“To write about one’s own country is the most problematic form of autobiography. The knowledge one accumulates of one’s homeland, like the knowledge of one’s self, is so varied and complex, so objective and subjective at every turn, that one interpretation soon gives way to another. In the end, for all the careful notes and no matter how much one has read and pondered, one is left with the problem of one’s unconscious motivations.” — Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness
When writing journalism, it’s usually best to be responsible. When writing songs, it’s always best to be irresponsible. Journalism ought to be clear and transparent; pop music should be translucent and messed up. Sometimes I’ve confused the two. I’ve gotten my chocolate in your peanut butter. Tell me if it’s yummy like a Reese’s or just a nasty mess.
An Empire Wilderness was one of the initial working titles I was considering for this suite of songs I’m putting together. I’m not gonna use it; that’s Robert Kaplan’s elegant phrase and he doesn’t need my filthy fingerprints on it. Since all I seem to want to write about lately is my own country, I want to take his words of warning seriously.
Are these songs problematic? I certainly hope they are. It has come to my attention that all good pop is problematic. As for my unconscious motivations, I’m going to leave them to the critics to riddle out. That means you, partner. I’ll be counting on you, OK?
Every one of these new songs is set in a different American city. First I imagined a setting, and then I made up a character who lived there, or who was just passing through, and I recorded his impressions, or his predicament, in the lyrics. Some of the songs mention the city in which it’s set, others just allude to landmarks, and a few don’t give away their geopositioning at all. My only guideline: once I’ve written a song about a city, I’m not allowed to make a return trip. I have to direct my attention to another part of the USA. The album as American travelogue is nothing new: Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, just to give you two examples, follow similar logic. But I believe that my unconscious motivations are sufficiently peculiar to me, and my roll around the map is going to feel like a singular experience for anybody who jumps in a bucket seat beside me.
Twenty-nine songs covering twenty-nine different cities: that’s too much cot damned music for a conventional indiepop album. But in a big country dreams stay with you, and as I said yesterday, I’m determined to fill out the map by cutting and releasing as much of this stuff as I can. That presents me with a conundrum, which is not quite as nice as being presented with a corundum (ruby). I could allow a producer, or a confidante, to help me select the best twelve songs irrespective of their place on the map, or I could honor the concept by forcing through a road-trip that covers the territory I want to reach. I could get really silly and make a double LP. Or I could try something else.
I think I’m going to try something else.