Saturday, April 27, 2013

Calypso In A Housedress

Calypso - Suzanne Vega (mp3)

The magic and misery of endurance, however, is not easily suited to modern music.

The trials and tribulations of a long-term committed relationship has been thoroughly covered in modern literature. No shortage of good books by dozens of contemporary authors can be rattled off that explore the challenge of living with and loving a single person for a lifetime. Lengthy relationships, with their long stretches stuffed with the uneventful passage of time, with their flashes of glory and ecstasy, their stabbing pains of betrayal and disappointment, is a topic better suited to the in-depth exploration of novels. Novels can pile up the many events and encounters necessary to tell such a nuanced tale.

Modern music has a mastery over certain topics, an ease at relaying the intensity of some key life moments. Across the spectrum of quality and genres, one can find artists and bands who have explored First Love, Unrequited Love, Broken Hearts, The Lost Self, Lost Friendships, and the Highs or Lows (sometimes both) of Drinking and Drugs.

Modern music -- its two or three verses, its repetitious chorus -- is a simple form for simple emotions, timeless events, universal moments.

Most marriages survive. Did you realize that? The “half of marriages fail” claim is a cultural myth, an urban legend, but you won’t find much in music that discourages that misconception, because breaking up may be hard to do, but it’s a lot easier to sing about.

Lori McKenna is the exception. She is the queen of 4-minute songs about a deep and muddy kind of human devotion. Fools just call it “love,” which is like calling the Minotaur’s labyrinth “a passageway.” What Lori writes about is the quilt of emotions knitted together over the course of a lifetime, threads of love and agony intertwined with those of ecstasy and elation, anger and hatred, restlessness and satisfaction. And she shrinks it all down into 4-minute sonic microfiche.

It’s natural to want to assume Lori’s songs are all autobiographical, because they’re so damn harsh and real, it’s tough to see how she could’ve scraped this DNA from someone else’s heart.

Her latest is Massachusetts, in which she masterfully chronicles the coal mine of long term relationships once again. Bookended by songs about a breakup (“Salt”) and her son’s graduation from high school (the tear-jerkin’ “Grown Up Now”), the middle of Massachusetts is full of her bread and butter.

“My Love Follows You Where You Go” speaks of just that kind of bulldogish devotion to another. “Susanna” laments the passing of a wife with the chorus intro, “Well you’ll never come back from a love like this.” After a brief break to lament the slow demise of The American Town (“Smaller and Smaller), we go fully into her bread and butter.

“Make Every Word Hurt” is the sound of commitment approaching a cliff’s edge. “How Romantic is That” offers the mirror counterpoint, reminding us normal folks of how little we really need from our spouses to feel loved, to be secure in a relationship. One of the albums best lines is the eyebrow-raising, “When you get home tonight, there’ll be someone else sleeping beside me.” The narrator is not singing of infidelity, but of a child who has crept into the bed. “Shouting” swims in the waters of marital discord, and “Better With Time” praises how much stronger we can be if we can survive the shouting. “Take Me With You When You Go” and “Love Can Put it Back Together” cover exactly the territory you’d think.

Her entire career is not about making mountains out of molehills; it's about painting molehills so damn beautiful and real that they compete with the mountains on their own account.

The crux of Massachusetts, and my favorite on the album, is “Shake,” in which Lori uses her whole bag of tricks in a single song. Her catchy chorus revels in parallels:
Time does not waste itself
A dream cannot wake itself
The truth cannot disgrace itself
An unwritten prayer cannot save a lost soul
Arms cannot embrace themselves
A heart cannot break itself
And I cannot shake myself of you
That final chorus line, and another uppercut to end the song, remind me of Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Fit Into Me”:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye 
a fish hook
an open eye
Lori McKenna is Calypso in a housedress. Even as she sings and weaves these tapestries of domesticated complexity, I find myself wanting to stay on her island rather than go home.


stowstepp said...

Great writeup Billy. I see a thread between your love of Frightened Rabbit and Lori. I see Lori's songs of troubled relationships the "dark" that makes the "light" all the more sweet. What a treat to see her and the band at Club Passim earlier this month. (Gotta give a shout out to the band and especially drummer John Sands who gives everything of himself on stage.)

Billy said...

@stowstepp - You are so right about Lori and the dark/light of life. My jealousy of your getting to see her and her great band on stage is intense. Lori played Atlanta the night before Frightened Rabbit at one of my favorite venues. But I simply could not earn enough capital with my family to disappear into Atlanta two nights in a row. It was my musical Sophie's Choice moment, and I chose the band from overseas, hoping Lori's love of visiting Nashville might give me more opportunities down the road.

stowstepp said...

Billy, I've been so lucky to have seen her 3 times in the last year, and have plans for two more shows by mid-summer. I agree that her attachment to Nashville gives you a shot, but a trip to New England might be in order.