I have written recently about albums tied to places and times in my life. Mr. Lemons may well have become one of those albums for me.
I received an advance of Mr. Lemons in late February. I have listened to it several times since. I was not quite sure what to make of it at first. I did not fall in love with it right away. It seemed much more like Abulum (his first solo album) and Mutual Admiration Society (his collaboration with Nickel Creek) than Winter Pays for Summer (his previous solo album). Mr. Lemons began to reveal itself to me more and more with repeated listens. I had gone through a litany of comparisons and done my research. I thought knew which path my review was going to take.
Just as I was preparing to turn my scribbled listening notes into some sort of coherent review, The Wife to Whom I Am Married received one of those phone calls we fear and dread: Her grandfather’s fight against Alzheimer’s was nearing its end.
The decided upon review went out the window because Mr. Lemons was no longer an album from an artist I respect and whose work I enjoy nor was it the subject of a review I committed to write in exchange for receiving an advance copy. It was now my companion through one of those universal human experiences.
From the day of that call to receiving news of his passing through the wake and funeral, two songs stood out for me: “Blindsight” and “Last Sunset.” My iPod tells me I have listened to these two songs combined more than 100 times — mostly within the past week. I believe it.
My listening notes for “Blindsight” use words like: bittersweet, delicate, lovely, and tender. At one point I wrote that it sounded “safe” and “like home” and that was just in trying to describe and respond to the music. Many of those same adjectives apply to the lyrics:
And I can’t see you now
But I still know you’re here
I can reach out
And feel you near
Be here with me
Let me hear you breathing
Feel your heart beating
Back when we were younger
Filled me up like water
It’s different now but it’s stronger
The softness of the song draws you in and before you realize it you are surrounded by the gentle acoustic guitar, plucked bass, warm string accents, and one of Phillips’ most moving vocals. The quiet refrain of “Blow the candle out/quiet, quiet” gives the song an almost lullaby quality. “Blindsight” feels like a blanket. The song’s final stanza might not have the same reassuring effect as the rest but the overall feeling is warm.
The first time I listened to “Last Sunset,” these are the words that stood out for me.
You never know
it might be the last sunset we’ll ever see.
“That’s cheerful,” I thought to myself. “Nothing like a rumination on impending death to put a smile on your face.”
It is yet another example of why we should never write a review after only listening to a song or an album once. First impressions can be deceiving. Let’s look at the entire chorus:
Nodding as the day ends
Take it slow as we can
You never know it might be
The last sunset we’ll ever see
The last sunset we’ll ever see
Makes a big difference, doesn’t it? This is not another dreary death song. It’s about embracing the time we have. It’s about appreciating life, not ticking down the moments until death. It is about as life affirming as a song gets. I suppose the timing comes into play here, too. In addition to familiarity making the words more distinguishable, my mind was more open to what they were trying to say.
The instrumentation for “Last Sunset” is similar to that of “Blindsight.” The two songs work really well together. I should know. I listened to them back-to-back several times over the past few days. “Last Sunset” adds some wonderful harmony to the mix, most likely provided by co-writer Kim Richey (the album was recorded in Nashville).
I won’t pretend to know what was going through Phillips’ mind when he co-wrote “Last Sunset.” I know what was going through mine when I heard it. Naturally, I took to heart the idea of slowing down my life long enough to take things in and to cherish my memories and the people who inhabit my life with me. As I reflect on it more I think part of what struck me is the role Alzheimer’s played in the passing of TWTWIAM‘s grandfather. I know when he passed away but I don’t know when he saw his last sunset. I don’t know how long he was able to hold on to that memory or any other. “Last Sunset” seems less about trying to hold on to every day as much as it is about holding on to today.
The themes and my experiences and the musical textures caused me to dial up a couple of songs from Glen’s past: “Windmills,” a song by his old band Toad the Wet Sprocket, and “Darkest Hour,” which was on Abulum. “Darkest Hour” was written about the final moments of his father’s life and the effect that had on him. While the relationships and experiences are not completely analogous, there are shared and similar experiences and I found that comforting. I have never known much about “Windmills” other than I think it is one of the most extraordinary, affecting songs I know. I don’t know what it’s about but it makes perfect sense to me all the same.
“Darkest Hour,” “Windmills,” and in particular “Last Sunset” and “Blindsight” became my refuge. Those four songs formed a cocoon that gave me distance to reflect. They even helped make sense of those reflections. Other than their connection to Glen Phillips, I am not sure any of these songs really belong together anywhere but in my own mind and on my own iPod. I suppose that is the beauty of music as an individual experience. I don’t know if I received the messages Phillips was trying to send with any of those four songs. Whether or not I hear the songs as he intended I did hear something- and it did touch me and it did move me and it did help me.
If I stopped here I believe I have made my position on Mr. Lemons clear: It is highly recommended listening and it has been an invaluable companion during an intense time. All that and I have only discussed two of the album’s 11 songs. There are some other excellent moments on the CD besides “Last Sunset” and Blindsight.”
“It’s different now but it’s stronger,” the last quoted line from “Blindsight,” is a great segue to another standout track on Mr. Lemons, “I Still Love You.”
I think what I like most about that line and “I Still Love You” as a whole is the idea of love songs for adults. I know it makes me sound old, unhip, and grouchy to pour scorn on the shitty, disposable pop songs that pass for love songs these days. I guess I will have to live with that because I am right. They do suck. Just ask Johnny Cash. He’ll back me up on this. Well, he won’t now. But he did. In the liner notes to his Love God Murder box set:
What has happened to our love language? We have brought it down to three-minute sound bites – sandwiches in cute words that rhyme. And it’s a shame that those love songs are played everywhere with no follow-up kisses to seal the words.
Lust and passion have their place. Unfortunately, most of today’s love songs stop there. They skip from lust and passion to the pain of the tragic, inevitable breakup. The sustaining powers of real, lasting love are apparently not ingredients of hit singles. What a shame. In addition to filling people’s head full of rubbish about what love is and isn’t, they don’t get to hear about some of the best parts. The ‘ring of fire’ still burns. “It’s different now but stronger.” Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and Glen Phillips get it. “I Still Love You” is a love song for couples with a few years in the books. It is a song about knowing someone well enough to know their flaws and idiosyncrasies and allowing them to know those same things about you. “I Still Love You” is a reminder that youth might be wasted on the young but the adults still have something over on the kids. Some things do get better with age.
“Everything But You,” the album’s opening track, is another winner. The first half of the album, in fact, is all pretty terrific. The sound of the album, overall, is pretty stripped down. Most of the songs were constructed with Phillips’ acoustic guitar and vocal, with other musicians adding in their parts afterwards. Phillips had likely already decided he would be touring this record solo acoustic (as he did with Abulum) and decided to start the songs there. The spare, rootsy feel of the album suits these songs well. It would be great to have an album that takes equal parts of Lemons/Abulum and WPFS but in the meantime I have all of these on my iPod. I can have the best of both worlds.
A dopey cover of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” opens the second half of the album and for some reason the magic of the first half is never really recaptured beyond this point. Don’t let this discourage you from listening to the other tracks. They are good- just maybe a touch below those that open the album.
As a sidenote: you can catch Phillips on tour to support Mr. Lemons and see Toad the Wet Sprocket all on the same night. Phillips and Toad will be touring the US this summer.
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