I moved back to Chicago in February of 2012, just before the crest of Malört Mania. Malört, for those who live elsewhere or who have nicer friends, is a brand of Swedish liquor flavored with wormwood, which can only be found in Chicago. It entices you with a wave of grapefruit and honey before punching you in the throat with an aftertaste of earwax and battery acid. It is watching a house party go from delightfully raucous to out-of-hand in a split second.
Once a drink just enjoyed by the handful of natives who could stomach it, Malört stumbled into the spotlight, first as cult phenomenon, then a dare for out of towners, then as fashionable ingredient. Malört cocktails started popping up everywhere. You could even find it baked into a pie. I even participated in a charity 5k where shots of Malört waited at the start and finish line, as if you could find a way to make running less fun.
Maybe this is cynical and dismissive but I often wonder if my friends who drink Malört genuinely enjoy it or just love the appeal of drinking something so universally reviled, or rather, drinking something so gross that is also unique to Chicago. Like they’ve passed some grit test to deserve to call this beautiful, difficult city home.
Listening to “I Hate Chicago,” a garage-y, self-aware divorce anthem about how deeply our relationships to people and to places are intertwined, I feel the same way I imagine people who can tolerate Malört feel after a shot of the stuff. A rising bitterness, but a comforting sense of kinship with everyone around you who has also known heartbreak and heartburn. Just as we commiserate about the bitterness of lost loves, so do we take pleasure in complaining about all the things that frustrate us about where we live, the traffic and the sports teams and the corruption and the violence, and Grace lays out that parallel so perfectly in this song.
In any city, locals will take hammers to sacred cows amongst each other, and I can’t help but smile and nod when Grace spits the words, “learn to make a pizza, you fucking jagoffs” (emphasis on the local insult of choice). I have yet to see her and the Devouring Mothers live, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this song gets the biggest cheer and beer-hall singalong reception with the home crowd. Grace said it best herself when asked about the song in the Chicago Tribune in November: “They were into it. It speaks to what Chicago is about. People get it. It’s a hard city to live in, but we’re all in it together.”
The bridge of “I Hate Chicago” ascends like a hazy, illuminated cab ride north on Lake Shore Drive, and indeed, Grace’s journey ends with a reference to the Magic Point, and I immediately thought of the Magic Hedge at Montrose Point, a small bird sanctuary on the shore of Lake Michigan, a woodsy respite from the chaos of the Lakefront in the warmer months. It’s always a shot to the senses to hear a reference that’s just so specific to your experiences in a song, even one about the place where you live. This little respite amongst excoriations of the neighborhood where Grace’s ex lives and declarations of how she’d “rather rot in Gary.” No place or relationship can be distilled to a simple bottle of liquor or a three-minute song, but as far as capturing the frustration and rage and some of the magic, too, the reminder that we’ve all been there or all will be there at some point, “I Hate Chicago” comes damn close. And I’d much rather belt along to this than drink a shot of Malört any day.
(Song recommendation by Lindsay Eanet)