About three and a half years ago Barbara Fairhead and I started a band called Red Earth & Rust, and we’ve just released our second album, Dark Mercy/Wrestling the Angel, two weeks ago.
One of the things people say most frequently about our songs is that they’re dark. Some people say it with stoic resignation, others with regret, still others approvingly. And yes, we are proud of the darkness in our songs.
There are singers and songwriters that change your life, that open up new ways of seeing. I can remember the day I first heard Dylan sing Ballad of a Thin Man, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, Randy Newman’s God Song, Tom Waits’ Soldier’s Things, Nick Cave’s People Ain’t No Good – to name just a few examples. These songs all have excellent lyrics that are full of surprises, but also the words and the accompaniment are married in such a way that the song comes at you in a rush, and you wish time would stop.
Those songs have a particular kind of gravitational pull. They can make you feel as if you are being pulled through the surface of your own life into a secret place inside your imagination. As you grow older, it’s that secret world that comes to count above all else.
Somebody wrote somewhere that, if you read Shakespeare’s plays every couple of years, you could read your own autobiography. Some songs are like that. They provide the soundtrack of your life, and you feel the changes in you each time you listen to them.
Sometimes you can hear those changes in the voice as much as in the words. To test this, listen to two songs by Dylan written about twenty-five years apart, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and the more recent Not Dark Yet. Apart from the fact that Not Dark Yet is probably the better song, you can hear many layers of experience in it that aren’t in the earlier song, and you feel yourself shuffling along on that same journey.
Much of life has to be lived on the surface, making the right assumptions to get by. It’s rare to discover something that can take you all the way down into your darkest fears and describe that place, name the things in it.
A poet I know once said that some of the best poems are Orphic. I asked her what she meant, and what she told me can be applied just as aptly to songwriting. Some poets, she said, take you down into the underworld, like Orpheus going down to fetch back his beloved from the land of the dead. Sometimes they can bring you back with them, as he tried to, but often you have to claw your own way back up.
That’s the business we singers and songwriters are in.