It had all the earmarks of a vanity project – the godfather of alt country and the king of indie jangle pop, collaborating on the soundtrack to a documentary about a cult Jack Kerouac novel. What’s amazing, then, is the heartfelt honesty of One Fast Move and I’m Gone. No literary pretension, no gushing– it’s just two artists patiently translating the work of another artist, allowing his genius to shine for a new audience.
I haven’t yet seen the film it accompanies, but – a rare thing with a soundtrack album – I don’t feel I have to: This CD succeeds as a stand-alone project. In fact, only a couple of its 12 tracks appear in the film; most of it was recorded later. Originally asked to contribute one song, Jay Farrar (founder of the trailblazing Americana bands Son Volt and the former Uncle Tupelo) wrote ten songs in a 5-day burst of inspiration, a manic creative burst worthy of Kerouac himself. The next step was meeting indie-pop darling Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service) to record the song chosen for the film. Apparently the two – who’d never met before — got so jazzed about the project, they decided to record the whole batch of songs Farrar had written, along with Gibbard’s title track “One Fast Move And I’m Gone” .
This isn’t just a case of the two brightest boys in the class volunteering for an extra-credit project. Both Farrar and Gibbard were already on record as hard-core Kerouac geeks – Gibbard even slept in Kerouac’s Big Sur cabin for inspiration when writing Death Cab’s 2008 CD, Narrow Stairs. The entire album is steeped with a deep, intuitive appreciation of Kerouac’s writing.
The lyrics are in fact nothing else but Kerouac’s words — entire passages of the novel, Big Sur, transcribed and set to music. Key sections have been shaped into choruses, to be repeated as necessary, but otherwise what you hear is untrammeled flights of the Beat novelist’s jazz-inflected, alcohol-fueled prose. It’s downright mesmerizing. Forget the film; this album made me want to run right out and buy Kerouac’s book. Oprah couldn’t have sold it any better.
Big Sur is a critical book in the Kerouac canon – not as famous as On the Road or The Dharma Bums, but cited as his masterpiece by many Kerouac fanatics. Thinly autobiographical, it depicts Kerouac at the height of his fame, besieged by fans and hangers-on, a hopeless alcoholic, toggling back and forth between the depravities of San Francisco and the natural grandeur of Big Sur. Retreating to a cabin borrowed from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kerouac faced his demons in Big Sur – and the demons apparently won.
Big Sur presented a challenge for Farrar and Gibbard, for they had to convey both its bleakness and the unflinching courage of Kerouac’s self-portrait. To that end, Farrar was the perfect musician to enlist – his trademark bluesy ramble is the perfect musical equivalent of Kerouac’s brooding despair. An entire album of this would be overkill, however; Gibbard provides an essential counterpoint, singing Farrar’s more tuneful songs in his earnest boyish vocals, infusing the album with joy, humor, and optimism.
Tellingly, those brighter moments most often come when the restless Kerouac is on the move – barreling cross-country on a train (“California Zephyr”) or driving on the coastal highway (“These Roads Don’t Move,” "All In One," “One Fast Move and I’m Gone”). Alternating with these are the songs Farrar sings, existential meditations like “Low Life Kingdom,” “Breathe Our Iodine,” “Big Sur,” and “The Sea.” Farrar’s keening vocals — often accompanied by the lonesome wail of a slide guitar — evoke the lonely wilderness and the sense of a soul in extremis. For Kerouac’s darkest night of the soul, an attack of delirium tremens, a relentlessly repeated acoustic guitar riff underlies Farrar’s flinty vocal on “The Final Horrors.”
What surprised me was not that I was so charmed by the Gibbard tracks, with their hooky choruses and soaring melodies – it was how the rueful, haunting Farrar tracks have grown on me. It’s one of those rare albums that really should be heard in sequence (the songs are arranged in the same order as the passages appear in the novel). Moody, evocative, it’s a wonderful ensemble of songs, possibly Farrar’s best work to date. Kerouac himself would probably dig it, and that's the highest praise of all.