Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Connecticut/Maine

I'm not the only person who has ever tried to think of songs about states (you're rarely the first person to think of something on the internet). I don't really mind, though, because it's nice to have a fallback when I'm really stumped for songs to write about. This morning I googled "songs about Maine" and discovered that almost no one can think of any songs about Maine. The same was true for Connecticut, so I've decided to do a more general "New England" themed entry this time.



The one and only song I could find that actually mentioned either state in any relevant way was Vampire Weekend's 'Walcott.' Not surprising, considering the band's pastel-wearing, collar-popping status as the musical poster boys for New England prep culture. 'Walcott' is a song about New England's idyllic coastal towns that name drops Connecticut's Mystic Seaport alongside other locales like Cape Cod, New Provincetown, and Wellfleet. It's a veritable roll-call of cheerful vacation spots characterized by cutesy, whaling-themed taverns and gift shops full of things printed with anchors and lobsters.

In many of their songs, Vampire Weekend plays into these New England stereotypes, especially in their oddly detailed descriptions of clothing. The band is quite image-conscious in live appearances, sporting the "bleeding madras," "pure Egyptian cotton," and "Bennetton" that their songs invoke. Their attachment to a very specific, Vineyard Vines-Lily Pulitzer aesthetic underscores the peculiar culture of the New England coast, an isolated, wealthy, and hereditary enclave with a certain level of detachment from reality. See Oprah's recent interview with former President Bush and his family at their Kennebunkport, ME compound-- the elder Bush sporting a garish combination of brick red pants and pastel yellow shirt that VW singer Ezra Koenig would love-- for a perfect representation of the cultural niche of New England resort towns. The attachment of these super-rich families to their palatial vacation homes, beginning with Gilded Age greats like the the Vanderbilts (whose absurdly vast Breakers mansion stands as the boldest monument to the American dedication to vacationing), suggests an attachment to the region and its traditions confirmed by Vampire Weekend's lyrical obsession with the proper attire.

This affection, however, isn't so simple. Running below the celebration of pastels, beaches, and New England campus life in Vampire Weekend's songs is a current of uncomfortable cloistering and a desire for rebellion. In their lyrics, they harbor the same desire for escape and movement that many of their American musical contemporaries express. However, they're escaping from the polar opposite of what artists like Springsteen lament: oppressive wealth and exclusivity. VW is constantly "wanting to leave" the "compounds...lazy and safe" that epitomize the New England coast. In a moment of brash, youthful distaste they proclaim, "The Bottleneck is a shitshow/Hyannisport is a ghetto...fuck the women from Wellfleet/Fuck the bears out in Provincetown/heed my words and take flight." The denunciation-- somewhat ironic, as Hyannisport is home to the Kennedy compound-- rejects all the niches of New England culture. It's also, incidentally, a nod to the short film about a vampire attack in Cape Cod that gave the band their name. While 'Walcott' is complicated by this film connection, VW's catalogue as a whole has undercurrents of distaste for New England life, for the "uniformed gloves and courtyard gates" of 'Taxi Cab,' a track about Koenig's dissolving relationship with a girl who came from the privileged background eschewed in 'Walcott.'

VW's rebellion against life on New England's "compounds" might stem from the fact that the society there is emotionally deadened by wealth and tradition There's a reason that Vampire Weekend stands out-- there aren't a lot of other bands singing about madras and prep schools. In 'Taxi Cab,' Koenig describes himself as "unsentimental," and relates a conversation with the former girlfriend who lived "in the blocks uptown: in the shadow of your first attack/ I was questioning and looking back/ You said, 'Baby we don't speak of that'/ like a real aristocrat." Of course she isn't a real aristocrat, but this descendant of those Gilded Age lords is as close as America will ever get. Musicianship requires a level of emotional awareness and expressiveness that doesn't mesh with upper crust New England life, and it's this-- the aristocratic need for conformity, appropriateness, tradition-- that the band rebels against most. They undermine the image of New England life as elegant and perfect in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a Kennedy biopic.

However, the criticism isn't entirely successful or complete. A lack of sentimentality lingers in "Taxi Cab," as though the band questions their self-pity for being confined to opulence, or can't escape their own New England upbringing. "You're not a victim/ neither am I/ nostalgic for garbage/ desperate for time/ I could blame it on your mother's hair/ or the colors that your father wears/ but I know that I was never fair/ you were always fine." The lines in reference to parents-- allusions to prep school colors and the iconic "Bergdorf Blondes," suggest a continued attachment to, a buying-into, the stoic way of life that has been part of the New England coastal lifestyle since the Puritans. 'Taxi Cab' could also be a realization that really there's no reason to be so unhappy, because it could be far worse. What do you get if you escape to New Jersey, Springsteen's grinding poverty? Maybe that's why Koenig asks, "Don't you know that it's insane?" to leave Cape Cod. He's an indecisive rebel, hating his roots but unable to stop embracing them.

It's not exactly cool to be super rich and problem-free in a band (who's going to take you seriously?), so maybe Vampire Weekend just want to give themselves some credibility by rebelling against their dreamy, sun-dappled New England summers. But there's an undercurrent of darkness in the stories of most of the great northeastern families that suggests a genuine unhappiness in the upper echelons. Look again at the Kennedys, the Gilded giants who fell, the pathetic protagonists in the bizarre film Grey Gardens. Maybe there is a reason to escape Cape Cod tonight.

Tracks
Walcott
Taxi Cab
The Kids Don't Stand a Chance

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ohio

I started this post in a bad mood on a rainy day, and the songs I had initially chosen for Ohio were suitably negative and critical. First of all, I didn't know a lot of songs about Ohio. The two that came to mind were Drew Carey Show intro 'Cleveland Rocks' and Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' Great, I thought bitterly, prime stuff right here. Even one of the bands can't wait to get out of Ohio. Though I will include these songs, I quickly realized that I couldn't make a very substantial post out of them by themselves. It was hard to admit to myself that my music knowledge might be less than encyclopedic, but I bit the bullet and plugged 'songs about Ohio' into Google. The top hit was this post from Paste, which was mostly about the overwhelmingly sad quality of songs about the state. I've chosen Sun Kil Moon's 'Carry Me, Ohio' as a representative sample. Though I am allowing some seriousness to infiltrate the post, I couldn't resist this cartoon from Ohio native Natalie Dee:



We'll start with the least serious song from the trio above, Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' I want to establish something up front: I'm not endorsing this as a quality song. At all. It's a TERRIBLE song. Only listen to it once so you understand this blog entry, then never again because it's profound awfulness will make your brain pour out of your ears like pancake batter. It's really bad. I've warned you. Let's take a glance at the opening lyrics to get a sense of what we're dealing with here.

She said she needed a break
A little time to think
But then she went to Cleveland
With some guy named Leland
That she met at the bank

There's nothing wrong with Ohio
Except the snow and the rain
I really like Drew Carey
And I'd love the Scene, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame


This is definitely the track Natalie Dee was thinking of when she drew her cartoon. Some definite themes, if such a serious term can be used to describe the topics addressed by a song that rhymes "Cleveland" and "Leland." Apparently the only things of note in all of Ohio are Drew Carey, Cleveland, and how much it sucks to be there. Bowling for Soup's song, along with the Natalie Dee cartoon above, illustrate an unusual phenomenon about art that discusses the Midwest-- a baseline level of mockery. We all know jokes about the midwest, Fargo is basically one that goes on for two hours. Bowling for Soup do it with much less panache and artistic viability than the Coen Brothers, but the same sentiment is there: don't take the midwest too seriously, it's a little silly and backwards and not quite like the population centers of the coast.

Fargo, however, is usually understood as a rather affectionate portrayal of the people who populate the center of America. Songs like "Come Back" suggest that Ohioans are in on the joke, and despite the catalogues of things they find wrong with their home state. In fact, Ian Hunter wrote "Cleveland Rocks" in 1979 to say just that. The version that appeared on "Drew Carey" is actually a cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, but Hunter wrote and performed the song because he believed people should know there's a "lotta heart in Cleveland." Hunter sings:

Mama knows but she don’t care
She’s got her worries too
Seven kids and a phony affair
And the rent is due
All the little chicks with the crimson lips go
Cleveland rocks, cleveland rocks...

I got some records from world war two
I’ll play ’em just like me grand dad do
He was a rocker and I am too
Oh Cleveland rocks, yeah Cleveland rocks


It's kind of a gimmick song, and the lyrics are actually sort of a downer about economic depression there at the beginning. But underneath the layer of slight comedy, there's an actual warmth for Cleveland. Hunter seems to admire the city for its working class roots, and he embraces the past through references to his mother and grandfather, reflecting a pride in his roots rather than the desire to escape that many musicians express. His reflections on parents and grandparents also hint at the family values central to midwestern culture, although the portrayal of his mother doesn't follow the most traditional path down the road of that theme.

Finally, let's transition to the most serious of our three songs, Sun Kil Moons 'Carry Me, Ohio' to consider the other end of the midwestern spectrum, the rich, genuine spirit of the region. Maybe it's because it's less flamboyant than the surrounding regions, but the Midwest seems to inspire a quiet affection and straightforwardness that's mirrored in Sun Kil Moon's depressingly emotional lyrics. The band reflects fondly on Ohio's Tuscarawas River and returns to a theme common among songs about rural areas of America-- homecoming and connection to home. 'Carry Me, Ohio' seems to be about the death of a loved one, and like North Carolina's 'Yankee Bayonet,' it focuses on the return home in death. States that are marginalized in the American cultural consciousness as less cultured or significant, especially southern or midwestern ones, are often associated with this theme in music. Mark Kozelek sings, "Children blessed/ gather round the home she will rest/ so poor and cold in their Midwest..." Even when the state is "poor and cold," it is "theirs." Ohioans embrace their home, strengths and flaws alike, with a long-suffering earnestness that isn't found in tracks about, for example, New York.

It's a little cliché to talk about Middle America and wholesomeness, but a lot of the jokes in the first two songs covered here are clichés too. Midwesterners embrace the best and worst of their states, the constant jokes and cold, windy winters alongside the values of hard work and family, with consistent warmth and humor. And with this honest, straightforward outlook, they also achieve moments of emotional clarity like 'Carry Me, Ohio' that are untainted by the bitterness of jaded states like New York and California.

Tracks:
Ohio (Come Back to Texas)
Cleveland Rocks
Carry Me, Ohio

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Alabama/Arkansas

I'll confess: this entry will be a little bit of a cheat. Songs about specific states in some regions are few and far between, and I managed to find one that dealt with both Alabama and Arkansas, so I'm going to more generally on the South. We'll be taking a look at the aforementioned states through some very old and very new songs, one from the 2009 debut album of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and one recorded in 1936 by blues legend Robert Johnson.



Edward Sharpe is the brainchild of singer Alex Ebert, but it's actually a musical collective of Arcade-Fire-rivalling size. Arguably their most famous track is 'Home,' the country-tinged duet between Ebert and Jade Castrinos that has been featured everywhere on TV since its release. The most immediately noticeable thing about Sharpe's debut album is its genre diversity; 'Home' is a self-consciously country track among more grandiose takes like 'Om Nashi Me' and 'Kisses Over Babylon' and the spartan acoustics of 'Simplest Love.' As such it's almost a parody of the genre, from its down-home whistling intro to the folksy spoken interlude. The lyrics suit this purposefully simplistic take on songwriting, a straightforward exchange between Castrinos and Ebert in down-home personas:

Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma and Pa
Not the way that I do love you

Holy moly, me oh my, you’re the apple of my eye
Girl, I’ve never loved one like you

Man, oh man, you’re my best friend, I scream it to the nothingness
There ain’t nothin’ that I need

Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie, chocolate candy, Jesus Christ
There ain’t nothin’ please me more than you

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you


The fact that the songs is so cheerful sets it apart from most of the music that has appeared in this blog. The sense of connection and contentment-- between Castrinos and Ebert as well as between them and their-- obviously-- home. "Home" for them is associated not only with one another, which bundles the concept of home with that of love and belonging, but with everyday objects. Another trademark of Southern music is a lyrical focus on relatable topics, fostering a sense of connection between musician, audience and place. As we saw in 'Yankee Bayonet,' the relationship to home in Southern music is substantially different and more positive than in music about other regions, where the desire to escape or progress reigns supreme. Musicians writing about the South embrace the everyday there in a way that reflects genuine affection for the region. Individual lyrics here don't really say a lot about our locations for this week. Why? Because Wikipedia tells me that the album that includes 'Home' is "about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. According to Ebert, Sharpe "was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind...but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love." I don't even know where to start with that. Instead, the important part about Sharpe's adoption of Southern stereotypes is how fondly they're embraced instead of rejected in favor of progress.

Some of the connectivity between artist, audience, and place in the South might stem from the importance of local music production there-- a topic which brings us to our other musician, Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. All the known recordings of Johnson's work were recorded in two sessions, one in San Antonio in November 1936 and another in Dallas the following year; he died at 27 just a year later during a stint of concerts in Greenwood, MS. Little is known about Johnson's life or death and most of his recordings weren't even released during his lifetime, but his song 'Terraplane Blues' became what one writer has described as a "regional hit" in the South-- it's this track, which name-drops Arkansas, that I'll focus on.

Johnson has been described as one of the most profoundly influential musicians for rock artists, and 'Terraplane Blues' illustrates the best of his work, as well as its most frequently mimicked characteristics. Like 'Home' nearly 80 years later, 'Terraplane' is about two relatable subjects: a car and a cheating girlfriend (lyrics). 'Terraplane' was about topics that people who lived near the artist would understand and it was largely performed in local venues. Johnson's music-- the dialect, the incredibly distinctive Delta sound-- captures a time and place with great specificity, fostering a strong audience connection. Southern music today has a similar tendency toward regionalism and close-knit, dedicated fanbases. The South has long been the source of some of America's most iconic music, perhaps because artists are so inspired by the places they live.

A crucial element of lyrics about the South is often a connection to the past. Whether literally songs about the past, like The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet' or simply the adoption of more innocent ideals as seen in 'Sharpe,' these tracks return again and again to their predecessors, expressing a reverence for Southern history and ideals. This focus on history draws together all the threads of Southern music-- the value of home and insularity, the theme of the everyday and regional. Southern musicians focus not only on the simplicity and history of earlier times in general, but display a deep reverence for their musical predecessors. The influence of Johnson and his blues contemporaries on music across genres, from the earliest rock in the 50s to a cadre of musicians, like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Robert Plant, who are legends in their own right. Along with Edward Sharpe, other groups like The Avett Brothers and London-based Mumford & Sons are bringing bluegrass out of the South and into the mainstream. Maybe this expansion of Southern style music reflects a desire to move away from the cynicism that characterizes a lot of modern releases here and in the UK. The simple values of 'Home'-- family, day-to-day life, a sense of belonging and place-- hint at a nostalgic desire for these values, so succinctly expressed by Southern musicians, even in those with no connection to the South. That's a powerful endorsement for the lyrical and thematic strength of music about the region.

Don't let all this talk about innocence and nostalgia mislead you. There's also a sharp(e)ness to a lot of Southern music that belies the "aw shucks" simplicity of the vocals. Take another look at Johnson's lyrics--you'll be surprised how racy they are for 1936. But there is a refreshing lack of cynicism in Southern music that separates it from the rest of America. The warmth and depth of emotion in tracks about places like Alabama and Arkansas reflects a desire to connect with one's place and past, to preserve history rather than progress from it. It's an outlook that diverges from what we commonly think of as the American dream, and an unusual one to find in a place that's often considered the most powerfully influential region for American music.

Tracks:
Home
Terraplane Blues

I again recommend Marcus' Mystery Train for more on the enigmatic Robert Johnson. Also, check out this interesting article on the controversy over the recording speed of Johnson's few surviving tracks.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Arizona

I never intended for this to be a political blog (God knows there are enough of those), and I don't consider myself an especially political person. But when I stumbled upon a song about Arizona--probably the only one I'll find-- it happened to address a topic that has been the source of intense political debate in the past few months. Arizona is a border state, so of course I'm talking about the immigration debates that have garnered a lot of CNN face time. We arrive at this topic through the lyrics of unlikely political commentator Brandon Flowers and the song 'Magdalena.'



For a song about the woes of illegal immigration, 'Magdalena' has a fairly upbeat sound. Flamingo sees Flowers experimenting with an array of sounds that move away from the Killers aesthetic, from old-timey country ('On the Floor') to the mariachi tint in 'Magdalena.' The 'plot' of the song, such as it is, revolves around the journey from the Arizona border town of Nogales to Magdalena, in Sonora, Mexico. It's a trip of about 60 miles through the desert, and the first thing you'll notice about the song is that its protagonist isn't going the direction you'd think. In light of the recent immigration debates in Arizona, we think of surreptitious midnight border crossings from Mexico to the US, but the travelers here are returning to Magdalena. As explained in this article, the trip from Nogales to Magdalena is an annual pilgrimage taken by hundreds of Mexicans every October. They make the journey on foot over two or three days, carrying "mandas" with them. As Flowers phrases it in the song, I assumed a manda was a type of talisman or religious reminder, but actually it's described as "penance, miracles, promises and pay it forwards." Like pilgrims throughout history, those traveling to Magdalena are seeking spiritual fulfillment or redemption.

Through its connection to redemption, the Nogales to Magdalena pilgrimage parallels dozens of other writings and songs about journeys in America. We've discussed Raleigh's redemptive journey after falling into disfavor with Queen Elizabeth, and it's also a theme that Springsteen returns to over and over. Images of the desert or other spacious locations are most often associated with these redemptive journeys, and 'Magdalena' follows this trend with its cleansing trip through the desert.

If this journey was from Magdalena to Nogales, this post would be about the search for the American dream that millions of immigrants have undertaken since the first settlers arrived in the sixteenth century. But what's interesting about 'Magdalena' is that the journey takes place in reverse. The travelers in 'Magdalena' are not seeking progress and success in America, but a return to the traditions of their homeland. It's an unusual twist on the narrative of the American dream, a rejection of all that that the nation represents. "Please don't offer me your modern methods/I'm fixin' to carve this out of wood," Flowers proclaims at the beginning of the track. Putting aside the obvious problem of imagining Brandon Flowers handcrafting anything from wood, the image suggests a desire for tradition above success.

'Magdalena' is a song about the failure to find the bounty or happiness that America promises, and as such it's a remarkably thoughtful and modern look at the state of affairs on our southern border. The song's bridge makes it clear that Flowers has the political issues surrounding immigration in mind. He describes "a bullet in the night/a Federale's light" before imploring San Francisco for aid. As a resident of the southwest, Flowers has certainly seen the issues that arise with immigration, but he's unusual in taking the viewpoint of the thousands of immigrants who don't succeed in their new lives. He describes them as "prodigal sons and wayward daughters," implying that their return to their homeland is inevitable once they discover the hardship that awaits them. The song also suggests that there is something corrupt in seeking success in America, that its wealth is a siren's call away from tradition and home. The song's final lines are: "If I should fall to temptation when I return to the evil throes/ From Nogales to Magdalena as a two-time beggar I will go/ Where I know I can be forgiven/ The broken heart of Mexico." As chaotic and dangerous as Mexico is, it is the homeland, preferred to the loss of culture and tradition that accompany a transplant to America. In fact, there's a shame in abandoning your culture that requires a redemptive journey, and perhaps more than one if you fall prey to the temptation of Americanization more than once.

In 'Magdalena,' Flowers finds some of his strongest parallels with his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen. As songwriters, both return over and over to the importance of religion in the American consciousness. Springsteen seeks "the promised land" just as Flowers takes the pilgrimage to Magdalena. Also, each meshes the idea of a redemptive journey with a mixture of disdain and longing for home. Flowers' pilgrims value the traditional lifestyle of Mexico-- complete with its religious practices and beliefs-- over the foreign success of life in America. In parallel narratives, Springsteen's protagonists seek better lives outside New Jersey even as they express nostalgia for their home state. Relationships of tension define much of the American experience-- tension between tradition and progress, between religion and superstition and modernity, and between home and the potential for a better life elsewhere. These themes become especially meaningful when considering our border states and our relationship with other nations. For a Vegas showman who's usually more interested in rhinestones than politics, Flowers creates a nuanced consideration of cultural conflict and the power of tradition.

Tracks:
Magdalena

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nevada

Let's establish something from the get-go. Brandon Flowers loves Las Vegas. LOVES it. LOVES IT. He named his debut solo album Flamingo in honor of one of the city's famous hotels. His next album could be called LAS VEGAS: AWESOME and he could use the songs as a soundtrack for his campaign to become mayor. So there was no one else I could ever think of writing about when I got to Nevada. Not that there aren't a multitude of other artists associated with Vegas-- The Rat Pack, of course, as well as dozens of others who have taken up residence at various casinos and theatrical, now-mostly-defunct emo act Panic! at the Disco-- but no one seems to engage as personally with the city and state as native son Flowers, born in the Vegas suburb Henderson, NV.



One side of Flowers' Las Vegas is the one that appears in the ubiquitous commercials promising "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." Bright, glamorous (?), fun more than anything else. On the title track of his solo album, Flowers bids us 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'-- a song he prefaces at gigs with a story about passing the iconic sign as a kid from the suburbs. In 'Welcome,' 'Sam's Town,' 'Neon Tiger,' and several other songs from the Killers catalog, it becomes clear that Flowers has a genuine tourist's of affection for Vegas as a mecca for flash and entertainment. 'Sam's Town' [a nickname for Vegas] "rolls that world right off [Flowers'] shoulders;" he buys into the image of Vegas as an escape.

However, there's also a certain cynicism in Flowers' Vegas that suggests he knows it better than your average tourist. In Welcome he asks, "Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?" Everyone realizes that there's a lack of substance underneath Vegas' flash, and that whatever substance it has is seedy at best. In 'Sam's Town,' Flowers seems defeated by the city-- "Nobody ever had a dream round here," he begins, "I don't really mind that-- it's starting to get to me." 'Welcome' reimagines the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty for Vegas-- "Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins, Las Vegas." It's an interesting take on the American dream, something of a parody, and the song itself takes on that style as well. It's overly grand (even for Flowers), with a big, arching chorus and a lengthy run time. It's Flowers' answer to a Vegas show or the hotels that are parodies of real places around the world.

The most interesting thing about Flowers' portrayals of Vegas is that they constantly reference the American dream, even as they doubt that the city can be a place to fulfill it. 'Sam's Town' is a song about Americana and success, as is much of the eponymous album. "My brother, he was born on the Fourth of July," Flowers proclaims. (Strangely enough, a true fact.) In 'Sam's Town' and 'Bling,' Flowers finds a realization of the dreams of success he places on Las Vegas. And in some ways, Vegas is a realization of a certain American dream. It's big, it's bright, it's full of money and fun. But as we've seen in other 'fun' states like California and Florida, sun and relaxation comes with a sense of impermanence or falsity. The flipside to the American dream of success is the need to work hard, to suffer in some Puritanical way, and places like Vegas that lack that facet always bring with them some sense of suspicion.

Flowers also writes frequently about the rest of Nevada, and the dichotomy of Vegas glitz and grimy desert tableaux in his solo album and his Killers discography represent the state itself fairly well. In his digressions into the desert, Flowers seems to find more hope and spiritual resonance than he does in the glitter pastiche of Vegas. Despite being under 30, he channels a world-weary Dylan or Springsteen when dealing with the 'Dustland' that surrounds his hometown. There's more purity and personal engagement in these tracks, and listeners get the sense that this is where Flowers really finds the American dream. He writes about his family when he writes about the desert-- his siblings, the parents he idealizes in 'Dustland' and 'The Clock Was Ticking' as an ideal couple. Critics have been harsh with Flowers for his sudden transitions into down-home diction on tracks like 'This River Is Wild' after the British overtones of debut Hot Fuss, but I don't think it's entirely an act. It might be more a revelation. Maybe it's easier for Flowers to pretend-- to be a Vegas showman with slick faux-English production like the fake Eiffel Tower on the Strip-- than it is for him to dig into the reality of his childhood and share it with listeners.

Moving back to Vegas, Flowers' disillusionment with the city is mirrored in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A long-weekend look at the city through a haze of drugs, Thompson's writing is a snapshot of all Vegas' excesses. It's not as grandiose or idealized as Flowers' takes on the city, but there's a similar loss of touch with reality. Critics point to the notion in Thompson's writing of "solace in excess," the idea that when you cannot think of any other way to be content, you simply seek and acquire as much as possible. For Thompson in Fear and Loathing this comes in the form of drugs. In one of Thompson's favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the original champion of 'solace in excess.' Without a family name to bolster him and desperate to reclaim a childhood love, he throws lavish parties, buys houses and cars, and in one famous scene from the novel owns enough shirts that it makes that childhood love weep to see them all. Gatsby and Thompson take parallel journeys in their respective works, seeking the American dream of success and happiness through temporary, material acquisitions and vapid escapes and coming up with nothing in the end. Vegas, equally entertaining but hollow, is the city for both of them-- maybe in a modern version Gatsby would go there instead of East Egg. It's this side of Vegas that Flowers fears and rejects, a substanceless place of constant consumption and disposal. Maybe it's why he prefers the desert.

All these elements-- Flowers' Vegas and desert, Thompson, Gatsby-- come back together in a final Killers track. 'Read My Mind' is arguably the centerpiece of Sam's Town, a driving burst of synth backing up some of Flowers' strongest lyrics:

On the corner of main street
Just tryin' to keep it in line
You say you wanna move on and
You say I'm falling behind
Can you read my mind?

I never really gave up on
Breakin' out of this two-star town
I got the green light
I got a little fight
I'm gonna turn this thing around
Can you read my mind?

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze

Oh well I don't mind, if you don't mind
Cause I don't shine if you don't shine
Before you go, can you read my mind?

It’s funny how you just break down
Waitin' on some sign
I pull up to the front of your driveway
With magic soakin' my spine
Can you read my mind?

The teenage queen, the loaded gun;
The drop dead dream, the Chosen One
A southern drawl, a world unseen;
A city wall and a trampoline
[...]

Slippin’ in my faith until I fall
You never returned that call
Woman, open the door, don't let it sting
I wanna breathe that fire again
[...]

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun
When you read my mind


There's less 'story' to this track than many Killers songs, but the images are strong enough to create the dichotomy you need to understand. Flowers creates a balance between purity-- the teenage queen, the Promised Land, the secret kiss-- and corruption or confinement in the city-- "a broken wrist and a big trapeze," the loaded gun. In the end, as so many American songwriters do, he wants escape. He's most likely to seek it outside Vegas, where the "stars are blazing." He uses a natural image, and one that would be impossible to see above all Vegas' lights, to symbolize the attainment of what he really wants: the connection with another person that he idealizes in songs about his parents and his desert upbringing. Flowers refuses the theory of 'solace in excess,' trampolining over the city wall that confines Thompson as he's holed up in a Vegas hotel room. Flowers isn't unaware of Gatsby either-- "I've got the green light/I've got a little fight" is a reference to the light on the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald's novel, known to anyone who's taken a high school English course. The green light represents Daisy and love, the things Gatsby wants most but can't attain through the excesses of his lifestyle. Like Flowers, what he wants is more organic than what money can buy in Vegas.

In one way, Vegas is its own unattainable dream. Flowers' wish to "break...out of this two star town" is double-edged. Is he dismissing Vegas, or echoing the more common American dream of making it in the big city? Who but Americans, bolstered with lingering Manifest Destiny, would have the audacity to construct a city in the desert? Flowers and Gatsby could appreciate that-- the desire to create, to strive and improve and achieve a dream. The excess of Vegas gets condemned overall, but maybe solace remains in the notion that there is no dream that can't be achieved. You can make an oasis in the desert, you can go there and win a million dollars, you can jump the wall or finally swim to the green light.

Tracks:
Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
Sam's Town
A Dustland Fairytale
Read My Mind

Monday, February 14, 2011

Texas

I had a different post in the works for this week, but in honor of Arcade Fire's well-deserved Grammy for Album of the Year last night I decided to shuffle in a post inspired by the album that won them the award-- The Suburbs. Arcade Fire excel at producing albums that capture the spirit of a moment in their lives, and their true gift is that they so often capture a moment in yours, too. With that in mind, this post will be a less literal look at its particular state-- Texas-- than some of the past ones have been. This has also been one of the hardest posts for me to formulate; I'm not sure I can capture the spirit of such a complex album in a few paragraphs, but I'll do my best.



That said, let's start with the one concrete reference to Texas that The Suburbs offers. In 'City with No Children,' lead singer Win Butler sings, "I dreamt I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground/There was no light that we could see as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." Thematically, the album focuses on suburban expansion, nostalgia for childhood, and the alienation resulting from change, ideas easily applied more broadly than to just Texas. But Win and brother Will, AF's energetic drummer, are Houston natives, so it's safe to assume that the memories of a suburban childhood are at least somewhat inspired by that city.

Before we get started then, a quick look at Houston. In light of an abundance of space to expand and relatively lax zoning laws, Houston is a massive urban area. In 2009, NPR reported, "The city of Houston covers 620 square miles...You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously...the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit." I've been to Houston and I knew it was big, but I had no idea it had reached such a prodigious size. The picture above is of a Houston suburb in 2006-- imagine 620 miles of that with the bland concrete of Houston's downtown and you'll understand how Win and Will remember their hometown with such loneliness; for such a huge place it has very little character. I found it interesting that even the title of that photo,"Sprawl Houston Suburb 2006," and the NPR article, "Texas Sized Sprawl: No End in Sight," pick up on the central theme of The Suburbs.

The album centers on a series of paired songs, including opener and closer 'The Suburbs' and 'The Suburbs (continued),' 'Half Light' I and II, and 'Sprawl' I and II. 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' picks up where 'City' leaves off, with the narrator's return to his home. It's easy to imagine the Houston suburb pictured above:

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay in
Couldn't read the number in the dark
You said, "Let's save it for another day."

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You're talking at me but I'm still far away

Let's take a drive
Through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
Then you said, the emotions are dead
It's no wonder that you feel so strange


One of the most rewarding things about The Suburbs as a complete album rather than just a series of singles is the way lyrical themes return over and over during the 16 tracks. The idea of a town "built to change" surfaces again in 'Suburban War' with the lines, "This town's so strange/they built it to change/and while we're sleeping all the streets get rearranged." AF's portrayal of the suburbs is as a place without the ability to connect to the life of an individual. Every image of the suburbs, where "dead shopping malls rise/like mountains beyond mountains," is one of division and loss, whether of innocence, friendship, or place. Even the city center itself, usually thought of as a vital, lively place, is sapped by movement toward the uniformity of the suburbs. 'City,' 'We Used to Wait,' and 'Rococo' focus on the notion of a "wilderness downtown," where the music scene has devolved into a shallow popularity contest of fad bands. "They build it up just to burn it back down," Butler dismisses the "modern kids" of 'Rococo.' The remaining city-dwellers are engaged in meaningless wars over commercialized products, even as they slip further into the sprawl. It's a common metaphor, but the sprawl represents the loss of individuality, or even the choice to be an individual. The opponents in the 'Suburban War' are "businessmen," "the markets," "the modern kids" who think life in suburbia is ideal.

What makes the nondescript portrayal of suburban sprawl especially wrenching is the way AF pairs it with memories of childhood, a theme that they bring forward from debut album Funeral. 'City with No Children' is the most obvious choice to discuss this theme, which is often connected with the idea of accumulation of wealth and urban expansion. Butler describes the city as "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." 'Half Light II' culminates with the observation, "This city's changed so much since I was a little child/Pray to God I won't live to see the death of everything that's wild." Childhood becomes a mirror for freedom-- creative and spatial-- that is lost when we buy into the notion of suburban life as an ideal. AF frequently portrays children as inherently wiser than adults because they embrace their own beliefs without molding them to social norms. "My old friends/I can remember when/You cut your hair/I never saw you again/Now the cities we live in/Could be distant stars/and I search for you in every passing car." The friends who cut their hair are the ones who have been lost to the sprawl, "divide[d] into tribes" by the music scene eschewed in 'Rococo.' AF returns to the past, the value of "wasted hours," the simplicity and excitement of receiving letters, biking down streets in the middle of the night.

Meditations on childhood in AF are in a way meditations on their style of music. They've long refused major label contracts and produce dense albums without obvious hit singles; they are the independent children, fleeing the suburbs on their bikes in 'Sprawl II' or tunneling through the neighborhood snow in Funeral's 'Neighborhood I.' So it's no surprise that he redemptive force in The Suburbs comes from the theme of escape, often figurative rather than literal, although the constant return to cars and travel in the lyrics suggests a physical departure from the sprawl too, encouragements to "Grab your mother's keys/we leave tonight." 'Sprawl II' and 'Month of May' comment directly on the creative process of making music and the challenges that arise in a society that demands mass culture. 'Sprawl II' opens with Régine Chassagne singing, "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."

Though creativity can be a challenge in the suburbs, songs about the creation of music are some of the most passionate on the album. 'Month of May' is one of the most rock-oriented songs the group has ever done, though I think I prefer the ebullient synths of 'Sprawl II,' an incredibly perfect match for Chassagne's stage presence. When I describe The Suburbs to people, they often come away with the mistaken impression that it's just a depressing album about the loss of innocence and individuality, but these songs show that it's the opposite-- a mustering of courage to fight against the homogenization of suburbia. It makes me think again about the album as a meditation on the state of music itself, and the resurgence of creative independence now that the state of the industry is changing. In 'Month of May,' "a violent wind [blows] the wires away" as the band contemplates making an album about "2009, 2010...how I felt then." The wires, as a representation of the technological age of music and the confining connectedness of the suburbs, prevent them from making a record until the natural force of the wind, something sublimated by the encroachment of suburban sprawl on the wilderness, destroys them. 'May' is one of the angriest songs on the album but also one of the most hopeful; AF believes that bands have a renewed hope of making the kind of music they want to. There's an opportunity to return to the unstructured innocence and wisdom of childhood.

Having talked so much about the suburbs generally, I should return to Texas. Every other song I could think of about Texas involved some kind of state pride that definitely doesn't translate in The Suburbs. These are songs about cowboys on the range, expansive vistas of desert-- what we imagine when we think of Texas, but which is no longer a reality as it becomes home to massive urban centers like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Perhaps the thematic discrepancy arises in a generation gap; a lot of the other songs about Texas are, expectedly, country, a more traditional genre that's still heavily reliant on old-school music industry practices. It's also important that AF chooses Texas as a touchstone for commentary on the suburbs and uniformity because it's a state where expansion creates such a dichotomy between city and wilderness. Traditionally thought of as a frontier because of its historical significance as a disputed border state, Texas is now conquering itself through constant expansion, eating up its vast spaces with ever-growing cities as it once drained oil in a There Will Be Blood-style orgy of consumption. No wonder AF worries about sprawl with Texans chomping down massive amounts of land and energy even as other parts of the nation cut back. Known for its desire to be bigger than anywhere else, Texas is the perfect antithesis for a band who doesn't want to be bigger, but just wants to be themselves. Texan devotion to industry and expansion, with total disregard for beauty or personality, makes it an ideal villain in a story about retaining the past and its values.

As a side note, it's interesting to me that one city in Texas has surfaced as a center for the kind of creative freedom that AF embraces. Austin, home of breakout-band showcase SXSW, has become an enclave of musical talent spanning a remarkable array of genres. Austin's music scene has the kind of organic feel that's missing in Houston generally. As a commentary, The Suburbs could be a call for more development in that direction as well as a general reminiscence about the past of music, something that makes the album especially meaningful as a Grammy winner over mass-produced musicians like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Katy Perry. The layers of meaning in this album are what makes it so special, and I hope I've captured at least some of that in this entry-- childhood, creativity, cities, suburbia, nostalgia-- it's more to take in than perhaps can be said in one inconsequential blog post. It took AF a double album to say it all, so maybe I'm just being presumptuous thinking I can even start to understand. But that's the beauty of their music-- when I listen to it, I feel like I do.

Having written this, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what AF has to say; I'm sure I'll come back to this entry with edits. The only real way to understand everything this band wants to tell you is to hear the music itself. This blog isn't really about music recommendations, but if you haven't heard The Suburbs, give it a shot. Give all of their albums a shot. Arcade Fire aren't signed to a major label, they're making the kind of music they want to make, and it shows in their enthusiasm and the depth of their creativity. Plus, even Kanye West tweeted about how much he loved them after the Grammys last night and he hates everyone, so you know they must be something special.

Tracks
Sprawl II (live)
The Wilderness Downtown (interactive film for 'We Used to Wait')
Suburban War

Monday, January 31, 2011

North Dakota

This is a post primarily about North Dakota, but also a little bit about South Dakota and various other places (SD will eventually get its own post too). It's not that I want to cop out here, but come on. There just aren't that many songs about either North or South Dakota. The two I've chosen to discuss this bastion of coldness and remoteness (home to a whopping 9.738 people per square mile!) are Killers b-side 'The Ballad of Michael Ballantine' and a return to Bright Eyes' 'Four Winds.'



North Dakota in winter doesn't look to conducive to driving, but this post will be about a great American tradition-- the road trip. The Killers have given interviews explaining the titular character of 'Michael Valentine' as a traveling gambler, one of the carefree, itinerant figures who populates American literature, folklore, and history itself (see: Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark, the millions of settlers who went west in pursuit of Manifest Destiny). The compulsion to get in your car (or Mississippi River raft or covered wagon) and go anywhere else is an American compulsion. Springsteen expresses the desire to escape by heading West, but Conor Oberst and The Killers seem like they only want to wander. To spout an insufferable cliché, the journey is the destination.

North Dakota, as one of arguably the remotest states, becomes a stand-in for any faraway destination in what I'll call "road songs." In both 'Valentine' and 'Four Winds,' North Dakota is contrasted with Mexico as locations visited by the traveling narrators. America is a vast place, and there's a certain pride in the declaration that you've made the journey from one far-flung point to another. Maybe it's a way we embrace our pioneer spirit in the modern era when there's less to explore. Michael Valentine also visits Memphis and New Orleans, southern outposts in the American odyssey. The journey is remarkably similar in 'Four Winds'-- Mexico, Dakota, and Cassadaga. The West, far North, and South are viewed as places that still require a substantial journey from the population center of the eastern seaboard.

Like contemporary road movies and books, 'Michael Valentine' portrays an American road trip as an extended celebration; the narrator is the road trip compatriot to the title gambler. Valentine meets women in each city on his aimless progress. There's no plan in his journey. The song begins, "I caught up with a friend in Dallas/ We took a trip to New Orleans/ Those black-eyed ladies/ Won't say they're sorry/ We finally caught a train to Memphis. Where everybody talks the same/ Those blue suede babies/All know my name." Valentine just having an interstate party in a "new suit and black tie." The final line before the last chorus is "I ain't gonna let you rain on this parade." Then the track loops back to another classic American trope-- the American dream of Hollywood. "I've got the buzz like Greta Garbo, walking forward into the sun," the narrator concludes. It sounds like westward progress, toward the sunset, but in the most cheerful way possible.

Bright Eyes' road trip is somewhat less cheerful and slightly more focused on the history of the Dakotas. There's a definite correlation there (we've all seen Fargo, North Dakota isn't exactly a wonderland). As we've seen, Oberst visits all the corners of the country-- Mexico and Cassadaga in the West and South, the "Ivy League moons" of the East, and North Dakota to-- obviously-- the North. Oberst returns to the frequent image of the sunset as well ("shadows lengthen in the sun"); it's a visual that emerges as a metaphor for westward progress and change in the American imagination, closely tied to migration. But Oberst's journey is more thoughtful than joyful, a reflection on "caste, class, country, [and] sect." "A genocide sleeps in the Black Hills, the Badlands, the calloused East." Oberst considers the toll of our conquest of the land, the loss of traditional, pre-Columbian cultures in our push westward. He also casts a different light on the benefit of the road trip. In most incarnations it's a valued learning experience; here it seems hollow and he doubles "back by rented Cadillac and company jet/like a newly orphaned refugee retracing [his] steps/All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead." Unlike Michael Valentine, he can't enjoy the journey-- like the solider in 'Yankee Bayonet' he thinks of the past and wants to get home.

Thinking about these road songs brought me to the ultimate American road trip-- Kerouac's On the Road. As spontaneous as 'Michael Valentine' and discontent as 'Four Winds,' Kerouac's work is the road story that every other storyteller aspires to. Like Bright Eyes and The Killers, his journey includes a foray into Mexico (which somehow becomes a de-facto part of the US in a lot of these road trips) and ends looking westward into the sunset. Whether or not Brandon Flowers and Conor Oberst read or were inspired by On the Road (my guess is yes for Oberst at least), the links between the text and lyrics suggests an ideal road trip that American travelers can make. But a song about Kerouac himself bursts the bubble of the road trip idyll.

Death Cab for Cutie's "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is not about North Dakota, but about DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard taking his own journey to a remote place in hopes of finding inspiration. Gibbard wrote part of the album Narrow Stairs in a cabin in Big Sur where Kerouac himself suffered a nervous breakdown. They're a little long, but I'll post the full lyrics here because you really need the whole story:


I descended a dusty gravel ridge
Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge
And soon I eventually arrived
At the place where your soul had died

Barefoot in the shallow creek
I grabbed some stones from underneath
Waiting for you to speak to me

And the silence, it became so very clear
That you had long ago disappeared
And I cursed myself for being surprised
That this didn't play like it did in my mind

All the way from San Francisco
As I chased the end of your road
Because I've still got miles to go

I want to know my fate if I keep up this way
It's hard to want to stay away
And everyone you meet all seem to be asleep
You wonder if you're missing your dream...

Then it started getting dark
And I trudged back to where the car was parked
No closer to any kind of truth
As I must assume was the case with you


This is more a 'Four Winds' road trip than a 'Valentine' one. 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' is another story of disillusionment following a journey. Rather than being enlightened in the place where a great author once sought inspiration or solace, Gibbard finds only emptiness. Gibbard and Oberst each recognize the ghosts in the place they visit, lingering sorrows that conflict with what they expect from the expansive West of American dreams. Whether it's the genocide sleeping in the Black Hills or the emptiness of the place where Kerouac faced personal misery, what the destination in the road trip provides is further distress rather than clarity. Maybe the problem is that the modern road trip can only be an escape-- we no longer have places to explore, we're only trying to get away from the ghosts we know. It's interesting to note that Gibbard also closes with an image of sunset in the form of nightfall. He tints the idea of westward progress with a suitably more grim conclusion, just waiting for the coming of darkness rather than following in the path of the sun.

And there we are. An entry about road trips in a blog that's a virtual road trip. Meta or something. Hope you've enjoyed the ride.

Tracks:
Four Winds
The Ballad of Michael Valentine
Bixby Canyon Bridge

Saturday, January 29, 2011

North Carolina

For this post I only have one song to talk about, but it is an especially lovely song. Today I'm looking at North Carolina and The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then). The Decemberists went a little crazy with their last album, the high-concept, Rake's Progress retread The Hazards of Love, but they're better known for their slightly theatrical Americana. 'Yankee Bayonet' is a prime example, taken from the album The Crane Wife.




What's immediately striking about 'Yankee Bayonet' is how perfectly it captures the historic spirit of the South. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy isn't from the South (he's actually a native of Helena, Montana and the band is now based in Portland, Oregon), but he seems to understand the importance of the past for those who call North Carolina and its neighbors home. There's also more belief in an idyll in 'Yankee Bayonet' than in any other song we've seen so far. The track maintains a belief in love and fate that's absent from the more cynical tracks we've covered.

The song is a duet between a Civil War-era couple that begins with Meloy, and the first line announces these themes. "Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet, a sweetheart left behind/ Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas, that's where my true love lies." I'll admit that I don't know a vast amount about North Carolina history, but the Civil War probably is one of the state's most famous (and in many cases most revered) historical moments. Meloy's "character" in the song seems to have died in battle far from his beloved "hills of Oconee." They're young, expecting their first child when he goes off to war. The song presents a very traditional historical narrative that nicely mirrors the value it places on traditional perceptions of the state and its past. Not that the historical elements of the song are all positive. "Oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas/ All the bellies and the bones and the bile?" Meloy asks. But these lyrics seem to be included as a contrast to the antebellum love story introduced in earlier verses, where the couple meet at a fair in their isolated town.

The North Carolina preserved in 'Yankee Bayonet' seems rural, slowly paced and gentle, traits mirrored in the tempo and melody of the song itself. I don't mean "slow" or "rural" in a derogatory manner. Rather they're traits of place that were lost after the Civil War, as the U.S. became increasingly industrialized in its move toward the modern era. Neither am I saying that there weren't distinct and serious problems with life in the antebellum South-- the era was anything but gracious for slaves and poor farmers who weren't lucky enough to be at the top of the plantation system. But there is something to be said for the simpler, slower pace of life that is still preserved in some aspects of the modern self, and that's what Meloy captures here. What says it best might be the devotion of the two speakers to one another. None of the doubt and bitterness that has plagued other voices we've heard arises in their declarations to one another. They're simply in love; the woman describes how her heart was "pierced by a pin" when they first met. It's simple, unexpected, unplanned and refreshingly without doubt.

The other striking thing about the track in relation to its place is how strongly and positively the speaker is tied to home. Not even death is powerful enough to keep the male speaker from wanting to find a way back to North Carolina-- "When the sun breaks to no more bullets in Battle Creek/ Then will you make a grave/ For I will be home then." Even if he can't return home in life, he wants to rest there rather than the burial ground referenced in the first verse. Like his thoughts about the love he left behind, his feelings about his home are refreshingly straightforward. He's proud of where he came from and wants to return there.

Both the relationship and the history of North Carolina are frozen at high points in the song. The couple have only fond memories of one another. Either they weren't together long enough to learn the things they didn't like, or the passage of time and turmoil has crystallized only their best aspects. Much like the gracious history of the South that gets viewed through rose-colored glasses, their romance is preserved when they were most in love, perfect enough that they hope to transcend the boundaries of life and death:

But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
Though our skin may not touch skin
Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
I will come on the breath of the wind


Maybe it's my inner cynic making this interpretation, but I don't see a New Yorker coming up with those lyrics. They're just not realistic. Or maybe they're just a reflection of the Decemberists' aesthetic overall. Their music looks to the past fondly, though not too idealistically. They do acknowledge that it was probably horrible being a chimney sweep or an 18th century woman married to a rake, but at least you weren't plagued with the kind of doubt and paranoia that seems to worry LCD Soundsystem.

I'm not sure how to end this entry because the end of 'Yankee Bayonet' is wordless, but possibly the most moving part of the song. The track closes with a harmony that encapsulates the slowness and longing of the song as a whole. Maybe it's best to just listen for yourself.

Tracks:
Yankee Bayonet

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Massachusetts

Since I spent last weekend in Boston, I thought it would be appropriate to do my next post on the hardest state to spell-- Massachusetts. As I looked through my music library for songs for this entry, I found that there were two distinct threads of sentiment about the state. Half of the songs were about Boston, and the other half were about the coastal towns. The two themes don't have much to do with one another, so I decided to just split the entry.



Let's start with Boston. I know I've been sort of a downer about some of the places I've written about so far, but I really like Boston, and it seems like I'm not alone. Arguably the most well-known song about Boston is Dropkick Murphys' splendidly shouty 'Shipping Up to Boston,' made famous in The Departed. Scorcese's film is a fairly grim look at the city, and 'Shipping Up' isn't so cheerful either, but it does seem to be the song that most accurately sums up the city. Brash and to the point like Bostonians themselves, the song is (vaguely-- it's not as lyrically complex as most of the other music I've discussed here) about a sailor with a wooden leg who's going to Boston. That's about it, really. But the song is a portal to a crucial part of Boston history-- its background as a port city.

Founded by John Winthrop in 1630, Boston became one of the most crucial American ports for international trade and politics. Home of the Boston Tea Party and a hub for whaling (though neighboring New Bedford is considered the 19th century whaling capital), the pride in 'Shipping Up' is understandable when you think about how crucial the city has been to American history. In fact, you can't throw a lobster roll (though why would you be throwing it and not eating it?) in Boston and its suburbs without hitting something historic. Revolutionary War battlefields? Got it. Salem, home of the famous 17th century witch trials, is right there. So are the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, as well as Thoreau's picturesque Walden. Why all these notable people chose to live in the furthest reaches of a pleasant climate is unclear, but they seemed to enjoy Boston just as much as the Murphys.

On the far side of the music spectrum, moderately emo piano rockers (I use the term rock very loosely here) Augustana write about a desire to move to Boston in the epynomous song:

She said I think I'll go to Boston...
I think I'll start a new life,
I think I'll start it over, where no one knows my name,
I'll get out of California, I'm tired of the weather...
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind...
I think I need a sunrise, I'm tired of the sunset,
I hear it's nice in the Summer, some snow would be nice.

Boston... where no one knows my name.


Slightly ironic, considering Boston is home to Cheers, where everybody allegedly knows your name. But what I find interesting about this track is its rejection of what we generally consider desirable about America. Warm sunny climates? Friendly faces? Apparently not to be found in Boston, and that's what the song's protagonist wants. Boston is a representation of the independent American spirit, a willingness to strike out on one's own in a harsh environment.

The desire to live somewhere cold and inhospitable seems to be a trait stretching back to the earliest New Englanders, the Puritans. Why they would choose somewhere as bitterly frozen as Massachusetts is a mystery that I've yet to unravel despite spending four years as a history minor. But hey, they seemed to really like it there despite the fact that they spent their first few decades "planting corn with dead fish in a hole they dug with sticks" (a concise summary courtesy of science historian James Strick). Bostonians seem proud of their resilience and their history, and the boldness of 'Shipping Up' is more indicative of their mentality than the gentle piano plinking of Augustana.

But there's another side to Massachusetts, in the coastal towns encapsulated in the music of Vampire Weekend, poster boys for the Vineyard Vines-wearing, sailboat-loving residents (or more often vacationers) of Massachusetts' seaside. Cape Cod and its surrounding towns, with their opulent summer homes and laid back mentality, are so opposite to Boston that I couldn't find a way to resolve them in this post. Vampire Weekend, especially on their self-titled debut, capture the spirit of the gracious life so perfectly that I'll just give you all the lyrics to see for yourself: here.

Overall, the album is a glimpse into "bleeding madras," Louis Vuitton and sandy lawns-- a life of leisure. Having earned the right to relax through the historic struggles in Boston, the inhabitants of Vampire Weekend's world do so in style. This is a very different coastline from the one seen in Springsteen's 'Atlantic City.' Everything in a Vampire Weekend song is gentle, slightly weathered and faded to pastel like the paint on a beach house. It seems easy compared to the harsh life of the sailor in 'Shipping Up,' but there's also something nostalgic and not entirely happy about Vampire Weekend's music. Their albums are about vacation, but mostly about the bittersweet end of the trip. Maybe they're influenced by the fleeting nature of summer in the far north of America, but the songs are, like so much we've seen already, a look backward. "As a young girl..." Ezra Koenig begins 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.' He reminisces then muses, "This feels so unnatural." In 'Walcott,' he asks, "Don't you want to get out of Cape Cod tonight?" While Bostonians love their city and will stay through thick and thin, one leg and frigid winters, Cape Cod residents know their time there is temporary, already fading like old vacation photos.

Tracks:
Shipping Up to Boston-- Dropkick Murphys
Boston-- Augustana
Walcott-- Vampire Weekend
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa-- Vampire Weekend

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New York

This summer at Oxegen, I had the unexpected pleasure of catching Jay-Z's set while waiting for Arcade Fire. I'm not a huge rap fan, but I have to admit he puts on a great show. The only let down was his inclusion of the wretchedly overplayed 'Empire State of Mind' (okay, maybe the 20mph wind, rain, and near-freezing temperatures were also an issue, but not a deal-breaker). When I was looking for songs for the New York entry, most of them were about hopes and dreams and stuff. Feeling brand new, nothing like New York, etc., etc. A truly hilarious professor I once had used to dismiss comments he didn't like with "Well...all right." New York hopes and dreams? Well...all right. That's not going to make for a very interesting post, so instead I've found two truly heartbreaking songs about the Empire State.



My favorite song about New York is LCD Soundsystem's sprawling 'New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." James Murphy produces some of the catchiest dance/electro out there, but what's surprising about his music is the way his lyrics are a total sucker punch of nostalgia and longing as soon as you stop dancing and start listening. The entire Sound of Silver album is, thematically, a look backward. The title track is a snide, retrospective brush-off of teenage emotional turmoil, 'Someone Great' a bitter torch song, 'All My Friends' a triumphant flip through memories. All my friends have never been able to agree on which track is the centerpiece of the record, but I think it's 'New York.'

'New York' is a strange track because it's a love song to a place, but not a happy one. It's the lyrical equivalent of the pros-and-cons conversation you have with your friends when you're thinking of breaking up with someone. "New York, I love you but you're bringing me down" could as easily be about the spouse you need to leave. It's a song about being completely lost in a place you know well. On one hand it's comfortable, you still love it--" New York, you're perfect/ Don't please don't change a thing." But it doesn't last. Murphy admits, "New York I love you, but you're freaking me out...like a death in the hall/that you hear through your wall." Even horror is buffered. The entire song, from the lyrics to the dreamy tempo, is about a slow disconnect.

Murphy, however, never severs the ties. 'New York...' isn't a condemnation so much as a rumination. He's reconsidering the place he calls home without ever reaching a conclusion. "You're still the one pool where I'd happily drown," he admits. New York is the ex who you keep going back to because they promise things will be different, better this time.

The final, beautiful crescendo of the song deals with a syndrome familiar in writing about New York-- the sensation of feeling alone while surrounded by people. "Maybe mother told you true/ And they're always be something there for you/ And you'll never be alone/ But maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/ And just maybe she's wrong/ Maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/And if so, is there?" The lines ascend in tempo and pitch until the final question, and then the song drops off into a gentle instrumental, leaving the question unanswered. Murphy isn't even sure if he belongs in the city at all, how could he be sure if he feels connected to other people too? Maybe he does, and that's why the back and forth of questions is so crucial to the track. Each of us has to decide for ourselves. Do we look backward to familiar advice, to familiar relationships, for comfort? Do we take on the New York dream of stepping into uncertainty in pursuit of something better? New York holds a place in our national imagination, so we have a certain nostalgia for it that conflicts painfully with the truth. Is there a grain of hope underneath? Maybe. Is there?

The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' is another song about looking backward, though one that's certain in its unhappiness and regret. Incidentally, it's my favorite Christmas song. Also the only Christmas song to include the line "You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk," unless I missed some verses in 'Jingle Bells.' Anyhow, it's a song about two Irish immigrants trading barbs during a breakup. They meet on Christmas Eve in New York and make grandiose plans. "This year's for me and you...I can see a better time when all our dreams come true"-- Jay-Z, much? The next verse is a series of New York clichés ("They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold") that quickly turn sour-- "the wind blows right through you, it's no place for the old." The promises that the city makes to them-- fortune, love, Broadway stardom, don't come to fruition and they quickly turn on each other. "You scumbag, you maggot, cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your ass, I pray God it's our last" is the bleak high (low?) point of the song. Not Jay-Z anymore.

The real kick of the song comes with the final verse. "I could've been someone," Shane McGowan laments. To which Kristy MacColl replies cooly, "Well, so could anyone." That's the truth of the matter. New York inspires dreams by the million, but not everyone has what it takes to achieve them. Or the city doesn't give what you need. The songs I've chosen to talk about New York make it fickle, harsh underneath the sparkle and skyscrapers. Maybe so many people dream about success in New York that the concept is meaningless. You think you can become an actor/Wall Street mogul/etc? Well, so could anyone.

The danger in New York is one and the same with what makes it so appealing. You can start again there, be anyone you want, but will you make the right choice? It's not a question anyone can answer with particular certainty, even with the benefit of hindsight, and these two songs capture that perfectly. New York is another place where the American dream falls through, despite the fact that it's the ultimate symbol of what we feel we can achieve as a nation, and the face we put on for the world.

So, New York is a place of hopes and dreams in the end. Well...all right. Sometimes the hopes and dreams succeed. Sometimes they get crushed and the result is amazing songs. And sometimes we feel, like James Murphy does, that we aren't sure about New York. Maybe it's wonderful, maybe it's too big and too uncertain and too imperfect. But everyone wants to write a song about it.


Tracks:
New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down
Fairytale of New York

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Jersey

Where to even start here? I guess I could make some New Jersey jokes, but probably you've heard them. Or I could use this post to analyze some of the fine musical stylings of Jersey Shore's Pauly D, who is allegedly a DJ. But, of course, when you think of New Jersey you think of Springsteen. (If you don't, go buy Born to Run immediately and rectify the gap in your musical knowledge.) The hardest part of writing this entry was not thinking of songs to write about, but choosing from the wealth of options created by Bruce and the E Street band during the last 30 years of his career.



A couple of years ago, I was on my way to New York by train and chatted with a man from Georgia who was sitting beside me. He'd never spent any time in the northeast and asked me if our trip, from Philadelphia to Manhattan via New Jersey, would be scenic. I was surprised, and had to break the bad news to him that NJ isn't exactly known for its stunning vistas. Even Bruce Springsteen, arguably its most famous and loyal resident, spends a lot of time singing about how much he'd like to leave New Jersey. And that's what this entry will be about. In New Jersey, I'll consider the traditional American expansionist mentality: the desire to go West in search of a better life.

Earlier in this blog, I looked briefly at the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh and the consistent desire in American art to escape and expand. Springsteen looks from his home state toward loosely “western” spaces like the Badlands, California, and even Florida; he is more concerned with the idea of escape than the destination. "Born to Run" displays perhaps the strongest sensibility of the West as freedom or redemption, though these are themes that run throughout his extensive catalogue. Springsteen associates the West with the redemptive qualities of speed and youth, closely tied to American ideas of rapid progress. His catalogue is filled with songs that crescendo from quiet vocals to bombastic finales as western spaces open before bold young protagonists (“Thunder Road;” “Jungleland”). Springsteen begins “Born to Run” by identifying what must be redeemed through a westward journey: “in the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream.” Labor, once a gateway to success in America via the Puritan work ethic of Underhill’s peers, now symbolizes entrapment. Springsteen’s New Jersey home is populated with grim factories and grinding labor. “Working on the Highway” compounds this commentary on the loss of pride in work through a story of what seems to be honest employment, but is really convict’s toil “on the Charlotte County road gang.” “Atlantic City,” however, offers Springsteen’s most negative vision of soulless labor in the East: “Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away/ But I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay… I’ve been looking for a job, but it’s hard to find/ Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” In these lines, Springsteen paints a grim portrait of what must be escaped via westward travel.

Economic freedom, an escape from the poverty of Springsteen’s New Jersey, becomes a chief motivation for the speedy escape that “Born to Run” prescribes. Springsteen was “born down in a dead man’s town” where “the street’s on fire/a real death-waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy” (“Born in the USA;” “Jungleland”). “Mainstreet’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/ Seems like no one wants to come down here no more/They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” he worries in “My Hometown.” In the face of this poverty, he speculates about “packing up our bags maybe heading south.” His greatest desire is to leave the “swamps of Jersey” that bog him down literally in “Rosalita” and spiritually in dozens of other tracks. In the face of impossibly high debts in “Atlantic City” he says, “So I drew what I had from the Central Trust/And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.” Springsteen portrays movement—to anywhere new—as the first and most logical escape from sorrow and poverty.

Love and youth also become obsessions for Springsteen in his rejection of the oppressive East. “I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul,” he promises Wendy in “Born to Run.” Most images of westward escape in Springsteen include a partner to escape with, whether “Rosalita,” the woman the narrator addresses in “Atlantic City” or Mary in “Thunder Road.” “Thunder Road” links the romance of escape to the re-attainment or preservation of younger, happier times—a connection first made in Raleigh’s redemptive explorations for Elizabeth. “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore/ Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” Springsteen tells Mary when he proposes that she “climb in” and leave their dreary town behind (“Thunder Road”). They are not too old to hope for a better future together. For Raleigh, the West is a chance to return to past joy; for Springsteen, it is a place to stay young and in love.

So, maybe this entry wasn't about New Jersey, but about how to leave it. No matter what Springsteen thinks about his home state, one thing is certain for me. There is no American musician who captures the spirit of life in our nation the way Springsteen does. Some might argue for Bob Dylan, but I'm ruling him out because at this point I can't even understand him when he sings. The first song I remember hearing was 'Thunder Road.' I was three and my mom had a cassette of Born to Run that she often played in her car. At that age I didn't know who Roy Orbison was, but even at that age I could envision the scene in rest of the opening verse.

The screen door slams,
Mary's dress waves.
Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays...


No one else has ever captured a moment, and such a quintessentially American one, in the way Springsteen does. When he sings, I'm on my porch too. The boards are too hot under my bare feet and the paint is chalky, a sun-faded blue grey. Screen door springs are always worn out, so the door closes behind me with a metallic clang that rings down across the yard. There's actually nowhere to drive a car near my porch, but every once in a while I still look out past the columns hoping someone will be waiting with an offer to set off for somewhere new. In Springsteen's America he would have a beat up car and guitar. Maybe that's the real American dream--certainly an American tradition, anyway--setting off to explore even though you might not really be ready.

Who would have thought? The most beautiful music about America might come from New Jersey.

Tracks:
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Atlantic City

For more on visions of the West in American music, I recommend Greil Marcus' excellent book Mystery Train.

Friday, January 7, 2011

California

This entry will not be about the Phantom Planet song 'California' that introduced the deeply mediocre TV show The OC for several years. Nor will it be about any song written by Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have shaped a nice career for themselves with songs like 'Californication' and 'Dani California.' The Phantom Planet track shows California as it appears in popular culture, sunny and laid back, a place apart like Florida. By contrast, RCHP are Californians who see the state for what it really is: seedy underneath a cheap, flashy exterior. A Hollywood film set with false-front buildings that collapse in a month.

But, as I said, this entry isn't about those songs. Instead, it's about the way outsiders look at California. Not just outsiders from other states, but from another hemisphere. When I chat with my British friends, I usually find that their US geography is limited to New York, Disney World, and California. The rest of the country is just background noise. (I told an acquaintance this summer that I lived outside Philadelphia. His response: 'Is that to the left or right?') So today I'm looking at the way two British bands think about California, and what that says about the place America occupies in the international imagination.



Let's start with a song that admits it doesn't take an objective viewpoint in its understanding of place. Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys released 'Fake Tales of San Francisco' in 2005 on their breakout EP Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys. Debuting to massive hype, the Monkeys stood out because their songs spoke so directly about life for average young people in Britain. Tinged with Alex Turner's slang ridden, dialect-heavy lyrics, their debut album was a snapshot of British society. With that in mind, it's no wonder that Turner seems spitting mad about American influences in the British indie scene in 'Fake Tales.'

The track roundly criticizes bands that mask their own culture in favor of pretending they're part of the American music scene. “Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook,” the Monkeys tell posing “super cool band[s]” with “their trilbies and their glasses of white wine...weekend rockstars." The song challenges bands that try to distance themselves from their British roots. “Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem/ you're not from New York City, you're from Rotheram,” Turner says coolly before condemning an Americanized band as “fucking wank.” (A lyric quieted down to 'not very good' on subsequent releases-- it doesn't quite capture the venom of the original.) You can practically hear the band's eyes rolling when the titular "fake tales of San Francisco echo through the room." In this track, there's not a lot of warmth for the state that many people consider the most pleasant place in America. (At least 37 million of us do, according to the 2010 Census. That's 12 million more than California's nearest competitor, Texas). But Turner sees "more point to a wedding...without a bride or groom" than he does in pretending to be from California. And really, what's so wrong with being from England? It's working out all right for Arctic Monkeys.

Art Brut also take on, with their usual tongue-in-cheek attitude, the clash between British life and fantasies of California in 'Moving to LA.' Singer Eddie Argos complains satirically that “there’s not much glam about the English weather...I’m considering a move to L.A." Unlike the Monkeys, Art Brut aren't angry that people from Britain might rather live somewhere sunny, warm, and glamorous. They're just putting out a friendly warning that they might be let down once they get there. The song is a litany of increasingly ridiculous stereotypes about what happens in on the West Coast. Here's an excerpt:

Hang around with Axl Rose
Buy myself some brand new clothes
Everything is gonna be just fine
I hear the murder rate is in decline...

When I get off the plane
The first thing I'm gonna do is
Strip naked to the waist
And ride my Harley Davidson
Up and down Sunset street
I may even get a tattoo
My problems are never gonna find me
I'm not sending one letter
or even a postcard back
I'm drinking Henessey
With Morrissey
On a beach
Out of reach
Somewhere very far away


It's up for grabs whether or not Art Brut actually thinks they'd like to live this life. It sounds fun, but my suspicion is no, they wouldn't. There's a slightly cruel undertone to the whole song. A little touch of, "Here's what we've been told about California. We're not really going for it, but thanks for trying." In the modern era of constant, dismal tabloid photos, some of the glamour has been drained from Hollywood, and Art Brut is mocking how tacky and ostentatious the culture has become. In their own way, the band is expressing the same sentiment heard in 'Fake Tales'-- don't sell out for a California dream that isn't worthwhile. Celebrities aren't Grace Kelly anymore. Now they're Lindsay Lohan staggering out of a club at 4 am every single night, or the millionth shot of Chris Pine getting a coffee (does the man do anything else?) 'Moving to LA' is a wink where 'Fake Tales' is a punch in the jaw, but both are telling you to look again at one of the quintessential American states. Art Brut isn't buying what Arnold is selling in his California tourism ads. And anyway, would Morrissey even like California? It seems far too sunny and busy for contemplative moping.

People from other countries, like Americans themselves, no longer see California as everyone once perceived it-- a promised land. Countless waves of people have come to California looking for a new life: prospectors and wagon trains coming west in search of gold, immigrants from southeast Asia seeking new paths in America, and endless generations of young people who think they can make it in Hollywood. California, like Florida, is probably a popular song subject because it's a dreamland more than a reality, easily shaped to fit what your imagination desires. It's no coincidence that Walt Disney chose to build his other great escapist attraction here. But the illusion never seems to last; there's always cynicism underneath, a fitting metaphor for a state that's all about appearances. Views of California could be a microcosm for the way perceptions of America in general are changing in the modern international world, but that's a difficult generalization to make.

To close, Brits aren't the only ones with some reservations about the Golden State. Arcade Fire's stunning The Suburbs, which we'll return to with Texas, fleetingly mentions the state in 'Half Light II: No Celebration.' Win Butler begins the song with a surrender: "Now that San Francisco's gone/ I guess I'll just pack it in." Whatever he was looking for-- solace? fame?-- he doesn't find it in California. He suggests "we head back East/to find a town where we can live." As a symbol of an older part of our national history, maybe he's seeking deeper roots, something more organic and substantial than what California has to offer. That's what The Suburbs seems to be about, after all. Escape from mindless, modern sprawl. But is the East really any better? We'll find out soon, because I'm tackling the big one next: Springsteen and New Jersey.

Tracks:
Fake Tales of San Francisco
Moving to LA
Half Light II: No Celebration

Monday, January 3, 2011

Florida

I went back by rented Cadillac and company jet,
like a newly orphaned refugee, retracing my steps,
all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead.
They said, 'You'd better look alive.'

Four Winds, Bright Eyes




I don't have any particularly warm feelings about Florida. Disney World is nice and all, but I doubt I'll ever want to live in a place where the average humidity is a steamy 91% in July and alligators could chomp down my dog/child/leg like a Kit Kat. So why begin my journey here? I started this blog by making a list of each state and then listing the songs I could think of, just off the top of my head, that spoke about it. Some, like the painfully un-rhyme-able Hawaii, remain blank for the moment. Florida, surprisingly, hit upon two of my favorite artists-- Bruce Springsteen, who name drops the state in 1984's 'Working on the Highway,' and Bright Eyes (the sometimes stage name of Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst), who penned the lyrics above for 2007 album Cassadaga.

As much as I love The Boss, 'Four Winds' prevailed because it says so much about what I too want to say about America as I write. But we'll get there soon-- some background on the song first. 'Four Winds' was the first single from Cassadaga, an album named for a small Floridian community of psychics. The track itself is replete with Oberst's beloved literary references and SAT vocabulary. (Check out the full lyrics: here). Broadly, it's a song about American cultural diversity, but the concept doesn't get the same laudatory treatment it got in your high school history textbooks. "She breaks, she breaks, she caves, she caves," is the song's final line. Four Winds is about cultures failing to mesh, oil on water rather than a melting pot.

Florida is a great place to begin because it was one of the first places were cultures brushed. Ponce de Leon's expedition of Spanish explorers in search of gold and youth landed in Florida in 1513 and Europeans in all parts of the Americas wasted no time in obliterating, intentionally or just carelessly, the native cultures they found (with the exception of the stupendously hapless Cabeza de Vaca, who really deserves a minute of your time on wikipedia). 'Four Winds' suggests that we haven't made much progress since Ponce de Leon and his contemporaries blazed through pre-Columbian America. "Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe/ There's people always dying trying to keep them alive," Oberst begins. America is a nation founded on taking risks, accepting the possibility of death, to keep your beliefs and your culture alive. But this isn't a song about the American dream. The next verse begins: "The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute/ If you burned them all together you'd be close to the truth," dismissing the value of the traditional religious beliefs that so many Americans hold dear. Oberst isn't very hopeful about America in general. "There's bodies decomposing in containers tonight/in an abandoned building where/ squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl..." Multiculturalism, sure. But squatters and decomposing bodies too.

'Four Winds' isn't a song about the American dream, and this blog isn't about that either. What surprised me most as I looked over that song list was how many tracks reflected what Oberst says so beautifully. There's a darkness to America that seeps out through its music; there's glamor, and hope, and beauty-- but there's something richer, too. A sense that sometimes the spiral is unwinding, the seams are splitting because there's so much underneath. I considered the possibility that this just said something about my music taste, but the spectrum of musicians that voiced similar opinions was remarkably broad. 'Four Winds' is a song about the processes of convergence and divergence that we face in such a vast nation. Cultures don't blend like they might; they're blind, deaf, and mute to one another. The titular winds never converge: they ruffle the hair of the Mexican girl, "cry" and level stands of trees. There's pressure from all sides, and Oberst isn't sure we can stand up to it.

Expansion, another key aspect of the American dream, isn't the answer either. (This theme will come up over and over again as I write.) The notion of a frontier is one of the earliest aspects of American literature, extending back to Sir Walter Raleigh's travels "to seek new worlds, for gold, for praise, for glory” after being slighted by Elizabeth I. Traditionally a symbol of attainment and success, the frontier in modern music remains present but becomes less tangible than it was for early explorers. In 'Working on the Highway,' the young couple at the center of the song reach their frontier-- a new life in Florida-- but aren't allowed to stay. Their motivations weren't so valorous anyway; they ended up in Florida to escape disapproving parents. Oberst's description of himself as a "newly orphaned refugee, retracing [his] steps/all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead" suggests that he doesn't place much faith in exploration either. He and the psychics of Cassadaga seek belonging among a group that is no longer even on Earth, never mind in Florida. Is it because he doesn't feel there's any place for him among America's living population? Because that population is so lacking in cohesion that there's no way to identify it and decide if he could belong?

That's what America is about, after all. People seeking a place where they can belong. In this blog, I'll explore the way musicians belong to their places, or come to the conclusion that they actually don't.

Florida is a place we go at the beginnings and ends of our lives, softened in memories with a humid haze around the edges. As children we take a spin in Walt Disney's magical teacups, and when we're old we retire there to bask in the enveloping warmth of tropical sun. It's a place to escape from what happens in between these two poles of existence, apart from Springsteen's seedy romance and Oberst's bitter dismissal of our cherished national identity. A place at the fringe of our country, for people on the fringe of society like Cassadaga's psychics. A place to visit, but not to stay. So let's go on.

Tracks:
Working on the Highway
Four Winds
The Killers' fantastic Four Winds cover