Song #29 // Lisa Hannigan, “Snow” [At Swim]

Really nothing to see here, but this is a scrap of something that hangs around my desktop (although I see now that I could have chucked it months ago.) It was apparently a start to something that never went anywhere:

Where I’m from, the outskirts of Detroit, manufacturing didn’t just provide us with jobs, it kept us local. With such a powerful force of economic gravity, there was no reason (or hope?) to leave. And though outsiders look at our city’s downfall as spiraling from the 1960s on, what many don’t realize is that the automobile industry kept us in its good graces well into the late 1990s. By that time I was heading off to college at the nearby University of Michigan, while the bulk of my classmates stayed home. While I waited for life to happen on campus, they were driving new F150s and buying homes in the same neighborhoods as their parents. At the time, there was little doubt about who was making the more immediately smart decision.

It was far from a land of opportunity: by the time I reached junior high I had passed through three elementary schools, each one shuttered as teachers were pinkslipped after the steel workers were pinkslipped. Maritime and railroad trade halted as our region’s lifeblood slowed on area roads. But in the waning days of the 20th century, the jobs were still there.

I moved. First out of Detroit’s orbit, and then across state lines to Indiana, New York, and California. When I came back as a visitor a decade later I was suddenly alone. Both the landscape and the population had moved on. Once and local hangouts—Big Boy’s, Denny’s, near nameless bars on Fort St.—were no more. And my classmates had escaped to jobs of service and security: moving out of state to become store managers, restaurant workers, and border patrolmen.

Even though I had struggled to define myself and find success in those years, I had always hoped that I was exceptional. A prodigal son and a permanent sense of place. But I’ve come to realize in my reflection of empty storefronts that I was no exception. I left, but I was merely early. I left, and I was alone. But back in the place that I called home, no one remained, and as I returned to my life in progress in California and later Texas, I grew older (like we all do) and realized more acutely how alone I truly was.

Much like her songs, Lisa Hannigan releases sneak up on you. And though I haven’t spent much time with this one, this song in particular jumped out instantly like a soundtrack to nature that was always there among the hush and crunch of January.

Song #28 // Beth Orton, “Dawnstar” [Kidsticks]

I started writing this poem last year in the days after Valentine’s Day (my least favorite non-NYE holiday.) One of the few social things I had going for me in the year after moving to Austin was taking my daughter grocery shopping after school. There she’d invariably want to touch and hold every plush red and pink doll that depressed the hell out of me. But she loved them with some earnestness and sincerity that I felt shamed to ever doubt the power of stupid inanimate objects to bring out the purest emotion in the purest of hearts.

It’s incomplete, but I’d love to return to it one day:

February 16

Stock. Product.
Holiday items.
Making room for the end-caps.
Turning over the seasonal aisle.
Dark reds and violets
Bleed out to soft pastels.
Plush hearts
And bears and bugs
And all in-betweens
Are reborn in the harsh
Fluorescent efficiency
Into bunnies and baskets
And chicks and

It’s too much

Love has no season.

Sadly Beth Orton, for me, will never outlive her deep attachment to my solitary walks up and down hills in San Francisco now over 12yrs ago. Still, I have a continuing very deep soft spot for her music however it comes, as long as it comes ethereal and melancholy.

Song #27 // Radiohead, “Burn The Witch” [A Moon Shaped Pool]

Well that time has come.

Writing a best-of list from 2016 two months into 2017 doesn’t make much sense, and plus my heart just isn’t it anymore.

These were always meant to be one-offs, impromptu musings dictated more by the availability of time than the availability of inspiration. Some were fun and some were disposable, neither group was edited much.

And so dear, invisible, silent, anonymous, non-existent readers, I won’t bore you with anything that looks or feels anything like an essay from here on out. I’ll finish out the next 8 songs with some first drafts or thoughts from other enterprises, and then a quick review. The flotsam and jetsam may be fun, it may just be a placeholder for me for another time.

Either way, I think the time spent away from this for another year will do us all good. After all no one–especially me–wants a blog.

Of all the commercial hits added to this year’s list, this one deserves its place the most. It’s a break-up album that flies under the radar as something more, or something less, than love and loss. It puts up a false facade of acoustic rock in light of Radiohead’s most immediate releases prior, but at its core are some subtle sonic powers that reveal new dimensions at every listen. And the video (below) is as creepy as it is nostalgic for certain viewers of 1970s animation.

Song #26 // Jack White, “Love Is the Truth/You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” [Live from The Tonight Show]

Oh, Honky Tonk Woman,

How did you know? What did you see? Was I just another man in the sea of the darkly-lit hall? Did I just happen to be closest, or in the way?

Seriously, Honky Tonk Woman (whose name I know is Nicole), I’m making this sound like a bigger deal than it is. I always do that. You should just consider yourself lucky; if I were 10yrs younger and single I’d spend the day looking for traces of you online. There’s a fine line between stalking and loneliness in our social media age, don’t you agree?

But how you knew exactly what I needed at exactly the right time at exactly the moment that I didn’t realize I needed it, I have no idea.

Maybe you saw my friend Christian and I standing there for hours, throwing back Lone Stars, watching the band and the dancers, and talking about whatever it is that we talk about when he comes around: reasons streets are named the way they are, the history of neighborhoods, bands that we watched when we were in college. It’s clockwork, those conversations, and yet they go on and on and never cease whenever we’re together.

Did you see that? Did you feel any trepidation of breaking up such a relentless, nerdy back and forth? Was is it a dare? Was it done in vengeance? I later saw you at the bar, still standing in your pretty shirt and long black hair, talking to a seated man, younger, taller, better looking than me. You left with him, though curiously you took two separate routes through the crowd, he easily 20yds ahead of you by the time he reached the door. Maybe it was just a lark. Maybe it was for his amusement.

You asked if I dance. I said no. I didn’t lie. I demurred. You stood tall, taller than me. I’ve learned enough from getting old to realize that you don’t say no to a pretty girl asking you to dance at a honky tonk. Christian held my beer and we were off.

Do I need to describe the debacle here? No. I hope not. Spare me that. It was half lesson, half sympathy, and all seemingly in half-speed. I tried to make a break for it several times, retreat to just a few feet from you. You persisted, showing me the two-step, making me twirl you, showing me how to dip you. I thanked you. I may have apologized. I dunno, I turned my back to you. Stood back next to Christian, tried to act normal, tried to get us to talk about whatever inanity we were discussing before you arrived. Ten minutes later I broke in to confess that having a pretty girl ask you to dance is still amazing, no matter how unworthy you feel.

I know it was just a dance. I shouldn’t care about the circumstances. But so much of growing old is growing invisible. My mom always warned me about that, but I assumed she was talking about women, about her, about people who weren’t me. You, Nicole, noticed me.

And it made me notice myself.

Thanks, again.

Among other things Christian and I discussed that night was the merits of Jack White. He thinks he’s a poser. I have a more complicated he’s from Detroit, he’s a master composer/producer/publisher/etc view. The White Stripes gave Detroit a reason to be proud that wasn’t named Eminem, Kid Rock, or the Juggalos. Give us that, at least.

But, seriously, this performance floors me. The first little known song was actually written to be a jingle for a new Coke ad. It played once and never again. Can you imagine a world where our biggest mass produced products are shilled by great songwriters and master directors? It’s a loss, but this gem is a reminder of what could be.

And then there’s the second song, a tune that I more or less gloss over on Elephant, but here, acoustic, lit by floor lamps, and in light of White’s very public divorce and personal issues, it feels essential. It feels raw. It feels like the truest piece of art I can imagine. How anyone could be against that?

Song #25 // The Lumineers, “Cleopatra” [Cleopatra]

I have depression.

I’m not depressed. Or sad. Or blue. Or simply an introverted asshole. Nope. I have a clinically-diagnosed chemical imbalance that is the cause of (not the result of) emotional and psychological issues. It’s depression.

(Ahh-ha! exclaim the ex-girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. That explains it!)

It’s been official for a few years now, but I’ve always felt it. Always known it. I’ve known it the way a homosexual child knows he’s gay years before he understands sex. I’ve known it the way a girl knows that he’s a boy long before he understands gender. I’ve known it the way a bird knows to flap its wings the first time it catches flight. I’ve known it long before I knew what it was.

How else can you explain my near-daily bouts of crying in elementary school, my bursting into tears during a homeroom lesson, ushered into a quiet corner and calmed down by a teacher, later unable to articulate and explain what was the matter inside of me when my mom was called in, instead only able to mutter that I was “sad”? How many hours afterward were spent trying to get me to explain what had made me sad, because surely it was something that happened, something that someone did or said, something that was external to my inner stasis, right?

How else can you explain my high school years where I was captain of teams, a darling of my after-school jobs, president of nearly every club imaginable, and even homecoming king? You know that movie Rushmore? That was based on my high school years. If you doubt me, look up the RCHS yearbook from 1997. I’ll be on every page.

And yet I had no friends. Almost literally none. I spent my free time listening to Morrissey and writing poetry. I spent my time imagining a way, and a world, out. I ate lunch with a mentally disabled kid I barely knew, a much younger kid from my rowing team, and my beard of a girlfriend. Was I gay? I wish. Did I think I was better than everyone? Exactly the opposite.

How else can you explain my need to be loved, my serial dating and hoping for everlasting faith? How else can you explain needing to be invited out, sitting at the end of large dinner party tables and feeling completely alone? How can you explain such a dichotomy of feeling, when the only emotion upon returning home is guilt, and maybe a bit of relief?

None of that is completely in my past, of course. With apologies to my Scientologist readers, modern medication lives up to its billing. Therapy works as well for me as it can for anyone, although admittedly I don’t go, and even further I kinda wish everyone did, myself included. How much more empathetic and understanding could we all be if we simply turned our focus inward for 60min segments each week?

And yet despite all of this certainty. Despite all of this self-awareness and something that borders on a nascent inner-confidence I still keep all of this hidden (well, till now, of course.) I don’t check disability boxes. Don’t share the knowledge with my closest friends and family members. I still feel as if I have to sneak into a psychiatry office. I feel inferior, and either give in to that feeling, or try to over-correct it, the way a car tries to turn against an icy road. Northern drivers know to turn with the slide. But not me. Not us.

And why? It’s a disease like any other. Mitch Hedberg had a joke along the lines of “Alcoholism is the only disease that you can get yelled at for having.” But even alcoholics are celebrated for seeking treatment for their (often behavioral) disease. It’s public and rarely rare. When I visit Notre Dame each fall for a football game, the local AA chapter meeting is right there on the weekend program, just across campus from the thousands of people binge-drinking behind their cars.

And yet here’s depression, a cruel mental suffering not unlike the equally evil cousins dementia and Alzheimer’s, and we bury it. When celebrities discuss it openly they’re often lauded as being brave. Those instances, even when celebrated, are fleeting.

Instead they’re carried silently by the kids at the edge of the playground, by the teens unwittingly trying to self-diagnose late at night into diaries, and by the adults who are misunderstood as quiet/arrogant/insecure/selfish when they’re simply trying to figure out their place in this world.

There’s no bravery in publicly admitting any of this. It was passed down to me from generations who equally combated alcoholism and myriad other diseases living just beneath the surface of my gene pool. And yet it’s been presented as my cross to bear. My personal burden.

Maybe writing this sheds that weight just a little bit.

Maybe all I need is some help carrying it.

This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.

This marks the commercial turn in this year’s list, with one of the only songs to be played across the FM spectrum with equal love. Ironic then that I almost kept it off for just that reason, eh? In our world–a world I’m very much co-creating–popularity can be a four-letter word. Well, screw that. Any song that can so expertly combine stomping melody like a drum bouncing down a mountain with folk-wisdom lyrics like:

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

is OK with me. If anything I wish sentiments like these were more popular, more out in the open, less shadowed in certain corners.

Song #24 // Big Thief, “Masterpiece” [Masterpiece]

We retreat to the familiar.

In times of trouble and times of uncertainty. In times of remorse and times of insecurity.

That this realization is neither new nor mine alone makes it no less true.

We go back.

How else can I explain my recent days of a freed schedule, driving to get coffee at places that remind me of past misery, eating at places that remind me of being alone, going back to bed an hour after waking up not because I’m particularly tired but because I don’t know what else to do.

I’ve often hung my hat on the belief that people (myself included) too often confuse sympathy for love. But a retreating to the familiar is just as strong a conflation.

How many aborted affairs have been rekindled out of these fall-backs? How many collisions of uncertainty pave the way for mistaken romance?

Love is a powerful emotion for us not because of its magnetic pull, its elusive chase. No, love is powerful because it shifts and transforms. Like the ripples formed by errant wind on some distant dune, love meanders and leaves subtle echoes of itself behind. When we think we see it, it leaves us with the millisecond delay that so too fools our eyes and brains every waking moment.

Our pursuit is to capture it in real-time. To see it for ourselves in the present tense.

Failing that we rely on photos and songs and secondhand accounts.

Or memories.

But none of that speaks to my desire to stay indoors for days in January listening to Elliott Smith and not so much feeling hopeless as wishing to return to that sure feeling from so long ago that I, and life around me, was hopeless. Why not put XO on for another spin and refill my tea?

After each major break-up I’ve encountered I’ve experienced severe depressions. Withdrawals. Anti-socialism. Suicidal thoughts. It’s all part of the toxic brew that I unwittingly fermented in my younger years. The consistent thing in all of these cases was how often I dreamed of the women who had left me. How often I’d drink, sit in silence, and think I could make it all work again. Sometimes I’d reveal it to them in long letters, emails, or calls. Sometimes the light of the next dawn would reveal the cracks hidden in the shadows of the night before.

Were those instances of love?

I sincerely don’t know. It would be heartbreaking to think that I rolled into my 30s and family life without ever knowing it, but at the same time each occurrence in hindsight seems to be Exhibit A in support of Occam’s Razor.

Either it was love, and I knew it in solitary and/or drunken conviction after each fact. Or I was simply distressed and craved the familiar.

Simplicity, of course, doesn’t negate the reality of the feeling. But just the same the retreat is lonely, and long.

Like so many other entries in this year’s bizarre postings, this song and band has seemingly nothing to do with this writing. In fact, Big Thief’s “Masterpiece” is one of the more uplifting pieces of music I’ve included in this year’s posting. Which is not to say my thoughts above are necessarily depressing. I simply still lack the acumen to describe facts in convincing, objective ways that aren’t simultaneously dripping in maudlin self-pity.

Song #23 // Lisa LeBlanc, “Drop the Guy ASAP” [Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?]

Those who have been reading this list of songs over the years know that I’m a sucker for Canadian artists, especially French-Canadian artists who sing in a unique dialect that has been breathed in through cigarette smoke and spit back out through chattering teeth.

So it should come as no surprise that I’m including Lisa LeBlanc here this year. Her album title is completely indicative of the type of writer she is and the type of humo(u)r she brings to her tight musicianship. It’s not enough to say she’s quirky or sassy. No. She’s simply Canadian. French-Canadian, no less. It all makes more sense up there.

So instead of sullying her growing reputation stateside with my little reflections on memories or regret of woe-is-meism I’m instead reprinting the lyrics of this song below. They’re wonderful: funny, honest, clever, and direct. We still have much to learn from our friends up north.

I won’t say it to your face
So I’ll write a song about it
I won’t say it to your face
So I’ll write a song about it
I love you like a sister
I love you like a sister
I mean, come on
We’ve been friends this long
I love you like a sister
So I watch you like a hawk
Sorry but I just can’t help it
So when you talk about him
And tell me the things that he tells you
And the stuff he pulls off
The red flags are a-poppin’
The alarms are a-ringin’
I can’t say I’m his number one fan
You call me to rant and it’s totally fine
We’ve both seen each other’s ugly cry
It’s none of my business, but it kinda is
’Cause you talk to me about it all the time
And I understand that you love him and I respect that
But I kinda want to punch him in the balls
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you’d just dump the guy ASAP?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you’d just dump the guy ASAP?
We’ll throw a big party
I’ll buy the balloons and the booze
There’ll be a buffet of Kleenex
We’ll be ready for the grand ol’ cryfest
Ice cream, Nutella, and chips
You name it, I got it
But until that day comes
I’ll listen and wait patiently
And tell myself: Wouldn’t it be lovely if you’d just dump the guy ASAP?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you’d just dump the guy ASAP?

Song #22 // Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” [No Burden]

Reasons to be an adjunct:

  1. You need money.
  2. You don’t need money.
  3. You don’t understand the concept of money.
  4. You’d like to enjoy the freedom of being unemployed for just part of the time.
  5. The kids.
  6. Ability to add “I’m a professor” or “I teach at…” to your repertoire of pick-up lines.
  7. You recently watched Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Rudy, and/or Kindergarten Cop.
  8. Summers off.
  9. You believe that your hard work, dedication, engagement with students, long hours, ethical approach, and/or pedagogically-sound teaching will be recognized and awarded with security, promotion, and respect.
  10. You want your Masters degree to be the second dumbest thing you’ve done with your life.

N.B.–This seemed funnier in my head. In fact it kept me up late a few nights ago with how clever (and truthful!) I thought I was being. Now that I’ve written it out, though…Anyway, I’m keeping it here because it’s more self-critique than anything. My faults are my own, and when even the Simpsons have an oft-quoted quip about making terrible life choices maybe there’s some truth here even if it’s not particularly funny.

There’s not much to say about this song beyond what’s in the title. Ironic or not, wouldn’t it be nice to simply not be _____ anymore? Preach, Lucy.

Song #21 // Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me” [My Woman]

Open letter to myself (or anyone) in my (or their) 20s:

Don’t be scared. It’s only you.

Travel. Move someplace, the farther the better. Leave your family, friends, and familiarity behind. Cry yourself to sleep. Feel alone and lost. Don’t be afraid to go back. Don’t.

Get a job. Get a dream job. Lose it. Get fired. Don’t feel unduly superior to others. Secretly know that you’re right. But secretly know that you’re probably not.

Spend days drinking coffee and listening to classical music while looking at job ads. Feel like you could literally do any of them. Apply to them. Don’t wait to not hear back. Repeat with more coffee, more music. Learn some of the names, the major works. Spend days looking at job ads and fearing that you can’t do any of them. Apply to them anyway. Don’t appear too shocked when you get a call.

Live with other people. Hate it. Live alone. Hate it. Live above your means. Get used to it.

Hold onto some traditions from when you were a child: church on occasion, red pop on birthdays, a stuffed animal that you hide when you bring someone home.

Bring someone home. Fuck around. Have sex with strangers and people you know. Have sex and feel great about it. Have sex and feel awful about it. Regret it. Try to act like it’s not a big deal. Kiss on the mouth the day after no matter. Don’t be a dick. Don’t hurt people. Make out. Call back. Let them hurt you.

Date if you must. Don’t look a month, or a week down the line. It’s only you standing in the way of that view. Any attempt to look around it just tips the boat. Let it glide no matter the seas.

Spend your money on books and concerts and being out with other people. Walk or bus. No cabs.

Don’t be afraid of having nothing to do on a Sunday. Go to the park and try to read again. Go for a walk and get tired too quickly. Let yourself feel sad. Eat alone in the quiet and pity yourself.

Realize that you’re in control. Make the most of it. Take a daytrip without telling anyone. Stay up too late. Keep journals that you’ll cringe at later. Eat food that you’d never cook for yourself.

Don’t get married. Just don’t. No matter what your friends are doing or what they do back home. Don’t.

20 isn’t old. 25 isn’t old, 30 and 35 isn’t old. Your life isn’t over no matter how much it sucks. Your life isn’t over, it hasn’t yet begun.

This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.

This is a great song that somehow ended up on a lot of people’s year-end list. More power to her. I’m just gonna leave it at marveling at the title. Whether direct and honest or coy and ironic it works. Get out of your way and tell the boy what you want. Get it.

Song #20 // Margo Price, “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” [Midwest Farmer’s Daughter]

Lights get low.

Lights get low.

These may be most favorite poetic words that I return to time and time again in quiet moments.

Lights get low.

And not just because of the mis-remembered title of the Miles Davis jazz standard recording, or the image conjured up by the pizza parlor chairs and sawdust floors of Tom Waits’s “Closing Time.”

Something about “lights get low” gets me every time.

When I was in high school I wrote a collection of poems. I wrote them quickly. Didn’t revise. Didn’t know what revision was. Didn’t know what poetry was. I wrote them in a notebook and typed them on a computer. Printed them out and stapled them together. Gave them to all of my friends, mercifully as ignorant of poetry as I was. The title page read Scenes & Fields.

The first line of the first poem–some rambling image of autumn lawns abutting wild, black woods in crisp changing air–begin with the words “Scenes and fields.” The last line of the last poem–some likewise rambling (though admittedly more poetic than it deserved to be) retelling of emotions related to when someone knocked over a snowman that my parents and I had made in our front yard–ended with “scenes and fields.”

It was a bookend trick I took from an interview I heard from Sting in the mid-90s. On a small clock radio in my bedroom late at night I heard an interview where the songwriter described his writing process of Mercury Falling, where the opening and closing lines were–you guessed it–“mercury falling.”

For some reason that anecdote stuck with me; it seemed important somehow. In the nascent days of AOL chatrooms, the late night radio was as good a transmission from the world as I could hope for; I took what I could get. In that same interview, Sting lauded the Dalai Lama’s Joy of Living and Dying in Peace, which only served to supplement my fascination with Buddhism that I’d picked up from Dharma Bums and other faraway lands.

I still don’t know what “scenes & fields” means, or why I put those particular words (and ampersand) together. But I love it. It still holds a mystery for me. It still invites me to explore.

“Lights get low” doesn’t quite do that, though. Instead it paints a muddied, vivid picture. A romantic notion, both wistful and warming. I write this tonight, the last one up, ready to turn out the lights. Ready to sneak into bed. Ready to remember and project. And the lights get low.

The title of this album and the involvement of Jack White only makes me love this woman and song more. Likewise, a clever turn of phrase in a catchy country song never could turn me away neither. But it was her set at this year’s ACL–which I could hear almost crystal clear from my backyard–that really won me over. It was then that her voice carried over half a mile up a hill and weaved through several houses and garages to get to me and still be a strong enough breeze to nearly knock me out of my seat.