In one of those odd coincidences that seem to presage something momentous but are probably more common than they seem, I had been listening to a podcast of a 2008 concert by Victor Krummenacher and his band on Americana Rock Mix when David Lowery’s new solo album, The Palace Guards, arrived in the mail. If you believe in signs, well, here was definitely a sign. Of course, the podcast had been sitting on my iPod for several weeks and I had ordered the Lowery CD awhile back and was awaiting it expectantly, still if it wasn’t quite the conversion of the Titanic and the iceberg (with apologies to Thomas Hardy), it was nonetheless a sign worth noting. The only question was a sign of what.
I synched the CD to my iPod; I listened for a couple of days, and it wasn’t long before I knew of what. If the eclectic, alternative rock of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker lit you up, Lowery’s new album is going to make you a very happy camper all over again. The nine tracks on The Palace Guards, eight written by the singer, are as good as anything he’s done in the past, and he’s done some mighty good things. He opens with “Raise ’em Up on Honey,” a folksy gospel romp with a sweet melody that belies its subversive lyric. He ends with, “Submarine,” a gentle rocker where once again the sweetness of the melody contrasts with an undercurrent of bitterness in a lyric that describes wasted lives focused on beauty contests and gin rummy.
Many of the songs between follow a similar pattern where the music and the lyric seem to undercut and subvert each other. “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me” plays like a rock anthem for cheaters. It is written in the voice of a serial cheater who has finally loaded one straw too many. The lyrics of “Big Life” is in the voice of someone who has lost love and art in his pursuit of popular success. His answer to any regrets he may feel is that he at least got the “big life.” The only problem is that the big life may also be the empty life. “I Sold the Arabs the Moon” is a political comment on the limits of power in the voice of a con man who at best offers a transient moment of dominance. He sold the Arabs the moon, but the power of the crescent didn’t last. He sold the English the sea and that power didn’t last. He sold the Yankees the sky; the implication is clear. “Marigold” is the cryptic symbol that awaits us all at the end of our journey, at the end of our walk through the jungle—heaven, beauty, love. “Deep Oblivion” has the quality of a bad trip, or a bad dream at the least.
Lowery says he called the album The Palace Guards after the song he liked best. He doesn’t say it is the best; it is simply the one he likes best. On his website he talks about the song at length and a discussion he had with his son about the song and its meaning. What he suggests is that the Palace Guards are like super heroes who have gone over to the dark side: “They’ve gone from being the public’s protectors to being overprotective, secretive, and controlling. They’ve turned into Stalkers.” His son says the beginning sounds like a children’s song, and in a sense he is right. The palace guards represent a government that treats its citizens like children. They have our “best interests at heart;” they will do what’s best for us even if it kills us. This is a truly nightmarish political vision. It is a dark song that captures the essence of a very dark album, very dark but very important.