In a 2017 interview with NME, Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, was asked about the origins of “The Man,” the lead single from their then-upcoming album Wonderful Wonderful. According to Flowers, he wrote the song to “hearken back” to his public persona during the band’s heyday in the early-to-mid-2000s, when songs like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” made them one of the biggest musical acts in the country. Flowers admits to enjoying slipping back into that past version of himself, but he says he looks back on that period of his life with more than a little embarrassment:
I’ve been cleaning it up for a long time. I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.
Based on Flowers’s comments, it is tempting to read “The Man” as a partial critique or parody of masculinity. Critics generally seemed to have reached that conclusion when discussing the song. Writing for Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal argues that “The Man” is the product of the conflicting urges to celebrate and mock traditional masculinity; the song is “poking fun at dick-swinging supremacy while serving up something that could reasonably soundtrack a rough-and-dusted pickup truck commercial.” More directly, Chris DeVille wrote in a (very short) piece for Stereogum that he likes “The Man” because the song “knows it’s ridiculous and it relishes that ridiculousness.” And in Spin, Anna Gaca suggests that the song “gets a lot better when you start believing that it’s narrated by the villain, and that the Killers are subtly shimmying some kind of truth to power.”
I understand the impulse behind these readings, but I’m not sure the text of “The Man” supports them. For one thing, to read “The Man” as a critique of masculinity feels like an excuse for enjoying a song with frankly uninspiring lyrics (“I’ve got gas in the tank, I’ve got money in the bank,” “Don’t try to teach me, I’ve got nothing to learn,” etc.). Gaca, to her credit, considers that very point in her review, conceding that “the lyrics are pretty cliché” and “not exactly something you’ll find yourself searching for deep-seated meaning in.”
But even if the lyrics were technically stronger, I still don’t think they’d support such a reading, because the content of every element of the song celebrates the subject matter. Every line is a boast of the speaker’s manliness; even a bizarre line like “USDA-certified lean” only sticks out because it’s novel, not because it’s skeptical of the song’s core conceit. The groove is infectious, an immediate call to the dance floor, and the roboticized backing vocals during the chorus are pure cheesy fun. Whenever I hear this song, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Hell yeah, I’m the man! This is awesome!” The fact that I’m not wholly comfortable with that response is the only reason I have for looking for critique within the song itself; it’s the natural way to reconcile my conflicted feelings about it.
At this point, I’d have to conclude that if Brandon Flowers wanted “The Man” to be an expression of regret or skepticism about his past as a performative stud, then it simply didn’t make it through the process. But I can’t say that Flowers is being disingenuous in that interview, either, because while the song does not effectively critique that persona, the music video most certainly does.
The video for “The Man” (dir. Tim Mattia, 2017) sees Flowers take on the roles of various caricatures of American masculinity: a Vegas lounge singer, a playboy, a daredevil motorcyclist, a greaser at a karaoke bar, and a high-roller in a cowboy get-up. Like the song itself, the video depicts these paragons of manliness at their most pumped-up, as they strut down the Strip, entertain the ladies, and lay down the big wagers. Unlike the song, though, the video does not leave those depictions unchallenged, but instead shows the consequences that such approaches to masculinity have.
Admittedly, the video’s skeptical outlook is gradual and at first rather fleeting. It’s not until the first chorus that we see some push-back against the characters that Flowers portrays: some eye-rolls behind the playboy’s back, a yawn from someone watching the lounge singer. In a video that’s driven by montage and built around five different plotlines, it’s easy to miss those first little jabs; I’ve had to watch it several times over while writing this review to catch as many of them as possible. They’re important, though, because they lay the groundwork for the later (and grander) declines these men experience. Without the eye-rolls and yawns, their downfalls might seem like sudden calamities; with them, and those falls become more and more inevitable.
Take this shot of an audience member for the lounge singer’s act. There’s nothing especially dramatic happening in the frame, but his facial expression conveys quite a bit. He’s not sold on the performance; if anything, he looks confused, as though he’s wondering why Vegas is still staging shows ripped from the days of Busby Berkeley or Flo Ziegfeld. This fellow resembles nothing if not the critic listening to “The Man” and asking himself, “Are these guys for real? This has to be a joke, right?” A shot like this is not essential to the video when considered in isolation, but as such moments accumulate the effect gets stronger and stronger. The viewer is left with the gut feeling that something eventually must give.
And, boy, do some of these guys fall hard. The high-roller goes on tilt at the roulette table and loses everything he has, before the casino tosses him out into the parking garage. The motorcyclist, haunted by footage of debilitating crashes (possibly his own highlights?), rips up his tapes in a self-pitying fit. After his karaoke set, the greaser starts flirting with a woman in the crowd right in front of her boyfriend, who proceeds to beat the snot of him. Even when the fall is comparably mild, there’s still a noticeable sense of dejection: the playboy on his knees when the ladies leave him, the lounge singer packing his glittery costume in a storage locker. To me, at least, the message of the video is clear and distinct: the version of masculinity presented in “The Man” is at best unfulfilling and at worst self-destructive. Turns out, you can in fact “break me down.”
This leads us to the question: if the video for “The Man” is a clear critique of traditional masculinity, does that make the song itself a critique as well? I’m still not convinced the answer is yes, but I can’t definitively say no, either. The music video is paratext for the song; it brings the reader to the text and offers some information for interpreting it, but it does not constitute the text. And given how most songs are heard without the context of the video, it’s not even a piece of paratext that people are necessarily likely to encounter (unlike, say, the cover a book or the title of a film). But I do think the video demonstrates that “The Man” can be employed in the context of critique, especially in the way that it asserts the speaker’s manliness to the point of insecurity—the singer doth protest too much, methinks.
Granted, that “The Man” is amenable to critical usage is not necessarily a point in its favor. It’s not like Negativland’s album Dispepsi proved that soda commercials were secretly subversive, just that they’re banality was amusing. But then again, it’s not like PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company were involved in the making of Dispepsi, either. The video for “The Man” was made with the band’s participation, and that does lend some extra weight to its reading of the song. Ultimately, I’m unable to find a clean resolution to this tension.
I think Dombal is on the money when he calls the song “a particularly phallic ink blot”: it provides a lot of potential answers, but no definitive ones. Alternatively, we could give Gaca the last word: “”The Man” is a bop. It would sound fan-fucking-tastic in a roller rink.” Somewhere between those two, you’ll find me.
But that’s enough from me. What do you think of “The Man” (either the song or the video, or perhaps the union of the two)? Can you think of any works of art you feel similarly conflicted about? Sound off in the comments below!
Normally this is where I would plug some previous piece of mine which is tangentially related to the one you just read, but this time I’ll instead link to a video essay by YouTuber Sarah Z entitled “The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. Her video also dives into the question of how to approach a work which appears to both endorse and critique the same idea. If you at all found this post interesting, I’d give her video a watch.
Last Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Andy Greenwald’s document of emo subculture right as it was reaching new heights of prominence in the mainstream. Nothing Feels Good has its share of problems (not least among them, it really could have used another round of copy editing), but on the whole I found it to be an engaging piece of popular music criticism. This comes despite the fact that I was familiar with almost none of the music that Greenwald discusses in the book.
It was fascinating, really: all this music is from the not-too-distant past, yet the only songs I recognized were Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and the singles from Weezer’s first album. Why was so much of this book’s material foreign to me? Partly, it’s a simple matter of timing. In 2003, I was just entering middle school, which would have put me at the very youngest edge of the traditional emo fanbase. If hadn’t heard any songs by Dashboard Confessional or Thursday, it’s because I wasn’t in their target audience. It would still take a couple of years before I aged into that particular bracket, by which point a new crop of emo acts had come around and overtaken them.
At least, that theoretically might have happened. Truth is, when I was a teenager, I didn’t have any emo acts to call my own.
Okay, I know that sounds like bragging, given how the word “emo” is loaded with negative connotations, but that’s not what mean. Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to define our terms. Greenwald, rather than defining emo in terms of any essential musical components or any historical connections to the D.C. hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, takes a more functionalist, more audience-centered approach to the genre. What’s important is not what emo music is, but what it does. To quote at length from the introduction:
Emo isn’t a genre—it’s far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It’s the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level—sentiments particularly relevant in an increasingly corporate, suburban, and diffuse culture such as ours. Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you. It takes its cues from the world-changing slap of community-oriented punk, the heart-swollen pomp of power ballads, and the gee-whiz nostalgia of guitar pop. Emo is as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.
from “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,” pp. 4-5 (emphasis original)
What emo is supposed to do, in Greenwald’s telling, is to elicit certain emotions in the listener and to foster a connection between audience and artist. It’s a form of music that, moreso than other genres, is intensely personal and interpersonal. It’s why Greenwald spends less time analyzing the music itself and more time interviewing the teenagers who listen to it: that’s where the true nature of emo is to be found.
That functional approach to the genre seems fairly intuitive to me. It explains how Dashboard Confessional, originally the solo project of acoustic guitar–playing singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba, can be placed into what is ostensibly an offshoot of punk rock. The musicological features of their music don’t matter nearly as much as the fan communities surrounding them. Further, Greenwald’s approach allowed me to at least intellectually appreciate emo for what it is. Had he focused more on the music, had he encouraged the reader concentrate on aesthetics, well, based on the lyrics he quotes I’d have concluded that nothing of value had been forgotten fifteen years on.
One might object, however, to this functionalist approach to the genre. If emo is defined by what it does to the listener, by the personal connection that the listener has with the artist, then two people could disagree on whether a certain song or artist was “emo,” and there would be no objective criteria to determine who was correct. Greenwald, though, seems willing to bite the bullet on that. “In short,” he says after laying out the definition above, “everyone has their own emo” (p. 5). Now, I would concede that the term “emo” is too laden with associations at this point for Greenwald to expand the definition that radically, though of course I’m writing with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of hindsight. Going forward, I shall substitute the phrase “angst music” to describe the sort of thing that Greenwald investigates in Nothing Feels Good. It’s not a perfect equivalent, I admit; “angst” is really a subset of the emotions that emo is supposed to elicit. But it’s good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me back to my initial point. I feel like I missed out on something when I was a teenager, because I didn’t have any good angst music.
II: “I Built a Time Machine”
When I was in high school, I was very disconnected from contemporary popular culture. I distinctly remember hearing some of my classmates in 11th grade health class talking about the Taylor Swift–Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I don’t just mean that I didn’t know about the incident—I didn’t know who either of those people were. Nowadays, I’m still not all that knowledgeable about current popular tastes, but it’s not like I’ll respond to the name “Ariana Grande” with a confused squint.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the music I listened to back then came from the past. I picked up my love of Neil Young from my father, and I eventually started devouring Bob Dylan records, too. I loved both of those artists dearly, and would spend hours listening to their music, with something like the intensity that Greenwald sees in the teenagers he interviews in Nothing Feels Good. But there’s a key difference between my experience and theirs. They could relate to the music that they were listening to, and if I’m being honest, I could not.
On a surface level, Dylan and Young seem like good candidates for angst music—not for their whole discographies, perhaps, but for certain beloved and acclaimed albums. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) is a contender for the greatest break-up album of all time, and doesn’t heartache describe a good chunk of teenage angst music? Similarly, Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975) is a naked and ramshackle outpouring of grief, which fits with the blunt and bombastic emotions that Greenwald emphasizes. And could appreciate all those emotions, but only on an abstract level. Dylan and Young sang about adult problems with adult complexities. Meanwhile, I was a sheltered, shut-in kid from the rural suburbs; I never had a decade-long marriage fall apart or lost multiple friends to drug overdoses. If I had quoted any of their lyrics on hypothetical message board posts, it would have looked like, and would have been, a pose.
(Okay, one exception: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am,” from Young’s “Albuquerque”. That’s pretty easy for anyone to apply to themselves.)
Beyond my forays into classic rock, the other context in which I heard a lot of angst music was in sports video game soundtracks. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing ice hockey video games, like EA Sports’s NHL series and Midway’s NHL Hitz. Both series had a penchant for genres like pop-punk and nu-metal, classic angst music styles. And their selections were…not very good. The first thing I used to do after booting up NHL 06 was change the song playing on the menu screens, because the soundtrack always started off with Fall Out Boy’s “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued”. I just could not stand how smug, snotty, and self-satisfied Patrick Stump’s vocal delivery was, especially given Pete Wentz’s kinda-cute-but-not-actually-clever lyrics.
Not every song on those soundtracks was unbearable, though. I quite enjoyed Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”, easily the best song on NHL 2004. The sweeps between quiet and loud on the track are pretty and even somewhat cathartic in a way I can’t quite figure out. Still, I could never manage to use it as angst music, largely because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. That’s both because they don’t enunciate clearly and because the situation is described with the exact wrong amount of concrete detail. It’s neither sketched-in enough to be a vivid scene nor vague enough to feel universal; it’s in the uncanny valley of description.
Best as I can figure, the closest thing I had to angst music as a teenager was, of all bands, Guster. I’ve talked about them before, when I analyzed the lyrics of their third album, Lost and Gone Forever (1999), but I didn’t get into the band until I heard the lead single to their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). That single, “One Man Wrecking Machine”, is a quintessential depiction of suburban teenage malaise. The speaker’s concerns are stereotypically high school: he wants to go to the Christmas dance with the homecoming queen (“Maybe now I’ll get in her pants”), “pass around a skinny joint” with his friends, and get out of his parents’ house already. These issues are small, but the title blows them up to an operatic scale: the speaker isn’t just angsty, he’s a one man wrecking machine. It’s a song that captures the visceral experience of being a teenager.
Except, not really. Angst music tends to be immediate: the problems it addresses are set in the here and now, and the emotions it elicits are felt in the here and now. To the extent that the genre allows for reflection on the past, it comes from the perspective of a teenager remembering childhood. The artist isn’t supposed to be reflecting back on being a teenager—that’s too distant a perspective for the assumed audience. But “One Man Wrecking Machine” is explicitly a retrospective song. The opening line, “I built a time machine,” places everything that happens in the speaker’s own distant past. He wants to “relive all [his] adolescent dreams,” which only makes sense if he’s moved well beyond them. I didn’t really notice that the first time I heard it, but after a while it became obvious: this is a song about having a midlife crisis.
It’s also not a song that is content to let the speaker indulge in his emotions. The last repetition of the chorus alters the lyrics slightly to highlight the futility of the song’s central gesture: “I tried to pull it apart and put it back together / No point in living in my adolescent dreams.” That’s a very earnest songwriting choice, but it’s earnest in a way that’s less reminiscent of punk rock than it is of country music. The guys in Guster are correct, of course, and perhaps those of us listening to angst music could use that little bit of perspective they throw in at the end. But if someone’s in the mood for angst music, I’m not sure that they want perspective; what they want is for their feelings to be validated. In that mindset, I couldn’t blame them if they took friendly advice as condescension.
At any rate, even if I wanted Guster to be my angst music, I would have found myself disappointed right quick. Sure, they had songs like “Demons” and “Happier” in their back catalog, but their next album, Easy Wonderful (2010), was as sugary as a pop-rock album can get. As it happens, Easy Wonderful was the album that really made me a fan, so that didn’t bother me none, but there’s a possible world where the sunshiny one-two punch of “Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?” broke my already-broken heart.
That more or less takes us up through my high school graduation, right past the peak listening years for angst music. It wouldn’t be until college that I discovered the band that filled a void in my past-self’s soul, a void that past-me didn’t even know existed. And that band was Frightened Rabbit.
III: “Not Deep Enough to Never Be Found”
It took me some time to come around to Frightened Rabbit. I first heard of the band in the comments section of The A.V. Club, under an article that mentioned former folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons. The commenters at The A.V. Club hated Mumford & Sons, and often brought up Frightened Rabbit as the superior version of that sound. (I’m not sure why, actually; I don’t think the two bands sound anything alike.) I began to associate Frightened Rabbit with the self-impressed hipster set, and when I gave a listen to their then–most recent album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), I wasn’t too taken with it. Sure, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” was fun, but everything else just left me cold.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, though, I was out on a late-afternoon walk around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, listening to WYEP, a local community radio station. The DJ introduced the next song as the latest single from Frightened Rabbit, entitled “State Hospital”. The track was hauntingly austere, with lonely guitar plucks overlapping with the percussion and Scott Hutchison’s vulnerable vocals taking center stage. He starts telling “the most threadbare tall story the country’s ever heard,” the story of a woman born into a life of poverty and abuse. Hearing the song for the first, I wanted to reject it as a piece of mawkish, manipulative sentimentality, as too many works on that subject are. But Hutchison’s lyrics proved too precise, too poetic to dismiss. By the time we got to the chorus, by the time the song went from sparse to anthemic, Hutchison sang that “[h]er heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs,” and I was sold.
“State Hospital” is more empathetic than it is angsty—the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the emotional release and connection that the first-person perspective does—but their next single, “The Woodpile,” is angst distilled and refined. The speaker of “The Woodpile” yearns for a human connection but his held back by crippling social anxiety. A man “bereft of all social charms” and “struck dumb by the hand of fear,” the speaker finds himself at a dance club and instinctively retreats from the action, “look[ing] for a fire door / An escape from the drums and barking,” and “fall[ing] into the corner’s arms.” Yet still he calls out for companionship, wishing that “you would brighten [his] corner / A lit torch to the woodpile.” That line, coupled with the blasting guitar in the instrumental bridge, elevates he speaker’s anxiety to heart-bursting levels. It’s perfect angst. And it was perfect angst for me: a song I could not only appreciate, but relate to.
“State Hospital” and “The Woodpile” set the stage for Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, Pedestrian Verse (2013), which over the years has become one of my most listened-to albums. Each song is a jewel of self-doubt and self-loathing, sometimes backed with a spare, mournful arrangement, more often with electric rock energy. A great sense of worry pervades the album: the secrets in “Backyard Skulls” are “not deep enough to never be found,” the speaker in “Holy” is “too far gone for a telling,” and a title like “Dead Now” seems self-explanatory. Yet the tunes are always so alive and memorable. It’s like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” played over 12 tracks, only I’m not embarrassed to sing along with the lyrics.
I loved Pedestrian Verse in the moment, of course, but even more I’m convinced that past-me would have worshiped it. The pain on Pedestrian Verse is almost entirely internal, the sort that comes from no apparent cause. Scott Hutchison doesn’t sound betrayed by an ex, and he certainly is not railing against overbearing parents. The speaker of a Frightened Rabbit song is miserable because he is miserable. That really was my sort of teenage angst, the feeling that I wanted validated. I would have especially loved “Holy”, though I probably would taken the religious metaphor more literally than I think it’s intended: “I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul / I’ll still have the stomach of sinner, face like an unholy ghost.”
Granted, there’s another reason I think Pedestrian Verse could have been my angst music had it come out earlier. There’s a certain amount of self-critique and irony to the album, an attitude that Greenwald would suggest is anathema to emo. That sort of music is supposed to be entirely, humiliatingly sincere. Pedestrian Verse, on the other hand, seems skeptical of itself. I mean, the album is called Pedestrian Verse, a self-deprecating assessment of the lyrical content. And the last two songs, “Nitrous Gas” and “The Oil Slick”, see Hutchison poke fun at his own histrionic tendencies. On the latter, he suggests that “only an idiot would swim through the shit [he] write[s]”: it’s so sad and self-serving, how can it appeal to anyone else? “Nitrous Gas” is even more extreme: he is “dying to be unhappy again,” “dying to bring you down with [him],” and more than willing to substitute happiness with the title chemical.
As an adult, I see those self-critical flashes as a necessary balance to some of the album’s more indulgent moments, like the phrase “knight in shitty armor” from the album opener “Acts of Man.” But as a teenager, those same flashes would have provided my ego with some plausible deniability. I wasn’t listening to angst music, I could have told myself, it’s a parody of angst music. That argument would not have held the slightest water, but whether it was true or not was irrelevant. Past-me would have needed that escape hatch to justify listening to something so straightforwardly emotional. I remember all those extended quotes from the teenagers Greenwald talks to in Nothing Feels Good, and while I may cringe at how what they say can get overblown and lose perspective, I still admire how open they are about it. I was incapable of such openness at their age.
So I’m totally down with angst music now, right? Well, not quite. There’s still one thing about it that troubles me.
IV: “A Particular Relationship”
If, like me, you watch a lot of video producers on “Left Tube” (or “Bread Tube” or whatever people are calling it now), you have probably come across the term “parasocial relationship,” which is the term for a one-sided relationship in which a person emotionally invests in someone who does not know that they exist. Think of how you might admire a particular television personality, or how you might root for a particular fictional character—those are classic examples of parasocial relationships.
I first heard the term “parasocial relationship” on an episode of the YouTube show NerdSync, which discussed the concept in the context of the comic book series Ms. Marvel. In the video, presenter Scott Niswander mentions how, although parasocial relationships “can be a relief from strained real-life relationships and act as a buffer against a loss of self esteem,” there’s always the risk that one will end up “project[ing] certain attributes onto the celebrity to fit their own wants and needs.” More recently, a YouTube series from Shannon Strucci, called Fake Friends, has been exploring the potential negative aspects of parasocial relationships, most notably in the second installment, “Parasocial Hell”.
Recall how Greenwald defines emo: “a particular relationship between a fan and a band,” “a desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue.” It’s a genre of music that invites parasocial relationships, to a greater extent than popular music naturally must. It invites devotion, however short-lived it tends to be in the genre. When we listen to angst music and conclude that the artist understands what we’re going through, it’s rather easy to make a leap as to what the word “understands” means in that sentence.
Frightened Rabbit means a lot to me, though I didn’t quite realize how much until Scott Hutchison’s death last May. I don’t wish to dwell on it for fear of exploiting it for personal use, so I’ll just say that I think I felt similar to how countless people felt after Chester Bennington’s death the year before that. I felt half-numb for few days afterwards, and wondered whether I needed to reevaluate my assumptions about Hutchison as a result.
Parasocial relationships set us up for disappointment, as the probability that an artist will wholly match our perceptions of them is close to zero. And that’s not even addressing the chance that an angst music artist proves to be terrible person. I mentioned Brand New earlier, and in the course of researching this piece I discovered that their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, has faced multiple allegations of grooming underage fans. Were I a fan of Brand New, had I formed a parasocial relationship with Lacey, would I be tempted to ignore or deny the allegations for the sake of preserving a particular mental construct—especially had that construct helped me through some difficult times? I can’t prove or disprove a counterfactual, but it’s not a comforting prospect.
In “Parasocial Hell,” Strucci criticizes the tendency for fans of celebrities to assert, without actual intimate knowledge, that so-and-so public figure is a “good person,” particularly after allegations of sexual misconduct. And if I have one reason to still find angst music distasteful, that might be it—no matter how much I may, in fact, derive from it.
Thank you for reading through this overly long post! I’ve had something like this kicking around in my mind for about as long as I’ve been keeping this blog, and the more I thought about it the more it started sprawling on me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t just write the damned thing already it would never get out of the conceptual stage. The result is what you’ve just read.
Anyhow, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve recently undertaken the Classics Club reading challenge, and I think my first write-up for it, on W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, is representative of how I like to approach culture. Hope you enjoy it!
Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.
Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.
On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)
Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.
Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.
Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:
The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.
Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.
Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:
You don’t know how far you’ve gone Or recognize who you’ve come How’d you grow to be so hard? Sick of playing my part
(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)
Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).
The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.
The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:
Like your father said, “Just do what was done unto you, always” In your father’s steps You’ll do what was done unto you It won’t be hard to start again
This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.
Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”
I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.
Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.
Here’s a project that I’ve been excited about for quite some time! One of my poems, “The Fury of the Moment,” has been included in the anthology Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers, 2018). This one has been a long time coming, so it was such a thrill to finally get this book in the mail on Friday.
To have a poem in this anthology is a great honor for me. First, as you may have gathered if you’ve read this blog for a while, I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music. I’ve dedicated blog posts to the rhyme scheme of “Queen Jane Approximately” and to placing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in the ballad tradition, but neither compares to contributing to the conversation around Dylan’s work through my own poetry. Second, it’s a privilege to share space in this anthology with such esteemed writers as Johnny Cash, Yusef Komunyakaa, Dorianne Laux, and Paul Muldoon. Certainly my work is put to shame by their example, but for the moment, I feel like I’m getting away with something.
Here’s a little background as to how this came about. New Rivers Press, which is based out of Minnesota State University Moorhead, announced that they were planning this tribute to Bob Dylan in early 2016, and in response I wrote a handful of new poems inspired by Dylan’s work. The one they eventually selected, “The Fury of the Moment,” attempts to capture the feeling of listening to “Every Grain of Sand,” the last track on his last born-again album, Shot of Love. I submitted my work in August 2016 (not too long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature), received the acceptance contract in December 2017, and at long last got my copy yesterday. Like I said: a long time coming.
Special thanks to the editors, Thom Tammaro and Alan Davis, for including my work in this project, and for accommodating a last minute change of address!
Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan is published by New Rivers Press, Moorhead, Minnesota. As of this writing, the book is listed as temporarily out of stock through both Small Press Distribution and Amazon, but with any luck it’ll be back in stock soon!
This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.
Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is
in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.
It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”
Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.
Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.
Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.
The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.
And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.
Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.
Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.
After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.
Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.
For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.
I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”
The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.
“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.
To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.
“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”
On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.
One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.
A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.
In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.
II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”
Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ BobDylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.
As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:
“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.
When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.
Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.
And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.
Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.
III. “I dreamt of that sound…”
The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.
With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”
Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.
Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:
I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.
First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.
But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.
I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.
IV. “Join me in song…”
To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?
Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.
We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”
So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.
I used to read a lot of Steven Hyden columns when I was in high school and undergrad. I’d look forward every month to him and Genevieve Koski debating the merits of various Hot 100 songs for The A.V. Club’s “This Was Pop” feature, and I immensely enjoyed some of the essay series he authored, such as Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? (The A.V. Club, 2010) and The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll (Grantland, 2013). The way Hyden gracefully ties together basic rock history with his personal experiences, growing up in small-town Wisconsin and developing a fascination with classic rock, always appealed to me. After all, I felt I could relate to that story. I, too, was from a kid from the boondocks who became infatuated with the culture of the recent past.
However, I stopped keeping up with his work after Grantland, where he was a staff writer, ceased publication in 2015, and so I wasn’t aware that Hyden was still writing until I came across Brooke’s review of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey Street, 2018). Seeing that review triggered some warm memories for me, and I immediately put the book on my to-read list.
Still, I went into Twilight of the Gods with an uncertain feeling, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was fairly sure that I did. How much of the book, I thought to myself, would be brand new (or at least, new-to-me) insights and arguments, and how much would be reworded or repeated versions of past columns, ones that I had already read for free? That’s really something one must keep in mind when reading any book by a columnist: the possibility that you’ve literally read this all before.
Reprinting older material in a new format is, I want to stress, not necessarily a bad impulse. A contemporary short story collection may consist entirely of pieces first published in The New Yorker, but having a single volume of stories is certainly less cumbersome than tracking down a dozen random back issues of a magazine. And the ways an author orders and revises those stories may illuminate certain themes or connections among them that reading the stories in isolation would never reveal. Twilight of the Gods, I felt the need to remind myself, could do much the same for Hyden’s music writing.
With that as preamble, I’m going to ask two questions of this book. First: to what extent is Twilight of the Gods a rehashing of Hyden’s previous work? Second: in what ways does Hyden repackage that material, and do those methods improve the experience of reading it?
Question 1: What Have We Seen Before?
According to the book’s copyright page, four of its nineteen chapters contain direct reprintings of previously published material: three from The A.V. Club and one from Uproxx (which comes from that period after I’d lost touch with Hyden). That was actually less than I’d expected, and I only noticed one of them during my read-through: the chapter entitled “Keep On Loving You,” on 1970s and 1980s “corporate rock,” which reuses a large portion of his essay on REO Speedwagon’s 1981 album Hi Infidelity. I might use this as evidence that Hyden has good taste in his own work, as I’d rank that article among the best pieces he’s written. If Twilight of the Gods accomplished nothing else, I would still be glad that it helped preserve a solid piece of writing.
Of course, a writer can repeat themselves without doing so verbatim. Some sections are technically new pieces of writing but bare striking resemblances to earlier works. A good example is the Aerosmith section of the drugged-out rocker chapter, “Draw the Line,” which reads like a slightly condensed version of the band’s part in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. The two versions hit all the same beats: Aerosmith starts as a band famous for their party-ready music and their drugged-fueled creative process, who fall off for several years before they embrace sobriety and professional songwriters and attain even greater commercial success, serving as an exemplar of society’s changing attitudes towards drug use and artistry. Both versions even go out of their way to mention how getting Aerosmith concert tickets is a plot point in Dazed and Confused. The expression of the ideas differs, but the substance is mostly the same.
Beyond arguments and insights, Hyden has a habit of reusing anecdotes outside their original context. For example, that Hi Infidelity article mentioned above opens with a bit about Hyden’s mother excitedly confusing R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, but that doesn’t appear in the corporate rock chapter. Instead, it’s included as an aside-within-an-aside in the chapter about live albums, “Hello There (Live at Budokan).” The book is peppered with moments like that: brief flashes which would only draw attention if, like me, you had no life seven years ago and reread Hyden’s columns like they were about to go sour.
From all the above, I’d say that, to someone familiar with Hyden’s previous work, Twilight of the Gods will definitely sound familiar, but the experience of reading it won’t be completely redundant. Whether that’s enough to make the book worth a read is up to you—and if you’ve never read Hyden, I suspect it’s wholly irrelevant.
With that out of the way, let’s turn to the more interesting question.
Question 2: How Has It Been Repackaged?
Let’s start this section off with the macro-level, and get the book’s major misstep out of the way. Hyden structures these otherwise loosely-connected essays around Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The book is broken up into four parts, each of which is named for a section of the hero’s journey, from the start of their quest to their moment of transcendence. In practical terms, this means that each section’s essays roughly touch on the same theme: one section will talk about the roots of the classic rock, another about the decadence and corruption associated with it, another with the format’s decline in popularity, etc.
For the record, I tend to find the popular usage of Campbell to be rather tedious in the best of times, but in the case of Twilight of the Gods it actively weakens the book by asking the reader to look for a progression that doesn’t exist. Hyden knows that explaining classic rock is too messy a subject to fit into this sort of straitjacket, and for all the personal moments in the book, they’re not focused enough for the collection to be a work of self-revelation. It is true that Hyden often wants to highlight the quasi-spiritual aspects of being a classic rock fan, saying he was drawn to “the mythology of it, which satisfied the part of my psyche that demanded connection to a vast, awe-inspiring reality.” But there would simpler ways of conveying that notion than halfheartedly gesturing towards some hero’s journey.
I think Hyden would have done better to keep the connective tissue linking the essays to a minimum, because his quiet callbacks to earlier pieces can be pretty powerful. The best example is from “Keep On Loving You,” right as he closes out the REO Speedwagon section, where he refers back to earlier essays about his teenage passion for the classic rock staples in a moment of empathy with his mother:
My mom would never describe Hi Infidelity in these terms, but I think REO Speedwagon for her represented a more down-to-earth version of the rock mythos. As a kid, I was attracted to larger-than-life rock stars with exaggerated personas rooted in decadent mysticism. I longed to go on a misty mountain hop and venture all the way to the dark side of the moon. But my mother was too experienced to buy into those silly, pie-in-the-sky fantasies. What she longed for was more mundane but in a way no less fanciful—a decent guy who was earnest about love. That’s why Hi Infidelity made her heart sing. Her notes might have been off-key, but they were true.
Importantly, this closing paragraph is not part of the original piece of Hi Infidelity. It’s the sort of insight that Hyden probably had previously come to, but which didn’t fit in with that first conception of the piece. In the context of a broader account of classic rock, though, Hyden has a justification for making that link between mother and son in the text itself.
Even within individual essays, Hyden finds ways to refine points he has previously mulled over, finding new significance for them in the context of classic rock’s complete story. The most explicit instance is in “So Bad,” in which Hyden directly quotes his essay on the “five-albums test.” In a long parenthetical to that essay, he also defines the concept of a “good ‘bad’ album,” an album from a genius-level artist which is interesting precisely because of its relative badness. (As a long time fan of Neil Young, I am overly acquainted with this sort of record.)
Twilight of the Gods isn’t the first time that Hyden has returned to the “good ‘bad’ album” concept; he ran with it a bit further when discussing The Rolling Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You. But in both those earlier articles, one can sense Hyden feels stymied. He has this idea about “good ‘bad’ albums,” but hasn’t yet figured out why anyone should care about it. (Indeed, the Tattoo You piece starts with Hyden expressing surprise that no one had latched onto the idea in the comments for the five-albums test article.) It’s not until he gets to this book, this personal history of classic rock, that he finds the importance behind this pet concept of his—it’s central to being a younger fan of older music:
It’s the only way to discover “new” music if you’re into classic rock—you must dig into the albums that people tell you that you won’t like, and you must listen to them many, many times until you find a way to like them. Because you will inevitably tire of Pet Sounds, and when that happens you will come around to Love You and marvel over the daffy synth sounds in “Johnny Carson,” and speculate over whether Brian Wilson’s state of mind makes this song an intentional classic or an act of unintentional “outsider art” brilliance. Over time, you might even convince yourself that Love You is better than Pet Sounds—but, really, it’s just that liking Love You is more interesting, because music critics haven’t told you how to feel about it for fifty years. Love You doesn’t contain better music than Pet Sounds, but it does offer more in the way of discovery and surprises.
As a writer, this is the sort of thing I wish every big project would give me. Putting together a collection should not merely be a means of presenting previously written material. It should be a means of figuring out what the author wanted to write in the first-place, but couldn’t figure out until now. That Hyden is able to do so in Twilight of the Gods makes me both envious and hopeful.
On the whole, Twilight of the Gods isn’t a revelation for someone who has previously read Hyden’s work, but, lackluster superstructure aside, it’s a chance to see Hyden’s writing as the best version of itself, a place to see thoughts which were still works-in-progress or presented incompletely as the tight statements on music they were meant to be. It’s like listening to a bunch of Fleetwood Mac demos, and then hearing their polished versions on Rumours. They may ultimately be the same songs, but the compiling and revising has made them sparkle just a bit more.