This weekend I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album The Weatherman about five or six times. It’s a stellar piece of low-fi, melodic folk-americana that can fit just about any occasion, and I highly recommend it.
Each time the first track “Amsterdam” came on I found myself thinking of the sorts of trips I’d taken, and it occurred to me how much of the folk-rock contemporary musical canon centers not just on the basic idea of traveling and the locations at either end of the journey, but also the complex, often conflicted reasons for wanting to go in the first place.
Then I started putting together a playlist of all the songs I could think of that had travel or escape as a central motif, and I noticed that many of the songs that I’d been listening to most often lately also centered on these themes. Breaking the list down by sub themes, I noticed that these were the three most oft discussed:
- Making a break and craving escape.
- Heartbreak as a catalyst for change.
- Nostalgia. Pure and simple.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at some of the other themes that songs of this sort evoke, what places and cities in particular seem to be most popular with different generations of songwriters, and how different people connect to these songs differently (another question to ponder: why are so many wistful, dreamy songs of travel and escape told in 3/4 time? Three of the tunes selected below do and it was all I could do not to use the word “waltzy” to describe each of them).
For now, we start with travel as a means of escape. As a way to make a new start. The most basic tales of being out on the road sound like this.
1. Leif Vollebekk – Southern United States
This is the other song that got me thinking about how travel and songcraft go hand in hand. Its breezy, dreamy tempo and freewheeling guitars and drums have that sound that’s reminiscent of revving engines and the joyful first miles on the highway while also hinting at certain nostalgic sadness and longing for what’s been left behind. And it has a rambling storyline that’s ripe with beautiful contradictions that portray the inherent complexities of life. Being on the road affords an escape from prior worry and freedom from previous troubles, but you’re only as free as you allow yourself to be. “I was following my heart / Like I hadn’t for years…”Just make sure to keep alive, awake, and alert wherever your travels may lead.
2. The Doobie Brothers – Black Water
Maybe you’re looking less for an escape from the complex contradictions of life and more for just a good reason to play hooky one day. That’s what this one’s all about. This one says life’s fine, but a trip on a lazy river would make it that much finer. There’s no harsh realities to be found here. Leave your negativity at the door– er, at the banks of the river– and hop on board. Nothing can touch you. Not poor weather, mosquitos, or the possibility of rising floodwaters. None of it. This song invites you to get back on the bare necessities boat for an afternoon and remember that life can be genuinely good.
3. Cake – Mexico
There is no stronger inspiration for hitting the open road than fresh heartbreak and heartache, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this deceivingly simple little tune. It’s part mariachi waltz and part achingly forlorn cowboy ballad and the lyrics are as corny and as clichéd as they come, but perhaps that’s the most honest way to tell the tale. When once fond relations turn weathered and gray from years of human error, it’s time to go out, put your hands on the wheel, and leave the destination up to fate. And O what dazzling, gleaming potential that crossing that southern most border brings… Just over yonder where the air is lighter, the spaces are wider, and the adventure is fresh and limitless.
4. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
This one strikes a similar story to the song preceding it with one striking difference: this is the song of a man in control of his destiny. Certainly this narrator feels regret and remorse for past misdeeds and misconduct, but now “all things go, all things go.” Time to get back to living and get back to life. Also, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with this song. The album on which it appears, Come On Feel the Illinoise, is itself an excellent testament to all sorts of travel-related themes, and it’ll remind you of all the times you yourself ever wanted to get up and go and do the same.
5. Gregory Alan Isakov – Amsterdam
The song that started it all. A haunting, affectionate remembrance of time spent in a distant town. Not just any town either. A town that treated him well, that felt like a knowing friend. A town that gave him the sort of warm, familiar feeling he knew he’d forever be hoping to return to if only he could figure out how. It’s hard to trust the historical authenticity of fond memories, or any sort of memories for that matter, since they’re so often accompanied by the disarming scent of rosy nostalgia. Of course nostalgia offers its own sort of escape, retreat, and release from the pressures of life, and it’s easier to take a trip down memory lane than it is a flight on an airplane.
Still, as the singer declares over the swell of voices and soft melodic distortion, “Churches and trains / They all look the same to me now / They shoot you someplace / While we ache to come home somehow.” Escape in any form, whether through spiritual elevation or mechanical locomotion, can only provide temporary relief. At some point we have to face those less than ideal circumstances head on. Pressing on with strength derived from the fond remembrance of theses times instead of as the shelter with which we shield ourselves.