Things seem difficult right now. I’m cooking too much and sleeping too little and not accomplishing enough in between. I owe too many people and I’m speaking with too few, spending too much time parsing rejections real and imagined. Someone’s always crying and everyone wants something and I want it all for them–I do, more than they could ever know, I do. And it’s all very very important and none of it matters in the least and I am no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be and no one wants to pay me for my broken heart and and and blah blah blah.
And I’ve been listening a lot to this new song by Iron & Wine, “Walking Far From Home.” A whole lot. I heard it on some website and was drawn in, completely and surprisingly. I’ve been seeing the Iron & Wine name in the ether for a number of years, but I don’t really know anything about it, mostly because I don’t really actually listen to singer-songwriter stuff at all; for no good reason, it’s just a genre to which I’m generally indifferent. I’m pretty sure that prior to this my only express encounter with Iron & Wine was lingering over a magazine ad a few years back that featured the cover art of their then-current record, which was a striking painting of a dog with buddy tongue adrape and a calming green-cheese moon for its glaucous eye, but at the same time looking like it had been flayed, the torqued meat of its turning head streaked magenta and black. That’s why I’m so surprised that this song has magnetized me like it has: Usually, within a genre that I think so little about, pricking up my ears would take a pretty unusual specimen, and “Walking Far From Home” is not that. It’s basically an exquisitely rendered litany, instantly recognizable as descendant from a long line of art-speech catalogs, glories strung like beads:
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small I saw rain clouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
And I dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper “want me like time, want me like time” I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry
Hear in it the unification of disparate things in the funneling toward inexorable march, the pilgrim’s progress of us all:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
and the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home…
Hear the giddy, bookish liberation of free-falling through all the possibles:
If our pleasures be interrupt, we can tolerate it: our bodies hurt, we can put it up and be reconciled: but touch our commodities, we are most impatient: fair becomes foul, the graces are turned to harpies, friendly salutations to bitter imprecations, mutual feastings to plotting villainies, minings and counterminings; good words to satires and invectives, we revile e contra, nought but his imperfections are in our eyes, he is a base knave, a devil, a monster, a caterpillar, a viper, a hog-rubber, etc. Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne [the beauteous woman tails off into a fish]; the scene is altered on a sudden, love is turned to hate, mirth to melancholy…
– Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy
See pointillist vignettes massing into panorama:
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove songs out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips
– Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself
Feel the cubist anxiety of seeing everything everywhere all at once, the anticipation, incomprehension, and faint dread of watching nonsenses and non sequiturs begin to rise up like a body :
The bird in this cage brings tears to the eyes of the little girl devoted to blue. Her father is an explorer. The new-born kittens turn about. In this wood there are pale flowers that cause those that pick them to die. The whole family is thriving and musters under this linden trees after meals. A croupier is dealing out handfuls of bullion. Oblivion is the finest fervour. One thinks only of cries. Hot drinks are served in coloured glasses.
– Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception
Feel the intertwined sympathy and disgust of the witness, unwilling but unblinking:
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
– Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
Know the postmodern joy of the endlessly open circuit, fragments and refractions willed into narrative through nothing but the sheer exhilaration of their delivery, each line cascading jaggedly into the next (or not):
Ayo, crash through, break the glass, Tony with the goalie mask
That’s the pass, heavy-ice Roley layin’ on the dash
Love the grass, cauliflower hurtin’ when I dumped the trash
Sour mash surge in every glass up at the Wally bash
Sunsplash, autographed blessing with your name slashed
Backdraft, four-pounders screamin’ with the pearly axe
Children fix the contrast as the sound clashes
Mrs. Dash, sprinkle with her icicle eyelash
Ask Cappa Pendergrass for backstage passes
Special guest, no more Johnny Blaze, Johnny Mathis
Acrobat, run up on that Love Jones actress–
Distract the cat while I’m high, “Sugar, get a crack at this!”
– Ghostface Killah, “One”
That’s a quick history of the motion, but it’s important to know something else, too: that every one of these catalogs and litanies can only truly complete its heart and ours in the ending, in its resolution. They each have a momentum that pulls us in and carries us forth, but until we know how it ends—whether all of these details are meant to be taken collectively as promise or rebuke or affirmation or burden or whatever—their energy is like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close. Until we know, there is something that both sides hold in reserve.
There are times in my life when I need to be spoken to much more than I need to speak. In such times I compulsively push things into meaningfulness, no matter how many facts I’m presented to the contrary. During a particularly coring summer several years ago, I listened obsessively to J Dilla’s “Time (Donut Of The Heart),” thirty, forty, fifty times a day, trying to make it speak. I knew full well that it consisted entirely of chopped and reassembled pieces from a Jackson 5 song, pieces which included no actual words, just a syllable from over here and an intake of breath from over there and a splinter of clipped melisma that just happened to get caught on the tail end of the guitar sample, and so on. But in open spite of that knowledge, I was convinced that “Time” was actually speaking, that I was hearing something literal, something real. There’s one point somewhere in the first thirty seconds where a number of these wordless vocal sonics cross each other, and I was sure that deep in their intersection I was hearing the words “all I can do is love.” I’ve since become familiar enough with the Jackson 5 song to know that I wasn’t right about what it was saying, but when I hear “Time” now, never getting outside of its own ouroboros of desire and pursuance long enough to catch up to the tick-tocking without, I know that I wasn’t really wrong about it, either.
And I think it’s somewhat the same with “Walking Far From Home.” It’s an affecting song, but reading it on paper, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s comprised of a bunch of loose diamonds the author had lying around, lines great and stray that he was just saving for later. So many of the images are profound and indelible in their turn, but taken collectively, there is between them a disconnect that is just enough to preclude some essential spark. They seem to owe more than a little to the power of suggestion, seem unified by inclusion more than conception; it doesn’t feel like the images have been put here in this song because they’re all related as much as it feels like they’re related because they’ve all been put here in this song. It’s a small difference, but for me it’s a heartbreaking one: Because even as I find myself drawn so unexpectedly into this song that is so outside of my usual taste, even as I find myself tugged forward and through on its ducking and cresting undulations of wing, even as I find myself allowing the kind of surrender that seems a little less possible every day, even in the light of these beautiful, beautiful words, I also find myself pulling back at the prickling suspicion that what I’m responding to isn’t really the heart of the heart or the root of the root, but is instead just a succession of pretty, pretty things, things that only mean something because I’m weak enough to need them to mean something, and because if they don’t, then I’m left with not only the absence of meaning but also the shame of having needed so desperately and having judged so poorly. “It’s like, if I can give, please give back. Please.” The fear is that there will be no communion, no intersection, and that these gemmy acts of witness will spool out coolly for another three minutes or for another five or for another five hundred before just tying off with a step back and a gnostic nod, revealing the song’s message to be not a message at all, but rather an expectation—the expectation that we will of course understand what all of these things mean. The fire will turn out to be just a bunch of flames, each pitiless in its own tiny perfection. That is my fear.
A few years ago, The Killers had a song called “When You Were Young.” It’s not a great song, but it was a very popular song, and it contains within it a moment of decision that is notable for having been so widely and commercially audible. The first couple verses are about youth, innocence, aspiration, and the threat of their passing. In the second chorus, the singer sings “when you were young” twice. The first time, he resolves the phrase with a curt downturn, sneering faintly with full understanding of what can and cannot be had, and severing the cord neatly from behind a mask of generation-specific American cool: No, see, this is how it is now. What, you thought it wasn’t? But in the moment before he sings it again, there are loomings–“It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love” ; “Tell me, how can you stand there with your broken heart / ashamed of playing the fool?”–there are doubts and disgorgings, disgust at one’s own attempts at aloofness, and somewhere within a door blows off of its hinges from the force of a refusal to believe that anything must be given up, that it is ever truly too late. And so when he sings it the second time, the singer coils the first three words behind, then whips the last one up, over, and out with all the abandon he’d suppressed just a second before, loosing a “young” of pure joy and yearning, trying to lasso the whole world and not caring if you see him trying, not even caring if you see him miss. If that first “when you were young” was the understanding–that cool is rooted in acceptance, an unwillingness to be affected by any realization–the second is the rejection, the cry out that cracks the mask.
Every line of “Walking Far From Home” looks out from its own arrested bloom. Sam Beam’s phrasing and pronunciation allows each a soft, rich little expansion, and then puts a ghost fillip at the very end, pulling back just shy of full drawl, latching one line closed just as he swans lovingly into the next. The song mounts and mounts like this upon the current of his voice, the grace and beauty of the images becoming almost unbearable. Still, each remains discrete; these gifts all gather in the palm, but the fingers do not close.
Tom Moulton on remixing MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” in 1976: “That was probably the greatest thing I ever did. I would have done anything to mix ‘Love Is The Message.’ They couldn’t understand that….When I got to certain parts of it, it was like being pushed off a cliff and not falling. Suspended.”
I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord
And there, in the singing of the very last word, is the end of control, the abandonment of mastery, the opening of the heart. He first sings it as a Last Word is supposed to be sung: as first and foremost a completion of the preceding minutes, maybe allowing the end to rise up a little and flare into the drawl he’s been reining in. But he shakes his head, no, no, it’s not enough–and almost before the word is even over, he sings it again, this time not as word but as a repeated syllable, pushing it to bellow and swell into this great, swooping thing, a horizon-wide banner that he’s waving back an forth with both arms to the very limits of his reach. Still not enough. After a rest he sings it finally, as mercury keening high in an arrow to the sun. Even if it were just perfect it would be enough, but this, this is somehow better: At one point during the ascent and again at the very end, his voice slips from that pure heavenly sound and feathers out into a plain-sung “Awww,” flawed, but of complete humanity.
It is a climb where every step is so vivid that it seems inevitable, every gesture so gravid that it seems unavoidable, and the pull of time so insistent that it seems inescapable. And the realization that its pinnacle can be reached not in the expected moment of triumph but instead in a moment of weakness, of release, is the beginning of the realization that that is where it all speaks. To go through these beautiful, difficult events, to be led so far and taken so high, and to then stumble, but to understand that you’ve not lost, to still be somehow held above, suspended…
In that moment at the end of this song is much of what I’ve always looked for in music, and much of what I currently hope for in life.
All I can do is love.
– Since getting stuck on “Walking Far From Home,” I haven’t done too much digging into Iron & Wine. Only enough, really, to confirm a couple suspicions that I had from my very first listening: One, I bet this is one of those bands that’s really only one dude. And two, I bet said dude has a serious beard—like, one of those Will Oldham-level pieces.
– One of the things that hooked me about this song was how it fooled me right at the top: When I first heard “I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven…” I would have bet my gold teeth that the next line was gonna rhyme it with “fall”–like how could this not be some 9/11 shit, right? “…But the door was so small, door was so small.” Okay, okay–not bad.
– The little backtuck Sam Beam puts in the completion of every line keeps making me think of those HAZE tags, with the unusual E that so distinctively spirals not outward, but back in on itself.
– Another perceived Moment Of Decision that I got a charge from: On “Race For The Prize,” the opening track of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, there’s this grand sweep of strings that I was kinda ambivalent about, because on the one hand it’s really majestic and lovely, but on the other hand, it’s also really straight and glutinous. But in short order it gets all pitch-bent, as if to show you, the home listener, that it’s really just a sample or some synth preset or something, non-sacred and utterly fuckwithable. It was very small, but I’m smiling just thinking about it.
– In Ben Folds’s “Still Fighting It” there’s also a line that ends three times. First time happy, second time bittersweet, last time absolutely gutting :
“You’ll try and try / and one day you’ll fly…”