It is mysterious that we can at once be drawn to what is comforting and what is unsettling, to what is alien as well as what is familiar. I think it likely that most people feel the tension of these opposing desires at various times in their lives, but for those of a certain disposition it is a chronic condition and one that does not necessarily demand resolution. When I listen to “Highway,” the most spectral of the songs on Lightness, I hear the sound of such a soul, inextricably fated to find solace—never indefinite—in both the freedom of the open road and the open arms of friends. A stuttering of piano keys is soon joined by the low and weighty strumming of a guitar, by the ethereal voices of Red Hunter and Dana Falconberry, who sing together as naturally and hypnotically as any duo in recent memory. Though there is certainly something otherworldly about the song, the lyrics ground it in the reality of the day to day world, as inhabited by a restless wanderer. With its references to lemon’s capacity for curing hangovers, a longing for the life of a farmer, and the world seen through the lenses of a car moving along a highway, it never ceases to adhere to the terrestrial.
This blend of the familiar details of life and a sense of wonderment at its breadth and incomprehensibility is what makes many of the songs here remarkable. “Midnight Train” begins the album on a simple and, somehow, awkward note. Something about it seems too old, as if it is from another time that we have forgotten and which we have to learn to remember and relate to once again. By the end, it has become something quite different, atmospheric and nostalgic, an accurate portrayal of melancholy and the hope which seems to spring from it.
The next track dwells in the same territory, the wordless voices again conjuring a world of sepia memories and movement through an expansive and encompassing landscape, that characteristic feeling of a younger America, an America constantly transfixed by its massiveness, by its irreducibility. It is expressive of what Henry James called a belief in “The illegible word…the great inscrutable answer to questions,” which for the American, “hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language.” This sense of an abracadabrant word, suggested by the abundance of the American landscape, can be heard in voices like Jolie Holland and Will Oldham’s. And, while Hunter’s voice lacks the subtle evocativeness of Oldham’s, it has a candor, innocence and inquisitiveness all its own.
James concluded his quote with the assertion that it is under the “convenient ensign” of America’s indeterminacy, that the American “travels and considers and contemplates, and, to the best of his ability, enjoys.” To be sure, all of the songwriters mentioned above imbue their work with a guileless astonishment, which leads them along strange tangents of introspection, tangents mirrored by their restive movements in the physical world. While this belief may have been merely a convenience when James was living, it now seems, in a world which is growing smaller by the minute, too anachronistic to be thought of as such. It is a belief that has grown more and more out of fashion: the belief in the mutability of America, in its capacity for reinventing itself again and again.
Naturally, those who can conceive of a country as a changing, indefinite entity, tend to view themselves as such as well. They are not static. They move and as they move they become variations of themselves. “Safe Travels” is a letter from Hunter to his brother, bound for war-raddled Uganda, and in it he steps out of his usual role as vagabond troubadour and becomes the worried family member, knowing there is nothing to still someone with a longing for travel, knowing what it is to be reduced to the sentiment of threadbare clichés. Ironically, the song conveys the giddy excitement of travel in its gushy harmonies and the understated joy of a solitary horn.
According to Hunter, “Lightness is a whole record about that feeling when you wake up all sentimental from a dream and you want to call your friend and ask `How’s your health, how’s your dad, how’s travels?’ It is about those good mornings when you are just wishing everybody well.” Indeed, it is a love song from him to friends old and new and yet to come, as well as to those who wander in search of something they cannot name; but finally, more than that, it seems to me a love song—perhaps, one sung from the cemetery where his 2005 SXSW performance took place—to the music of an “old weird America” and to that indecipherable word scrawled across the American sky.
Sparrow House – Falls
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy – Master and Everyone
Jolie Holland – Catalpa