In the middle of an album that’s a gallery of loners and losers, the forgotten and misunderstood, fueled by motion and a vision of home that probably never existed except in the mind of some 10 year old watching a sitcom while his parents argue in the kitchen, two scruffy, beautiful love songs.
In the first a young mother talks to her 9-day old son. (There is no internal evidence in the song the narrator is a woman or the baby is a boy. That’s just the way I hear it.) By “young” I mean very young, a teenager, who against all advice has made this decision to have a child, this stupid, brave decision. She’s smart enough to know it’s both stupid and brave, and I give total credit to the songwriter, John Darnielle, that I get that.
There’s no money; the kid has an “old cardboard produce box for a cradle.” There’s past family abuse; when she considers her family tree she remembers that the “roots reach down to where the bad people go.” But the limbs of that tree in the present tense are “strong and heavy” and the “leaves are all aglow.” She sings:
An what will I do with you, pink and blue?
True gold. Nine days old.
There’s wonder in her voice. She can’t believe she’s done this, but she knows it’s the best thing she’s ever done. And despite the past, her own and whatever’s been heaped on her, she’s going to pull it off, do her best.
I felt that. We all feel it. We’re all convinced we’ll do our best raising our children. Some people’s best really sucks, though. I hope she’s not one of them.
In “Riches and Wonders” a teenage boy describes what it’s like to fall in overwhelming, all-consuming love for the first time, in terms both poetic:
we live high. our love gorges on the alcohol we feed it.
and it grows all fat and friendly
we have surplus if we need it.
we write letters to each other, invent secrets to confess to.
i learn foreign and exotic terms of endearment by which to address you.
we feed fresh fruit to one another.
But then this:
I am healthy
I am whole
But I have poor impulse control
And I want to go home
But I am home
And suddenly the scene is some sort of treatment facility where these two lovers have forged a bond above their surroundings, desperate and wonderful, and suddenly you want their love to succeed even though you know it doesn’t have a chance, and suddenly you’re saying “No, you’re crying” to the empty car in which you’re listening when the singer’s voice cracks a little bit on “I want to go home” before the song gives over to a now-we’re-beyond-words guitar solo coda.
The album’s called “All Hail West Texas,” and it was recorded directly to a wobbly cassette recorder. Everything’s fuzzy; tape hiss starts and ends each track. The effect isn’t cinema verite, exactly, since you never forget that this a singer giving voice to other characters, but it does create an atmosphere of spontaneity, urgency. These stories need to be told. I need to tell them.
(And also check out John Darnielle’s slightly-inebriated-sounding tweet from last New Year’s Day, where he thanks the fans who have been telling him all day how they’ve been listening to his song “This Year” and how much it’s meant to them. Charming.)
(His first novel, “Wolf in White Van,” is pretty remarkable too.)