Saturday, January 11, 2014

Keeping a Resolution is Hard!

One of the things I wanted to do better this year was post to this blog more regularly, but here it is 11 days into the new year and I haven't put up anything yet! I'm not at the stage in my reading to have anything to say, really, about the book I'm reading right now, The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

At least I've been writing quite a bit, though not all of it is anything very exciting. The exciting news is that I finished the first draft of my second novel this week and so far my two earliest readers seem to think it doesn't need a lot of editing. Hooray! After spending five or so years editing the first one, I was nervous about that "Coming in 2014" deadline I put on myself for this one. But maybe I'll make that deadline just fine. The not-so-exciting news is that I've been working on a program review document for our Communication program at the school where I teach, something that has been needed for several years but is now on a semi-critical deadline. However, it is such a HUGE job, pulling together all these bits of information and trying to fit them in some kind of order....I have to reward myself once in a while. So, given my post a couple of weeks ago, you might be able to guess I've been listening to a lot of the Avett Brothers, ha ha.

My son gave me two Avett albums for Christmas, and I downloaded another, plus a few other favorite songs. I'll admit, the songs these guys write are not good "background" for any task requiring mental effort--their lyrics demand to be listened to rather than to just slip, unprocessed, in and out of my mind. No "Baby, baby, baby, oooh" here! And as I've listened, the rhetorical critic in me thinks she's noticed a theme to each of the three albums I have. So, with your indulgence, I'll engage in a simple textual analysis of some of their work.

First, a word or two about my methodology. I'm going to take each album as a unit with a single theme and purpose rather than as a collection of unrelated songs. I don't think this is a misinterpretation on my part, given something one of the brothers said about their album The Carpenter. He said most of the songs on that album explore the temporary nature of life and of the desire to be ready and at peace with the end of life when it comes. So I believe they and their producer work to find songs that fit together to create a piece of art. Secondly, I'm not trying to say what the songs "mean." For one thing, I really strongly believe an audience does as much to create the meaning for a work as the writer does. For another thing, I don't want to make assumptions (probably wrong) about what went in to writing a specific song. I know from my own writing that one doesn't necessarily have to have lived through something to write about it (for example, my father is nothing like the abusive father in my novel!).

Now that's settled, let's look at the albums. I have a theory that each one of the albums explores some tension we all experience in our lives. The first album, I and Love and You, seems to be mostly songs about longing for something. The theme is expressed in a pretty straightforward way in The Perfect Space, with lyrics such as "I want to have friends that I can trust, who love me for the man I've become, not the man that I was," and "I want to fit in to the perfect space, feel natural and safe in a volatile place."  In other songs, it's not necessarily that there is an explicit statement of longing, but maybe a sense of something missing, of something that is just out of reach of one's fingertips--Laundry Room, for example. I personally think that song is so sad. The persona in the song is obviously in a relationship, yet there is a deep insecurity expressed in lines like "Last night I dreamt the whole night long, woke with a head full of songs....but it's a shame, tonight I'll burn the lyrics, cause every chorus was your name." And sometimes the songs are about getting something you wanted, but there's still the tension of giving up something, an inevitable tension that comes with change, as in Slight Figure of Speech: "It's not you, it's not mine, besides it's gone, and you never will find it again."

In the interest of not writing a thesis on this blog, I'm not going to talk about The Carpenter, since I've already given the quote from the brothers themselves about the album and its exploration of the themes of life and death. They did a whole series of short commentary bits about the songs on the album. Here's the one about the final song on the album, the one that seems to wrap up the whole theme.


I'll end with the most recent album, Magpie and the Dandelion. I'll admit, the first couple of times I listened to the album, I was alarmed, because I thought I could hear loud and clear a theme of "we can quit this gig at any time" (in lines like, "I lived it but now I'm wanting out"). Just as I discover them! Maybe that is there, because they have said in some of their interviews that if they ever felt they didn't have something to say or that the quality of their work was going down, they would move on to something else (not that I'm saying the quality of their work is going down! ha) . But after listening a few more times (and after picking up on the tensions in the other albums), it seems to me they are looking at the tension around work/fame and its cost to family relationships. Again, there is a song that is an explicit statement of that theme, Good to You, which talks about not being around at times when a family member needed someone there. One verse was written by the bass player, Bob Crawford:
When you were born I promised myself I'd always be there for you/To help you feel safe and never alone, no matter what life put you through/Time passed by, I lost my way, and didn't find it for years/A strong young woman now stands in her place/The child has disappeared/Now that I'm home, do you still want me here?
That "do you still want me here?" is sad enough for any parent who feels guilt about not spending enough "quality time" with a child, but when it's set in the context of knowing Crawford's young daughter has struggled with brain cancer for the last couple of years, it's really heart-rending.

Another moment on the album that expresses the tension in a way that's almost--no, not almost, but really--painful is Part from Me. The song speaks about being on the road and about how the touch of a loved one "always left me feeling worse when it was time to go." The song ends with these verses and the final time through the chorus:
And most of us out there got fooled,
Cause the gold it glittered in the night
We chased it fast like drunk buffoons
The banker lived, the artist died

And all our clothes were washed in gray,
All our buildings and our cars,
As the fluorescent light of day
Bleached the sky and took the stars

Part from me
I would not dare take someone in love with me
Where I'm going
Apart you'll see
How true it is and how back then
It possibly was impossible for you or me to know it
What a metaphor for the cost of chasing a career and the toll it can take on a relationship. I don't know if it is just the lyrics or the combination with the understated, intimate delivery that just makes me scared for the singer and afraid he's going to do something drastic. It's at that point I have to remind myself that this is art, not life, and that an artist can imagine things that aren't necessarily so. At least, I hope they aren't so--I would hate to have anyone put in that situation just to give me the pleasure of his songs to consume. As the Brothers say in Slight Figure of Speech (from I and Love and You),
A slight figure of speech
I cut my chest wide open
They come and watch us bleed
Is it art like I was hoping now?

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