Murdering Oscar (and other love songs)
(Ruth St. Records)
It is difficult to talk about things close to you unless you are willing to take on a certain brutality that, in turn, risks pushing that very thing from you. The gap between too close and too far is where you have to sit and take your notes if you want to know about something, and the width of that gap is precisely the critical distance I have to keep with Patterson Hood's songs. I could, as I have before, rub up against them and breathlessly sing their praises, but that only helps me. I could stand far back and place them like a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle, but nobody cares about a puzzle when it's finished.
Critical distance is a large part of the songs themselves. One tends to believe he's lived every single scenario therein, and maybe he has, but also you have to consider that he is a good songwriter, one of our best, and good songwriters make you feel like you are peering in on their world and through their eyes, peering in on your own.
And, I'm not talking about a world as loosely contained as "the South." The world Patterson Hood edges up to in his songs is a sad lovable Everywhere-and-Nowhere, a thing universally held usually with the least contact as possible. Suffering women, suffering men, suffering babies all laughing and grunting through it and sometimes giving up because... what else are you going to do?
A few of the songs on Murdering Oscar (and other love songs), Hood's second solo CD, take on a dreamy sheen of voiced fears, sleepwalking among pedal steel like in "Pride of the Yankees" where our celebrated poet of moonshine and AC/DC concerts bravely admits,
The sky is falling, the sky is falling
I wish I could hide away safe in the mall
Something is constantly scheming and brewing
To make our lives a disaster movie
Many can just hide away safe in the mall, that's why the goddamn things are everywhere, but many of us can't. Whether we are too sensitive for such places or too stupid to not protect ourselves with modernity's armor, we slog through life feeling it, knowing that the explosions and monsters in our own disaster movies are real. We just hope to make it to some vague sweetness in old age without driving everyone away, attaining a situation painted in "Granddaddy" with "chocolate candies all around the house; then all the little ones will come and see me."
The rest of the songs adopt the storm and twang that one finds in his Truckers material: "Pollyanna" is all Tom Petty, John Cougar rumble, wryly offering "Pollyanna does not live here" and that is what makes Hood's songs so compelling. They are common man as Hell, but never Pollyanna; Hood is the first to admit he is always just figuring it all out at one turn and fucking it all up at the next. And by "he," I mean "we."
"I Understand Now" is a soaped-up song built of stock parts, a little Keith Richards here, a little Eagles there, engine finely tuned and purring until it's time to hit the gas, at which point he offers,
I'm starting to appreciate the value of generations changing
Family ties and lips and eyes
Pass it down, pass it down
with lives moving like a plate of food going down a long table at a family reunion.
It is easy to paint many of Hood's more harrowing songs, filled with murder and suicide and cold hearts as manifestations of dread, but in truth they are all about life as process. The uncomfortable sensuality of "Belvedere" where the narrator dreams of driving off with a high school girl, wallowing in the processes that allow a person to consider things they shouldn't. "I think it's sad how her friends all talk." In the barn burning opening thesis, he repeats "I killed Oscar, before he killed me" over a skeleton of a rock song, picking through the bones looking for redemption, justification, anything, until he bellows "I don't need salvation because I saved myself," loud like when you try to convince yourself. "I killed Oscar, and I forgave me." Redemption is not a clearly defined place in his songs, or anywhere; it is a just another turn in the road. From that vantage point, wedged in between too close and too far, you can see everyone eventually make that turn, even yourself.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com