Caution: Navel gazing ahead
Is there anything worse as a 19 year old than being dumped? With the distance of time and the bravery of being out of range I can think of at least a dozen things, but when you are in the thick of it having your heart metaphorically ripped from your chest and having to cope with the fallout of teenage “feelings” is pure and utter hell. If you’re lucky, you have a friend or two who can talk you down off the emotional ledge you find yourself on. Perhaps even more importantly, you can find a song or album that either gives you the strength to endure or hits you so squarely in the gut that you are literally knocked to your knees. This is one of those albums.
I had been dumped pretty hard my sophomore year of college. That summer, I was on a visit to the ex’s place in our college town and stopped with a mutual friend to our local record shop (one I would later run). Like most independent music stores, the bulk of their profits came from the re-selling of used CDs and promotional copies of albums (which, while technically less-than-legal, helped keep a lot of places in the black back in the late-90s). They used to keep a box of promos on the counter top and for anywhere from two to five bucks you could pick up a major label cast-off, sans artwork. That afternoon I hit the mother lode.
But first, I have to jump backwards for a moment. In high school I had worked at a local chain mall record store that had a very serious deep discount for its employees (not of the “five finger” variety, but not too far off). Being an adventurous (and self-guided) fan of music, the disposable income I made working there was pumped right back in to buying as many cassettes and CDs as I could afford. The fact that I could get things on the cheap practically goaded me into making purchases that I knew little to nothing about. I remember being struck by the look of this one album– a golden-hued broken down roller coaster adorned its cover. It was the first self-titled album by Red House Painters, and being the pre-internet age, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that the artwork was majestic looking and made me want to weep. I bought the cassette and put it in my parent’s hi-fi one night while they were out. The music that came forth was bleary, emotional, drenched in reverb and fucking heartbreaking. I was hooked almost immediately. The tape played through three or four times before I even realized that several hours had passed and I knew every word and note seemingly as if I had written them myself. This was something that was wholly mine – I knew no other 17 year old who had been given the keys to unlocking this treasure and I greedily kept the secret of Red House Painters to myself and my closest friend (who in turn also became an uber-fan).
Fast forward several years to that box of promo CDs and cassettes and lo and behold, I found myself face to face with a pre-release promo cassette for the latest Red House Painters album, “Songs for a Blue Guitar”. Now, not only did I have access to the new album by one of my favorite groups, but I got to hear it before most of the other “fans”. Ego and empathy battled and I could not hand over the $3 quickly enough and pop the cassette into my car stereo. Seventy minutes and twenty-eight seconds later I had a new favorite album.
The album starts with only the guitar and voice of lead Painter Mark Kozelek and it perfectly encapsulated how I was feeling – alone, bowed but determined. Drums shuffle in and a lead guitar figure dances around. Perhaps everything would be ok! And then the bottom drops out.
“Song for a Blue Guitar” opens with what may be one of the most heartbreaking lines in all of Western music: “When everything we felt failed”. Damn. Set to a couple of minor chords and adorned with the sad whine of Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel, Kozelek sings low in his register as a female vocalist sings in harmony throughout. Things are not going to be ok, and this sad bastard music is what a 19 year old’s heart sounds like when it chances upon that realization.
The rest of the album vacillates between these two poles – music so beautiful it almost hurts to listen to and so uplifting and gorgeous that you can’t help but give it your ears. Kozelek tapped into the things that made being young so overwhelming but ultimately worth experiencing and fed them back through his songs: the gnarled, unending Neil-Young-like guitar solo in “Make Like Paper”; the finger-picked melancholy and phantom screeches of “Trailways”; the way the guitar surges in the choruses of his cover of the Cars’ “All Mixed Up”. Each reflected part of what I was feeling when I looked back upon my broken relationship and see-sawed back and forth emotionally between feeling hurt by her breaking up with me and missing her so much that I couldn’t eat or sleep. It was a perfectly balanced mix of all the things I was feeling and it made me feel less alone. I really don’t know that I could every accurately describe the impact “Songs for a Blue Guitar” had, but I can tell you that I might not be here without it. And that means something.
- I didn’t and don’t like the cover of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” that is included here. I understand the need for levity, but the song seems like an insult or slap in the face every time it comes on in comparison to the beauty and grace of the rest of the album.
- The album somewhat notoriously got Red House Painters dropped from their record label, 4ad. The stories behind why differ, but I like the version that has label-head Ivo Watts-Russell dropping them for the almost-nine-minutes of guitar solo in “Make Like Paper”. That’s pretty badass!