It’s no easy feat to write a song for or around the birth of your child, as I figured out when I sat down last night to make a playlist in honor of the birth of our second child. (What can I say, I tend to organize my life in playlists. I can’t help it.) So many of the things written around such a complicated, emotional time in one’s life have a tendency to, well, stink. It’s a difficult thing to capture in a song: something so tremendously important and powerful and overwhelming, a surge all at once of Happiness, Joy, Peace, Love, and I-Must-Protect-This-New-Thing-at-All-Costs. I’d venture to say it’s one of the hardest things in the world to write a (decent) song or poem about. The failure rate, even among artists I admire, is painfully high.
However, when an artist does get it just right, difficult as that may be, it’s worth hearing a hundred times over. This one, though, this one’s worth listening to even a thousand times perhaps: simple though it is, it comes closer than maybe anything I’ve ever heard to capturing the mix of feelings that swirl around you as you gaze upon your own child for the very first time, in those very first few hours of his or her life.
It’s called “Fontanelle” - a word which means, literally, the soft spots on a baby’s head which enable the plates of the skull to flex, thus allowing the baby’s head to pass through the birth canal - and it was written by Eef Barzelay, lead singer of Clem Snide, upon the birth of his own first son. Well, the music was written at that time anyway - the lyrics themselves, mostly a re-working of an old Irish blessing, have actually been around (in one form or another) for quite awhile.
In the end, the song emerges as precious, delicate, near perfect - there are simply so many ways it could have failed - but it doesn’t, not once. And so, as I held my own newborn son yesterday, at the very hospital where I myself was born all those years ago, I felt an awful lot like this song sounds: fragile, in awe, full of love.
“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic, and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference.”—Kurt Vonnegut (via bleedingbells)
The piano trills, the drums punch in, a voice wishes you a good morning and hopes you’re feeling better, baby. You’ve been gone too long. You’ve been missed. Someone is counting down the days until they can see you again.
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been - though, in this particular case, it would seem you’ve been jail - no, what matters is that you’re coming home soon! A separation is coming to an end; a love story can pick up where it was suddenly left off. The future is a hopeful, lovely, joyous place - and The Zombies have just the multi-part harmonies and gut-punchingly delicious melody to prove it.
It’s a rare thing to smile from the very beginning of a song all the way through to its final notes. Happiness, at least in its truest, most genuine form, is a difficult emotion - or, note, if you will - to sustain, even if only for three-and-a-half minutes. And, while many pop songs start or end there, precious few can pull off the full-on sustained fever pitch of joy that The Zombies reach here. Perhaps it’s because “Care of Cell 44” is about the destination rather than the journey, a reunion almost arrived rather than the all the longing that surely went before it (as opposed to another locked-up song like "Long Time Woman", wherein the struggle is the focus of the song, and joy is nowhere to be found). Here, the tears have all been cried, the sighs have all been sighed, and the future is (finally) almost here.
I have no problem declaring that “Care of Cell 44” is one of the finest pop songs ever written, a song that soars on giddy wings and glorious harmonies, a distillation of relief and elation in a near-perfect handful of minutes. The Zombies, at their best, knew how to hit happy notes built upon the sadness and strife that preceded it, sweetness made sweeter by a struggle (see also "This Will Be Our Year"). Whatever might lay in the past, whatever might have happened, it doesn’t matter:
If a song like this catches you at the right age, it can end up meaning far more than the sum of its parts, forever associated with things that maybe it has no right to be. For instance: being in your early 20s and having no idea what the hell to do with your life; living in your fourth apartment in four years and working at a video store; near crippling anxiety; trying to decide whether or not to propose to your girlfriend; going to see your therapist once a week and having it finally help for the first time; being afraid of and longing for open roads at the very same time.
I don’t expect you to bring those memories to this song, maybe you’ll bring your own, or maybe you’ve never even heard the damn thing. The point, though, is that I think you’ll find something to like here. Conor Oberst’s poetically rambling and vulnerable verses, cascading down one after another, culminating in a realization that true love is perhaps all that can save him - a realization you’re only really allowed to get away with earnestly voicing in your teenage years (Oberst was 18 at the time) without looking hopelessly naive - well, they get to me. Even now, nearly ten years on.
It’s also a song that has a surprising amount of wisdom and weariness in its verses, a young Oberst doing his best Dylan (a comparison that would soon begin to haunt him), but doing it in a way Dylan - for all his prodigious talent and genius - never really dared (or cared?) to do: with genuine heart-on-his-sleeves, putting-it-all-out-there emotion. Even at his most vulernable, Dylan was always, well, Dylan, and it’s hard to see such an iconic figure as any kind of weak or worried man. Oberst, though, came up through the ranks as a vulnerable little emo kid, and while his persona has certainly been through several changes since then, it wasn’t until lately (around Cassedega time) that he had any sense of real confidence about him (a song like this, then, probably wouldn’t be half as powerful from the Oberst of now - the carousing mystic, the endless traveller with a full head of bravado about him). Here, though, he puts it all out there in a simple way I’ve never had any trouble relating to through the years:
I thought I was on fire with the things I could have told you / I guess I just assumed you eventually would ask / and I wouldn’t have to bring up my so badly broken heart, and all those nights I just wanted to sleep/ And though Spring it did come slowly, well I guess it did its part / my heart has thawed and continues to beat.
It’s June, and this is a song for June. For hearts continuing to beat. Some days, that’s all you can ask for.
Will The Circle Be Unbroken? - Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley
I don’t believe in Jesus. But I did grow up believing. That belief - and the religious life built around it - informed so large a part of my younger years that it becomes impossible to extricate from any other facet of my childhood: it simply touched every ounce of it in some way. And that makes a mark on a heart, whether you want it to or not; there’s a yearning that gets built in. You can remove the belief intellectually, rationally - but emotionally, at times, it can be a whole different ballgame. And nothing makes me want to believe in some kind of religion or God more than a song like this.
Or, actually, nothing did until last week. You see, a few days ago I lost someone very close to me, someone who meant every bit as much to my childhood as religion, someone I can’t ever remember not loving in my 31 years on this little planet. When that happens, the need to believe in a Heaven of some sort returns with a kind of desperate ferocity, an emotional willingness to cast aside all reason and rationality to the contrary and simply believe because not believing means something too awful to think about: never seeing her again.
She went through a rather complicated spiritual journey in her own life, but ended up, in the final decade of her life, being devoutly religious. Jesus was her entire life in the past ten years or so since losing her husband. He was what she leaned on, heavily, to get her through the days, days increasingly filled with sadness and pain. And it was He, no doubt, who she hoped and longed to meet after finally shaking off this mortal coil.
To see someone love someone or something that much can be overwhelming. And for her sake, I want there to be a God who called her home a few days ago, called her home to reunite with the husband and daughter who preceded her, to the family and friends she’s lost throughout the years. I want there to be a reason she had to go through so much pain and a meaning to the entire trajectory of her life - to all our lives - in general. I want there to be a purpose for things, though I’m rarely sure there is. I want to be able to see her again. I want her to be okay.
When you lose a loved one, and you hear a song like this - there’s a better home awaitin’ in the sky, Lord, in the sky - you just want it all, so badly, to be true.
Little Person - Jon Brion (vocals by Deanne Storey)
What was once before you - an exciting, mysterious future - is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one.
I’m just a little person, myself. Not in terms of stature or size - by generally agreed upon American standards I’m actually of perfectly average height and weight - but in terms of my little world, the world I spend every single day in. The (little) world wherein I am the center of everything, the ruler of a (little) kingdom of me. It’s a lonely place, of course. Any little world is. Nobody knows its depths, its true interiors, its important thoughts, its trivial ones. John Donne might boldly claim that no man is an island, but I’d argue the reverse is actually true: all of us are islands, little, lonely islands that want to connect with the other islands, the waves, the ocean, the universe. But we can’t, not truly, not ever. An island is an island is an island.
Though this view might seem to some a pessimistic one, it’s actually not, or at least not always. Even when there’s no real hope of connection, there’s still, always, the hope that there is. It’s the hope that inspires all great art, that keeps us trying each and every day to find some reason why all of this is worth all of this. (It is.) We might know that there’s no there there, we might sometimes grasp the enormity of the universe and the corresponding smallness of our own lives within it, but that’s surely no reason to cash in our chips or lay down whatever hand we’ve been dealt.
We are all little people. Me, writing this. You, reading this. The only way we matter, any of us, is in the ripples we send out: the echoes of all our good deeds, our efforts to connect, the love we tried to find or create, the loneliness we tried to erase in others.
Though I could easily (and happily) write about at least twenty-five Okkervil River songs today or any day, the point of this site, at least in its infancy, is to try and write about a song each week that is particularly relevant to me during the time in which I’m writing it. Whether the connection is thematic, lyrical, musical, or any other way in which I’m able to make it, the point is to document not only a song but, in a way, a life.
And so sitting down to write about music this week, I can’t seem to escape “Seas Too Far To Reach”. It’s a song that, at first blush, seems to be about a sense of yearning - a notion brilliantly captured in the song’s title metaphor alone - and this has certainly been, for me, a week of (a month of, a year of, a lifetime of) yearning.
What exactly it is that’s being longed for, within the song, seems at times overt and definable (Let’s go back up to your house, and take our clothes off, and just push and pull ourselves until we’re deep inside of sleep) and at others more achingly vague (And we’ll walk and quietly talk all through the country of your skin, made up of pieces of the places that you’ve dreamed and that you’ve been). It’s a dance between the specific and the subjective, a dance that Okkervil’s chief singer/songwriter Will Sheff, in particular, has been so expertly playing out over these past several years. It’s a dance I never fail to fall for.
In addition to the ache and yearning - or, perhaps, to highlight it all the more - “Seas Too Far Too Reach” is also a song about sex, about the sadness and messiness of life, about the interplay of dreams and reality. (You know, typical mindless pop song stuff.)
There is also, finally, the issue of the mandolin and how it adds a seafaring thrust to a narrative already ripe with nautical allusions. Listening to its flourishes, it becomes even easier to imagine one’s self on a boat somewhere, on a lonely sea but for a close-knit group of friends gathered around the bow, determined to help you find whatever it is you’re looking for. I’m not sure any of this is intended, exactly, but it’s nonetheless what emerges when I listen. And somewhere between those oceanic sounds and the lyrics’ hopeful but lonely grasp for something to hold on to amidst the gathering storm - a person, a body, a peaceful slumber - I find myself playing the song, this week, on an almost endless loop.
These Arms of Mine - Otis Redding (live at the Whiskey A Go Go)
Some songs sneak up on you, but not Otis Redding songs. He’s not interested in subtle seduction or passive-aggressive mumbo jumbo. No, this man wants you to know right now how much he needs/wants/loves you. He wants you to know that this desire hurts him on a deep, gutteral level, that it is literally breaking his heart to care about you as much as he does. And he means every goddamn word of it, too. You can take that to the bank.
The original version of this song, released in 1962, is perfectly good (good enough, in fact, to earn a spot on our wedding reception playlist, a playlist that, honestly, you don’t even want to know how much time I spent on). But as good as that version is, this live version is a hundred times better. Redding might have been feeling it in the studio when he tore off the original version - he certainly injected that recording with a good deal of heart and soul - but a song like this simply isn’t meant for the studio, it’s meant for the stage. So, when ol’ Otis gets up there in front of all those people, feeding off them while they feed off him, he gets himself worked up and writhing, and the song becomes spine-tingling in its urgency.
It’s somewhere in the snap of the snare drum at 0:49, in Redding’s soulful growl at 1:56, in the horns that rush in for support around 2:39. It’s the sound of something worth putting down whatever it is you’re doing right now - yes, you - and stepping into Otis’s world for just a little while.