This week: two newish songs about ambivalence.
Which is by the way a word I first encountered in Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train,” when he referred to Randy Newman as the “master of ambivalence” or “poet of ambivalence” or some such. I had to look it up. To this day I’m not sure how it applies exactly to a song like Randy’s “Old Kentucky Home,” which seems pretty singleminded in its skewering its target…though whether that target is rural life or songs about rural life is an interesting discussion. And while we’re on the subject, did you happen to catch Greil’s recent article about how the new Bob Dylan “Blood on the Tracks” outtakes aren’t really any good despite how good they sound? Recondite even by his own high standards!
But I digress. So: ambivalence, “mixed feelings over mixed drinks,” in Tom Waits’s clever phrase. Soulman Leon has finally found a woman who “might just be (his) everything and beyond” (he even throws in a second “beyond,” she’s beyond beyond!) but he’s not sure if he’s getting, well, beyond himself.
An argument for that could be made: he is already projecting marrying her, having kids, having her as his eternal companion in the afterlife. That’s a lot to take on!
But he’s also reluctant about being reluctant: “Do you think I’m being foolish if I don’t rush in?” he asks us. Sorry, Leon, you’re going to have to answer that one yourself.
Which he does, by the end of the song, admitting to himself he’s in love but casting it in terms of “giving up.” That checks the boxes in my definition of ambivalence much better than Randy Newman did.
Love the strummy guitar, the background vocals, the multitrack main vocal. Sounds great on the radio. Bound to show up at many future weddings.
Amanda Shires multitracks her twangy voice on “Leave It Alone” too, and sets it against an almost techno drum-machine bed. I love it, but don’t think it would sound good on the radio.
No nicer way to put it, this is a song about being in heat, infatuated, obsessed…but not doing anything about it. It’s not clear in the context of the song why she doesn’t do anything about it. She talks a lot about what she intends to do about it, but it’s all future tense. There is a touch of Leon’s fear of intimacy–“Careful, you’re getting too close”–but she is also envying the clothes the song’s object is wearing (no gender specified, let’s say guy to avoid labored constructions like that) for their proximity to his body. She can’t leave it alone–“it” being him, or maybe lust itself–but it’s unclear why she would have to. Just go for it, Amanda!
Some great images in here: the hands in places they’ve never been because they have a mind of their own, the noise of the guy’s nerves like question marks, the words they are not saying like swarming bees, the neglected fish tank green in which this either hopeful or doomed encounter is taking place. If they make it to morning, Amanda says, that fish tank green will turn into cold blue. Again, and notwithstanding some of the jagged relationship songs on the rest of the album, it seems a chance worth taking.