Tag Archives: gregory alan isakov

Heavy Rotation: Gregory Alan Isakov – Second Chances

gregory alan isakov
(photo courtesy American Songwriter Magazine)

As I said a week or so ago, this guy has been spending a lot of time on my playlists lately, and thus his lyrics have spent a whole lot of time between my ears.

Around the new year I realized that it’d been an awful long time since I’d really connected personally with the words of any given song. Up to that point songs would end up on playlists mostly by the merit of whichever artists I was currently obsessed with and how the songs sounded when played together. This still made for decent playlist making– with excellent ebb and flow, I might add, of sound, rhythm, and pacing– but not great playlist making, as most of them were comprised of songs that really had no business being right next to each other, immensely contradicting each other in terms of their meaning and purpose.

This isn’t to say that I chose songs solely by virtue of their rocking-good-time-iness potentially thinking a song is about one thing when it’s clearly about something else, nor do I deny the inherent complexities of life and thus understand that really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s quite fine for three love songs to follow one or two about deceit and rejection or some variation of that order.  It’s just that I could be thinking a little bit harder, listening a little bit closer, and connecting a little bit deeper with the songs that I’ve been enjoying lately. Obviously there’s something in a given song that makes me say, hey man, I like you and I’m gonna put you on a playlist or three.. I just need to be more aware of what it is that compels me to make that determination.

If ever recently there’s been a song that’s spoken to me in a deep and meaningful way, this would be that song. This beautifully crafted, meticulously phrased story by Mr. Gregory Alan Isakov.

The song centers around a man who’s had it fantastically rough of late. Nothing he does seems to go right. Certainly his personal relationships are tanking, but it’s just as possible that he’s feeling the sort of self-doubt and anguish that extends to other aspects of his world as well.

It’s not clear what events precisely led him to this moment, but regardless of whether he’s just gotten the latest bit of bad news or just awaken from a particularly long night of restless, anxious sleep, he’s beginning to acknowledge the full, weighty sadness that’s come over him, bones, mind, and all.

It’s also clear he feels frustrated and even betrayed. Frustrated by the saints and do-gooders he’s tried to emulate and the way they always seem so serene and confident as they gaze gently down and off camera, as if meditating on their next wonderful move (“all of my heroes sit up straight / they stare at the ground / radiate”), and betrayed by the ebb and flow of nature that so many have told him time and again is lovely, rosy, and on his side (“mumbling in the kitchen for the sun to pay up”, “cupping my ear to hear the wind confess”).  Even as he feels wronged and slighted by these human and natural forces like some modern-day Job crying out against the elements for the wrongs they’ve committed against him, part of him at least seems to know that these things really are not to blame. It’s really all up to him.

However bleak things seem and however difficult his current situation is, “my heart was all black / but I saw something shine.” Somewhere in darkness of his “black sinkhole” self he can see the faintest shimmer of a silver lining. At the moment it’s like the cheery, fleet-footed, and brief sounds of guitar fills over the otherwise deep, resonant, and somber tones of the background track; it’s a molecule of hope that appears in the sole repeated line of the refrain:

“If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.”

Indeed, if it weren’t for second chances, there’d be little reason to go on.

But we do. We get up and go at it again. And again. And again.

At some point we’ll do something right again. If we truly learn from our mistakes as well as from the situations for which we have some, little, or even no control, we’ll probably get there a little sooner. Hopefully we’ll be a little wiser too.

As despicably low as we may feel and as difficult, meddlesome, and dark as the days may get, we can make it. Every day is another chance to turn it around. A chance to take a sad song and make it better, bit by bit.

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#MondayMixtape: Making a Break for It

pressing on. making a break and getting out on the road
photo by Nigeno

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:

  1. Making a break and craving escape.
  2. Heartbreak as a catalyst for change.
  3. 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.

Throwback Thursday: Campfire Songs and Evening Rituals

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These last two weeks have been hard. Really, really hard.

I know they say that the hard days and weeks are the ones that build character, but how can you build anything when it gets so bad you can hardly think straight?

It’s moments like these that get me thinking about simpler times. Maybe they weren’t necessarily happier times, but they were definitely times of greater stamina. More optimism. A greater inclination to get right back up when I was down and to push through the tough and the difficult. Moments when I felt like– when I knew– I was in control.

Moments like those evenings at camp where after a long day of activities, meals, and other moments of mostly-organized chaos, we would get our bunk ready for bed. Once they’d all showered, brushed their teeth, and used the leftover time for some of the loudest most rambunctious games of go fish I’ve ever witnessed, we’d somehow get all 12 of our overactive 9 and 10 year old boys quieting down in their own beds.

I’d pull out my guitar, we’d turn out the lights, and, regardless of how long the day felt or however many fire drills big or small we had to take care of, my co-counselor would have the kids go around and share one thing that went well that day and one thing they’d like to do better tomorrow while I started to strum a soft tune. The day’s hardships and difficulties would begin to melt away as kids talked sleepily but excitedly about ice cream pops at lunch and extra pool time during elective hour or their want to have more time at the archery range and a chance at waterskiing. Simple though these items may have seemed, there was infinite depth to these happy thoughts shared so earnestly and honestly.

Then I’d let the music build and swell and play a nice song or two to end the evening. One song would always be some pop song or old favorite that I’d reimagined in its softest, most lullaby-appropriate state, but the other would always be James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. Here was a song that was meant to be played at day’s end to calm the wild beasts of our racing, leaping imaginations and to keep the scarier more menacing things at bay for at least another evening or two.

No matter how weary, weather worn, drooped, or down we felt,  somehow these songs always made us feel more at ease.

These days may be hard as may be the ones after that, but it won’t be like this forever. There’s good and bad in everything. I just have to look for it– both parts– and then think on it, smile at it– and then let it go. Then I’ll sit down in a comfy spot, turn the lights down a bit, and play a soft song, and get ready for my chance at tomorrow.