"Halfway" / Greg Trooper
And speaking of artists I'm determined to turn you all on to . . . .
I just spent a delightful afternoon out in Prospect Park, interviewing Greg Trooper for an article I'm doing for blogcritics.org. Oh, you know, I've written about him before, here and here. He's an extraordinary roots-rock singer-songwriter, and I've gathered he's a dynamite live performer (if his two great live albums are any indication). That's why I'm particularly psyched that in a couple of weeks -- hooray! -- I'm finally going to see for myself, when he opens for Steve Earle and Allison Moorer at the City Winery.
Though Trooper spent several years in Nashville -- no way to avoid that, if you're going to pursue an alt-country songwriting career -- he's recently moved back to New York, closer to his New Jersey roots. As if to celebrate that homecoming, last year he finally released The Williamsburg Affair, an album originally recorded in 1995, before publishing deals lured him to Nashville. It sure doesn't feel like a 15-year-old record, though. That's what's so satisfying about roots rock when it's done right -- amping up that country twang with a little rock & roll crunch, it works two classic veins at once; there's no need to re-invent the wheel.
Looking back along the spectrum of Trooper's career (his upcoming fall album will be his eighth studio outing), I hear plenty of New York hustle still in his first Nashville album, Popular Demons, which came out in 1998. Just listen to this first track, "Halfway."
Sure, it's got a fiddle on it, and the gospel moan of a Hammond organ, and a great guitar solo by none other than Americana stalwart Buddy Miller, who also produced this album. And then there's that laidback tempo, which is damn close to a Texas two-step. But underneath all those rootsy trappings, there's a syncopated whomp to that drumbeat, and Trooper's plangent singing could just as easily come out of a Greenwich Village folk club.
Earnest pleading is the order of the day, for this is a classic make-up song. While some songwriters load us up with specific details -- think Bob Dylan -- Trooper's style is more conversational, going for the universal, inviting us to relate. He doesn't tell us what he did to this woman he loves; he's focused on the task at hand -- just begging for a chance to see her again, to clear it all up. Most of the song, in fact, is that repeated request "will you meet me," over and over. "Will you meet me when the sun comes up again" (vintage literary device -- sunrise equals new beginning) or, pinning down the place, "Will you meet me by the riverside / In the park between the river and the FDR drive?" That's where the specific New York detail brings this song into sharp focus. I love the no-man's-land quality of that (and if you've ever looked out a car window from the FDR, you know what a battle-scarred territory that is).
"Meet me halfway" -- that's a colloquial phrase that usually means "let's compromise." But I hear some irony here -- Trooper's singer is a character as well, a somewhat clueless guy (aren't they all?) who's scared shitless that he might lose his true love forever. The end of every verse declares that she must meet him "Before my heart lays down and dies." Meeting him halfway really means giving him a last chance, one that even he knows he doesn't deserve. In the bridge, he does begin to offer excuses for himself -- "Everything I said has been misconstrued" -- but in the very next line he's already waffling: "They weren't exactly lies, they weren't exactly truths."
He can only hope that when he sees her she'll have -- as he says in verse two -- "a tremble in your voice and a promise in your eyes" (I love the balance of those images). In verse three, he pushes the literary imagery even further: "Will you meet me where angels fear to tread / Will you let the king of fools remove the crown from his head?" Of course -- she's the angel, he's the fool; that's a graceful way to throw himself on her mercy.
And towards the end of verse three, he scents a glimmer of hope: "When I think that you still love me I begin to shake." But -- what a guy -- he responds with his ultimate move: "I might lie again if that's what it takes." What a wonderful crowning line! That says all you need to know about the men-are-from-Mars women-are-from-Venus tennis game of love.
It's subtle stuff, of course -- he's not trying to wow us with his lyrical dexterity. What Trooper's doing is even more skillful: giving voice to real people, in very real relationship trouble, and throwing in a little much needed humor. It's a totally endearing song. And I'll tell you, any guy who knows how to deliver a winsome apology like this is bound to get that girl back.