My Lover Is in the Voice
149 · 4 December 97
Steve Earle: El Corazón
The lists are long, in every medium, of the things I feel like I should have heard, or seen, or read, but haven't. History spreads out implacably into the distance, and each year it carries something else away with it that I might have loved, but never knew. There's no help for this, but it makes me frantic and sad all the same. So I buy more CDs, and see more movies, and read more books (or buy more books, anyway), racing the conveyor belt. If I just didn't have to sleep, I think, I might be able to keep up. Or work -- if I didn't have to sleep, or work, and days were thirty-six hours long (but only for me). Maybe that would be enough. Each time the clock ticks over after twenty-four, then, and some time later sleep claims me, I feel a pang for everything the Sleepless me will accomplish before I wake. For years, at least in music, I hung a curtain, It Happened One Night-like, across about 1978. It didn't block out the clamor from the rest of time, or keep anything precious from escaping, but at least I didn't have to confront my own ignorance every morning over breakfast. When I was twenty, and it was 1987, and I didn't have much money to spend on records, anyway, this seemed like a clever efficiency to me. The older I got, though, the harder it became to reconcile myself to the obvious idiocy of this position. If it was okay for me to say that music history began in 1978, just because that's when I turned eleven, then it must be okay for someone born in 1977 to say that music history began in 1988, and since saying music history began in 1988 is clearly stupid, saying it began in 1978 is, sadly, by logical extension, dumb. The other thing I realized, along the way, was that drawing the line across time didn't really achieve what it was intended to. The hopeless unwieldiness of music is ongoing. Draw the line today, if you wish; you'll still be irretrievably lost by Easter. The body of music you're about to miss is every bit as daunting as the body you already have. The only way to block out your ignorance is to find a room small enough that you can trace every line in the grain of the floorboards with your tongue, and lock yourself in it. If all you care about is klezmer music, or harp solos, or Baltic death metal, then perhaps you can hope to understand it all. But what a Pyrrhic victory, what a meager universe in which that's all "all" means.
So I do the best I can. I can't explore everywhere at once, but I can follow trails, as I come across them. Jon Astley, whose two albums I liked a lot, is doing the Who remasters, so I take the excuse to learn about the Who. I hear "Walk Away Renee" in a movie, so I buy a Left Banke collection. Songs are covered, and I track down the originals, or new albums lead me to past lives. Slowly, haphazardly, I find my way into new places. "It's Just Another Morning Here", playing in a record store while I'm buying Complete Discography, by Minor Threat, leads me to Nanci Griffith's Late Night Grande Hotel. Emmylou Harris' backing vocals on Nanci's Other Voices, Other Rooms tangle with This Mortal Coil's cover of Emmylou's "'Til I Gain Control Again", and convince me to buy Emmylou's Cowgirl's Prayer. I like it well enough to try her next album, Wrecking Ball. Wrecking Ball, it turns out, floors me, and prompts a spasm of previous-album-and-box-set buying, but my search for ways to express my love for Wrecking Ball, specifically, which if Emmylou were twenty-four and Welsh would be channeled into multi-part import singles and obscure contemporaneous compilation cameos, leads me trawling through its other participants. Daniel Lanois doesn't thrill me without her voice, U2 are a long-lost cause, and Dylan, Neil Young and Lucinda Williams' songs always sound better to me when somebody else sings them. Kate and Anna McGarrigle are a revelation, though, and Gillian Welch's Revival is a quiet masterpiece. I put off Steve Earle for a while, half on lifestyle grounds and half because I keep confusing him with Stevie Ray Vaughan, but eventually I buy I Feel Alright. This trial goes well, and his new album, El Corazón, comes out the same week as Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, and thus finds me in a particularly expansive (sp?) mood. As I stand before the new-releases rack a little voice in my left ear whispers, in a terrible French accent, "They're wafer thin!" Surely one more wouldn't hurt.
And that's how I ended up becoming an ardent Steve Earle fan. El Corazón sounds nothing like Wrecking Ball, but the impression it makes on me is quite similar. It isn't incorrect to call it a country album, but it takes some explaining. Country, as all marketable genres will, has circled in on itself, and much of what is now sold under its heading is music that subscribes calculatedly to a stylized illusion of rural values. The formula dictates tempos, vocal styles, lyrical content and arrangements, in country as surely as in death metal or New Age or ska, so it is now perfectly possible to make a country album (a good one, even) without ever having personally witnessed a living cow, much less grown up among endless Kansas wheat fields. The belief-system you can deduce from an hour of CMT is blissfully self-contained; being country, it suggests, is mainly a matter of watching CMT. (You'll need some tight jeans, but the Gap still sells those, if you look hard enough.) El Corazón, it seems to me, is a product not of this homogenized sense of "country", but of country when it was an adjective, before it became a bin label. There are real reasons why not everybody in the world has moved to the city, and mainstream country has ceased to explicate them, just as Green Day and Bush no longer express punk's original nihilism. Folk, in fact, which has at times been music's other defender of small-town intimacy, has also largely become urbanized, relocated from "This Land Is Your Land" campfire sing-alongs to basement coffeehouses in college towns, so there's an unclaimed sense of that, too, left for this album to revive.
Which is, actually, how it begins. "Christmas in Washington", the opening track, is mostly just Steve and an acoustic guitar, a little harmonium hum for ambience. "Come back, Woody Guthrie", pleads the chorus. This sounds, initially, like musical nostalgia, but "Tear your eyes from paradise / And rise again somehow" is a little more urgent than campfire wistfulness. As Earle continues with the roll call of the missed -- FDR, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- it becomes clear that he remembers that "This Land Is Your Land", before it joined "Kumbaya" as protean karaoke, used to have revolutionary intent. His thin, nasal drawl is the antithesis of anthemic exhortation, but that, too, is part of the point: anthems, themselves, have been coöpted by years of "Fight for the Right to Party" and "Cum On Feel the Noize"; calls to arms are now better as whispers. Conversely, the bouncy "You Know the Rest" is precisely the sort of folk song "This Land Is Your Land" eventually became, and "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" always was. Earle provides four examples of the verse format (vernacular translations of the premises of major epics, with a choral "You know the rest" as a gleefully succinct paraphrase of the substance of them), but I can easily imagine the song rattling on cheerfully for hours, as your cousins improvise endless variations on the theme. Earle's goofy, self-referential concluding verse telegraphs the song's conclusion, as all good sing-alongs must, so that everybody knows to join in for one last round.
Country is good for love songs, too. The jangly "Somewhere Out There", with more than a little pop lilt peeking through the steely guitar and sighing organ, is the most conventional of these, the kind of country melancholy that people mean, I think, when they say they hear the West in Gin Blossoms songs. "I Still Carry You Around", all sawing square-dance violin and plunking banjo (courtesy of guests the Del McCoury Band), is the most unflinchingly traditional country setting. The lyrics are suitably vague about whether the narrator's love has died, or merely left him; his plaintive yearning is the same, regardless. "Poison Lovers", a sweet duet with Siobhan Kennedy, is the flip-side, a doomed relationship that the couple can't break out of. The strangest of the love songs, the twangy "If You Fall", sets out to be a stern warning against falling in love at all, but the narrator, in detailing the problems with falling in love for his friend, seems to remind himself of why people bother, and "Nothin's gonna be the same", which begins as the crux of the problem, ends up being an affirmation.
The centerpieces of this album, though, to me, are the four songs that address, directly, the distinction between cities and country. The clipped, vaguely "Hey Hey My My"-ish "Taneytown", with Emmylou returning the guest-vocal favor, is a disturbing story of a naive (retarded?) young black man's frightened night expedition into a white town. Four white boys corner him ("You'd think that they ain't never seen a colored boy before", he says, but his mother gets into and out of the presumably larger Gettysburg without event elsewhere in the song, so perhaps there's more to it than this), and he ends up killing one. The city eats its own, though, so one of the other boys, who picked up his dropped knife, gets hung in his place. The other three songs paint the allure of cities a little more sympathetically. The wheezy "Telephone Road", with the Fairfield Four providing gruff gospel harmonies (and Cheri Knight adding hand-claps, which makes me wonder, excitedly, whether Steve has helped out on her upcoming album), captures the wide-eyed wonder of a first visit to one ("Mama never told me about nothin' like this. / I guess Houston's 'bout as big as a city can get"). "N.Y.C.", which alternates between Earle's chiming 12-string verses and the Supersuckers' furious distorted roar on the choruses, is like a chapter from years later in the same life, when the narrator picks up a hitchhiker on the way to New York City (it sounds, when he says it, tellingly like "Neon City") for the first time. The boy clearly has no idea what he's getting into. "I never really been there, / Just like the way it sounds", he explains, the superfluous "really" and the way the "k" in "like" replaces the "th" sound in "the" two nicely observed linguistic details. "I heard the girls are pretty", he adds, bashfully, and if he hasn't even learned to relate to the women he grew up with as people, I don't know how he's going to survive a city of ten million strangers. The narrator is tempted, remembering his own disheartening New York experience ("The girls were really pretty, / But they wouldn't talk to me"), to tell him not to go, but in the end a gust of empathy overcomes him, and I almost want to cry when he slips the kid a twenty as he lets him out. The album's final word on cities comes in the last song, as quiet as the first one, which concedes virtues to Colorado, Tennessee, Houston, Galway, Amsterdam, London and Paris, but ends up wistful, of all places, for Ft. Worth. Now, I've been to Ft. Worth. I grew up in Dallas, in fact, so I could have gone there as often as I liked, I guess, but as best I can recall there were only two reasons anybody I knew ever thought of to go to Ft. Worth: one was to attend a rodeo, and the other was to eat a massive amount of barbecue, in a restaurant with sawdust on the floor, just prior to attending a rodeo. I believe we did this only twice, when I was too young to object, so my memory of the city may well be worthless, but it struck me then as a city that had somehow managed to incorporate without ever taking on any redeeming urban characteristic. Swapping "redeeming" for "soulless", since I'm a city person and Earle is not, it makes sense that he would pine for it.
The unanswered question, then, is why this album appeals to me so strongly, if its world-view and mine are so basically antithetical. I might someday move to the country, but if I do it will only be because the urban infrastructure has become so pervasive that reaching the country does not, effectively, require leaving the city. Country joys are simple, and I prefer my joys complex. I prefer cacophony to peace, for the most part, speed to stillness, possibility to consistency. If the decisions we make differ, though, the grounds on which we make them may still be the same. An Oklahoma front-porch conversation about the weather expresses a longing for connection differently than a Denon stereo flooding a Cambridge townhouse with Shostakovich, but both state the conviction that life exists to be shared, however obliquely, with other people. The stranger someone else's way of saying that seems to you, the closer you are to isolating the essence that your way and their way share. Although I suppose learning from strangeness is, itself, a city idea, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, no reason for farmers to listen to Ministry.
Mike Scott: Still Burning
The tension between urban chaos and folk simplicity isn't regional to Texas, by any means. Mike Scott's former band, the Waterboys, began its existence embroiled in the anthemic Celtic-rooted surge of early-Eighties British New Wave, as also practiced by U2, Big Country and the Alarm, and Scott's lyrical themes, on songs like "Savage Earth Heart", "Church Not Made With Hands", "A Pagan Place" and "The Pan Within", yearned for grounding with a strident grandeur that only displacement, I think, can produce. By the band's 1988 fourth album, Fisherman's Blues, he'd decamped to Ireland, rounded up a veritable troop of acoustic musicians with similar gypsy inclinations, and set out to make the music match the theory. This worked so well, in fact, that the lyrics, which the yearning for meaningful simplicity previously sustained, largely collapsed into doggerel. What they lost in fervor, though, I thought, they made up for in sheer contentedness, and both Fisherman's Blues and its 1990 successor, Room to Roam, remain paradigms for me of unencumbered acoustic-ensemble charm. Why this reverie didn't endure, I've never been sure, but by the final Waterboys album, Dream Harder, in 1993, the faerie host had vanished into their barrows, and Scott was left at the helm of a studio rock band staffed primarily by himself. To my dismay, I hated it. At their best (the over-earnest "The Return of Pan") the new songs seemed like low-grade retreads, and at their worst (the vaudevillian "Corn Circles") I had to shut the player off. The posthumous compilation The Secret Life of the Waterboys, though, in 1994, reminded me vividly of why I loved them, vividly enough that I was willing, the next year, when Scott's first official solo album, Bring 'Em All In, appeared, to give him one more chance. I hated this one even more, so much that it threatened to ruin his earlier albums for me, in the same sickeningly cloying way that Richard Bach's later books made it hard for me to recreate the enchantment I once felt for Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I must have blocked it out, in fact, or else I can't imagine how I'd have found the courage to buy this new one, as an import no less.
But Scott has lost me and won me back once already (I never learned to like This Is the Sea, the third Waterboys album), so when I find that he has again, a part of me is quick to recast a lapse of concentration as smug prescience. Bring 'Em All In, it now seems obvious, was an aberration, and there's bound to be some simple explanation for everything I dislike about it. Heavy Prozac sedation would be the most straightforward one. Scott performed everything on it himself, and maybe the things I like about his music only come out when he has other players as foils. He recorded lots of it at "The Findhorn Foundation", of which I am intently suspicious, so maybe there were intimidating cult-leaders mumbling "therapy" in his headphones between takes. But never mind. The phase is over, and the incarnation of Mike Scott in which I have unshakable musical faith has resumed control of the avatar.
Still Burning sets out, it seems to me, to be a rousing, joyous proclamation of rock longevity, and as catastrophe-fraught as a such an ambitious gesture is, that's exactly how it sounds to me. It resembles none of Scott's previous phases, exactly, but it seems to have outgrown them, not forgotten how they work. Scott plays piano and assorted keyboards, but most of the music revolves around his ragged, kinetic rhythm-guitar parts, and Chris Bruce's fiery leads. The studio-pro rhythm section of Jim Keltner and Pino Palladino supplies steady and unobtrusive, if mainstream, support, James Hallawell, who I know from his work on Jackie Leven's albums, plays stirring organ on several songs, ex-Icicle Works singer Ian McNabb contributes a disarming falsetto backup-vocal on a few, and the Kick and Memphis Horns add delirious brass flourishes to a couple. Scott's vocal delivery is clear and unhurried, and displays none of the clipped Dylan-isms that I disliked on This Is the Sea. "Questions" is an infectious, soulful blast, with scratchy guitars, shimmering horns and wailing harmonies. "My Dark Side" is a churning guitar stomp that, except for Scott's excitable vocals and some glassy minor-key keyboard stabs, could almost be Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone". "Open" is as gentle and reverent as anything on Room to Roam, the string-buoyed "Love Anyway" as grand and uplifting as the heights of A Pagan Place (the string section taking the role Anthony Thistlethwaite's howling saxophone filled on the earlier album). "Rare, Precious and Gone", the other horn-and-organ number, casts Scott momentarily as a suave big-band leader, before "Dark Man of My Dreams" whisks him away to front a gritty guitar group. "Personal" sounds enough like a lost Cat Stevens song that I wonder if the hobbit pseudonyms in the credits for it are some sort of paranoid anti-fatwah measure. Square, ringing piano keeps the loose-limbed jam "Strawberry Man" on track, and cheerfully choppy guitars and charged singing keep the mid-tempo gallop "Sunrising" in motion. And if Still Burning is a rock album that flirts with folk the way El Corazón is a country-folk album that flirts with rock, it's fitting that "Everlasting Arms", Scott's finale, is a quiet guitar and harmonium song much like Earle's.
My only disappointment with this album, if I have to have one, is that Scott doesn't quite seem to regain as much composure lyrically as he does musically. My favorite early Waterboys songs, like "Somebody Might Wave Back" or "Red Army Blues", are every bit as carefully observed as Earle's stories of country boys and cities, or, like "Church Not Made With Hands" and "All the Things She Gave Me", veer into and out of coherence with an evocative emotional authenticity, like only parts of the thought they seek to convey fit into words. Then came the neo-traditionalist period, though, and a long line of songs in the vein of "Here is the smell / Of seafood pie" and "A tourist with a telescope / And a funny-looking German bloke", and by the time Bring 'Em All In rolled around, Scott seemed to me to have lost all ability to distinguish between effective expression and mere sincerity, and between significant nuance and random specificity. Still Burning recovers from most of Bring 'Em All In's particular flaws; there are no mindless travelogues, no songs where repetition of the title forms more than 65% of the text, and the songs of personal tenets, with the possible exception of the prayerful "Everlasting Arms", do seem to realize that only fellow believers tend to find bare recitations of a credo compelling. There are an awful lot of rhymes you can see coming from clear at the other end of the couplet, though (he only narrowly scrapes through the album without resorting to twice/advice or fire/higher), and a few more songs than I'd like feel to me like the vocal delivery is trying to breathe life into words that ought to have had some animation of their own. In fairness, however, this does sometimes work: the way the short lines of "My Dark Side" alternately trail and lead their beats makes the song sound much less terse to me than it reads; "Dark Man of My Dreams" rushes the lines that follow the repetition of the title, as if to emphasize the difference between the title, which is repeated for context, and the lines that actually mean something; and "Sunrising" flaunts its meter with a confidence that only comes with a master's awareness of where the words ought to have fallen. And frankly, heavy-handed rhyme schemes are an endemic failing of many rock songs, including plenty that I like just fine, and if Scott didn't have a history of greater subtlety to live up to, I doubt these would even have registered.
At any rate, comebacks, or whatever the right word is for an artist returning to a style that I like, mean enough to me that I'm more than willing to meet them halfway. It hurts me, deeply, to think that I've fundamentally misunderstood an artist, or that styles are so separable that they can be assumed and exchanged with impunity. I don't want the resonance I feel with A Pagan Place, or Jane Siberry's The Speckless Sky, or School of Fish's School of Fish, to be a coincidence, I want it to be an expression of the conjunction of our personalities, and so Dream Harder, and Jane's Maria, and Josh Clayton-Felt's Inarticulate Nature Boy bother me in a way that albums I don't happen to care for by strangers never would. They insist, often at exactly the wrong time of night, that these relationships I have with records, into which a frightening amount of my life-energy is poured, are fundamentally one-sided, and that what I experience as steadfast loyalty is a product not of albums coming to understand me like I understand them, but of their shiny surfaces handing me back pieces of my own devotion. I know this is true, I know, I know like I know the inexorable approaching footsteps of death, but if it can't drown out the footsteps of death, then what earthly use is all this noise?