So I wrote some more songs. I didn’t stop with the bunch I came up with in 2015; I’ve continued on in 2016. More cities, more narrators, more observations about America. For instance, we went to spring training in Arizona and caught the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, and a few days later I woke up with a chorus. Then I came up with another Valley of the Sun song, and Phoenix reminded me a bit of Las Vegas, so I got song number three out of the trip. Last week I fitted an old tag line to a new poem about Columbus, Ohio. It goes on: on Easter morning, I stumbled into a hook about a chocolate rabbit that inflated rapidly, as these things sometimes do, to the size of a song. A terrible song, probably; apologies to the bunny.
And that is the problem, to be frank: I don’t know which of these ideas are worth pursuing and which are just bad leads. Some of my songwriting inspirations — Tennant and Lowe, for instance, or Van the Man — were able to release song after song and maintain a high level of quality. I’m… pretty sure that’s not me. In retrospect, it’s easy to see which of my compositions were mediocre (too many) and which were good enough to make public. Unfortunately for me, it’s always a long ride to Retrospect. When I’m coming up with a new one — these Arizona songs, for instance — I always imagine that they’re the best, most exciting songs ever written, and that I’m going to perform them and the crowd at the rock club will go wild. This is as true for the stinkers as it is for the ones that actually deserve to go into the repertoire, so by now, I should rule myself out as a decent arbiter of the quality of my own work.
Noel Gallagher (there’s that guy again) once said something to this effect: if you come up with a song at night, sleep on it, and if you don’t remember how it goes in the morning, by this sign you’ll know that it wasn’t so hot. This is sensible advice, even if it does feel overly solicitous of the radio gods. Yet there’s a big part of me that rejects it outright. Many of the best songs on any album aren’t immediately recognizable as such. They don’t come up with a smile and shake your hand; they tap your shoulder and wait, coyly, to be noticed. One of my favorites of the new bunch is a song that I wrote when I was sick, and for a week afterward, I was pretty sure it was a throwaway piece of junk. If I hadn’t demoed it, I would have forgotten it. But I did, coughing and sneezing and cursing my need to always have a new one to send to my friends, and about a month later I realized that it was indispensable to the project. In fact, a line from that song is now prominently displayed on this page. That song is now so deeply embedded in my consciousness that it’s hard to imagine my musical life before I wrote it. If I’d followed Noel Gallagher’s guidance, it would have been vaporware.
An old bandmate who doubled as an astute critic of Tris McCall once told me that the longer I work on something, the more trouble I get into. It was this bandmate’s position that I did my best work when I was excited and confused and unsure about what I wanted to say, and once I figured it out, I’d start writing to serve the concept rather than the other way around. I’d get where I was going and then settle into a formula, and instead of discovery, I’d become a musical journalist, stamping out new tunes based on theoretical arguments I’d already settled with myself. This critique fit very well into this bandmate’s worldview. To be honest, it also fits well into mine. I took it to heart, and in the past, I’ve tried to be careful about it, and to switch things up and confuse myself once I feel like I’m getting complacent. But if this were true, these additional American Almanac songs would be crummy, or tired, or deadly formulaic, and I don’t believe they are. Maybe it’s the size of the subject that’s helping, or maybe America just makes me feel unsettled. Either way, I’m going to keep them coming until I run out of cities or my collaborators cry uncle. If I look back with total embarrassment on some of this stuff in five years, that won’t be a new experience for me. It’s unlikely that I’m now reaching the stage where every musical idea I come up with is worth following, but who knows?, maybe I’ve turned a corner. A fellow can hope. Maybe I’ve attained a baseline level of quality control, and they’re all pretty good now. Except for the one about the bunny. That one sucks.