“Everyone But Me” – Americana

It’s about time we had some fun, isn’t it? I know the last few entries have been heavy and entries about this trilogy of albums have been heavy in general. This is in part because of the lyrical content. I never realized how thematically homogeneous the first three albums were until I sat down and tried to write about them. The Fashion Focus will take us in new thematic territory and “Everyone But Me” gets us pointed in the right direction.

How can this be, you may ask. The lyrics are about being completely ignored by someone. This seems par for the course on these first three albums. But this song has a twist. The album closer is really like a sister song to the album opener, “The Voyager”. These songs are written from the same place. Where “The Voyager” challenges and confronts, “Everyone But Me” sits back and smirks. The music is peppy. The vocal and background harmonies (oh, those harmonies) are confident. It sounds downright American, as in “jumping in your T-Bird to go to the sock hop” kind of American.

How can we get the lyrics to match up to the music? I will tell you but that requires sharing another break-up story. This one starts out heavy but doesn’t stay that way, so hang in here with me. I’ll try to keep the unpleasant parts brief and hopefully this will be the last break-up story I will tell for awhile (I promise the purpose of this blog is not self-therapy for my broken relationships… or at least it is not the only reason for it).

A couple of years ago I got involved in a project launch at work that ended up going way outside of scope. It got crazy. I was working somewhere between 60 – 120 hours a week for months (with no extra pay, I was on salary). Once I was in it, there was nothing I could do to stop it. Well, I could have quit my job, but I was the provider for the home and I wasn’t willing to make us homeless over it. I had little energy left at the end of the day (or, in some cases, the early morning hours when I actually logged off) to put into the relationship. It was put on cruise control for awhile.

During these months, my ex started to communicate with other people online more. At first it was Tumblr. I was happy that she found some friends and that she had people to talk to during the long hours when I couldn’t fill that role. After the project launched and I went back to normal full time hours, I fell into a pretty deep depression. How could I not? If you condition your body to exist on anxiety, caffeine and deadlines for 8 months, your body doesn’t know what to do when you finally stop. I was still happy that my ex had friends to talk to because I knew I was not a good conversationalist at that point.

Tumblr wasn’t fast enough to keep up with all the online comments between her and her friends. They graduated to Discordapp where they had their own custom built chat rooms where they chatted all.day.long. I was pulling out of my depression at this point but found that conversations with her were now nearly impossible. I would make a joke about something only to hear silence as the response (and I am funnier than that most of the time). I would look over at her to see her iPhone 10 inches away from her face as her thumbs were flying over the screen. It became such a routine thing that I expected at least half of the things I said to be completely ignored.

At first I just accepted it; this is the way things are now. I blamed myself. If I didn’t want this to happen, then I shouldn’t have agreed to work on that project. Maybe I’m just not that interesting anymore anyway. And so it went on like this for months.

Say what you mean

My first indication that something was amiss beyond the problems I identified with myself came from my ex’s own mouth. She told me about how one of her online friends was going through a divorce. Her friend’s husband wanted the divorce because he thought she was having an emotional affair with the online group. Full of righteous indignation, my ex exclaims, “Can you believe he would say something like that?”

Before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I replied, “Well, yeah, I can see how he might say that. Y’all talk all the damn time.” I knew I had stepped in it. I tried to soften the blow. “I mean, I’m not saying that I believe that but I could see how someone could get that idea.” Oh, the rage I got in response. The countdown clock for the end of the relationship had officially started.

Got time for everyone but me
Everyone but me

It’s funny how the words of a man I’d never met, with a name I would never know, who lived on the other side of the world revealed to me what was happening in my own home and in my own heart. I knew now that what was going on was not normal because I had confirmation of that in words of another person. Now I had to start dealing with the reality of it instead of just ignoring it myself. Once I started paying attention to how much I was ignored, I couldn’t see my way around it. It’s also possible that I was being ignored even more as punishment for stating the obvious.

Say what you need

I was still blaming myself at this point. This changed, ironically, when my ex started blaming me for everything. She went into a rage blackout on me one evening and started screaming about how completely worthless I was as a person and all the things I didn’t do in the relationship. She did everything and I did nothing. The stream of abject rage included such questions as “How long has it been since you brushed my hair?!?” It was full of examples of things she had never mentioned previously as being important to her. I was overwhelmed, blindsided and confused.

Got time for everyone but me
Everyone but me
For everyone but me
Everyone but me

I asked her later where this list of all my wrongdoings had come from because so much of it was composed of activities that she had never mentioned before. She said that her online friends told her what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like (and apparently hair brushing was a figural aspect, who knew…). She decided I didn’t measure up to their list. Ah-ha!

The first thing to recognize was that I had been replaced. People don’t like to admit things like that, but I will admit it to you all as I had to admit it to myself. I was replaced by people on a screen. Once I got that out of the way, I could start to ask questions. How can a group of people pass judgement on my worth when they have never met me and don’t know anything about me? Well, they can’t and anyone who thinks they can is foolish. What about this list of things that people in healthy relationships are supposed to do? When I started sifting through my memories, I realized that on most of the examples, my ex either did those things less frequently than I did or she had never even done them at all. In the light of logic and evidence, these things blew away like dust.

I come back to the idea of being replaced. This is a hard thing to get over. Then I realize that it takes a group of about six people to replace one of me (and even then, those six people did not do as much as I did as my ex realized when she had to start being self-sufficient and doing adult things like paying bills). Maybe I’m not the source of the problem after all. I certainly contributed to the problems, but I was not the source. The paradigm shifted in that moment. The truth of the matter was that she had time for everyone but me. Instead of admitting that and saying what she meant, she built a castle of my perceived failings and my negligence at hair brushing was the cornerstone. Once I realized how ridiculous it was, the smartass in me just had to laugh about it all.

Don’t tell me after
How I feel
Don’t tell me after
How I feel

The power structure and the pace of the relationship changed. I was no longer chasing after something unattainable. I was content to be still and and quiet in my own truth. This really bothered her. I did the unexpected. I never yelled, never spoke in anger as people normally do in break-ups. Flailing to find a reason for the change in my behavior, she would tell me what I was feeling x, y and z, trying to get me to take the bait. Much like this song, I would sit back and smirk. Oh honey, the paradigm done already shifted and you don’t even know where you are standing anymore.

Everyone but me
Everyone but me
For everyone but me
Everyone but me

Really all that I wanted was for her to admit the truth of the matter. She replaced me. It was her decision to do so. But that truth would reveal a pettiness within her that was so counter to her self-image as “the one who does no wrong” that she could not accept it. Anytime I made it clear that I saw who she was and I knew what she was doing, she would decompensate before my eyes. Like the singer of this song, I just wanted her to admit the truth I already knew.

Ultimately, she could not do it; she had to run away from the situation. That’s cool, I can understand that. Some people are not prepared to admit the black in their own hearts. She waged a smear campaign against me. I heard about some of it afterwards from people. One person described it as “she tried to convince me that she wasn’t the crazy one in the relationship by acting like a total crazy bitch to me.” For my part, I didn’t say a bad word about her to anyone. If anyone was on the fence about which side to choose, they could see the truth in the way we behaved. Most people remained on my side. I find it interesting that, to my knowledge, she didn’t try to pull off the smear campaign with anyone who knew me well. This tells me that deep down, she knows the truth she could not admit.

This brings us to the outro of this song. It is one of my favorite sf59 moments. It is a fitting end to this album and, really, to this trilogy of albums so centered on heartbreak. It is triumphant. It is victorious. It is the kind of song that plays at the end of a movie when the villain has been defeated and the good guys are laughing together just before the frame freezes and the credits role. The is the most beautiful “fuck off, I’m over you” overture that has ever been recorded. It is the reverberating sound of the protagonist moving on to new relationships (preferably with bald people so her attentiveness to hair brushing shall never be questioned again). The lead guitar and the harmonies pull us out of this early sf59 phase and into a future where the songs are brighter and the mood is lighter. So let’s move on.

“Help Me When You’re Gone” – Americana

I know every part, every note of this song like I know the shape of the veins in my arm. It would be impossible for me to list favorite sf59 songs, but this is the song I have felt the most connected to consistently these past two decades. The melody moves the way I want it to move. The accents from the drums and the organ hit exactly where I want them to. The bass is the meditative core moves with my soul and makes me feel peace.

From the vibes in the beginning signal that this song is going to take you places you haven’t yet been on this album. Then the song opens to the sweetest melody with a sustained sense of longing. The only other song I know of that could carry those two components simultaneously is “Donna” by Ritchie Valens. That is saying something since I have been convinced since I was a child and saw La Bamba that no one has ever or could ever match what Valens accomplished in that song.

It’s hard for me to focus on the music right now even as I listen to this song on repeat on my headphones. It is because I know what is coming next. I usually do not plan ahead on what I am going to write and I do this intentionally (if you think I am trying too hard on these reviews, you should see what would happen if I actually planned them). With this song, though, I have known what I was going to write about for three weeks now because three weeks ago one of my oldest and dearest friends died.

I have known Zora Mae since I was 5 years old. My mom has a habit of picking up stray people the way that I pick up stray cats. She finds the people who need help, who are isolated, who never had a chance in this world. She finds these people, cares for them and takes them to church and the grocery store. She invites them to family gatherings and day road trips so they have the opportunity to get out of the house and have fun. Zora Mae was one of these stray people. I can barely remember a time when she was not a part of my life.

Zora Mae was from the most hillbilly of all the hillbilly counties in Kentucky. She came from a poor family. As if the deck wasn’t stacked up against her enough already, she also had severe epilepsy which left her disabled and isolated. What she missed out on in the world, she made up for with her love of country music and a vinyl collection that would be the envy of most collectors. Musical trivia was her lifeblood; she could tell you what year a song was released, who wrote it and anyone else who covered the same song. She could recite lyrics off the top of her head to thousands of songs. The music got her through her long, lonely days.

An Aquarius woman (like me), Zora Mae was complex and complicated. She spoke slowly, each word measured with intent. She was serious, her mind always on heavy matters. At the same time, she loved spending time with friends. Every year we would share a birthday celebration which always happened at the local Pizza Hut because they had a jukebox. We would spend as much time choosing a playlist at the jukebox as we would eating our food. I did not love country music the way she did but I understood her need for it. It’s possible that I was the only person in her life who did love music in the way that she did and could understand that part of her. I would stand next to her at the jukebox as she would tell me the history of each song as we flipped through the selections.

Despite her sober nature, she loved to laugh. I could always get her tickled about something. A smile would break open as she giggled showing the gaps of her missing teeth. She was adorable in those moments. It is hard for me to realize that I will never hear that giggle again.

I’ve never known anyone who was as proud of me and my accomplishments as she was. She cried at my high school and college graduation ceremonies. I think when she looked at me, she saw glimpses of what her life might have been like if she had been dealt a different hand. Or perhaps she thought that if she had a daughter, that daughter would be like me. We were similar in personality. We also had the same hair – long, thick natural hair parted in the middle, one part curl and two parts frizz. Every time I was with her, she taught me about the gratitude you should have to be around people who could understand you. I’ve never known anyone who was so happy just to be around me. It is hard for me to realize that I won’t feel that again.

Zora Mae died, we think, on a Wednesday. She lived alone and fell down her staircase. The passing was quick and brutal. We can hope that she had a seizure at the top of the staircase and that she was not conscious of the passing. When a seizure would hit her, it was hard and fast. It was two days before they found her body. My mom was one of the first people called to the scene to help make arrangements. Mom described to me some of what she saw but I know that she spared me the worst details. I mention the brutality of all of this not for shock value or anything but because death is sometimes quick and violent and I am still reckoning with this reality.

My mom was the only person who knew Zora Mae who spoke at her funeral. She hates public speaking and asked me to pray for her before walked up to the pedestal. Her words were elegant and truthful, describing a woman who was complex and mysterious and simultaneously most at peace and happy when she was out with friends having a cheeseburger and a Pepsi. The sun was shining during the funeral and afterwards as I drove home, which was a brief respite from the near constant rainfall we’ve been having. I drove through the mountains and hills of her home, seeing the sun reflect off the deep green of the trees. My eyes followed the curves of the hills and valleys that made up her memories (and make up the curvature of my own DNA) and I felt at peace.

I had dinner with my Mom later in the evening. She was surprisingly philosophical about it. She said that she was not sad because she could remember all of the times she spent with Zora Mae and she felt that Zora Mae was still with her. Without knowing it, Mom recited the lyrics of this song to me. That’s when I decided that I would write this here.

Even though Zora Mae would not have like the style of sf59’s music, she would have identified with the lyrics. She held onto memories of old times with friends and family who were gone. She ruminated over people who treated her wrong. She longed for loves who were lost. Zora Mae was never one for flowery language and if she ever tried her hand at songwriting, her lyrics would have been as minimal as JM’s lyrics.

You are the only people I know who could understand the essence of this woman – her encyclopedic knowledge of music, her vinyl collection and her propensity to ruminate. You are the ones who can understand that I need to tell these stories to help me now that she is gone. Zora Mae taught me about the gratitude you should have for people who understand you and I do thank you for being here with me. And I thank Zora Mae for all the memories of summer days of cookouts at the park and road trips. It helps me.

“The Boulevard” – Americana

The rhythm section on this song hits hard. Back in the day when I had my aftermarket car stereo with the bass tube, those crunchy, punctuated chords when the rhythm guitar, bass and drums hit in unison would kick me in the rib cage like a mule. I think my philosophy for listening to music in those days was if it didn’t border on physical assault, then what was even the point.

The lead guitar is alive here. It is its own distinct character. How does JM make the guitar sound so alive? If I practiced hard enough, I could probably get to the point that I could mimic the lead notes; it doesn’t sound like it would be that hard to do. But I could never make the guitar sound alive like this. It is the curse of the Salieri’s of the world like me that we should have just enough talent to be able to recognize and marvel at true genius when we see it or hear it.

The tension of the music sets the stage for the story told in the lyrics. These lyrics describe those awkward encounters you may have with someone you used to be close with but things ended in less than optimal ways. Now you’ve run into them at Wal-Mart and you have to do that dance of making small talk and keeping your distance while maintaining civil dialogue. Maybe I am interpreting it this way because of an encounter I had two days ago. This story requires some context.

Time’s all you need when you stop to think

At the end of my last breakup, my ex moved out leaving most of her belongings behind. I mean, she left about 80% all of her worldly possession here. She had ample time to deal with her stuff before she left but chose not to, such was the nature of her scorched earth policy she had adopted at the time. It took me 2 weeks working constantly, about 20 trash bags, 2 truck loads to the landfill and 8 full car loads to the Goodwill to get the bulk of it cleared out. I kept some of the things, not out of any sentimental feelings for my ex but because of her mother.

Many of the things my ex owned were either given to her or were loaned by her mother. I knew her mother was particularly possessive of these things. Her mother had that character quirk that you sometimes see with children who were orphaned or abandoned (as her mother was) where they grow up with an obsession for holding on to material things. It is as if she thought that if she filled her surroundings with enough furniture and knick-knacks, she would eventually fill the void within.

Her mother is elderly and already living on borrowed time with all of her physical ailments. I knew that she could not physically deal with all that was left behind. I also knew that if she found out about how much I was giving or throwing away, she would get so worked up about it that she would probably stroke out. At the same time, I had to get rid of the stuff just for my own self-preservation. I was thrown into a situation impossible to navigate in a way that would make everyone happy.

I worked out a compromise with myself that I would get rid of most of the stuff but hold on to some of the things that I thought her mother would have an emotional attachment to. This included crystal wine glasses from her wedding, an antique tea set and a bookcase that the mother built by hand. The mother couldn’t get them right way because of physical limitations. I decided to be patient. In retrospect, I kept these things far longer than anyone with any sense would do. I would call the mother about every 3 months or so to remind her that I had her things. This went on and on. But I suppose she showed up when she was ready to deal with it. Sometimes time is all you need.

Tell me what you heard on the boulevard

On Friday, my ex’s mother and her aunt show up at my door to take the rest of the stuff. The aunt pulls me aside and starts asking where specific things are. I try to explain to her that I had to give most of it away. The aunt tells me that my ex claimed that most of the stuff was in a storage building (which they discovered was a lie) and that I held onto the rest. The gravity of how much was lost set in on the aunt’s face. Shaking her head, she said, “That’s how that girl has always been. She leaves things behind for other people to deal with and she doesn’t care about it.” I nod my head in agreement. This is not news to me. The aunt warns me not to let the mother know how much is lost because it will break her heart and she can’t handle it.

While I’m whispering with the aunt, the mother is in the car (she can’t get out because of her health) just chatting me up in a loud, sing-song voice. I make small talk and ask her about her recent doctor’s appointments. I make jokes and try to keep her distracted as we load things into the back of the car. My goal was to keep her talking and laughing, if possible.

Don’t take it hard
Things like this go on
Don’t take it so hard

After the car was loaded, I walk up to the mother to say goodbye. I comment that this was the last load of stuff they needed to pick up. Confusion sets in on her face and she asks how we could fit so much into one car load. I let it slip that I took some of the stuff to Goodwill. Her mouth drops open and her head jerks back as if I had told her that someone she knew had died. She is speechless (which is a thing that never happens to this woman, believe me).

I take her hand in mine and say, “I know it’s hard to accept. Material things are just things. You haven’t lost anything that would have made your life better. Try not to worry about it so much. It’s okay.”

Her eyes drop to the floorboard. “I know,” she sighs. “It’s just that she didn’t care. She knew that stuff was important to me. Why didn’t she care?” Her question kicks me in the ribs like a mule. I don’t have an answer for that. While we were together, I knew my ex to be one of the most caring people I’d ever met. A switch inside her was flipped and what was light turned dark. In the midst of this darkness, she responded by setting everything around her ablaze and did not care what collateral damage was left behind for others to deal with. I cannot say why.

Sometimes you hold it over me

It is not my intention to make my ex the villain of the story. The truth is more complex. My ex’s grandparents abandoned their children to whatever strangers would be willing to take them in and some of those strangers where abusive. What could be going on in someone’s life that they would be willing to abandon their children to such a fate, I cannot say. It must have been some deep pain within them. My ex’s mother either chose not to deal with her pain or she did not have the capacity to do so. She passed it on to her daughter by creating an environment where her daughter was abused in ways that were even worse.

And so it is that the chains of pain have been carried and passed on, person to person, for generations. That is until those chains were left in the middle of my house with the rest of the furniture, books and clothes she left behind. I chose differently than that family did. I do not carry those chains. I have not handed them off to someone else. I accept that this is what happens when people perpetually do not care for each other. That doesn’t mean I have to join in with it.

Don’t take it hard
Things like this go on
Don’t take it so hard

“You Don’t Miss Me” – Americana

With the exception of the native beat of the drums at the beginning, the rhythm section of this song is solid and steady, as if making an effort not to stand out too much. The organ adds some spice to the mix but even it is subdued. The rhythm section seems to exist solely to provide a context for the theatrics of the lead guitar. The lead has many lives throughout the song – different tones, different techniques. It knows it is the star of the show here and it goes through Hamlet-esque provocations to move you through the emotions of frustration, disappointment and longing in the lyrics.

As it is when empires fall, when relationships break down it’s never pretty (as Bazan would say). The forgotten ones are hurt most by the shift. They are left to pick up the pieces of what remains while trying to find answers for why the shift had to occur and why they were so easily forgotten in the chaos. Maybe I’m thinking about the human cost of empires falling because lately I have been so concerned about the state of our nation. I didn’t plan to write about this and I will spare you the politics of it. It all comes down to personal relationships anyway. The political is ultimately personal.

The breakdown of a relationship is a painful thing. If you are the one who feels left in the relationship, you may become preoccupied wondering why you do not matter more to the one who left you. Relationships once based on caring and respect should not end in isolation and disregard. It might even make you question the worth of getting into relationships at all if there is a chance that they will end this way.

Picking through the mental rubble of past broken relationships, I can think of a few people I could sing this song to. I can also think of a few people who could sing this song to me and legitimately so. I own that. Sometimes I do not communicate as well as I should about the worth I see in another. Sometimes I become so wrapped up in my own living that I do not see or account for those around me. Sometimes doing that would require me to make myself vulnerable in ways that I do not feel comfortable with in the moment so I put it off for days, weeks, months and even years.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking in the past year about how all the pain that we see in the world or in our personal relationships come down to this: people don’t deal with their own shit. I get it; the existential reality of living is a bitch. It’s still our purpose for being here though. If we can’t deal with our own existential shit, we pass that pain on to other people and expect them to carry our burden. You can become the prime mover of pain, passing your baggage onto another who, in turn, cannot carry their baggage and yours and end up passing their pain onto others.

It is a cycle that continues to spread until someone throws something in the gears and declares that this must stop. It is time for grievances to be forgiven. It is time for compassion to take the place of blame. It is time for connection to take the place of isolation. It is time for healing to take the place of pain. This begins with me. I let go of what was so long ago. It is time.

“The Translator” – Americana

This song would shake your bones back in the day when I had my Bazooka bass tube. I couldn’t get it loud enough. There’s something mystical in the way those guitar chords and the bass reverberate. There is actually some research on the use of vibration in sound, particularly in the lower register, in bringing about spiritual ecstasy. It’s referred to “sub-auditory components”. But instead of spiritual rapture, this song feels like more of an exorcism. It’s beating some toxin out of me with every heavy handed chord. I imagine that when Jesus was called on to banish unclean spirits from a pitiful soul, it sounded something like this.

Let’s pretend for a moment that early sf59 LPs are concept albums like Sufjan Stevens or Pedro the Lion used to do. Silver is the story of being in an emotionally manipulative relationship. You know that something feels wrong about it, but you still want it and would do anything to keep it. Gold is the story of the initial aftermath of that relationship breaking. There is sadness and loneliness but also a desire to leave things on good terms. Americana is the story how time and distance grant you the discernment you need to see how manipulative, dishonest and exploitative that person really was to you. And you are fucking pissed about it.

Some of us grow up in environments where we are taught that we are not allowed to be angry. We are not given the tools we need to know our own autonomy, let alone assert it. You are expected to suppress what you feel in order to fit into whatever mold that is expected of you. In those circumstances, anger can be the first sign of individualization – of recognizing that you are your own self, you have your own boundaries and anyone who claims to respect you would respect your autonomy. If these are truths that seem self-evident to you, be thankful you did not grow up in an environment where these fundamental truths were questioned or undermined.

Anger in this context can be a fantastic thing. It is a catalyst for reactions that reveal the nature of the components you are dealing within a person or in a relationship. In short, you start to recognize people’s bullshit. You can discern it and you can name it, even though they may try to hide their true intent from you. You can tell when someone’s behavior doesn’t match what they claim they are there to do.

There must be something on your mind
So much to tell me that you’re fine

One thing manipulative people will do to hide their intent is that they will throw a lot of words at you. They will ramble, change topics, they will jump all over the place in a conversation. All these acrobatics have an intent; they want to distract you from realizing what is at the core of what they are saying. They are throwing out bait everywhere hoping that something will get a bite. The singer can tell there is something under the surface that is not being said directly and he calls that out. He is able to take all the words being said and translate it to understand the person’s true intent.

Bent over you

Let’s just skip the obvious sexual interpretation of this line; I don’t think that’s what this song is about. I think this is an expression that the singer recognizes that he cannot stand autonomous and with his back straight in the relationship. He is expected to bend to what the other person wants of him. Now he has a choice to make. Will he conform to what the other person wants him to be or will he continue stand straight being who he is?

You always waste my time
I need some peace of mind

The singer recognizes that this person is of no worth to him. There is a lack of respect in this relationship because the other person wastes his time and is dishonest. The singer knows this is not what he needs. He needs peace of mind and that can’t be found in a relationship where someone is trying to manipulate.

This reminds me of one of my favorite Kierkegaard quotes (translated, of course):

“Do not check your soul’s flight, do not grieve the better promptings within you, do not dull your spirit with half-wishes and half-thoughts, ask yourself, and contrive to ask until you find the answer; for one may have known a thing many times and acknowledged it, one may have willed a thing many times and attempted it, and yet it is only by the indescribable emotions of the heart, that for the first time you are convinced what you have known belongs to you, that no power can take it from you, for only the truth which edifies is truth for you.” (Side note: if you have pondered about my love of commas and semi-colons, blame Kierkegaard.)

The singer has found the truth which edifies and he is not going to give it up, at least not to this person.

“You Think You’re Radical” – Americana

This song has all the ingredients of a favorite sf59 song for me. I’m a sucker for sf59 slow jams anyway. That slide guitar, the tube amps, reverb that fills the universe, it is sublime. That organ just aches with a pain unnamed. Plot twist: I’ve never cared for this song. I usually skip it. All the numbers are there in the equation, but it doesn’t add up for me. I cannot say for certain why.

I don’t make a big deal in these posts about whether I like a song or not. I usually only mention it if it is relevant to whatever story the song brings up for me. Everyone has different preferences and it is not my job to convince you that my opinion is superior or that your opinion is substandard. If something I write is going to get your defenses up and your boxing gloves on, it should be for a purpose that is worthy, like writing something that is challenging or true. I’m not interested in fights about smaller matters. That’s not what I’m here for. I heard a quote a couple of months ago that has stuck with me: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I’ve been working on incorporating that into my everyday perceptions.

I wrote in a comment the other day that Americana is angry and it’s about calling people out on their bullshit. JM must have been feeling his inner queen when he wrote this album because he is throwing shade everywhere. I suspect that this song is about some band who thinks they are better and edgier. It could also be about a Christian’s response to the world that thinks it is so much more authentic. I can understand the singer’s sentiment here. I have this same feeling about the world and about a good portion of the Christians I encounter. If you don’t think Christians can be radical, try reading some Bonhoeffer; he’s my boy.

Although there is some truth here, there is also arrogance. Those too things go hand in hand more often than I would like. If you have the ability to discern when someone doesn’t see the whole picture and are spouting their judgments from ignorance, it is easy to feel superior to them. They don’t see as much as you see. That makes you better, right? The first two lines of this song drip with this attitude.

So you think you’re radical
You think we’re terrible

Once you have adopted this attitude of superiority, the only place to go is isolation. If you are above the mere mortals around you, how can you relate to them? You may even convince yourself that you want it this way.

I don’t mind
Leave me on my own tonight

Obviously you do mind or you wouldn’t be writing a song about it. But that doesn’t fit with the superior persona so let’s pretend that we don’t mind. I don’t mind, really, I don’t. Maybe I don’t like this song because it holds up a mirror to me and the image I see makes me uncomfortable. Better skip the song.

Even calling out your own propensity for arrogance is a pride trap. “Well, at least I recognize that I’m an arrogant twat. That’s more than they can say.” What is the way out of this cycle? We will see JM wrestle with this very thing in later songs. For my own part, I will keep repeating this:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

“All You Want Are The Things I Need” – Americana

After the last two fluffy songs, I’m ready for something with some bite and this song does not disappoint. This song is full of piss and vinegar and it fits my mood. So watch out. The opening guitar riff is a warning. It lets you know that you need to pay attention because the riot act is about to be read to you. And it is.

The drums are powerful and epic. I don’t mention the drums often because it’s not my thing and tend to not notice them. They are unavoidable here. They drive the song forward. The rhythm guitar and bass in unison are savage. What can I even say to describe that lead guitar? It starts out intense and just keeps on pushing for more. The sound softens for a little bit during the first chorus and then we are back at it for the verse and bridge. I talk a lot about sf59’s ’50s era sound but this is pure ’70s. It’s as ’70s as the mustache JM had on the promotional images for this album. This song is made to fit into an arena.

Then something changes. The tone gets softer and the spinning speaker effect kicks in (which is just mind altering if you are listening to it on good headphones). The vocals plead for understanding and resolution. The guitars ease off and the pace slows down. The music almost sounds tired at the end. What’s with this change? Let’s take a look at the lyrics.

Nice shot
Just the same one time after time
You know how I feel
All you want are the things I need
Think you’re some shock?

I think that this song is a snub to some band who playacts at being edgy but really just plays the same old shit over and over again. In the gay vernacular, we would say JM is throwing shade. That’s what I think the song is about but I’m going to take my interpretation in a different direction just because this song happened to land on this day.

I sometimes preach when the pastor is out of town. I don’t necessarily have any overwhelming qualifications for this task other than I seem to be the only one willing to do it. The pastor went out of town a couple of weeks ago and asked me to do the sermon. The sermon topic was “Who Does God Love?”. He recommended that I use John ch 3. Just to be contrary, I used 1 John ch 4.

As it happens, the week I was preparing this sermon, a particular video kept popping up on my Facebook news feed. The video was of a pastor/Sheriff’s deputy about 100 miles away from me. He was preaching on Leviticus and the Reader’s Digest version of his sermon was that the police needed to arrest LGBT people and we need to be executed. In his view, we are “freaks” and “filthy animals” and the only way to save society was to put us to death. He said that if Jesus came back now, He would be killing us too. Being in law enforcement, he knew just how to phrase this so that it wouldn’t be terroristic threatening (“the government should kill the freaks” not “we should kill the freaks” – see the difference?).

Think you’re some shock?

This is nothing new. I’ve heard all this before. This dude isn’t some outlier. A lot of people feel this way and they repeat the same ridiculous shit over and over again.

Nice shot
Just the same one time after time

Every time some white dude from up in the holler comes around saying he’s “preaching the Bible” (which if you don’t know is code for “I’m going to shout the verses about people doing things I don’t do while I ignore the verses that reveal the blackness in my own heart”), I know what’s about to happen. It isn’t shocking that this pastor said this. What is shocking is that it made the news at all.

1 John ch 4 is a sort of manual for discerning who the false prophets are in your midst. It’s as simple as this. Those who love are born of God and with God and He abides in them. Those who peddle in fear and punishment don’t know God because they don’t know love and God is love. Now I could have used these verses to make a big point about how this guy is a false prophet. I didn’t. I let the verses say that for me. My heart was on a different matter.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. – 1 John 4:20

That verse is not mellow enough to be labeled 4:20. This verse convicts. If I say I love God but I do not love this man who is my brother (who would see me and the people I love dead if he had the chance), then I am a liar. God’s yoke may be easy but it sure doesn’t feel like that sometimes. How do you embrace someone who would just as soon break your arms? But the verse doesn’t give us exceptions. I knew I had to find a way to love this black-hearted man before I could preach this sermon.

The easiest path for me to find my way to love is compassion. I try to see things from the other person’s perspective. I try to find something to identify with. Behind all the bluster, violence and shouting, this man is scared. He’s even afraid of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus (full disclosure: I’m afraid of them too but for matters of musical taste only). He sees how culture is changing and he doesn’t know where he fits in it anymore. Hell, I don’t know where I fit in this culture either. We have that in common. In the spinning speaker effect of the different perspectives in my mind, I can see how we feel the same.

You know how I feel

He wants a world where he has a place, where he can speak as he feels. He wants to know he’s not alone. I feel the same way even if our beliefs are vastly different.

All you want are the things I need

Now he’s willing to kill to resolve his fears and I am willing to love to resolve mine. PO-tat-oes, po-TAT-oes. The differences and who is right or wrong will get sorted out. My job is to love, that’s all.

I understand why the music sounds so tired at the end of this song. I am weary of all of this. I’m tired of being the person “good” Christians can point their fingers at and would use as a pawn so that they can feel righteous (as if there is some sort of sliding scale for that). The grace of God is boundless but the grace of people is small indeed.

Now I’m about to drive 80 miles to the nearest Pride event so I can have at least one day this year where I can stand as I am in a large group of people and know that I won’t be judged. There’s only a minor chance that some redneck with an assault rifle will show up “to do God’s work” and mow us all down. I’ll take that chance. Showing up is important. Being present to see and to be seen is important. And, above all, loving is important.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. – 1 John 4:16

Happy Pride, y’all! If you want to troll me, send me a message. Be respectful of peoples’ space and don’t make a mess on the board. Thanks!

“Harmony” – Americana

I don’t think I have words sufficient to express the perfection of this song. I am at a loss. It’s strange how this happens to me. When it’s time for me to write about a song I love beyond measure, the words just disappear. Maybe it’s because it touches something ineffable and eternal within me. Maybe I feel that it is too taboo – like repeating the words a lover whispers in your ear in a moment of passion. It’s in poor taste to reveal such things.

But writing is what I’m here for so let’s have a go at it. One thing that stands out to me on this song that I don’t think I’ve mentioned on any song thus far is that you can clearly hear an acoustic guitar in the background. I love it when you can hear acoustic guitars on sf59 tracks. It’s a different texture. It melds well with JM’s voice. Playing an acoustic takes a different kind of style and attitude than an electric. This reminds me of that video of a short acoustic set that Prince did in concert. You can find the video on Youtube. Now almost every mind-bending thing you’ve ever heard Prince do was on an electric guitar. Then you see him sitting on a stool, playing his acoustic guitar alone and he’s still blowing your mind with no electricity required other than that Prince energy that emanates from him alone. It reveals more of the mastery that is there. I wouldn’t describe JM’s acoustic playing here as mastery but it is a hint of greater things to come.

The melody line the lead guitar is just enchanting. It is like driving down a road you know well; a road that reminds you of home. You know when the curves are going to hit on that road like you know the curves of your own body and you instinctively lean into them. The layered background vocals (in French, no less!) take the place of what would have been layered guitars in older sf59 songs. The effect is humanizing and makes you feel the longing in the lyrics.

The lyrics tell the story of the consequences of change and growth. At some point in your life, you may feel the call to find your own beliefs and step away from what everyone has told you to believe. This could be political, religious or just about anything really. If you answer that call and follow where it leads, you may end up leaving people behind.

Time moves
You knew it would
You’d leave them all
After their plainer thoughts
You lose some
I knew you would
You’d leave them all
After their plainer thoughts

That is the risk of growth. Not everyone is going to grow with you. Some people are meant to be in your life for a period of time. It is a difficult reality. Some would avoid it altogether by refusing to grow at all but that creates a different type of difficult reality in that you are basically dead inside. There’s no getting around this problem no matter how you choose.

Those who cannot follow you in your growth may feel left behind and forgotten. Time and distance makes it easier to forget each other. This is a persistent theme in sf59 songs and we will be seeing this again in the future. The singer feels this loss and longs for reconnection.

Time away, I wish you’d call on me
Time away, I wish you’d call on

Call on me
(Donne-moi le coup)
[French for “give me a hand” or “help me out” ]

This longing for people or times in the past is something of a fool’s game because you can never get the past back or pull it into the present moment. But that doesn’t stop me from falling for it. I can find some sort of peace with it by thinking that a relationship had its time and its purpose. Because of that, because I was changed by the relationship and the person, it is forever one of the threads which form the image in the tapestry of who I am. That person is always with me because that person became a part of who I am. I am here now even if that person is not. I can still feel the harmony now.

“The Hearttaker” – Americana

“The Hearttaker” has an altogether ’50s vibe in the chord progression with some crazy, space jazz synths layered in. The addition of the synths adds a texture you don’t hear in previous sf59 songs. It also frees up the guitars to do more than just carry the song. The rhythm guitars and bass are chunkier and feel like more an extension of the drums. By contrast, the lead guitar sounds as big and open as canyons.

The music during the verses have dissonance. There is a tension here. This tension is resolved in the major chords of the chorus. This switch matches what is being expressed in the lyrics. What is present throughout the song is this relentless, determined rhythm, always plodding forward and inevitable. This also matches the lyrics. Let’s take a look at them. In the verse, we have:

If you lead you know
It’s hard to be until you go
You know it’s hard
To know or just believe

I can take this song in two different directions as far as interpretation goes. I think there is the obvious interpretation of living as a Christian. I’m not talking about the “omg, Christians are persecuted!” that is so popular when people get riled up because Starbucks doesn’t have a Christian image on their Christmas cups. I’m talking about the authentic path of living by faith and humility day in and day out. It is hard to believe. It is hard to live by faith in a world that rewards self-centeredness. You feel out of place and out of time as a way of being. In that constant reality, it is easy to doubt.

Another interpretation would be that this is about being creative. When I write of being creative, I’m talking about any situation where you create something from within yourself where there was nothing before. It is not limited to music, art or writing. It could be when you are at work and you think of a new way to do things that makes life easier. It could be falling in love. It could be having and raising children. When you take what is inside of you and put it out there in the world, you are creating.

And it is an anxiety-laden task, creation is. No wonder God had to take a day to rest after creating the world. Doubt is the constant companion of innovation. When you are doing something no one has done before, when there is no template to follow, doubt will follow in lock step. Will anyone understand what I’m doing? What if I am going down the wrong path? Will this mean anything to anyone? What if I fail? What if I give up? If you get it right, it could be glorious. If you mess it up, you may get the crushing isolation of knowing that no one gets who you are and what you are made of.

With both potential interpretations, one may ask what is the point of doing any of this. We get an answer in the chorus:

Because the hearttaker
Makes it easier just believe

In the Christian or religious interpretation of this song, you live by faith because of God. Your doubts are answered in God. The feeling out of place and out of time in the world is because you find a place in God. You are in time with God. Knowing this abates the doubt, at least for awhile. It is a continual process. I think this is why the verse with all its tension is repeated after the first chorus. Living in faith is the continual moving from states of doubt and anxiety to affirmation and connectedness. You continue to live through it because God continues to take your heart.

As for the creative interpretation, it is something I have been pondering in relation to this blog. Like, what am I even trying to do here? This thing that I’ve hammered together is a weird mash-up of musical analysis, psychology, theology and personal narrative – sometimes the stories are funny, sometimes they are crushing, sometimes they are both simultaneously. People don’t usually write music reviews in this way. They keep more distance from themselves and the subject matter. But here I am, just throwing it all out there without much of a plan or an objective. Sometimes my writing frustrates me. Sometimes it surprises me by saying something I didn’t anticipate consciously. It is a mix.

There is anxiety and doubt that goes with this. Will anyone get what I am saying? Will it mean anything to anyone? Will this end up being just another thing to add to the long list of things I’ve failed at in my life? The strongest answer I have for all of the above is “maybe”.

So why keep doing it? I love music; I love this band. I have lots of thoughts about it and I have to do something with these thoughts or they will keep bouncing around in my head like a pinball. I’m understanding these songs in a deeper way because I’m taking the time to listen to them and write about them. That pulls me forward. I am also understanding myself in a deeper way because I’m taking the time to listen to myself and write it down. There is a kind of erotica to that process. At the end of the day, the one who takes my heart may just be me.

“The Voyager” – Americana

I’m excited to start on Americana. It remains one of my go to albums. If you were to ask me what my top 5 sf59, my answer would vary by the hour. First of all, I hate quantitative lists where a numerical ranking is given to describe something that is not numerical at all. Even if I did decide to play along with the numbers game, I would struggle. I would try to divide it up into different categories: top 5 for production quality, top 5 for songwriting, top 5 for guitar tones, etc . . . My mind could not settle long enough to come up with an answer.

There’s really only one ranking criterion that matters to me: what albums do I put on when I feel like hearing some Starflyer. As much as I love Silver and Gold, they don’t rank so high here. Gold probably makes it in about 4.38% of the time; Silver is at a 0.63%. Americana comes in at a healthy 14. 91%. (And in case you think those numbers there contradict my previous paragraph, percentage of time listened actually is numerical. Yeah, I’m ideologically pure when it comes to my statistical methods.)

Americana was the beginning of a shift in how important sf59 was for me. By the time I bought this album, I was in college and had my own car, a red ’91 Toyota Tercel with a stick shift. I had a lot of fun in that old car. I saved up money from pizza delivery tips to put in my own aftermarket sound system. You kids may not know this, but if you wanted good sound in your car in ’90s, you had to make so by force of will. It wouldn’t come to you that way.

I bought some really nice Blaupunkt speakers off Crutchfield that had magnets so big I had to install them with risers because they wouldn’t fit in the door frames. I had a JVC dual CD and cassette player (upgraded to a 12 disc changer in later years). The crowning glory of my system was a 100 watt bass tube I installed in the trunk, angled in such a way that it reverberated through the car and into the skulls of anyone within a 10 ft radius of me. Now to be clear, I wasn’t no wanger who cruised the Kroger parking lot on Friday nights. My system was classy and had no embarrassing door or trunk buzz. I spent many a Saturday afternoon working on that setup to ensure its auditory purity.

I’m putting so much effort in describing this because it was a big part of the shift in sf59’s importance to me. I would put on this album with that system and I could feel my marrow buzz in time with the guitars and the bass in unison (there’s few things in life that I love more than heavy rhythm and bass in unison). sf59 became a full body experience. Things that I could not hear in the layers of sound before I could now feel from head to toe. It was close to a religious experience.

In this song, we have the same guitar chainsaw effect that we heard in “When No One Calls” except now there is more anger and way more cockiness. The vocals are stronger. The lead guitar keeps pulling you in different directions, bending notes, going off beat. It just won’t let you be still. The organ in this song just slays me. It reminds me of one of my other favorite bands, The Black Crowes. I’m a southern rock girl and a church organ going out of bounds is the way to my heart.

This song is a sort of sequel to “When No One Calls”. I suspect it is about the same person. It’s dealing with the same behavior but now the singer is good and pissed about it. I know there was some changing of personnel in the band around this time and I suspect that to be an inspiration on many of the songs on Americana. But I don’t want to get into that to much because that’s not what I’m here for. I try not to tie myself down to interpretations that match what we know to be true about JM and the life of the band. On one hand I feel it is intrusive to do so and on the other, it limits my writing. I want to write what I hear in the lyrics and what I feel in the music.

The lyrics of this song remind me of my relationship with a person with Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the hallmarks of BPD is referred to as “push me, pull me” behavior (you keep pulling me). They pull you in, telling you they all but worship you (you don’t worship me) only to push you away once they feel that they have you on the line (you leave me out). When you question this behavior, they gaslight you and make you doubt your own feelings and experience (left me with the doubt). And they cancel on all your plans. There’s always a reason given for why they just couldn’t come through for you (things never happen, because, because, because).

The singer has figured out the game though. He warns that they are about to get left behind, they don’t know who they are up against (I’m the voyager, watch out). Once the person begins their “push me” behavior again (you keep pushing me), the singer sets his boundaries and walks away (just leave me out, leave me out). He knows he’ll be better off without them and tells them as much (things will all work out with the voyager, watch out).

What is different with the singer in Americana as opposed to what we heard in Silver and Gold is that the singer knows his worth now. He can discern what is happening while it is happening and respond to it in the moment instead of trying to make sense of it in the aftermath of a broken relationship. This opener proudly proclaims that the singer has grown up now and he ain’t going to put up with shitty behavior anymore.