Friday, December 20, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Greg Trooper -- Incident on Willow Street

"Everything's a Miracle"

Chalk up another winner for Troop.

At first I didn't like the pulp fiction-y cover art (see video below), but the more I listened to this album, the more I realized why it fits: because Greg Trooper is himself a storyteller par excellence.  I mean way more than the hackneyed "country music is all about telling stories" clich√©. (And don't let the pedal steel and mandolin and fiddle fool you -- Greg Trooper is more of a folk singer or an indie singer-songwriter than he is your typical country artist.). Most every song on this album could be expanded into a novel.

Trooper is such a perceptive reader of the twists and turns of the human heart, he explores a spectrum of romantic relationships on this album -- but let's put "romantic" in quotes, because these are thorny relationships, lovelorn relationships, mismatched relationships, out-of-sync relationships. In other words, real-world relationships. (Definitely Music for Grown-Ups.)

In the old men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus battle of the sexes, I'm warning you guys -- Greg Trooper is a double agent. He actually seems to understand how women think; not only that, he likes the way women think. Exhibit A:

"Here I am, here I am alone again" he starts out -- an opener we've certainly heard before, but usually in a tone of woe. Not this guy; he tells us "and that's precisely how I want it to be." Our hero (and I use the term loosely) thinks he's got life all figured out. "Up at the crack of dawn, / Yeah I got so much going on / There's no room for anyone but me." (That's our first clue.) "I'm never late, / I make no one wait / Got a job / I'll do it the best that I can." The short phrases, the strolling tempo, everything tells us he's a satisfied customer.

But Troop is using a technique that we in lit crit call "the unreliable narrator"; don't take what he says at face value. An impatient smug jerk who can't make room in his life for other people is not to be trusted. And sooner or later -- cherchez la femme -- we get to what's really still bugging him. "She was different from me, / A different philosophy / Now I'm free to be the man I'm so sure I am." I love that "I'm so sure" line -- how deftly Trooper sketches this guy's self-centeredness.

I detect an unexamined undertow of yearning, upward chord modulation and all, as he recalls: "We once walked in thunder and lightning / And we once sang a simple harmony / And I said, "Babe oh my child, those are not miracles' / But she said, 'Everything's a miracle to me.'" All of his self-justifying blather simply dissolves with her one gorgeously joy-affirming remark. (Note how the chords resolve, too, when we hit this payoff line.) Given these two opposing outlooks on life, which would you choose?

Verse two, and it's all about him again, the well-oiled machines of his car and his body. He reminds me of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt's character in Don John, reciting like a mantra the things he loves (my body, my ride, my boys, my girls, my porn). "I've got a point of view,," he declares, only grudgingly adding, "Yeah I know she does too." But he's not interested in other people's points of view, is he? And when he says, "We couldn't be more out of sync," that just doesn't fit his well-oiled machine.

Another memory, of a hot summer day in the city, "Till the sun finally set and let us be" (there's that impatience again) -- and once more, he's not buying her delight in this miracle. By this point, forget being annoyed with him, I'm mainly feeling sad for her, to have such a negative boyfriend always bringing her down.

By verse three, this girl blossoms into a vibrant character through his scraps of memory: "She loved holding hands, / She loved certain hard rock bands / She loved that mean old man who lived just across the street." It's a common song device, cataloging random loving details about a lover, but here's the catch -- though we may love these details about her, Trooper's narrator doesn't. (Holding hands? Too much PDA, too much human contact. Incorrect musical taste, kindness to a rude neighbor -- how dare she?) I can't think of many songwriters who can juggle two points of view this skillfully throughout a song.

"I had to cut her loose," he says carelessly, a man who always has to be in the driver's seat (but I have to wonder -- who cut whom loose?) And his reason? "Cause I was feeling seduced / Into thinking this world is full of magic and mystery." Oh, poor baby. What a terrible thing that would be, to think that way.

One last memory, in the plangent second half of verse three: "She once caught the eyes of a stranger / And they smiled as they passed in the street. / I said, 'Babe oh my child, that's not a miracle / But she said, 'Everything's a miracle to me.'" Am I wrong for hoping that that smiling stranger in the street is the man she's with now?  Because in the course of this song, I've become very invested in this woman's happiness -- she deserves so much better than our "hero."  And Greg Trooper knows that; he is so on her side. (And I suspect he's also in the everything's-a-miracle camp.) 

Twelve tracks of storytelling this good?  I'd say that's worth buying...

1 comment:

NickS said...

You're posting these too quickly, I was just about to go comment on the previous post. But, before I do, a couple thoughts on this one:

Very nice, you've posted a couple of other Greg Trooper songs but, for whatever reason, this one really clicks for me. Perhaps it's just catching me at a good time, but I like the slower tempo it suits him well.

It's funny that you talk about his relationship to country. I can hear that, but honestly it reminds me of Randy Newman as much as anybody. Something about the vowel sounds -- the note of cynical sarcasm. Randy Newman is, of course, also a master of the unreliable narrator.

It also strikes me that this is an interesting companion to the Chris Stamey is song in that both of them are about men reflecting (or not) on a failed relationship and both of them are notable in that they offer enough information that you can speculate about both sides of the relationship.

Finally the mention of an unreliable narrator reminds me that I was recently listening to one of my favorite examples of the lyrics undermining the point-of-view character. Can you get more damning than that second chorus, "... 'cause I know he loves me. / ... 'cause he tells me he loves me. / Over and over and over and over again."?