Solipsistic Heart and Universal Song: Ryan Adams, Prisoner, and Truth in the 21st Century

In September of 2000, with the nation in the midst of a Presidential race not yet at its most controversial, a 26 year-old folk singer named Ryan Adams released his solo debut. He had a round face, as if yet to lose his baby fat, hair that hung over his downcast eyes, and a drawl that shone through on his “oh’s” and “why’s.” He sang about being young and sad and high, crafting a melancholia so palpable that you could sink into it. The album, Heartbreaker, became an instant classic.

Twenty years later, the nation is again reeling from a controversial presidential election. Adams’ face is still round, though now in the way of a man who has given up his diet, and his hair is still shaggy, though now sprinkled with strands of grey. The twang is a bit deeper, worn down by a cigarette habit he never hid, but there nonetheless. He sings about being old and sad and sober. His new album, Prisoner, is a classic without a genre. Things stay the same, even when they change.

Perhaps I miswrote when I said that Prisoner has no genre. It’s Sad White Guy music. In many ways, this has always been Adams’ genre, from the Americana Heartbreaker to the 90’s Brit-pop inspired Love is Hell to his covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989. When one is as prolific as Adams, both in quantity and style, themes become genre. Adams recognizes this and leans into it, adorning his albums with signifiers of the Sad White Guy. He has enough self-awareness to recognize that the cover of Love is Hell (and even the name itself) and the photos on the inner sleeve of Heartbreaker would be supremely embarrassing if totally sincere. However, Adams is not being entirely ironic with them—such a tone would be entirely dissonant with the contents engrained within the record grooves. Instead, a mirrored image of a bed-headed Adams serves the same purpose as a photo of the Clash bassist smashing his instrument—it confirms the genre of an eclectic artist.

There is something comforting about Prisoner. It’s like the old friend who has a new post-divorce haircut but the same personality. He cries a bit too much, but he always has, and he still laughs at the inside jokes that illuminate more than either of you would like. This familiarity, however, does not hide the album’s beauty. The 80’s reverb on the guitars match the shaky folk voice that elongates the vowels, creating a singular sound that feels as timeless as it does new. As in much of his work, place refuses to settle into the background, instead insisting on its primacy as a form of emotional expression. The empty home in “Haunted House” and desolate landscape on “To Be the One” convey as much emotional distress as imagined conversations or explicit pining. After years of alternating between folk and personal projects, Adams has finally managed to mend the two. Despite how critics would phrase it, there were never two Ryan Adams—his 80’s obsession and folk genius are flip sides of the same coin. Steve Hyden suggested that Ryan Adams, 1989, and Prisoner form a divorce trilogy. He’s not wrong, though I believe the connection between the three is even deeper. The previous two albums have been experiments, playing with how to best combine his sonic influences with his predisposition to Americana. Prisoner cannot exist without 1989, which in turn needs his eponymous album. The past three years have been building to this.

As with any good midlife crisis album, emptiness pervades Prisoner. The prisoner, after all, is permanently alone in his cell. But here, the loneliness goes deeper. In Heartbreaker, his love had left him and his friends were gone, but he still had his imagination and the objects around him. The empty bottle talked to him, his pills insisted he go out, the knives were too dull to smile, and the clouds refused to rain. In his emptiness, there was still life, as the inhuman world of North Carolina filled the void. He could even imagine his love regretting her decision, hallucinating him in shop windows and weeping softly. 17 years later, all of this has changed. The spiders move across the lattice but say nothing. His haunted house has no ghost. His imagination isn’t blank, but only shows his ex laughing with some other guy. Megalomania has transformed into solipsism. Even the cover—an abstract self-portrait—gets at this, a gesticulated expression of Ryan Adams caught in his own pain. It’s a semi-professional invocation of Scream, where universal terror is replaced with personal sadness.

In this understanding it makes sense that the album starts with its weakest song. While the rest of the record digs through memories of a music-saturated childhood to build something new, “Do You Still Love Me” is pure pastiche. Well, perhaps not pure pastiche. As the scholar Fredric Jameson says, pastiche is the wearing of dead mask, but without any of parody’s “ulterior motives.” It is borrowing from older forms solely because there are no new forms to produce. But what happens when the thing being parodied is itself empty? 80’s arena rock is and was pure commercialism. By tying it to his memories, Adams imbues the vapid with meaning, only to re-empty it again by sharing. In doing so, he questions how much meaning our memories truly have, and whether the emotional power of them can ever be shared with others. Late 80’s Def Leppard guitar riffs don’t invoke a lost childhood for me as they do for Adams. To me, all they signify is bland commercial films. Ryan seems to be asking if it is possible to convey emotion in an artistic landscape where everything is empty parody.

Perhaps, then, Adams’ genre is not Sad White Guy Music but Sad Ryan Adams Music, his albums filled with songs that are filled with memories poignant only to him. But this would discount the emotional resonance that pushed Prisoner to number 3 on the charts despite it being an independent record. Digging at this, we hit at the heart of the post-modern belief that truth and language, those intertwined concepts, are completely subjective. I cannot explain my pain to you, and you cannot explain yours to me. Your belief that you are in pain is subjective, as is everything else. However, this can quickly slip into a nihilism that reinforces the status quo—if nothing matters, why make art or study philosophy instead of trying to get rich and living high? Furthermore, if everything were subjective, I—a 21 year-old who has never been in a long relationship, much less divorced—would not feel the sorrow of the album. Humans feel emotions—joy, sadness, hatred, disgust, and so many more. These emotions themselves are not truth. But when they are put into writing, or music, and made to invoke, something changes. The British writer Sam Kriss points out that good writing provokes joy even in sadness, in “the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude.” In this voice, there is a truth. Not all art provokes this truth; if I may briefly indulge my pretention in borrowing from the theorist Theodor Adorno, art that wishes to attain this truth must indulge in a “pure subjectivity,” intoning “in language until the voice of language itself is heard,” paying attention to nothing but itself and its form, unconcerned with the world around it.[1] It is in this myopic subjectivity, in works that make no attempt to explain the relationship between the subject and society, where objective truth can be found. Insisting on your own objectivity, your own presentness, or your own timelessness will always fail. Over his 20+ year career, Adams has consistently worked towards such a point, mining himself and constantly digging deeper into his memory, taking riffs from an unreachable idyllic past and diction from his geographical home until some form of objectivity is found. At his worst, which often coincides with his most drug-addled, it leads to a narcissistic, myopic pity party that borders on emotional exploitation. At his best, he slams headfirst into objective language, creating Sad Human Music. The kid trapped in Jacksonville, North Carolina and the in-the-dumps Londoner are both melancholic, and in this melancholia there is Truth. The causes change but the end result stays the same. Adams, lonely and solipsistic, is a priest of this truth, stumbling through the darkness around him to find beauty in the empty.

 

[1] Adorno is writing specifically on Lyric Poetry, but one can apply the principles to song lyrics, though Adorno is probably spinning in his grave at the thought of us doing so.

Crimes

I’ve recently been suffering from writer’s block, especially as I’ve tried to write fiction again, something I haven’t done in well over a year. At the same time, I’ve been listening to Crimes by These United States a lot. Like, an unbelievable amount. It mourns a place and time that it knows never existed, crafting this world while softly reminding us to not imbue it with too much meaning or treat it as history.

And so, as an exercise to break my block, I decided to write the beginnings of twelve separate stories—one for each song on the album. The rules were simple: the story, diction, and structure of the stories had to be true to the song, without simply fleshing out its lyrics. Even though part of me wanted to reorder it, I stayed true to the original track listing. These are the results.

Certain studio songs aren’t available to listen to on YouTube, or only live versions are available. In these cases, I’ve linked to the Spotify page, because the live versions are so different from the studio ones.

West Won (Spotify)

He talked in a way that dissolved each word’s meaning. Empty catch phrases, bungled clichés, and indefinable buzzwords all combined to make a piss-poor pastiche of the English language. He’d rode in from Sacramento, or maybe San Jose—whichever is the shining city of the West. He’d spent forty days and forty nights wandering through the desert in the middle of the most developed area of the West, a dwindling bottle of whiskey his only escape back to society. He’d been in gunfights with Indian tribes long gone from these parts. The coyotes that followed him around had a “multitude of follicles.” Our coffee was damn fine. Assigning each word a truth-value was an exercise in futility—it lost this value as soon as it was chained to the ones that preceded and succeeded it. It was all true, even when it wasn’t. We only realized our wallets were missing thirty minutes after he left. Destroying meaning acts as a mighty fine smokescreen.

Susie at the Seashore (Spotify)

I wandered down to the pier. There was Susie plying her trade while avoiding the grasping hands of unsubtle old men. Only steamers over eighty feet were allowed to dock today, so it was especially bad. Assorted lawyers and bankers, titans of industry and boozed-up old money, none a day under seventy, whispered about her bra. Or more accurately, her lack of one. Approaching from behind, I tried to giver her a peck on the cheek, which she deftly avoided.

“Why do y’all never get the message?”

I shrugged. “Trying anyway keeps us young. That and the expedition.”

“Ah yes, the creeps’ search for the sunken city, filled with nymphs to deflower and resources to plunder.”

“Something like that.” In reality though, it was mostly an excuse for the men to drink without their wives and ogle the blue-collar crew, indulging our more repressed fantasies.

“I get why you reject these geriatrics still sucking on silver spoons, but why me too? I’m single, self-made, retired, and still sort of young. How can you resist?”

“In asking that question, you’ve supplied the answer,” she said pinching my cheek. “Now, if you aren’t going to buy anything, please leave me alone.”

“Same as yesterday. Fifty dollars worth of rods, please. One of these days I’m going to have to learn how to fish.”

Get Yourself Home (In Search of the Mistress Whose Kisses Are Famous)

The train rounded the bend, a little too fast as always, and there was his hometown up on the horizon.

At the station, his brother was leaning against a white column. Their mother sat on a bench nearby. As the man disembarked, the brother shouldered one of the man’s bags. There were no greetings. The three began to walk in silence—past the intersection with the stoplight and the hardware store; past the antebellum courthouse; past the empty docks; past the homes of childhood friends and foes. Mostly foes. Eventually, they arrived the house—more of a glorified trailer, really, twice as wide as it was deep, single story with an old slate roof. When they were children, the brothers would jump from the dark tiles to the wooden zip line platform their dad had made for them.

They entered the house. It was no longer empty, as it was for most of the man’s childhood, but brimming with relatives he’d thought long dead. Uncles on the Lazy-Boys, aunts packed shoulder to shoulder on the sofa, cousins on Calvinistic chairs. No conversations stopped when the three walked in, mostly because there were no conversations to stop. An unopened bottle of bourbon sat on the table. Staring out at the yard where he had learned to swing a bat and time a tackle, now covered in kudzu, he smiled and cracked the jug’s plastic safety seal.

Pleasure and Pain and Pride and Me (Spotify)

Chris was regretting the pact he’d made with Luke all those years ago. Hadn’t he noticed the stolen glances, the uncomfortable pauses, the signs that were so clear in retrospect? When they promised to be partners for life, they had been small time. Stealing horses and loading die, just until Chris’s political career took off and he could swindle legally. Now they were scoping out First State Bank, prepping for “the crime of the century,” as Luke kept calling it. Chris damned his partner’s adrenaline addiction. Luke didn’t care for girls or gambling; he’d given up alcohol after that unfortunate incident with Brady the Brute. Chris never had to drag him out of the brothel or saloon at 3 A.M.—no, that’d be much too easy. Instead, on a near daily basis he’d have to use his silver tongue to diffuse a duel or veto a plan. But there was no deterring this. Luke had been dreaming of it since he was a boy with a cap gun. And Chris’s pride wouldn’t let him back out. They’d either rob the bank or it’d rob them.

We Go Down to That Corner

Ben stumbled back two steps, landing on bended knee, arms akimbo as if he was proposing again. He squeezed off two rounds that lodged in the wooden frame of the corner saloon. Edith had broken his heart for good this time. He fell on his back. The mountains at the bottom of his field of vision danced, contorting themselves up and down, left and right as the dust around him floated. He could’ve sworn he heard her scream, though maybe it was in celebration. The setting sun was getting closer, moving down to reach his level. Ben’s cigarette smoldered on his chest, burning a small hole in his vest. “Well I guess this means she’s keeping the ashtray,” he thought.

Honor Amongst Thieves

“Jimbo stumbled out the bar on his own accord…though just barely,” I added through a chuckle. “And who’s standing outside but Atticus and his trusty revolver. ‘Well’ says Atticus, ‘I reckon this the proper time to…let’s say repossess that money you stole yesterday.’ Ole Jimbo can only laugh and hand over his last fiver. Once he does, Atticus holsters his gun, slaps Jimbo on the back and says, ‘why don’t we grab ourselves a drink. I’m buying,’ and the two go right back into the bar.

Well, three hours later, the two have run through the fiver. Jimbo is out like a light in the corner, but Atti still wants another. He begins wandering out the bar to look for a new drinking partner, only to walk headfirst into the barrel of Raymond’s six-shooter. He complies—hands over the rest of his cash and turns back into the bar yelling ‘Raymond’s buying this time.’

A couple more hours pass, and now Atticus is done. I mean, head on the table, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, hand shaped as though it’s still holding a whiskey tumbler. Jimbo is coming too, though the only thought getting through the haze of his hangover is ‘hair of the dog,’ which he’s repeating like some kind of mantra to keep the spirits at bay. Problem is, Atticus took his last cent. So he walks out, and lo and behold, it’s Sara Anne. He fumbles out his .44, shrugs, and says ‘revenge for last week.’ The—”

“Why didn’t anyone ever rob you? You must’ve been around to see all this?”

“I was behind the bar. And common decency said that, if you don’t tip your barkeep, you don’t rob him either. What type of person’d do that?”

Six Bullets (Five Complaints) (Spotify)

I awoke with a start. Why’d it feel like I was moving?

“Because we’re in the back of a car, silly” Dana laughed, baring her straight white teeth. “Sarah,” she said as brushed her blonde hair out her eyes, “aren’t you going to show our guest some hospitality?”

Sarah nodded and reached into a Givenchy purse, producing a perfectly rolled joint. “And what is that, may I ask?”

“Don’t your small town manners mean you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” They handed me the number and small lighter. Raising my head a second later, something hit me.

“Who’s driving this thing anyway?”

“I am,” responded Jeff from the front. “Isn’t she a beaut?” A beauty it was. A brand new 1963 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, fins and all, painted baby blue.

“I was talking about this, actually” he said, waving a .38 in the air. “It’s the same one as in The Big Heat.” Hiding my surprise, I tried to change the subject, preferably to why I woke up in a car going 90 down I-9. “So what’s happening? Do I need cash? Can I chip in for gas or something?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re taking care of you—our treat.” Sarah chimed in.

“Being from New Mexico and all, can you teach us how to use this thing, actually?” Dana added, pointing toward the revolver.

Heaven Can Wait (Spotify)

Joel sat in his room, staring out the window at his mailbox. Why had he sent that letter? Maybe her response would arrive today. Then again, he’d thought the same yesterday, and the day before that too. Taking out a piece of paper, he began to write. Why not did the hole a little deeper?

Upstairs, Patricia finished packing her bags. Thomas kept trying to approach, filling her nostrils with the smell of good whiskey and cheap perfume. The stench kept his indiscretions fresh and her anger strong. She threw her last dress into the trunk and slammed it shut.

Study the Moon (Spotify)

They found him in Georgie’s saloon. Though I guess they call it a bar now, and Georgie doesn’t own it anymore. The coppers put their hands on Ole Frank’s shoulder and hauled him down to the courthouse, where the judge demanded he be cuffed. A jury, no faces he recognized, had already been assembled. His stone-faced public defender, fresh in from Pittsburg, was waiting for him. The prosecutor, wearing saddle shoes shined to an inch of their life and a silk tie, coolly asked for death by hanging. As he did so, Frankie couldn’t help but blurt out, “Aw hell, I didn’t take nobodies’ money. Just figured, what better place to get the cash Georgie owes than the bank itself?”

Well, the jury didn’t like that much. Didn’t take more than a minute to convict. In the back of the room the sheriff, Frankie’s old drinking buddy, did his best to stifle his sobs.

*****

Matt was the only congressman sitting. Papers floated around him, fluttering down into his lap before slipping onto the wood floor below. Everyone was face-to-face in one big scrum, a hurricane of screams and middle fingers with Matt as the eye. Eventually, a member of his party noticed him. “Why aren’t you leading the charge like usual?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ve already won, whether or not we vote no. The funding is coming in from the feds thick and fast. So what if we win? Another three months? Another six? Nothing worth losing your voice over.”

*****

John sat at the edge of the party, glass in his hand, staring up at the moon. In front of him, women in hoopskirts two-stepped with Colonels. As Ignacio approached him, John looked up with a smile notable only for how appallingly fake it was.

“You keep grimacing like that, it’ll become permanent.”

“How you enjoyin’ the party?”

“More than you, evidently. They haven’t been married but five minutes, and you’re already the grumpy father-in-law.”

John grinned. “That make you the nagging mother-in-law?” His smile dissipated as he stirred the ice cubes in his bourbon with his index finger. “It’s the end of us, Ignacio. It’s not just the groom; everyone here is from the city,” he lamented, staring at a man in a business suit across the room. “Pushing us and our ways out.”

“Like your people did to mine.”

The two chuckled. Ignacio kicked the dirt. John took another sip of bourbon. “Guess so.”

The men in loafers and gold watches were streaming out, leaving glasses stacked nicely on the abandoned tables and various bits of detritus scattered across the ground. A silver coin reflected the moonlight onto John’s drink. “Remember when these things’d go all night?” He reminisced.

“What’s all this hot tin for? Declaring us dead already. The girls are still dancing, aren’t they? And the bar’s still serving. Come on.” He offered a hand to help John stand, and, arms draped around the other’s shoulders, the two meandered through the crowd of revelers, still spinning on and on, for one more night at least.

Low Country Girls (Spotify)

We pulled the pick-up over to the side of the road, got out, and hopped the fence onto the farm. We ran towards its eastern edge, she and I, where the outline of tobacco plants gave way to moonlight reflecting off the water. Sitting there with our feet in the lapping waves, her dirty blonde hair almost glittered.

“You aren’t worried about being caught?” she asked.

“What’s it matter? I sail off again tomorrow.” I whispered as I leaned in for a kiss. Pulling away a few minutes later, I smiled and said, “each time I come home, it gets harder to leave.”

“What happened to the wanderer without a country, the border-hopping heartbreaker?” She teased.

“Carolina girls, I guess.” Seeing lights in the distance, I grabbed her arm. “I think that’s our cue.” And we were off again.

 

Old Chapman Takes a Good Long Walk

“So I tell him,” he says, chuckling softly, “I say ‘Sam, you know how to kill a hog?’ And he shakes his head no. ‘Well, you can’t shoot it in the head, unless you got a real cannon.’” He tries to make a hand motion, spilling whiskey on his prodigious belly and the empty notebooks of the crowd gathered around him. It doesn’t faze him, though he might not have even noticed. ‘“If you take it head on, you’ll have a real bad time. They’re mean creatures, hogs. No, you gotta climb a tree in the morning and wait. And wait. And wait some more. And a bit more after that. Eventually, it’ll pass underneath. When it does, you jump on top of it, stab it in the neck, and flip it on its side. We’ve got to do the same with this legislation. It’s cowardly, sure, but it’s also our only chance. They’ve got the speaker. They’ve got presidential and public support. They got us dead to rights, but we still got our wits.’” He stops for a second, watching the crowd lean in and flashing a smile that foreshadows the punch. “And so Sam thinks for a minute. I mean really thinks, you can see it in his face, and says, ‘well Tom, that sounds great.’” Tom pauses for a beat. “‘Except I don’t know how to climb a tree.’” The previously enraptured reporters explode in laughter as Tom bellows, “well, there goes our wit. Only the finest minds here in Washington.”

As the crowd calms, a young man in the back, one hand scribbling furiously, looks up at the congressman. “Would Senator Nance corroborate this, that this conversation happened?”

Dozens of unhappy faces turn to face him. Tom, still chuckling at himself, sends the cub a wink and a smile. “Sonny, let me buy you a drink and tell you what a wise man once told me: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”

When You’re Traveling at the Speed of Light (Spotify) 

The hard twang of a blues guitar waft from the window of the car. If I were going any faster, the rules of relativity would start to apply. I’m in no real rush—just that middle Alabama looks like Middle Georgia looks like Middle Mississippi and when you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a million times. Doesn’t help that the word that best typifies these places, especially at night, is creepy. And so I drive onwards, hard and fast, reaching towns with names like Moultrie and Doerun at daybreak, leaving them two nights later, passing through kudzu covered forests and over snake filled swamps, singing along with B.B. and co like I’d have it any other way.

Recognizing a Work of Art

“Bowie, some McCartney, but who else does it sound like? It’s familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Give it a listen and help me out?” I texted my father. I was talking about Meilyr Jones’s stunning solo debut 2013, released earlier this year. In an age where almost every song from history is at our finger tips, this is how we talk about music. This song is a dash of this and a pinch of that, all mixed up in the bowl labeled Beatles. Analysis takes the form of deconstructing the song, breaking it up into its component parts and identifying each, showing of the interplay between the library inside your head and the one on your computer. Though we all do it, it’s not healthy. Steve Hyden is probably right when he says that listening this way lessens our enjoyment—we become so caught up in ID’ing influences that we forget to listen to the song as a whole.

Jones gets this; breaking down every genre and influence on the album is as futile as trying to name every type of flower in the bouquet on the front cover. While it does make it hard to explain to people (would you listen if someone told you one of their favorite albums of the year was a blend of rock, pop, and classical with the band sung by a former member of an electronic group backed by a thirty piece band made up of his friends in Wales? Didn’t think so), it makes for a great listening experience that gets better each time. It also allows Jones to play with ideas of love, authenticity, sexuality, and indexicality to create a sprawling work in which all roads lead back to Rome.

On 2013’s first song, “How to Recognize a Work of Art,” Jones croons that when he examines his photograph for the “mark authentic authors…leave on works of art,” he finds nothing. Though he took it, he declares that the photo is “a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake,” a sardonic mockery of society’s obsession with assigning authenticity. It’s a rejection of the idea that only certain people can create real art—a rebuttal to the “cult of the artist.” It reminds me of Ben Lerner’s essay in Harper’s on the “tyranny of price;” the idea that vandalizing a work is art if it raises the value, and criminal if it lowers it. Of course, the change in value almost always corresponds to the fame of the vandal. In a world where every phone has a camera and we all have photoshop, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of someone being a “real” artist, as if such thing exists. Of course there’s a difference between Annie Leibovitz and an eight year old with an iPhone; that’s obvious to anyone with eyes. The cult of the artist also diminishes the creator—it says the work is important because of the name on the bottom, not the content it’s attached to. Later in the song, Jones describes watching a video someone made with Kurt Cobain, noticing that the eyes aren’t right. Again, he sarcastically begins yelling that it’s a fake, even though it was real to the creator. Jones reminds us that despite what society says, real is relative in art. In his orchestra, the strings respond, matching his voice as he sings, “there are highs…there are lows,” in an arrangement reminiscent of classical music, only for the drums and guitar to cut across them in a traditional pop beat. He’s not a composer; it can’t be art—just a pop song pretending to be more.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Strange Emotional.” It’s a testament to Jones’s skill that he can take signifiers relating to many things and shape them so their only referent is Rome. He takes a tone reminiscent of Road to El Dorado’s faux-Spanish colonial meets Brit rock,[1] turns up the Bowie influence, and makes it all seem as authentically Italian as Verdi. What’s more, he does this without relying on indexicals of being there. He follows the indexical that he is “writing to you from [his] room in Rome” his “only home” by asserting that he is “an actor recalling his previous life.” He is “happy here [he] used to know the winds above [him] and the sounds below” [emphasis mine]. Through the sudden switch to the past tense, Jones casts doubt that the preceding “here” refers to his room in Rome, undermining his own claim of being there. By unmooring signifiers from their referent in both the orchestral arrangements and the lyrics, Jones confronts binary ideas of sexuality—if “here” doesn’t refer to Rome, and Spanish structures are now Italian, what’s to say the “you” that wants “a man a little bit older” refers to the unnamed female prevalent in pop? This fluid sexuality is a theme of Jones’s album; “Olivia” begins with him singing sweetly about a “broke, white girl singing Sweet Home Alabama,” while “Return to Life” is an ode to a man with “wavy hair like Byron” who teaches Jones that “love is a burning strike.” In Don Juan, he bemoans that “girls can’t help me, boy’s can’t help me,” Much like the mingling of genres confuses the listener trying to box the album in, Jones purposefully confounds those who conceive of sexuality as either/or.

meilyr_jones_phil_sharp_1024_1143
Photo by Phil Sharp for The Line of Best Fit

“Strange Emotional” also touches upon a motif that runs through the album: rain. The album’s halfway point is marked by an interlude called “Rain in Rome,” which features soft singing over the sounds of rain and thunder, which eventually morphs into applause. Throughout out the album, such as at the beginning of “Olivia,” the drum kicks and snares are played simultaneously with hi-hats and cymbals to invoke the feeling of a hard rain comingling with thunder. On “Strange Emotional,” he sings, “when it rains here, it really rains.” It’s an odd choice for an album meant to capture the experience of living in Rome, especially considering the city’s association with the sun. Somehow it works. When Jones couples his lover asking him if he takes the elevator or stairs with wondering why the lover would care if Jones “ran out to the streets with wet hair,” all you can think of is Roman streets and storms. It brings to mind the elevator scene in Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, as well as the protagonist Jep’s embrace of his ex-lover’s husband in the hard rain. Sorrentino’s biggest influence, Fellini, adored the beauty of rainstorms. Jones invokes the Roman rain of their films, all romance and no umbrellas, causing the listener to imagine an idealized version of the city. This doesn’t make his portrayal any less authentic. How Jones remembers Rome is inevitably informed by the city’s portrayal in film and literature; to pretend otherwise would be a rejection of his experience.

Jones doesn’t rely solely on his lyricism, however. As I touched upon above, his consistently brilliant arrangements enter into conversations with what he says, calling to mind the call-and-response nature of jazz staples. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Featured Artist,” where the trumpet acts as an exclamation point, a sarcastic laugh, and a straight response. Jones never fully strays into an identifiable style, however, preferring to keep the listener from fully dissecting the song through layering the jazz elements with pop guitars and romantic strings. The song’s lyrics focus on the human mundanity of the musician’s life, the repetition of rehearsals that lead to being “this week’s featured artist,” in a failed attempt to stave off death. Through mixing elements from several centuries, Jones turns the song into a statement on artistry, and people, in general—Jazz, classical, pop; musicians, painters, writers; artists, accountants, athletes; we all work hard to make it look easy, and die having done nothing else. The worry of repetitive work towards a cosmically unimportant goal reappears through the album. On “Olivia,” he lists a few of the select works that have outlived their creators before crooning that he is “working, working/ now I cannot be employed” as flutes, violins, and vocalists reminiscent of Russian ballet play in the background. It conjures the emotion of a man caught in an unfair system, one where he can either work himself toward a nigh-unreachable dream or chase love, but not do both.

Jones’s album reminds us of the futility of trying to fit music into defined, narrow boxes, chastising us that characterizing an artist solely in terms of their predecessors or genre is reductive and wrongheaded. A song is greater than the sum of its parts. A bouquet is more than just lilies, orchids, and roses. It’s the complicated interplay between them, the soft melding of the purples and whites, the mingled scents and sights. Approaching it as such tells us more about its creator and ourselves than any deconstruction ever will.

 

[1] Elton John did the soundtrack, and honestly, it’s one his best works, as absurd as that sounds.

Beach Time

Every spring, as pollen descends across the United States, I begin to have panic attacks about the nature of time. At this point, it seems as regular as the flowers blooming. Though it happened through high school as well, having to travel between Providence and Atlanta has made it worse. This isn’t because of the trip itself, but rather the different weather cycles of the two towns. In Providence, you never have any doubt about what season it is; this certainly is not the case in Atlanta. Sure, it’s often colder in January than July, and there’s enough pollen in April to choke out the metro area, but in the grand scheme, the differentiation is minor. Especially when paired with the nature of our memories, this makes it difficult to discern when during the year a particular event happened. We don’t retain the physical memory of bugs attacking our calves or the simmering heat, only the less poignant intellectual imprint of it. In places with massive seasonal swings, this matters less, because there are more obvious signifiers of what season it is, i.e. “is it snowing?” In Atlanta, however, it creates a situation where memories blend together across visits. When did we bike to Stone Mountain? Was it in January or June? Which month did I bike more? When did that restaurant open? November or April? Who knows.

Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys seminal album, turned fifty two weeks ago. It’s the same age as Revolver, a year older than Sgt. Pepper’s, and precedes Hunky Dory by a solid six years. Having been alive for none of that time period, this absolutely shocks me. For all the faults that labeling music as timeless brings,[1] Pet Sounds is certainly timeless. But it’s timeless in a different way than that of Bowie I talked about a couple months ago. Pet Sounds sounds fifty only in that it sounds like it could have been released anytime in the past half a century (or more). Close your eyes and you can imagine the album playing from the jukebox in a 1950’s diner, the tinny speakers of a 1970’s van, or drifting out of the top of a contemporary convertible. More importantly, in any of those scenarios, the album sounds brand new.

Do a quick experiment for me. Go on Apple Music, or Spotify, or Pandora radio, or anything else. Find the artist Best Coast, in particular their album Crazy for You. Listen to it. Or even better, start a Crazy for You station. Tell me what the songs sound like. Maybe weave in some songs from Pet Sounds—see how nicely they blend? It’s like they’re all one generation. The guitar riffs that meld lo-fi grain with beach color and mingle with the soft “aahhs” of backing vocals reminiscent of doo-wop. The lyrics that infuse unrequited love with dreams of domestic bliss, crooned in an affectedly unaffected voice that conveys an airy reality that would be almost dreamlike if not for the intrusion of brutal emotional pain. This isn’t to call Best Coast or their ilk derivative (I really like them), but to highlight how fresh Pet Sounds was and is. Their complex surf rock neither burned out nor faded away, remaining contemporaneous with each year. That the pastiche still feels fresh is a testament to the original.

Bowie also existed out of time; but for all his greatness, his music never truly transcended the era in which it was made, even when he did. Hunky Dory is probably my favorite Bowie album; it’s beautiful and complicated, with Bowie taking on the personas of heroes and villains as a way to express his inner struggles. Worries about his ability to be a father are wrapped inside an adaptation of an Arthur C. Clarke story; meditations on knowledge and death are (possibly) explored from the point of view of Hitler in his suicide bunker. The B-side of the album consists of homages to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. It’s closed out by the cuttingly personal “Bewlay Brothers,” unmasking the pain that pretending to be someone else failed to ease. It’s sonically stunning, with each song staggeringly unique and yet closely tied to what precedes and follows it. It’s near impossible to believe that a 24 year-old made this album. But it’s easy to date it. It couldn’t have been made anytime other than between 1966 and 1974. In a way, this contributes to Bowie’s timelessness. There’s a disconnect between the maturity of the music and the age of the artist. Bowie was simultaneously old with the wisdom that brings yet bubbling with youthful creativity. No 24 year old could make this album, yet it could have only been made when Bowie was 24.

This is the case with most Bowie albums. Low is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It’s meditative quality, born out of intense writer’s block and Bowie’s urge to cleanse, allows the listener to either immerse himself in a fugue state, using the transcendental album to bring them to an empty space or to craft a world to fit the soundtrack nature of the album. But such an album wouldn’t be made today—not because it couldn’t be, but because the sound of the album was intimately tied to the ambient music movement of the late 1970’s. There are too many signifiers of its time. There’s snow in the treetops.[2]

Though filled with complex, challenging arrangements, a lot of the utopian feel of Pet Sounds comes from its simplicity. Fredric Jameson famously said that his concept of a utopia was a world where no one went to bed hungry. For Brian Wilson, it’s that two people can live together. Even in the darker songs, there’s always a sense of hope that this will one day be the case. No matter how bad the world may be, there’s always the possibility of it getting better. The utopian simplicity adds to its timelessness. Who amongst us, wanting and alone, hasn’t dreamed of loving co-habitation with the object of their affection? Bowie, for all his greatness, was never simple and utopian.[3] Even the seemingly upbeat parental metaphor that is “Oh, You Pretty Things” replaces humanity with a new species and shruggingly accepts the apocalypse.[4] Diamond dogs die; sloops sail on.

Though The Beach Boys may have splintered due to death and mental illness, they are eternally “the band on the radio singing ‘this is my generation again and again,’” to borrow from Meilyr Jones.[5] Their sound is as fresh as it ever was—they’re the ever-present heat to Bowie’s signifying snows. I put on Apple Radio’s Pet Sounds station; the second song is by Best Coast. I’m going biking—the restaurant nearby is supposedly new. Or maybe it’s fifty?

 

I want to offer a special thanks to Jenson Lowry, who pushed me to really listen critically to Pet Sounds and also introduced me to Best Coast, and Luc Bokor-Smith and Rex Patton, who have really changed how I approach listening to music over the past year or so. This piece, like almost everything I write about music, is indebted to the long, meandering conversations I have with the first two and the brief but content filled ones I have with Rex.

 

[1] Something Steve Hyden very eloquently talks about in his new book.

[2] The only Bowie albums that may avoid this fate (though it’s too early to tell) are his last two. Maybe a growing awareness of his own mortality pushed him into making albums more timeless in the traditional sense. Perhaps he feared that if the totality of his out of timenesss existed in him, it would cease to exist when he did, and history would forget him more quickly. Whatever it was, both The Next Day and Blackstar mostly abandon the signifiers of their eras. Think about how jarring it is when Bowie mentions his cellphone on Lazarus; for all the album’s focus on mortality, it’s the only concrete connection to a time.

[3] The only song that is that I can think of is “Kooks”

[4] As Chris O’Leary notes in his ever-useful Rebel Rebel, “all the nightmares came today/and it looks as though they’re hear to stay” is sung with a “rolling purr” that dismisses the idea of struggling against the apocalypse.

[5] Another musician, who though his solo debut was released this year, already sounds timeless.

Rock n Roll Suicide

Last night I was in a light sleep, one easily disrupted, a sleep I’m often in. What disturbed this particular sleep, however, was relatively unique. My phone was ringing off the hook, something that occurs with ever lessening frequency. I ignored it, knowing it could wait until morning. When I awoke, the first message I saw read, “You’re going to wake up to bad news. I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to scroll through the rest of the texts and notifications; lying back in bed seemed like a much better idea. But the day had to start at some point, so I read on. A missed call from my sister. A follow-up text from her. Two texts from a friend who adores rock. “CNN just sent me an update.” “I just got a BBC notification.” A news update of my own. David Bowie is dead. It seems like a hoax. Three days after he releases a new album, one centered on his mortality. After months of cancer so completely hidden that it seemed not a soul knew. But that’s why we immediately felt that it was true. Bowie seemed to aspire for his life to exist outside of reality. Why would his death be any different?

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I always struggle when people ask me who my favorite musician is. I respond with a question of my own, a common evasion for a common query. How do you define favorite? One I listen to most? One I respect most? Something else? When I ask myself that question, however, my response is much quicker: David Bowie. I don’t know why I pause when others ask me this. Maybe it’s because a lot of people my age associate Bowie (wrongly), with the past, and I fear they’ll see me as one of those young people who overly valorize the old rather than embrace the new. Maybe it seems like, if you’re going to pick a “past” musician, you should say the Stones or the Beatles or Bob Dylan, not a pop artist. Whatever it is, it has stopped me from admitting that one of the weirdest, most creative artists working during my lifetime was also my favorite. Bowie was a beautiful genius in ways that writers much smarter than I either have or will cover. No matter the style of pop, you can find a Bowie song that does it well. The man existed at all times, which meant he seemed to exist out of time. His death is a reminder that, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Eventually, the clock came for Bowie. He was timeless; now he is timeless.

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Imagine David Bowie dying slowly. Imagine him in a hospital gown, a white one with red and black polka dots, one that isn’t form fitting at all. Imagine him talking to his doctor. “Well David, you really shouldn’t have smoked those Reds for so long.”[1] Imagine his final day. His family gathered around his deathbed, staring into his eyes for the final time.[2] It seems inconceivable. It feels right that his death occurred in the middle of the night (for people in the U.S. at least). For all the talk about his personas, that for him everything was a performance and his every action performative, he often moved without commotion. He announced he’d stop touring as Ziggy mid-concert, as if he had just made up his mind; he released The Next Day and Blackstar with little of the pageantry associated with an aging star making a comeback. I can’t imagine him dying, but I can imagine him slipping out one night, without fanfare, just him returning from whence he came. An alien who blessed us with his presence, and, upon giving us enough, went home.

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I’m in Key West again—it’s been a little under a year since I was here last. As I walk into the house, almost everything is as it was, just slightly rearranged. I hope that Bowie, whether on Mars or some similarly far out place, finds the same.

[1] Yes, this is riffing on Alex Pappademas’s inability to picture Bowie doing everyday, normal things.

[2] Bowie has a family. I don’t know why, but even that seems odd. Can aliens marry humans?