I Beat the Sun, But Not By Very Much
286 · 20 July 00
Richard Shindell: Somewhere Near Paterson
Songs lend themselves to poetry. Arguably it's actually easier to write poetry in song form than on paper, easier to conjure images and manipulate emotions if you have voices and instruments to help you. Easier isn't necessarily better, of course, and there's an obvious counter-argument that songs tend to be built on mediocre texts (as evaluated against literary standards) because they can be, the same principle that condones lax ingredient selection for anything you plan to deep-fry. But still, music reaches people. Phrases in songs have changed the lives around you, and lines in books of poetry mostly have not. The best lyrics can touch people who would have considered themselves beyond words' reach. Calling music a universal language demonstrates an unworkably superficial conception of "language", perhaps, but call it a universal vector, instead. I think the correct theory is not that any two arbitrary human cultures can communicate with each other, using music, it's that any one arbitrary human culture can communicate with itself through music, communicate on an evocative level for which "poetry" is as good a term as anything else.
Storytelling, at least in a pop context, is much harder. We called music "accompaniment", back when it was the bard's mnemonic system, but by now the roles have largely been reversed. Most pop lyrics are no more narrative than measure-counting. It's hard to build a cast of characters out of one or two singer's voices (and although in the Spice-Girls/NSync era there are plenty of groups with four or five singers, I've yet to hear any of them attempt a serious ensemble drama), and there's rarely enough time for a story to unfold, even in brusque third-person. Consider: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", an epic by story-song standards, is less than five hundred words long, and takes me less than a minute to read. Even a compact short-story is ten or twenty times as long.
But the scale of a story is not measured in word-length, it's measured in conveyed experience, and a song has a human voice to lift its words off the page. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" squanders this power completely. Its narrator is not part of its story, so we learn nothing from listening to him that we couldn't learn from reading. Why does he keep reminding us what the Chippewa called Lake Superior? We never find out, and indeed we're given no cause to believe it matters. Think how much deeper and more intense the song could have been if the narrator had been a Chippewa, standing outside the sailors' church in Detroit listening to a bell ring for a handful of men whose ship sunk in a storm, weighing this individual tragedy against all the bells that didn't ring for the genocide of his people, and searching for some reconciliation between the two in an animistic biography of the lake. Or forget the Gitche Gumee and let the ship's cook, the only victim even roughly sketched, tell the whole story, so we have someone to care about, to give us a perspective from which the events have personal import. As is, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" isn't storytelling, it's ornamented journalism.
And so it makes sense that Richard Shindell, in my opinion and experience the best storyteller in popular music, is also the songwriter who appears to me to have grasped the potential of first-person narrations the most fully. "Fishing", his imagined transcript of an INS interrogation (from his 1994 second album, Blue Divide), remains near the top of my list of the most remarkable things humans have done under the heading of music, and I believe the single detail that transforms it is not the immigrant speaking up at the end, which is certainly moving, it's what the official reveals about himself, as his questions digress. Somewhere Near Paterson, Shindell's fourth solo album (and first since 1997, the time since having been partially accounted for by an album and tour with Cry Cry Cry, the cover trio he formed with Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams), has eleven songs, and if you leave aside the one instrumental and the two he didn't write, only one of those that remain makes no attempt to tell a real story, and only one other isn't profoundly altered by the voice in which it is told. "Confession" is about a speed addict pleading with his pharmacist for more pills, but the addict's meandering exposition caroms off of psychiatric medicine as a service industry, the difference between sedation and absolution, his simultaneous incomprehension that anybody wouldn't want to live the way he does and his gnawing suspicion that he's living wrong, and the horrible realization that the reason he can't pray isn't that he doesn't know what to pray to, it's that he no longer has any idea what to pray for. "Abuelita" is about a child taken from its peasant parents and raised by a city family, but it's told as the monologue of the child's natural grandmother, who has come to the city looking for her. As she waits, she rehearses her meager story, little more than the child's parents' names, and although all we learn of Soledad and Juan Luis' fates is "they may be gone, but...", every other word is saturated with her grief, and when the song ends with "I will wait / By the fountain in the square, / You can find me there", even though she knows the child is unaware of her existence, and so will never search, it finally occurs to me to wonder whether the grandmother's real plan is to die amidst a crowd that she can imagine contains the last remnant of what she's lost. "You Stay Here", the most brutal of these songs, is set in some unspecified apocalypse, but cast entirely as a husband's series of progressively more terrifying reassurances to his wife. "You stay here, / And I'll go look for coats", he proposes (after looking for wood and bread, but before the trip in search of guns, and the final one to bring back God). "There may still be / Some out on the road. / We'll wash them clean with melted snow; / The kids don't ever have to know." How he thinks the kids won't ever find out that they took coats off of unattended corpses, given that society has disintegrated to the point where it's possible to take coats off of unattended corpses, I have no idea, and the fact that he has somehow sustained this delusion may be the scariest thing in the story.
After this demanding opening triptych an intermission isn't a bad idea, and one is provided in the form of Buddy and Julie Miller's promissory "My Love Will Follow You" (with Lucy and Dar singing harmonies), Richard's sparkling seasonal ode "Spring" (his answer, I think, to Gordon Lightfoot's "Summertime Dream" by way of the Waterboys' "Spring Comes to Spiddal"), and producer/guitarist/fiddler Larry Campbell's exuberant instrumental coda "Summer Reel". And even the next story, "Wisteria", is cloaked in flora, a couple paused in their car outside a house they once lived in, the singer letting memories flow over him. He sounds merely nostalgic, but the longer he dwells on the unmanageable vines that the new owners have simply eradicated, the harder I find it to believe that he doesn't miss them as metaphor. For what, though, he's trying desperately not to let on, not to us or his wife, and perhaps most of all not to himself. They're still together, it's not a breakup song, but I think he thinks they've allowed themselves to stop taking on challenges, or worse, that they've allowed themselves to contribute to a culture that has stopped taking on challenges, and that in finding our peaces we've all unintentionally betrayed each other. This disillusionment comes to full fruition in "Waiting for the Storm", a coast-dweller's hurricane vigil, which doesn't sound so bleak until the second verse reveals that he has a wife and kids who have gone inland but he's stayed behind, and the third further clarifies that he has emptied the contents of the house onto the lawn, opened all the doors and windows, and is himself sitting in a rocking chair on the porch calmly waiting to be obliterated. "The Grocer's Broom" is about a corner grocer closing his store after being driven out by a rent hike, but the semi-hopeful chorus ("I suppose I've worked enough for one life anyway, / I've earned these idle days") is undermined by "Thirty years out the door / Because the landlord wanted five-hundred more" and "He climbs the stoop, finds the key / And passes into the dark living-room. / He sees the old sunken chair / Where silence sits playing her flute." The verses of this one are in third-person, unusually, but some people can't be trusted to tell their own stories correctly, and besides, the real narrator of "The Grocer's Broom" is us, observing ourselves by experimenting with ways to understand how we think the grocer should relate to his work and life and death. "Transit" is the one song here that stays entirely in third person, and to me the long tracking shot down a traffic jam caused by a choir van with a flat tire threatens to be unsatisfying. But then magic realism temporarily takes control, and the enraged drivers, having passed the bottleneck, are sucked down the highway, past their exits, into the setting sun. The nun finishes changing the van's tire and hurries to practice, leading not a church choir but a prison choir, and we're left with an interesting, if faintly pedantic, contrast between the commuters' enervating freedom and the inmates' serene incarceration.
For the album's conclusion, to my surprise, Richard opts to do one of Dar's songs, "Calling the Moon". It's not really a story (although Dar has written a few nearly as good as Richard's), but if I'd managed to get this far thinking that the only reason I care about Richard Shindell is that he sings stories, this heartfelt guitar-and-voice folk-anthem, somewhere between REM's "Everybody Hurts" and Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", would have reminded me otherwise. The performance is simple and effortless, Richard's warm, slightly-nasal voice slaloming gracefully around Dar's lithe melody, the guitar part content to strum where finger-picking might have been expected. It's the record's only solo piece, but the band songs, most of them centered on Richard's guitar, Larry Campbell's esoteric-stringed-instrument collection, bassist Lincoln Schlieffer and drummer Denny McDermott, are understated and sturdy, folk-rock if you have to name it, but in the Celtic-infused Richard Thompson sense. "Abuelita" adds violins and dulcimers, and the choruses gather some air underneath themselves, but the key moment, the names, is musically the song's calmest point, not its most cathartic. "You Stay Here" is cycling and insistent, shot through with pedal steel and a mournful fiddle jig. The band plays the Millers' "My Love Will Follow You" as a straightforward ballad, Dar and Lucy's matte harmonies extracting it from the grasp of country, but when Lucy later returns to sing the backing parts for the spiky, galloping "Waiting for the Storm" she does an uncanny impression of Emmylou Harris. "Spring" and "Wisteria" are gifts to the next folk generation, "Spring" sparkling and cozily transcendent and "Wisteria" an excellent slow-song alternative for when you don't have a second singer to do Simon & Garfunkel but you don't want to have to resort to Dan Fogelberg. "The Grocer's Broom" seems to me to follow the outline of a Piano Man-era Billy Joel song, but the buzzing, textural arrangement of "Transit" reminds me vaguely, at times (i.e., when the violin isn't flirting with sinuous Eastern-isms) of the interstitial stretches of Marillion's Brave. I've long suspected that ever since almost producing a mainstream pop hit as the first song on his first album ("Are You Happy Now?", on Sparrows Point), Shindell has deliberately tried to make sure he doesn't risk it again. At times I've resented this, and I will admit that it took me a while to warm to Somewhere Near Paterson, but the breakthrough came one evening when I put it on as dinner music, meaning to leave for the movies around the time it would end, and ended up so fascinated by the candles in my living room that I neither left nor got up to put another disc in. The remote was within arm's length, so when the album ended I hit Play again. The second time through, everything underwhelming started seeming elegant. The third time through, elegant morphed into exquisite. And by now, many repetitions later, I can barely recall what it felt like to think this record should have been brasher or bigger. It is the temper and volume of an internal monologue, and while that renders it commercially unsuited for an audience to whom music is how you distract yourself from the fact that your narrative-of-self is a sixty-cycle hum, to me any art that doesn't sound like this is hard to trust.
Ida: Will You Find Me
There are only two times, in my life, when I am ever tempted to second-guess my dogmatic objection to drugs and alcohol. One is when I am extraordinarily sleep-deprived (and since getting only two or three hours of sleep one night a week is my normal level of sleep deprivation, an extraordinary level requires some fairly serious abuse), and begin feeling like my brain is operating my mouth through an incompletely-reliable proxy system. Apologists for drinking often claim that it lowers their inhibitions, and it isn't quite that I say things when I'm incredibly tired that I wouldn't be willing to say when I've had more sleep, but I do say things I normally wouldn't think of, and as metabolic alarm-bells go, I admit that this one is mildly entertaining. I'm under no illusion that exhaustion-fueled non sequiturs constitute insight, however, and intentionally cultivating the state is a nauseating idea.
The other time is when I'm listening to what seems to me to be flawless, elemental music. I don't just mean music I like, and indeed most of my favorite artists doesn't seem flawless, and vice versa. There is a continuum of music, though, that affects me the way that wind did the Tacoma Narrows bridge, makes me writhe alarmingly and then fall apart, in defiance of what I usually think of as my structural principles. The line starts, at the pop end, with Roxette, and proceeds through Scarlet, Stretch Princess, Emm Gryner and all the quiet Marry Me Jane songs. I lose track of it as it crosses from pop into folk, but I pick up the trail again with Richard Shindell and Luka Bloom's Turf. From there, up until recently, the line jumped straight to Low. The link I was missing, halfway between Richard and Luka's resonant folk and Low's spectral translucence, turns out to be Ida. They have some of Low's patience, especially when it comes to letting vocal harmonies evolve, and some of their unselfconscious home-recording unsteadiness, but they aren't as convinced that beauty and emptiness are synonymous, and their instrumental palette is more like a cross between Rachel's and Nanci Griffith's Blue Moon Orchestra. Ida are to folk music, perhaps, what Rachel's are to chamber music, adherents of an adult style they can't help but inform with lingering punk convictions. The acoustic guitar on "Down on Your Back" stabs at chords, instead of bouncing across them. The glassy "Maybelle" glitters like a Penguin Cafe Orchestra fugue performed without joke instruments. The intertwined bass and guitar lines on "This Water" remind me of Rothko. "Shrug" sounds a little like Everything but the Girl circa Idlewild, and the breathy "The Radiator" is incredibly close to Marry Me Jane's "You Didn't Kiss Me". "Shotgun" is muted and organic, becalmed like Talk Talk for a minute or so before finding some shuffling jazz composure. "Turn Me On" could be a lost Long Fin Killie tape. "Man in Mind" rides on unflappable, looping piano. "Past the Past" sounds like Matthew Sweet slowed down to Elliott Smith's pace. "Georgia" is a tranquil 3/4 lullaby, "Triptych" a country song screened onto vellum (an effect I wouldn't have expected to remind me, even glancingly, of Jewel). Spasmodic, Mecca-Normal-ish piano goads "Firefly". "Encantada" is another embryonic folk-song, but the acoustic guitar and accordion on "Don't Get Sad" are so circumspect that the song nearly ends up as honorary a cappella.
But then, I could easily overlook the accompaniments on half these songs. Ida are hypnotic because Daniel Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele sing together like self-aware pools of light demonstrating that the Venn Diagram is the only form of art anybody needs. The closest folk antecedent is Simon & Garfunkel's "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright", but even that sounds frantic by comparison. Some of the harmonies remind me of Dana and Karen Kletter's, but the Hilliard Ensemble are closer, and an orchestra tuning is closer still. All three singers are bravely artless, Daniel compromising between Lou Barlow and Richard Buckner, the two women between Suzanne Vega and Juliana Hatfield, or Aimee Mann and Mary Lou Lord. Their shared understanding of their singing style is so precise that the three voices transfix me interchangeably when any one of them is singing, and when all three of them join in, I forget what else the universe has to recommend it. What are they saying? I could look it up, but like the wavelengths of rainbow bands, it's data that doesn't contribute to wisdom. No matter what words you fill them with, these songs are about human lives drifting inexorably together, about people who only come into focus as composite selves. These harmonies are the coalescence of my most tenuous and most optimistic theory about people, which is that loneliness and antagonism are intrinsically unstable states. I want to believe that this is what it sounds like when any two (or three, or ten) people sing together, that we hold ourselves apart from each other only by the most obtuse and concerted effort. Music doesn't bring us together, it pours out of everywhere we touch. These awesome, paralyzing songs are nothing more than the sound of us finally ceasing to struggle against the irresistible gravity of souls.