A problem I’ve always had with respect to my musical fandom is that when artists whose early songs I love keep making records, I tend not to listen to their new stuff. This goes even for artists who, after reaching perfect peaks early on, carry on creating fine work. Like Bill Callahan after A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Will Oldham after I See A Darkness, or Lambchop after ‘Theöne’. “New stuff” meaning anything they’ve done since 2005, 1999, and 1996, in that order.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that there is so much music out there, old and new, that you can spend literally half your waking life with tunes playing, soundtracking hours every day, and you still miss out on so much that would be so good to hear. You learn this sometimes when you ask people on Twitter to recommend songs on a certain subject and they reply with songs by acts whose work you are embarrassed to realise you barely know. Like John Prine or Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits or the Doors; but the list is loooong.
Another reason is that when an artist releases something pristine early on I tend to move on because that work is as good as it gets. Not completely—I thought The Magnetic Fields’ Charm of the Highway Strip was perfect but stuck with them through 69 Love Songs, and then I was full—but largely. I don’t quite understand this but I guess I think: they can’t improve on that so let’s not waste time. Let’s give them thanks and try someone else.
In the case of Lambchop, they had released two great albums when they ended the second, 1996’s How I Quit Smoking, with ‘Theöne’, a song that instantly lodged in my heart, which was longing for love. ‘Theöne’ told you what it was like to meet the person with whom you should share joy and meaning. It’s the words, mostly simple enough, and the quaking, hopeful but uncertain, vocal of Kurt Wagner: “But don’t you know / This must be true / I can do nothing / But think of you / So there’s the phone / And here’s the number / You are the one”.
Technically, Lambchop ended the album with ‘Again’, a short sweet replay of the string section’s shimmering contribution to ‘Theöne’, which indicated that even they knew how special ‘Theöne’ was. How could you not?
How I knew, partly, was that like a handful of songs, ‘Theöne’ guided me when I needed to make the biggest decision in my life: who do you wish to spend your life with, and how do you tell her?
Telling someone you like them is mostly not easy, and pre-Sharon me had no idea what to do, but it turns out that when you meet Theöne, the one you’ve dreamt about for years, and you know it’s her, and you can picture a real-life future together, then telling her you love her is kind of easy. Not telling her would be more difficult. Having great songs to guide you can help you make these big decisions, the best decisions you’ve made.
When I say this, I am thinking of ‘Theöne’ and ‘This Is What She’s Like’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, in which Kevin Rowland articulates with wordless vibrant vocals the lightning love that Michael Corleone felt for Apollonia in The Godfather Part I, that he now feels for a non-fiction person. He is trying to describe this to Billy Adams and by the end of the song he is understood: “You-a, do you get my drift? / Oh yeah, I’m starting to get the picture”. I felt too that I understood this when I met Sharon, in 2001, but because Rowland rhapsodises without words I couldn’t do what I could with Lambchop’s song, which was to sing it to her, into her ear, in Neary’s of Chatham St of all places. This was very early on! We’d been together about a week and I just knew I needed no-one else ever. So it seemed like Lambchop had done as much as they, or anyone, could.
It’s fairly recently that I’ve given much thought to whether this reason for moving on from an act makes sense or is slightly silly. Maybe stick with them? Maybe they have more to offer. And maybe if you stay with brilliant artists who recount how they fell in love, they will later tell how they are experiencing lifelong love.
Actually, no offence brilliant artists, but I don’t think that happens too much. Songs tend to be about when love starts and when it ends. The stage curtain being opened and then being closed. Not the play itself.
There is obviously nothing wrong with songs being about how love ends. That can help the lonely listener cope, with experiences like being left by a lover or being the one who must leave, which brings Julia Jacklin’s ‘Comfort’ to mind: “I’ll be okay / I’ll be alright / I’ll get well soon / Sleep through the night / Don’t know how you’re doing / But that’s what I get / I can’t be the one to hold you when I was the one / Who left”.
Though I tend now to be more attentive to how it is to lose someone you love because they have died.
I’ve listened to Sufjan Stevens’ new Javelin a good few times. Sufjan’s albums are compelling, even compulsory, right from the off—then your relationship with them, that dialogue, develops and enriches as you listen again and again. Sufjan is someone I haven’t applied the stop listening rule to. I first heard him in 2003 when Michigan came out and I’ve been enraptured by Illinois and Carrie & Lowell in particular since, but all his solo and collaborative albums have diamonds in them, like the title track of The Ascension and ‘Lacrimae’ from A Beginner’s Mind, with Angelo De Augustine. Reasons for not moving on from Sufjan are the constant fascinating changes in artistic style and the subsequent returns to his quiet and courageous vulnerability, like in Illinois’ ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, Carrie & Lowell’s ‘Fourth of July’, and Javelin’s ‘Goodbye Evergreen’.
‘Goodbye Evergreen’ is, I’m fairly sure, Sufjan’s eulogy for a man he loved and has spent his life with who has literally just gone. My understanding is that the song is about his partner of fourteen years, Evans Richardson, who died in Spring 2023. Sufjan has not said this specifically but he has dedicated the album to Evans and it is hard to see or hear the song any other way: “Goodbye, Evergreen / You know I love you / But everything heaven sent / Must burn out in the end”. This is the opening verse of the album and he starts singing these words in the album’s opening half-second—speaking of courage. Evergreen seems to work as a nickname for Evans and I hear in it that this love is alive. It’s winter where the singer is but the trees haven’t lost their leaves.
I often wish I knew less about the specific subject matter of a song, as if knowing the story makes it less relatable; but is that right? Sufjan’s tribute to Evans, that is not in the song and that he published just after the album came out, includes qualities and feelings that are universally familiar: “This album is dedicated to the light of my life, my beloved partner and best friend Evans Richardson, who passed away in April. He was one of those rare and beautiful ones you find only once in a lifetime—precious, impeccable, and absolutely exceptional in every way.” Knowing who Carrie was didn’t stop me adoring that record and knowing whose death is being mourned in a song like ‘Goodbye Evergreen’ doesn’t stop that song from helping anyone listening who’s going through grief, or one day will, which is all of us. What a huge gift from an artist.
So listening to Lambchop and Sufjan and other songs that give me goosebumps it occurs to me that songs are largely about when love starts and when it ends.
But I am in love now with someone to whom I conveyed this love in 2001, to whom I gently, daftly, but clearly and autobiographically sang ‘Theöne’, and who replied in kind. (Honestly I can’t write that line without sitting here shaking my head, still stunned.)
I think of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ here. Norman Blake sings “I don’t want control of you / It doesn’t matter to me / Don’t want this love to stay the same / But grow with every year” and I remember how that sounded in 1997. And I’m crazily lucky to have gotten to the other side of that song. After all this time it’s still growing. Blake suggests that the growth, evolution, increasing enrichment by love never ends. 1997 me could have been forgiven for not allowing himself to believe that this incredibly fortunate fate lay ahead.
So my question mentioned early in this post, for Twitter yesterday, was as follows: “Thinking about love songs. The greats seem to be about seeking, finding, and declaring love. Lambchop’s ‘Theöne’, Dexys’ ‘This Is What She’s Like’. I can’t think of many songs that tell the story of sustaining love. Still feeling the lightning years later. Any good examples?” And I got some good examples. Thank you so much everyone who came back to me.
I was able to note that there are fine, fine songs by people I don’t know at all or enough, who I should know and now do, a little at least. I was able to note that there aren’t huge numbers of these songs out there sent to me so I think my sense that this subject matter is difficult to sing about is mostly right. And I noted that one or two of these songs hit the cardiac bullseye though only one so far made me cry. (Thanks Michael Mee.)
Not as in this is sad, but as in Ben Folds ended an album, Rockin’ The Suburbs, with ‘The Luckiest’, a song that I related to completely, realising, not for the first time, that lifelong love is all you can ask for.
Now I have heard even since hearing this song that Ben Folds’ relationship that inspired the song is over. They broke up. So when he sings that he wants to grow old with this person, and that dying in old age shortly after the partner dies seems the right way to go, you know one of them no longer feels this, or both. (Folds jokes “I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong”, but it’s not really a joke.)
You know that the happiness described in the song isn’t there as it was. But you also know that happiness can’t be eternal. It can be as long as it lasts and I don’t think happiness can be any purer or stronger than it is in the song, or, to be honest and awed, than it has been for me since Sharon and I bumped into each other in 2001.
The fact that Ben Folds’ relationship ended does not weaken the song. The feelings he sings about are real. They will always mean something even as and when they change. And change can, will—must, eventually—happen for all kinds of reasons.
There’s no better way for me to end this piece than using the opening verse and chorus of ‘The Luckiest’, as the song does exactly what I asked, articulating the pure pleasure of seeing the same person every day and being unable to imagine being happier than seeing her face, holding her hand, waking where she is. I would ask that anyone who has made it this far plays the song, if you don’t already know it. If ‘The Luckiest’ breaks your heart, as it may, it’ll also mend it: “I don’t get many things right the first time / In fact, I am told that a lot / Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls / Brought me here / And where was I before the day / That I first saw your lovely face? Now I see it everyday / And I know / That I am / I am / I am / The luckiest.”