Friday, June 29, 2007

“This Is Us” /
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris

I heard this song on the radio a few months ago and was so wowed by it – coming at me unexpected, out of the vast ether – that I had to get my hands on this album.

Mind you, I have mixed feelings about both Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. I loved the early Dire Straits albums (it’s a toss-up whether “Sultans of Swing” or “Walk of Life” is my favorite song), but Knopfler’s political activism irritates me; I don’t doubt he’s sincere, but I hate it when celebrities cash in their fame to pose as great humanitarians. (Hear that, Bono?) As for Emmylou – well, I’m jealous of that fatuous look certain male music fans get when just saying her name. I should love the fact that this gray-haired woman has the guys swooning, right? But I find her personality strangely cold; beyond being a pretty face with a fantastic voice, she’s a cipher to me. Give me a gutsy broad like Bonnie Raitt or even Chrissie Hynde any day. (Granted, I’m not a guy -- what do I know?)

But I’ll put all those prejudices aside -- All the Roadrunning is just a superb mid-life album. Knopfler’s slightly gruff, ordinary-guy voice blends surprisingly well with Emmylou’s shimmering soprano, and his Telstar-ish guitar licks, distinctive as ever, break through the country-rock surface of these songs, a nervy counterpoint to the fiddles and pedal steel guitars.

This particular track has a simple premise -- a series of images, candid snapshots of a life lived together. “This is us down at the Mardi Gras,” it starts out, flipping next to “This is us in your daddy’s car.” I can just see the overexposed film, faces a little blurry – “Had a little too much to drink / Too long in the sun / Having too much fun.” I love the way their voices trade back and forth, like a long-married couple who finish each other’s sentences. There are shots of their wedding (“You in that amazing dress / I was stoned on love I guess”), their honeymoon, and, eventually, of their growing family and anniversaries. There’s trivial events too -- “You at the Sunday game / Standing next to what’s his name” – all the ephemera of days gone by. The tempo hustles briskly along – just like life, which can’t be slowed down, only grabbed on the run in fleeting Polaroids.

A few years ago, my parents transferred their home movies to videotape for their kids, and while the movies were being transferred, they viewed along, commenting to each other (“Look at how long her braids were,” “That red convertible was my favorite car” etc.) When we watched the tape with them, they made exactly the same comments live, a split second before their voices on the tape did. It was spooky, but also weirdly comforting -- those random remarks somehow distilled the shared values of our family life. My braids would always be that long, that convertible would always be officially The Favorite Car. You could count on it.

This song has the same comforting quality. These iconic snapshots have become the memories, and they’re cherished all the more for being faded and out of focus. I think of the Kinks’ song “Picture Book,” and its cynical line, “Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they loved each other, a long time ago.” “This Is Us” doesn’t agree. These people seem so happy looking back at this scrapbook – I envy them. “You and me, making history / This is us,” the two voices agree at the end of one verse. True, it’s not “history” to anybody else but them – but that’s precisely why it’s so precious.


Mat Brewster said...

I usually get stomped for saying this, but I can only handle Emmylou when she's singing a duet or being used as backup.

Almost without fail her solo album leave me uninterested.

Holly A Hughes said...

I won't stomp you for saying that, Mat. It's pretty much how I feel, too.