record, but it seems like he already knows.

Personally, I think Fashion Nugget, and to some degree Motorcade, have some shining moments of biting irony, but are also a little patchy. Prolonging the Magic finds the band more mature and more melancholy. It's probably their most serious record, with recurrent ideas of self-loathing, sin and corruption, finally ending, perhaps, in redemption. When I started this writeup I felt fairly sure Comfort Eagle was my favourite album, but as I listened repeatedly to Prolonging the Magic (because I love you all) I found a lot more in the way of hidden depths.

Sources and Further Reading

CAKE official site
Prolonging the Magic at Wikipedia
Rolling Stone review
CAKE at SongMeanings
Prolonging the Magic at SongMeanings
Revue interview with John McCrea, in which he said he was thinking of quitting
King James bible - Book of Matthew from the University of Michigan

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