Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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Ice candles shining in the darkness.

Brief Candles

Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.

I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.

It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.

Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.

This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.

1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.

2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.

But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.

3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.

4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.

It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”

5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.

Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.

6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.

The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?

7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.

Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.

This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.

8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.

9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.

10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!

11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.

12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.

13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.

14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.

He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.

15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”

16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.

17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.

18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.

19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.

20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.

21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.

That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.

A Crack In The Shell cover image - a chick hatching among eggs

A Crack In The Shell

It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.

Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.

Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.

Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.

In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.

1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.

2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.

3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)

4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.

5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.

6. Prince – Little Red Corvette
Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.

7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.

8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.

The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.

9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.

10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.

11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.

Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.

12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.

That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.

13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.

By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.

14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.

15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.

The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.

In the movie Spotlight, there’s a moment that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”

That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.

Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?

Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.

16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.

They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.

17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.

18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.

19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.

20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

Album Assignments: Just Tell Me That You Want Me

When the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me came out almost seven (!) years ago, I saw it as vindicating and validating the value of Stevie Nicks. Of the seventeen songs on this CD, fully ten are Nicks songs, settling any question of whether Stevie was respected by the next generation of bands. (The distribution of the rest is: three Peter Green, two Lindsey Buckingham, one Christine McVie, one Bob Welch.)

Several of those Nicks covers had a beneficial effect on me back then, and listening to the album now, I still find most of them pretty beguiling. Bethany Cosentino’s voice on “Rhiannon” made me dive into the music of Best Coast, who became one of my favorite bands of the last ten years. A friend had already turned me on to Antony and the Johnsons, so Antony’s tender voice on “Landslide” wasn’t a surprise, but it was a delight. Then there’s Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Angel”. Nobody does “burned out and weary” like Faithfull, but that’s not a tone that Nicks ever brought to this song. Faithfull’s cover, slowed down and wistful, replaces the transcendent rock of the Tusk track with a very effective dark nostalgia.

Speaking of darkness, The Kills turn “Dreams” from gauzy recrimination to a sinister and distorted goth threat. By the climax of the song, Alison Mosshart’s voice shreds through any sentimentality the words might imply. Craig Wedren and St. Vincent take “Sisters Of The Moon” in a similar direction, albeit more synthy and less crunchy — less Siouxsie and the Banshees, more Joy Division. The spooky tone fits in more easily with this song, and it’s a brilliant move to put St. Vincent’s vocals on the introspective chorus.

Album cover for Just Tell Me That You Want Me

Some Nicks covers aren’t quite as effective. Beck’s production and musicianship can’t save Karen Elson’s “Gold Dust Woman” from being a pretty pedestrian exercise. Washed Out renders “Straight Back” in a way that really lives up to their name — thick waves of synth-pop and mumbly vocals diluting the power of Nicks’ words, which is a shame because I really love the Mirage original. Gardens & Villa do a little better with another Mirage classic, “Gypsy”, but again it’s a pretty sedate reading, lacking the passion and power that Stevie brings.

My favorite Stevie cover this listen, by far, is Lykke Li’s magnificent, echoing “Silver Springs.” Li sounds like she’s in the middle of a cathedral, and that it still can’t contain her emotions. I love the choices she makes to alter the melody, and the eerie harmonies behind her. As the song builds, it’s just a relentless drumbeat, harsh drone, and Li’s powerful vocals. Goosebumps all the way through.

For all that, though, what really captivated my attention this time around were the non-Stevie covers. Now, they aren’t all home runs — Tame Impala is kind of meh on “That’s All For Everyone”, and an instrumental like “Albatross” is never going to be a standout song for me no matter who’s doing it. Also, credit to MGMT for a) honoring the criminally underappreciated Bob Welch by covering “Future Games” and b) bringing a wildly creative approach to it with a really futuristic sound, robotic vocals and mechanical everything else, but nine minutes is a really long time for such an exercise to last.

On the other hand, The New Pornographers turn Christine McVie’s “Think About Me” into a fantastic burst of joy. The band puts its wonderful vocal blend to grand use here, shuffling between A.C. Newman’s solo vocals and various other harmonic combinations, almost from one line to the next. Crazy synthesizer laser-bursts make a charming substitute for a guitar solo, and sweet ooh-ooh-ohhs carry the song to its conclusion.

Fleetwood Mac’s founder Peter Green hasn’t been forgotten in this tribute. Besides the aforementioned “Albatross”, Trixie Whitley turns in a marvelously soulful “Before The Beginning”, hitting the peaks with hot, bluesy passion. Even better than that, probably my favorite track right now from this album, is Billy Gibbons and Co.’s “Oh Well.”

Now, “Oh Well” is my favorite Peter Green song, and has already been fabulously covered by a variety of artists, including Joe Jackson, Tom Petty, and the Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac. Billy Gibbons seems like a bit of an odd choice to cover it, given that he’s swampy and the song is spiky, and I didn’t have high hopes when I heard sluggish pace of the first few notes. But damned if Gibbons and Co. don’t pull it off anyway. He takes away the frenetic pace of the original and replaces it with multi-layered guitars oozing funk. What’s neurotic in the original turns hypnotic in this version, and I can’t help moving to it, every time it plays.

In a year when Fleetwood Mac has affirmed the value of Stevie Nicks (by touring under its own name with Nicks included and Buckingham out, shortly after the other four Rumours-era members had recorded a different album and didn’t put the FM name on it) and embraced its past by playing Green and Kirwan songs on tour, this collection feels timely once again. It’s gratifying to see that the music of one of my favorite bands means a lot to many other musicians too, and to have some covers that reinvigorate the originals is pretty great as well.

A Toast To Absent Friends

Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2018 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

For the first time, I’m linking to a Spotify playlist for these rather than linking each song, because for almost the first time Spotify actually contains all the songs in the mix. I’m also going back and adding these playlists to previous mixtape posts and to Album Assignments posts, because I like the idea of the music being available right in the post when I’m writing about music. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

1. Elvis Costello – The Comedians
Over the past few years, I’ve mentioned how the Album Assignments project with my friend Robby has influenced my music listening, and consequently the makeup of these mixes. However, sometimes my other project — The Watchmen Bestiary — can have a big influence too. Alan Moore quotes this Elvis Costello song in Chapter 2 of Watchmen, and I wrote about the connections between them in 2017. I also bought this album, Goodbye Cruel World, on CD at that time, but the delay inherent in having a big stack of CDs to listen to (and interspersing them with a podcast, an audiobook, and periodic iPod shuffles) means that I didn’t listen to it until 2018. Costello doesn’t have many good things to say about this album himself, but I’ve come to like this song quite a bit — possibly Stockholm Syndrome. Its weird, off-kilter time signature, the typically clever Costello wordplay in its lyrics, and of course the Watchmen connection make me fond of it. And really, “a toast to absent friends” couldn’t be better as a title for this collection, since I make it for our friends across the ocean. Cheers!

2. The Killers – Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine
As I wrote in my post on Hot Fuss, I think this is an amazing debut song. That bass line grabs me every time, and Brandon Flowers’ voice could bring thrilling drama to absolute nonsense (and has.) Listening to this song was my favorite part of doing the deeper dive into Hot Fuss.

3. Rilo Kiley – Does He Love You?
Speaking of intensity (and of Jenny), I can’t get enough of Jenny Lewis’ vocal theater on this song. She takes us through a full three-act play, complete with twist ending, and plays the character’s arc to the hilt. She starts loving and innocent, then gradually introduces notes of contempt and abandonment. When she comes back to a softer tone, her earlier aggrieved self-pity makes her sound distant rather than supportive, and when she finally reveals the connection between her “married man” and her interlocutor’s husband, she couldn’t sound more disgusted with EVERYTHING. By the time she’s returning to “let’s not forget ourselves”, her vocal is distorted and venomous, and the emotional strings swirl around it, until those strings are all that’s left. Just marvelous.

4. The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Now here’s a more fun take on secrets. I loved the chance to dissect why I think this is such a perfect pop song, and every single time I hear it I can’t help but be uplifted and opened. And my god, how I love that drum break at 1:51. Air drums every time.

5. Stevie Nicks – The Dealer (demo)
Stevie did an album called 24 Karat Gold a few years ago, in which she took a bunch of old demos (most of which had been circulating in the fan community for decades) and recorded them with a professional band. This was wonderful, no doubt, but there are also just some unavoidable differences between Stevie in her 30’s and Stevie in her 60’s, and they felt pretty glaring on certain songs. “The Dealer” has been one of my favorite unreleased Stevie songs forever, and the version on 24 Karat Gold didn’t feel like it held up in comparison to the demos. Lucky for me, she re-released her first two albums, remastered with a bunch of extra tracks, and this polished-up version of an old “Dealer” demo showed up with the Bella Donna remaster. This was the best of both worlds for me — all the power and energy of the initial recording, professionally released and cleaned up.

6. The Go-Go’s – I’m With You
I was inspired to assign Beauty And The Beat to Robby after listening to a re-release of Talk Show, the album on which this song appears. I’ve always been deeply partial to The Go-Go’s, not just for their fun but for the musical surprises they always delivered. This song feels like one of those hidden gems — I love the strange minor key melody, paired with such fiercely devoted lyrics. I think this is one of the best things Jane Wiedlin ever wrote (in this case with Gina Schock as co-writer), and it’s the first of a few unabashed love songs in this collection.

7. Wilco – Remember The Mountain Bed
I spent a week or two with Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 this year, and became infatuated with this song. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics paint an incredibly vivid picture of memories of a bygone love — indelible images like “Your stomach moved beneath your shirt and your knees were in the air / Your feet played games with mountain roots as you lay thinking there.” But while the lyrics thrum with life, it’s Tweedy’s voice and music that send them straight into my heart. “I see my life was brightest where you laughed and laid your head” makes me want to cry with the poignancy of it. This song is exactly why I decided I finally needed to learn more about Wilco. (I’ll be coming back to that later.)

8. Fleetwood Mac – Brown Eyes (alternate version with Peter Green)
Wrapping up the love song section is this astounding (to me) alternate version of a lovely Christine song from Tusk. This song has completely different lyrics from the album version — for one thing, it doesn’t mention brown eyes at all. Where the released version is full of Christine’s trademark ambivalence, this one is sweeter and purer. Obviously I’ve known the Tusk version for ages, so this one felt very powerful to me, especially the way Peter Green’s spooky guitar creates a gorgeous, haunting tone that ties it back to the earliest days of Fleetwood Mac.

9. Eric Clapton – Motherless Children
This is one of those songs where the tragic words lay inexplicably atop a joyful foundation. It’s one of my favorite Clapton riffs, and the whole feel of the thing is just a groove party. So why the lyrics about losing a parent? Beats me — all I know is I love all the other pieces of it, no matter what he’s singing about.

10. Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless
More from the joyful dancing division — I listened to Remain In Light quite a bit at home during part of this year, and the whole thing just made me dance around the house. Like “Motherless Children”, the words to this one aren’t exactly sunny — and in fact I’m really not sure what they’re even about — but man oh man the Talking Heads had the keys to funky rock castle during this period.

11. Wilco – I am trying to break your heart
So, I wrote about this one at length in my Yankee Hotel Foxtrot post, and would just be repeating myself here by breaking it down. I’ll just say that my experience of Wilco up to this point (on the Mermaid Avenue albums) had led me to a set of expectations that got completely demolished by the first 90 seconds of this song, in the best possible way. I love how the crazy surrealist shit leads your attention one way and lets you be shocked by gut-punches like “What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?”

12. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Change The Locks
But there’s a straighter path to devastating catharsis. At the beginning of my November to October listening period, I was still in the midst of a grief-fueled Tom Petty jag. I could have picked a lot of songs from his catalog, or even just from She’s The One, the album I ended up writing about. This one just hit me right as the right way to crash out of Wilco. It starts intense, and then cranks things up from there. I love the buildup in this song, the way it keeps cycling back to the same thundering chords, somehow gaining power each time until Petty hits us with that unbelievable scream. It’s not the first thing people usually mention when cataloging his many talents, but he was a hell of an expressive vocalist.

13. Muse – Madness
You want to talk about expressive vocalists? How about Matthew freaking Bellamy? You want to talk about buildup? How about this delicious song, with the thick synths, ever-increasing layered harmonies, elements gelling tighter and tighter until by the end he’s hitting operatic musical heights to go with the lyrical epiphanies? You want me to try summarizing a song using nothing but rhetorical questions? What better place to try a little experiment than on a Muse song?

14. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Xperience) – Let’s Eat
Change of pace. My family was listening to this album during some of the time we were driving around on our Grand Canyon trip this year, and Laura cracked up at this song, so much so that we listened to it a bunch of times during that trip, and she brought home the printed lyrics from her job one day. Even now she’ll occasionally bust out with “I wanna be like Hugh Jackman / You know, jacked, man!” or “My girlfriend’s shaped like a bottle o’ Coke / Me, I’m shaped like a bottle o’ NOPE”. It’s become part of our family vocabulary.

15. Paul Simon – Wristband
Here’s somebody else who has a way with a humorous lyric. I listened to Paul’s Stranger To Stranger album this year, and this song really jumped out at me. I love how his wry and conversational tone turns serious at the bridge, and suddenly his funny little story reveals itself as a metaphor, illuminating inequality and lack of access as one of the central problems of our time. There’s those who have the wristband, those who don’t have it, and those who don’t even need it. Paul Simon is in the third group now, but he wants to talk to us about the second.

16. Stevie Nicks – After The Glitter Fades
Stevie grew up with plenty of privilege — her dad was an exec for various companies including Greyhound and Armour — but she wrote this song about her own stardom well before she had any kind of success. As I listened to the Bella Donna remaster this year, I loved every song, but this one struck me as particularly elevated by the remastering process. It’s a country song at heart, and the steel guitar blends beautifully with her vocal.

17. Joan Jett – I Love Rock N’ Roll
Right around that same era, another woman was breaking away from her band, to amazing success. This song compelled me from the very first time I heard it — well, saw it. This was the era when much of my music exposure came from MTV, and I loved the way she stood out as a woman totally owning what had seemed to me as a very male world. Before I knew anything about what feminism was, Joan Jett embodied for me what it meant to be a fearless and tough human being, questions of gender aside.

18. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart
Fearlessness is fearlessness, and as you know if you’ve read much of my other stuff, Stevie’s blend of fierceness and vulnerability speaks to me like nobody else. I don’t know that I could ever pick a favorite song of hers, but this one is always in that top group. As with some of the other songs in this collection, I already broke it down in detail when writing about the album, so no point recapitulating that. Instead I’ll just say that this year was freeing for me in many ways, with breakthroughs happening on the professional, family, and world levels, and this song unfailingly takes me to the place where that freedom lives.

Album Assignments: The Wild Heart

Stevie Nicks made a huge splash as a solo artist at the beginning of the 1980s. For her 1981 solo debut Bella Donna she enlisted the aid of producer Jimmy Iovine, because when asked who she wanted to produce the album, she said, “I want whoever produces Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. If I can’t be in The Heartbreakers, at least I can get Tom’s producer so I can make the girl version of what I love about Tom Petty.”

Iovine brought a rock and roll sensibility quite different from that of Lindsey Buckingham, up to that point the only other producer Nicks had worked with on a full album. Not only that, he brought The Heartbreakers along with him, and even convinced Petty himself to duet with Nicks a track he had written, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Iovine also enlisted stellar musicians like Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Davey Johnstone (longtime guitarist for Elton John), and the always-amazing Roy Bittan. Stevie herself brought in Don Henley for another duet triumph, “Leather And Lace.” The album went platinum in 3 months, and hit number one on the Billboard album charts.

Cut to 1983. Fleetwood Mac had released Mirage, giving Nicks another Top 20 hit with “Gypsy” but further pulling her between her solo career and her longtime band. The romantic relationship she’d had with Iovine was crumbling. And heartbreakingly, devastatingly, her childhood friend Robin Anderson had died of leukemia. Nicks always had a flair for drama, but at this time her life was providing all the triumph and tragedy of a gothic novel.

Album cover for The Wild Heart

So she did what she’d become so skilled at doing. She poured all of the emotion into songs, re-enlisting Iovine and most of the Bella Donna players (plus luminaries like Sandy Stewart, Steve Lukather, and even Mick Fleetwood himself) to craft a remarkable collection of deeply expressionist music. She channeled the gothic novel explicitly, using Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as inspiration for The Wild Heart‘s title track.

And what a title track! The six minutes and ten seconds of that song are a pinnacle of Nicks’ career, especially her solo career. It features Nicks’ signature elliptical lyrics, so obscure and so relatable at the same time, at least for anybody who’s been caught in a wild emotional whirlwind, partly of their own making. Even more than that, though, it captures the most incredible vocal on the album, one of the best of her entire career.

She starts with plain declarations — “something in my heart died last night” — with notes repeated so often it’s nearly monotone. The backup singers come in to harmonize on “that’s when I needed you, when I needed you most,” adding color. The next verse ramps up to a higher set of notes, and Nicks sings a little more urgently. Then she climbs the first big ladder, on “dare my wild heart.”

Drums take us into the chorus, and the main hook for the song, musically and conceptually: “Don’t blame it on me — blame it on my wild heart.” This line crystallizes the romantic persona she’d been crafting ever since the first notes of “Rhiannon” hit AM radio. Like Brontë’s Cathy, she’s a creature of pure passion, utterly controlled by her emotions. She creates the space for all of us to inhabit who find ourselves swept up in and dwarfed by our feelings, specifically romantic feelings. “There was a danger, and the danger was to fall in love.”

As the song progresses, she adds more and more flourish to the lines, pulls more drama from them with ecstatic chants — “not even you can tear us apart, whoa-oh!” “You don’t even know how to start, how to start, HOW TO START.” She finds her falsetto among repetitions of “on my wild heart”, then flutters into a bridge that drops some of the accompaniment away amid familiar fiery and rainy imagery. The chorus returns, with some alterations bespeaking passionate devotion — “there is a reason why even the angels don’t give it up at all.”

With the backup singers chanting “blame it on me”, Nicks loses herself in the feeling as the drums press urgently on. Lines from earlier in the song return, but this time sung with abandon, as if the images themselves are leaping out before her. She swoops all around the beat like Cathy’s frantic ghost, finally losing words altogether in a series of “oooh”s.

Then come the last thirty seconds of the song. “Blame it on my wild heart,” she repeats over and over, desperately, and then everything crescendos: “Blame it on my wild, wild, wild, WIIIIIILD HEEAAAART!” That note. She pours everything into it, all the grief, all the trauma, all the heartbreak, all the out-of-control dysfunction that was her life in 1983, and in the magical alchemy of rock and roll, changes it into a rapturous, delirious, cathartic exaltation of the powers that bind us together and to this life.

Look, I won’t do this for every song. But “Wild Heart” is a perfect example of why Stevie Nicks is my favorite artist, and has been for more than 30 years now, ever since I saw her at Red Rocks when I was 16 years old. If these album assignment essays are for anything, they’re for trying to capture the thoughts and feelings that music brings to me, and in the case of Stevie, it takes some telling.

To tell it all every time, though, would maybe be to tell too much. As she sings in “Stand Back”, “no one knows how I feel / or what I mean unless you read between my lines,” but there are so many lines and so much between them, perhaps it’s better to just focus on moments.

Nothing else on the album quite reaches the peak of that last 30 seconds of “Wild Heart”, but several pieces come really close. There are the lovely lines in the album’s closing track “Beauty and the Beast”: “I never doubted your beauty / I’ve changed”, which then repeat with Nicks stretching out the last two words to near-operatic heights. There’s the dynamite keyboard riff in “Stand Back”, played by Prince as we all found out later. There’s the joyful count-off at the beginning of “Enchanted.” There’s the infuriated opening couplet of “Nothing Ever Changes”: “If it’s me that’s driving you to this madness, there’s just one thing that I’d like to say / Would you take a look at your life and your lovers? Nothing ever changes.”

And then there’s “If Anyone Falls.” This song captivated me from the opening synth swells, which were perfectly of their time but still sound so perfect now. Nicks’ vocal against this synth line shines like chrome, and her lyrics are iconically Nicksy: “Somewhere… twilight… dreamtime… somewhere in the back of your mind.” She finds so many perfect little expressions, like “I have never known the words… but I have tried to be true.” But my favorite part of this song is the bridge: “So I’m never gonna see you / Deep inside my heart / But I see your shadow against, shadow against, shadow against the wall.” Again, it’s that repetition that sounds like it arises organically from the strength of her feelings, supported by drums pounding out the words rhythm, and a key change from the synth line that sounds like it’s buoyed upward by sheer force of emotion.

I ended up at that Red Rocks concert because a friend’s mother (who was a huge Stevie fan) convinced me that there may be something there for me. The bridge of “If Anyone Falls”, which had been all over radio a few years before, made me believe it. And I’ve gotten a lifetime of joy out of this music, a bright river I can still tap into today, just as strong as ever. Much of it came from a place of pain, but it has taken that pain and turned into spellbinding and rich exultation.

That’s more than entertainment. It’s enchantment.

Album Assignments: Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

I’m a Fleetwood Mac fan, so it’s been said. But while that’s accurate, it isn’t 100% true. What I really am is a Stevie Nicks fan. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stevie-less versions of Fleetwood Mac, but they don’t inspire the passion and allegiance that I have for the band when she’s in it. Obviously, there was about 8 years of Fleetwood Mac before they’d even heard of Buckingham or Nicks, the group having gone through a half-dozen or so lineup changes as various members drifted into drug-induced withdrawal, religion-induced disappearance, alcoholism, sleeping with the drummer’s wife, and so forth.

That band, in its various lineups, put out plenty of great music, but I think it’s generally agreed (except perhaps by strident blues purists) that the peak lineup of Fleetwood Mac was the one that coalesced in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, Stevie Nicks. Not that they haven’t had plenty of contortions since then. There was the no-Lindsey version. There was the no-Lindsey and no-Stevie version. Then after a brief Clinton-induced classic lineup reunion, there was about 17 years of the no-Christine version. That version did a lot of touring, but not a lot of recording. Aside from the 2003 album Say You Will (which, at 18 songs, is like a double album at least), the only other studio work from that incarnation was the 2013 EP Extended Play, which called itself a Fleetwood Mac album but in my opinion should have been billed more like “Lindsey Buckingham and Friends”. Buckingham wrote 3 of the EP’s 4 songs, and that fourth one was a re-recording of a 1973 Buckingham Nicks demo — more like half a Stevie song, since although she wrote it, she shared lead vocals with Lindsey.

Then, in 2014, Christine shockingly rejoined the band, and toured extensively with them, multiple legs of an “On With The Show” tour. It seemed like the classic Mac was finally back, but… Stevie had put her solo career on hold for ages for that tour, and was itching to promote her own work. So while four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac was eager to record fresh material, Stevie was not up for it.

Album cover of Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

The result is Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie. Given all of the band’s lineup changes, this group has just as much right to call itself Fleetwood Mac as the Say You Will incarnation. The fact that they didn’t is quite telling of how important Stevie Nicks has become to the Fleetwood Mac brand. Instead, although Mick and John play on every track of this collection, it’s billed as a duet album, rather like a bookend to the phenomenal 1973 pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks record.

Knowing this up front, I was quite excited for this album. Stevie is on a level by herself for me, but I absolutely love Christine, and some of her past vocal collaborations with Lindsey (“World Turning”, “Don’t Stop”) have been stellar. I appreciate Lindsey as a fine songwriter, an exceptional guitarist, and a gifted producer. Mind you, I also know him to be egomaniacal, controlling, and (if multiple biographical accounts as well as his own oblique admissions are to be believed) occasionally abusive. That tempers my appreciation of his work, but all the same I loved Buckingham Nicks, and I liked Say You Will quite a bit, so a melding of the two with Christine in Stevie’s place is sure to be a winner with me, right?

Well, sort of. It’s an enjoyable album, there’s no doubt about it. There’s said to be some effect from being in a group, that the members challenge each other and pull each other out of comfort zones to everyone’s benefit. You’ve got your Lennon/McCartney, your Jagger/Richards, and your Buckingham/McVie/Nicks. Some of the benefit of that triad lingers even with Stevie removed — compared to their most recent solo work, Christine sounds more energized and exciting here, and Lindsey sounds more grounded, spending more energy on putting his songs over than on wowing us with his virtuosic picking skills.

But while the album is called Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, that billing is accurate but not quite true. The overall impression, for me, is of Lindsey overwhelming the album and stifling any sense of group dynamic. Certainly on his five songs, I don’t hear Christine at all. They could pass for solo album tracks, and for all I know that’s what they are, just repurposed for this project. It wouldn’t be the first time — in fact most studio Fleetwood Mac albums since 1987 have that pedigree, at least the ones produced by Lindsey.

Christine’s songs, on the other hand, have Lindsey all over them. In fact, several of them sound like they’re going to be Lindsey songs until her voice kicks in. What’s more, a few actually recapitulate old material of Lindsey’s. “Red Sun” begins with a drumbeat identical to that from Say You Will‘s “What’s The World Coming To?”. The “Too Far Gone” riff is a slightly scrambled and sped-up version of the one from “Wrong”, a Lindsey solo track from 1992. And “Carnival Begin” starts out sounding like it’s going to echo “I’m So Afraid” from the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, and when the solo starts it veers back in that direction again.

What they all have in common is that they are guitar songs. The sound of Christine’s piano and keyboards is a fundamental part of the magic from the first four “classic lineup” Fleetwood Mac albums — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — but it’s very hard to find here. That’s what makes “Game Of Pretend” such a breath of fresh air. It’s the only song with a prominent piano sound, and it’s beautiful. Even in this song, Lindsey eventually shows up with a choir of himself — multitracked processed layers of his own vocals accompanying Christine on the chorus — but nevertheless it’s the one song on the album that feels like it really belongs to Christine, and probably as a result, it’s my favorite.

There’s a song on this album called “On With The Show”, and probably intentionally, its guitar part calls back quite clearly to a song called “You And I, Part II” from the 1987 Fleetwood Mac album Tango In The Night. Looking back, I can see how that album marked a turning point for Fleetwood Mac aurally. Buckingham had produced the previous albums, but his production tended to bring out and enhance the other players. Tango is different — it ensconces the others in a full-on Lindsey show, fantastic ear candy but much more about the production than the singers, the songs, or the playing (except of course for the guitar playing.) The subsequent Buckingham-produced Mac studio albums have followed suit.

For the longest time, I ascribed Tango‘s sound to the 80s, and explained away the subsequent albums as due to the absence of Christine. But with this album I can see the stranglehold that Lindsey Buckingham has on the sound of this band for the past three decades. The only one who’s been able to successfully escape it is Stevie Nicks, and only then by completely removing herself from the band and recording with other producers like John Shanks, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Stewart.

“On With The Show” sounds like it intends to be a statement of solidarity from Lindsey. “As long as I stand / I will take your hand / I will stand with my band”, he says. But after listening to this album on repeat, I couldn’t stop wishing that he spent more time standing with the band and less time standing on them.

Put On Some Silver

Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.

Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?

Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.

That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.

1. Taylor SwiftClean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.

2. Jefferson AirplaneEmbryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”

3. Joni MitchellCarey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.

4. Fountains Of WayneAction Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.

5. The LumineersSubmarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.

6. The MotelsSuddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.

7. Bob DylanPositively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.

8. Peter GabrielLovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.

9. The Velvet Underground & NicoVenus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.

10. Bob DylanUp To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.

11. Stevie NicksSisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.

12. Buckingham NicksCrying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.

13. The PretendersStop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.

14. The PoliceTruth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.

15. Bob DylanTombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.

16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson TwinsThe Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.

17. HeartGoodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.

18. ColdplayAmsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.

19. Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.

20. Taylor SwiftShake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.

Happy New Year.

Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders in Denver, 10/27/2016

I saw my first Stevie Nicks concert 30 years ago, when I was 16. Since then, I’ve seen her every time she’s come to Denver, either solo or with Fleetwood Mac, and even gone to a few out-of-state shows. And I’ve had a wonderful time, every time. But if I had any criticisms, they would be these. First, Stevie’s opening acts tend to range from “okay” to “ugh.” On the “okay” end — Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton. On the “ugh” end — Billy Falcon, Venice, Darden Smith.

Second, Stevie’s set list is almost always very safe, and very samey. She’ll open up with “Outside The Rain”, segueing into “Dreams.” She’ll play “Stand Back”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Rhiannon”, and some songs from whatever album she’s promoting. She’ll end the show proper with “Edge Of Seventeen”, and finish her encore with “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?”. She has a repertoire of other songs that regularly show up in sets — “I Need To Know”, “Beauty And The Beast”, “Landslide” — and a catalog full of many, many more wonderful songs that she virtually never plays.

Now don’t get me wrong (heh) — I’ve loved every single one of those shows. And predictability has a comforting quality of its own. But I’ve frequently longed for Stevie to take a page from the book of more adventurous artists, like Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, or the Indigo Girls, who surprise fans nightly with rarities and deep cuts interspersing the hits.

Well, I got my wish this year. Early in the show, Stevie said, “This is not going to be your typical Stevie Nicks show. In fact, this is going to be the Stevie Nicks show you’ve been wanting for 35 years! Now, 35 years is a long time — you may not remember that you’ve been asking for this show all that time. But you have!” This show lived up to that promise, one hundred percent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me return to my first point, about mediocre opening bands. I could not have been more thrilled when this tour was announced, with the freakin’ PRETENDERS as an opening act! This is a band I’ve seen as a headliner multiple times — they’re one of my favorite artists of all time. Easily in the top 20, probably in the top 10. They didn’t disappoint either. Chrissie Hynde’s famous bangs are a little greyer, and her frame isn’t whip-thin anymore (having graduated to just “pretty thin”), but she still sounds fantastic.

Chrissie Hynde rocking out

Photo credit: Evan Semón

She strutted out with the latest version of the band, including original drummer Martin Chambers (who’s always a hoot in concert), and opened with the title track from their new album Alone, a rockin’ anthem which declares “Nobody tells me I can’t / Nobody tells me I shant / No one to say “you’re doing it wrong” / I’m at the best, I’m where I belong, alone / I like it, yeah, I like it alone!” This was the first time I’d heard the song, and I loved it. She also played several other good new songs, including their single “Holy Commotion”, which she introduced as “all over the radio in Europe… and that’s a total fuckin’ lie. But it will be!”

The band also played plenty of hits — “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, “I’ll Stand By You”, “My City Was Gone”, “Brass In Pocket”, and a particularly fierce “Stop Your Sobbing.” There were some lesser-known catalog tracks too, like “Private Life”, “Mystery Achievement”, and “Hymn To Her.” Oh, and “Tattooed Love Boys”, which I’ll never hear the same way again after having read the backstory about it in her autobiography. I won’t recount that here, because it’s… disturbing.

Anyway, they finished with an exhilirating “Middle Of The Road” before ceding the stage with a promise that “the Elizabeth Taylor of rock” awaited us. Their set would have made for an excellent evening on its own, but instead, I still had a whole Stevie Nicks concert to look forward to! Amazing.

So after the appropriate inter-artist interval, Stevie came out with her band, opening the show with… not “Outside The Rain”. In fact, amazingly, not any song from any released album, but rather the Bella Donna outtake “Gold And Braid”! Right then, I knew this was going to be a special show. Stevie had played “Gold And Braid” on one other tour, the 1998 tour promoting her box set, Enchanted. Up until this year, that was my favorite tour of hers, because she gave herself permission to play some more obscure songs that appeared on the box set, songs like “Gold And Braid”, “After The Glitter Fades”, and “Garbo”, which I never thought I’d hear in concert.

Opening with “Gold And Braid,” though, hearkened all the way back to the only other time she’d played it, on her very first tour in 1981, when she only had one album’s worth of solo material to even play. There’s a famous (among fans) recording of her dad introducing the last night of that tour, and the band kicking into “Gold And Braid.” It’s a funky, soulful number with tons of energy and drama, and she absolutely sold it, then and now.

From there it was “If Anyone Falls”, a seldom-played song for having been a Top 20 hit, and one I absolutely love. Speaking of hits, the next song was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, originally a duet with Tom Petty but when she (occasionally) plays it in concert, she duets with her guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Except this time, here came from the back of the stage… Chrissie Hynde! In a bright orange Denver Broncos t-shirt, no less. It was an incredible thrill to hear two of my favorite singers duet on such an iconic song. Chrissie makes a hell of a Tom Petty substitute, and Stevie seemed to feel the same way, saying afterward, “You don’t often get to do something that cool.” She also mentioned that Chrissie scared her, because she was expecting the typical black clothes, and when this orange sight started approaching she thought, “They’re sending the wrong person out here!” Heh.

Stevie and Chrissie dueting

Photo credit: Evan Semón

It was about then that she made the “not your typical Steve Nicks concert” comment, and I was believing it. She said she was going to sing some songs that were meant for earlier albums, like “Gold And Braid”, but which she pulled because she didn’t like the production, or the way the song turned out at the time, or some other factor. That led into another fabulous Bella Donna outtake, a song called “Belle Fleur”, which she finally recorded for her 2014 collection 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault. We’d moved from “seldom heard in concert” songs to “never heard in concert” songs, and I was over the moon.

I was also starting to figure out what was going on. See, Stevie never toured on 24 Karat Gold — in fact, she released it on the very same day that Fleetwood Mac kicked off a yearlong tour. So these shows were the long-delayed tour for that album, meaning that we could expect to hear several more outtakes and demo tunes, since those were the backbone of the album. Not only that, she’d just released reissued deluxe versions of Bella Donna and The Wild Heart, stuffed with their own loads of demos and outtakes. No wonder this would be the show we’d been awaiting for 35 years! (Or 30 years in my case, since I was only 11 when she started touring solo. 🙂 )

It was at this point in the show that Stevie played the “Outside The Rain”/”Dreams” combo — a return to familiarity that was itself a surprise due to its unexpected placement. Then came one of the absolute high points, another never-before-played song: the title track to The Wild Heart. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but I never expected to hear it in concert, given that she didn’t even play it when she was promoting the album. It’s an epic song, with an epic high note at the end, and perhaps she never played it because she wanted to avoid singing that note night after night. Well, she figured out a way to do it — the band truncated the song before it got to that climactic section, clicking immediately into the title track from Bella Donna, a song she hasn’t done since 1981. I was a little disappointed that the big finish was missing, but hearing these two super-rare title tracks back to back more than made up for that.

I’ve been going through the show song-by-song, but if I keep doing that, I’m going to run out of superlatives. Those who want to see the full set list can find it at the awesome setlist.fm. I’ll just mention a few more high points:

  • The other major jaw-dropper, and probably the peak of the entire show for me, was when she played “Crying In The Night.” This is the opening track of the still-unreleased-on-CD Buckingham Nicks album, the record she and Lindsey released before joining Fleetwood Mac, the one that Mick Fleetwood heard in the studio when casting about for a new guitar player. Talk about a song from the vault!
  • “Starshine” was another great selection from 24 Karat Gold, an ebullient rocker preceded by a fun story about how she recorded the original demo in Tom Petty’s basement. “You wish you could have been there, I know,” she chuckled.
  • “Enchanted” was another delight, though it doesn’t fall into the same seldom-played bucket as some of the others, at least not recently. The track is from 1983 (The Wild Heart album), but she didn’t play it in concert until 1998. However, since then it’s shown up frequently in set lists.
  • Not everyone knows that Prince wrote the keyboard riff to “Stand Back”, but Stevie drove the point home by projecting a huge photo of him on the screen behind the stage as the song started. Lots more Prince photos followed later during “Edge Of Seventeen”, appropriate for a song about (among other things) grief and death.

The final song, rather than the typical “Has Anyone Ever…”, was a lovely, chiming “Leather And Lace.” There was no Don Henley, and no Chrissie Hynde to substitute for him, but Stevie was magical singing the song by herself. An exquisite end to an enchanted night. All in all, I’d say it was the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.

Stevie losing herself in the music

Wait Another Day

This year’s music mix has a new factor thrown in. Normally these collections are culled from the music I’ve been listening to over the previous year (with “year” being defined as November – October, so I can get the CD mailed to Wales in time for Christmas). That part hasn’t changed, but the new factor is the album assignments game I’ve been playing with Robby over the fall. That’s changed my listening habits, so that a couple of days out of each week are now devoted to a particular album, with the aim of writing about it later. That’s brought in some things that wouldn’t have been in my regular rotation — Elvis Costello and The Clash among them. It also means that some of this stuff I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Of course, that means I may be a bit briefer than usual on some tunes.

1. The Airborne Toxic EventNo More Lonely Nights
Case in point. TATE is now on my “to-do” list after this track, which performs the minor miracle of resurrecting this Give My Regards To Broad Street tune into something subtle and moving.

2. Stevie NicksBelle Fleur
Okay, I just wrote four paragraphs of background about Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold album, then realized that they’re supposed to go in my article about the album itself. Robby doesn’t know it yet (as I write this), but I’m assigning that album to him next.

Meanwhile, a few words about this song. It’s an example of a song that I’ve had in demo form for decades, but never really connected with that much. This re-recording, on the other hand, moves me a lot. To me, it’s a story of love and magic, but not magic love — it’s no ticket to dreamland. What it is, though, is an exchange of stories, and a sharing of lives — you sing to me, and I’ll sing to you.

3. Joe JacksonOde To Joy
Speaking of new albums from old friends, I just saw Joe Jackson in concert in October, touring to support his new record Fast Forward. This was my favorite song he played that night, and my favorite from the new CD. I love its wholehearted embrace of joy, joy as a pure experience unfettered by the material and phenomenological planes. The New Yorker did a wonderful profile of Joe, and one of my favorite parts of that is this quote:

Some of my early stuff was infected by the deadly disease of cynicism, which is a disease of the young, I think. When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you’re not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be a bit more positive, as a simple matter of survival.

I happened to listen to this album right before reviewing Don Henley’s Cass County, and Joe’s optimism is a lovely contrast to some the harshness on display there. And being Joe, he cleverly quotes Beethoven in the bargain.

4. Elvis CostelloMystery Dance
I wonder if the kind of world that could produce this song is gone forever. Can sex still be mysterious when so much information about it is so easily retrieved? Sure, there’s a world of difference between reading about something and doing it, and lots of what’s out there could warp a kid’s perceptions and blur the difference between fantasy and reality, but there was a time in living memory when you could try and try and still be mystified. Does that happen anymore?

5. The ClashDeath Or Glory
I can hardly say more about this than I did in my London Calling post. Suffice it to say that I put it on repeat in my car for a day, and never got sick of it. And I drive a lot! It’s as energizing the 20th time as it was the first.

6. Fleetwood MacSongbird (live)
This last year was a special one for Fleetwood Mac fans, because we saw something we never thought we’d see again: Chrstine McVie touring with the band. I actually saw them in December 2014 *and* April 2015, which is why there are two songs from the set list on this CD. In April, she didn’t play “Songbird” — apparently she was dealing with some kind of injury, because it came back to the set later. She played it in December though, and it’s just the most perfect set closer. I never got the chance to see Fleetwood Mac in its prime — my first FM show was the 1987 tour where they replaced Lindsey with two other guitarists, and my first time seeing the classic lineup was in 1997. That was also my last time until now. It was such a joy to hear this song at the end of the show. This recording is from 1977, and was included in the Rumours expanded edition that they released a couple of years ago. [The YouTube clip I linked to above is from a different 1977 show — I couldn’t find the expanded edition one online.]

7. Tori AmosPromise
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan for a long time now, so I was aware that she had a daughter named Tash. But that wasn’t uppermost in my mind while I was listening to her new album Unrepentant Geraldines this year. So when I heard this song, I could tell it was a duet, but I didn’t recognize the other voice — all I could hear was that it was somebody who had a lot on common with Tori vocally. As I listened to the lyrics, discerning that this was a conversation between mother and daughter, I started to wonder, “Could this be Tash?” And sure enough, it is. That realization sent chills through me. Tash was born on 2000, so she was probably 13 when this song was recorded. Given that, it’s a remarkable performance, and as a parent I find the lyrics very moving.

8. Roger McGuinnIf We Never Meet Again
I revisited McGuinn’s album Back From Rio this year — I’ve always liked his twelve-string guitar sound, and this is my favorite of his non-Byrds releases. This time around, “If We Never Meet Again” latched onto me. The tone is just golden, and the message of acceptance for whatever may come sits well with me.

9. Best CoastEach And Everyday
I came across this band on a Fleetwood Mac tribute album done by a bunch of indie groups, called Just Tell Me That You Want Me. There were lots of great covers on that album, but Best Coast’s version of “Rhiannon” really grabbed me, mainly I think because of singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice. So I sought to know more about them and ended up quite enjoying both of their first two albums. (I haven’t got their third yet, but it’s on my wish list.) This is a track from their debut.

10. The ClashThe Card Cheat
There are so many great things about this song, but it has to start with the production. Contrary to what you might expect from a punk band, this song is as well-produced as any pop gem. The ringing piano, valedictory horns, majestic rhythm section — it’s like a classic Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” record, infused with a cathedral grandeur. Wedding this incredible sound to the tale of a lowlife gambler is like the aural version of a Scorsese film, elevating the dismal criminal world to an operatic level.

11. Paul F. TompkinsKing Hat
My friend Tashi put me onto this comedian, whose records I just adore. Many of his bits have now become part of the conceptual vocabulary in my mind, especially the ones from his most recent album Laboring Under Delusions, which is a concept piece about all the various jobs he’s done in his life. I listened to that album a bunch over this last year, and knew I wanted to include something from it. I had a hard time picking. I went with this one because a) it’s a great showcase for his style, b) it’s a linguistic rant, which I find endearing, and c) it reminds me so much of the stories Laura tells me about her retail-esque experiences at the library. Oh, and because it’s so freakin’ funny, of course.

12. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary LambertSame Love
Here’s another album I spent an awful lot of time with over the last year. I was a bit late to the Macklemore party, but boy The Heist is great. A number of songs from it got thrown into the hopper for this mix, but if I had to pick just one (and, it turned out, I did), it’d be “Same Love.” I so appreciate the personal story flowing into the cultural analysis, and the strong, clear call for hip-hop to stand behind marriage equality. Damn right I support it.

13. Dan WilsonFree Life
Dan Wilson was the lead singer and writer of the 90’s band Semisonic, who were a one-hit wonder with the song “Closing Time.” It’s a shame that they never found greater success, because Wilson is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, who did amazing work with Semisonic and then went on to co-write such killer songs as Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This song is from his 2007 solo debut, and it stands out for me this year because my iPod dialed it up as I was driving back from New Mexico, having just participated in the 2015 Geek Bowl in Albuquerque. It felt so perfect for that specific moment in my life that I put it on repeat a few times, just listening to the music and feeling free.

14. Elton JohnRocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)
Sometimes a classic just jumps out and reminds you why it’s a classic. I was listening to Honky Château in the car, and when this song came on I marveled at how intensely gorgeous it is. Plus, it’s a fantastic song to sing along to, which is probably why I sang it over and over on that 45-minute commute.

15. Elliott SmithJunk Bond Trader
I’ve had XO in my collection for a while, and while I enjoy it, I never really imprinted on it. Figure 8, on the other hand, knocked me out. So many great songs on that album — as with Macklemore, there were a bunch in the running and it came down to this one. The lyrics to this are so fantastic — elliptical and evocative, with the occasional razor-sharp one liner, like “Checking into a small reality / Boring as a drug you take too regularly.” What’s it about? I really don’t know. But I sure do dig how it’s about it.

16. Fleetwood MacSisters Of The Moon
This was the highlight of the April 2015 Fleetwood Mac show. It’s always been one of my favorite Stevie songs — I love the power chord progression and the mystical vibe. She can’t hit those high notes any more (the backup singers do it for her), and the cocaine-fueled frenzy that used to characterize live performances of this song is long behind her, but still, it is a powerful, spellbinding incantation, and it lifts me up every time I see it.

17. Florence + The MachineDog Days Are Over
Speaking of powerful. Ceremonials was a big record for me in 2014, so I decided to check out Florence’s debut as well, and I’m glad I did. There’s a reason this song got so famous. I love rock songs with big drums and a big voice like this — they make me feel like I’m flying.

18. Best CoastThe Only Place
Here’s a song from Best Coast’s second album. True to their name, it’s a paean to California, and I have to say they make a pretty good case. Especially for somebody like me who could be perfectly happy never seeing snow again, Southern California seems like a pretty amazing place to live. Oh, except for the earthquakes. And, I guess the mudslides. And the forest fires. And how expensive everything is. But other than that, aces!

19. Fountains Of WayneBright Future In Sales
One final showcase from another album I really got into in 2014. My friend Trish has been a huge FoW fan for ages, and always told me I should check them out. You know how it is with that kind of thing, though — I’d always think, “Yeah, I should,” and then go listen to something I already know. That’s the beauty of the wishlist, though. I can just tag something based on a passing thought, and then some angel will bring it into my life, where I can give it the attention it deserves. This album, Welcome Interstate Managers, dominated my car for about 3 weeks, and I got to love each and every song on it. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one does a great job of encapsulating the humor, the characterization, the storytelling, and the awesome power pop slam that Fountains Of Wayne brings to its music.

Album Assignments: 24 Karat Gold – Songs From The Vault

For decades now, Stevie Nicks fans like me have been passing around demos for her dozens and dozens of unreleased songs. She’s a very prolific writer, but on a Fleetwood Mac album she shares with two other writers, she might get to release 3 songs every 3 years. Her solo career opened the gates a bit more, but even that was derailed after a while by her long tranquilizer addiction, her commitment to Fleetwood Mac recording and touring, and her difficulty finding a producer who would enhance her rough work rather than distorting it. Meanwhile, that meant that there were all these great songs from the 70s and 80s that never found a home.

She kicked the tranquilizers in the mid-90s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she formed a musical partnership with Dave Stewart (formerly of The Eurythmics) that made her excited about recording again. And in 2014, with Stewart and longtime guitarist Waddy Wachtel as co-producers, she released an album that fans had been waiting for: studio recordings of a bunch of those long-lost demos. Ironically, while I always felt a little bad about the bootlegs, it was their presence on YouTube which reminded her of the songs’ existence in the first place, and inspired her to re-record them.

The resulting record 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault, is almost everything I hoped it would be. Nicks’ re-recordings of her old songs can be a mixed bag, especially when Lindsey Buckingham is producing. On the Say You Will Fleetwood Mac album from 2003, there were several songs that I’d loved for years, but on some of them, particularly “Smile At You,” I still much prefer the demo. On the other hand, her new version of “Goodbye Baby” (known to fans as “The Tower”) had an unbelievably emotional hushed vocal, and despite some kinda banal new lyrics, was a marvelous version of the song. (Though the demo is still one of my all-time favorites.)

Her solo stuff tended to fare better, and both Trouble In Shangri-La and In Your Dreams had excellent versions of previously unreleased songs. 24 Karat Gold is a whole album of that stuff, and for the most part, it is wonderful. Hearing propulsive full-band versions of previously bland or poor-quality demos is a revelation, and many of the songs are vastly improved by this treatment. Also, pieces of tunes that seemed half-formed are now fleshed out and clear. The only thing I wish is that for some of those songs which already had a very good demo, we could somehow have a vocal from the Stevie of the era in which they were written. Nicks’ voice has grown deeper and throatier over the years, and while it suits many songs, it doesn’t suit all of them.

Album cover of 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault

So that means it’s time for another taxonomy:

Songs that outshine the demos

  • “Starshine”: I love what Dave Stewart and Stevie do with this song. The demo always seemed fine to me, but I never really connected with it. This version, though, makes it all clear, the way it builds up to a shouted “wrong!” – it’s a cautionary tale about cheating, told from three points of view. Fantastic beat, groovy solo, joyful vocal. Just a great, tight track.
  • “Mabel Normand”: This is one of the most dramatic improvements. The demo is muttery, meandering — almost unlistenable, for me. I was quite surprised to see it in the track list, but here it sounds awesome, and tells a clear, compelling story. Normand takes her place alongside Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as celluloid heroines who Stevie identifies as kindred spirits and inspirations.
  • “Blue Water”: Quick sidebar story here. This is one of the first Stevie demos I ever heard, back in the pre-Internet days. My freshman year of college, I went to NYU and learned to prowl all the record stores in lower Manhattan. I was stunned to discover bootleg records filed right alongside regular releases, especially since I’d worked for a suburban record store my last year of high school, where no such thing would ever be permitted. So when I saw these albums called “Uncirculated Rumours” in the Stevie section, I snatched them right up, and heard my first unreleased songs — this one and a few others, most of which still have not seen the light of day. “Blue Water” always felt a little blah to me — nice melody repeated a lot. The song is still the same, but a studio gloss and an assist from Lady Antebellum does wonders for the tune.
  • “All The Beautiful Worlds”: This is another one that always felt kind of ethereal to me in its demo form — my mind would always wander when I heard it. Now, when I heard it again after searching for the YouTube link, I think perhaps it may have been a victim of a poor transfer. Many of these demos came to me via cassettes that were god-only-knows how many generations removed from their master copies, and consequently sounded quiet, muffled, and flat. It didn’t matter to me when collecting them — better a crummy tape of a new-to-me Stevie song than no copy at all! But over time, some of them started to feel a bit more skippable to me. In any case, this studio version brings a vibrancy to the song that I never heard in it before.
  • “24 Karat Gold”: What a wonderful choice to lead with that strong bass line, then layer in the mystical-sounding Fleetwood Mac guitars. When Stevie sings “Set me free, set me free” on the demo, it sounds like a plea. On this track, it sounds like a demand, and the song is far stronger for it. This is a perfect example of a song she’s grown into — her voice today makes it sound like wisdom and reflection, whereas before it sounded more like abstract storytelling.
  • “If You Were My Love”: This is a pretty simple song, musically — a picking pattern on the guitar with a fairly repetitive melody on top of it. On the demo it sounds kind of barely-there. This version, though, takes that basic skeleton and adds lots of cool ornamentation — background vocals, strings, extra guitar parts, harmonies. Fleshed out like this, it becomes much more enjoyable.
  • “Belle Fleur”: This is probably my favorite example of how this record is just a godsend to fans. “Belle Fleur” was just one of a hundred demos to me, nothing that ever stood out too much. Here, though, it absolutely shines — Stevie and Dave bring out every ounce of the song’s potential, and end up with a fabulous track. I included it in my 2015 music mix, and wrote about it in those notes, so I’ll save the rest for that.

Songs that are about even with the demos

  • “The Dealer”: This is a hard one. It’s my favorite song that she hadn’t yet released, and when I heard about this project, I really hoped she’d release it. But part of the reason it’s my favorite is because the demos sound so crazy good, and have such fierce, Bella Donna-era vocals. 65-year-old Stevie is still a great vocalist, but she does not deliver on some of the stuff that 30-year-old Stevie could do. Consequently, the song is a bit slower, with the high notes modulated down, which is really a shame. But still, I love this song, and having a studio version of it is great, even if it lacks some of the power I’d hoped for. I love it too much to say it falls short.
  • “Lady”: I knew this song as “Knockin’ On Doors” for ages, and always liked the melody. On the other hand, it always kind of seemed like half a song to me. It’s got a solid chorus, a pretty bridge tune, and a verse. I hoped that a studio version would be more developed, and it sort of is, except what it basically does is repeats that whole thing a few times. It gets a little monotonous, lovely as it is.
  • “She Loves Him Still”: Here’s the thing: I just don’t like this song very much. I find the demo almost interminably whiny — it feels like a strung-out, helpless, middle-of-the-night lament from a really dysfunctional person. Here it sounds like a calm, composed lament from a really dysfunctional person. They feel equivalent to me because I really don’t care for either. Kind of wish this one had stayed on the shelf.

Songs that fall short of the demos

  • “Cathouse Blues”: The demo to this is one of my favorite Stevie demos of all time, a delightfully different kind of song for her from the Buckingham Nicks period. I love the mischievious edge it has, and her voice on it sounds so young and innocent, which is a great contrast with the lyrics. In the 24KG version, we don’t get that contrast, because her voice can’t sound young and innocent anymore. It’s nice to have it on an official release at last, and the dixieland band portion is a lot of fun, but what a missed opportunity to never have released the song when it could have had maximum effect.
  • “Watch Chain”: Kind of the same story on this one, except this time the problem is the production. The original is a Bella Donna-era song with a gorgeous bass-heavy folk rock sound — a very intimate and laid back feeling. Now, I usually like Dave Stewart’s production quite a lot on Stevie songs, but here it lands with a heavy thud. He inexplicably cranks up the fuzz, adding grungy guitars and speeding up the song. Stevie’s thicker current voice does nothing to lighten up the feeling. These musical choices work against the gentle, musing lyrics, and kind of torpedo this version of the song.
  • “Twisted”: 24 Karat Gold supposedly focuses on unreleased treasures, but in this case, it’s actually Stevie’s third time releasing this song. It came out the first time on the soundtrack for the 1996 movie Twister, as a duet with Lindsey Buckingham. It was exciting at the time to hear the two of them together — it’d been almost a decade — but the version was really kind of leaden. A better take was released on 1998 Stevie’s box set Enchanted, and was actually listed as a demo. It sounded polished enough, though, that it’s plenty enjoyable to listen to on its own. This version is a little more produced than that demo, and of course Stevie sounds 20 years older. It’s kind of fun to compare them, but I still prefer the one from Enchanted.

Songs that don’t have an associated demo

  • “I Don’t Care”: This one was new to me, although I think it’s an old song. It’s kind of a weird outlier for Stevie’s writing, much grittier than her usual mode of expression — thematically reminiscent of “I Don’t Wanna Know” from Rumours. It’s far from my favorite song on the album, but I do like the way it switches from angry to vulnerable and back again.
  • “Carousel”: This is a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song. Stevie has seemingly taken Vanessa under her wing a bit, and consequently Vanessa was a part of her life as Stevie’s mother Barbara was dying. In her final days, Barbara just wanted to hear them sing this song, so Stevie and Vanessa sing it on this album as a tribute. It’s a pretty song, and makes a sweet addition to this collection.
  • “Hard Advice”: I think this is my favorite of the new-to-me songs on 24 Karat Gold. Who knows what it’s really about, but for me it brings to mind Stevie’s lifelong difficult connection to Lindsey, with the other “famous friend” being Tom Petty. It’s a matter of record that Tom Petty sat Stevie down and gave her some hard advice on her songwriting — that conversation is the subject of “That Made Me Stronger” from Trouble In Shangri-La. I don’t find it hard to believe at all that he told her she needs to get over Lindsey and start writing songs about something new. The lyrics to this one are wonderfully crafted — the “sometimes he’s my best friend / even when he’s not around” shifts focus, first applying to Lindsey and then to Tom. (In my made-up narrative, that is.) There’s also a great subtle callback to “Silver Springs” — “the sound of his voice / well it follows me down / and reminds me” is an affecting reversal of her promise in that song: “I’ll follow you down til the sound of my voice will haunt you.”

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