Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 22

Strand of Oaks – ‘Forever Chords’ from ‘Eraserland’ LP

We are somewhat mistrustful of data here in the Unpopular universe. Our listening statistics for the past year for example show Strand Of Oaks as our most listened to artist by some margin, whilst the ‘all-time’ chart has Timothy Showalter just a few plays shy of The Go-Betweens. Now no disrespect to Showalter, but this is surely as clear an example of what Tara Westover describes as “data nearly always underrepresent(ing) reality” as is possible to obtain.

And yet. And yet. There is a reality that says these statistics are true. There is a truth in the point that ‘Eraserland’ is one of our four most played records of 2019. Some kind of honesty in the thought that whilst there is much in Strand Of Oaks that we shouldn’t really dig (the sound is often big; there are too many tattoos; there are beards and long hair) these things are mostly superficial, transitory, essentially meaningless. Our twenty year old selves would be shuddering at the thought and this, as we have often mentioned, is exactly as it ought to be.

So yes, we do love Strand Of Oaks and Timothy Showalter. We love him because he once made a nine-minute song about the pleasure of reading and we love him because he made a seven and half minute song about the power of Jason Molina’s records that takes our breath away and leaves us utterly ravaged every time we hear it.

We love the idea that, as with ‘JM’, ‘Radio Kids’ and ‘Goshen ’97’, Strand Of Oaks’ songs are often about the very processes of making and of listening to music. We love that they make these processes and the evocation of our emotional investments universal in spite of any specific reference points. No, Smashing Pumpkins and AC/DC mean less than nothing to us, but goodness, the underlying threads of connectivity are made along the same neural pathways and to paraphrase Josef K there are so many of these that lead to the heart…

‘Eraserland’ certainly leads to the heart and we could certainly have picked the title track for our Unpopular advent mix because we love how the song seems to suggest a policy of withdrawal from the world. Into one of books and films. Music. Nature, certainly. We love how it critiques it’s own contextual limitations with a line like “… they forgot about songs / Give us 10 Goshen’s and some sing-alongs”. We love how it suggests creation through erasure, like Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing. Positive from Negative. Affirmation from rejection.

We could have picked album opener and single ‘Weird Ways’ for our Unpopular advent mix because it is certainly one of those ‘Goshen’s’ or sing-alongs and frankly there is nothing too much wrong with that in doses. Yet we also love it for the line that suggests “There are colors (sic) in the places you can’t find” as though the places we inhabit are devoid of it, are instead cloaked in monochrome. This in turn leads us down rabbit holes of photography and hey, can we tell you that when we hear Strand Of Oaks we sometimes see the photographs of Nathan Pearce, in particular his ‘Midwest Dirt’ work. Something in the almost desperate connectedness to a neglected landscape. Something heartfelt and pure, certainly.

We could have picked ‘Ruby’ for our Unpopular advent mix because Showalter has suggested it is the happiest song he has ever written and there is certainly a terrific rock’n’roll swagger in the song that suggests Springsteen dreaming of his Midwestern Cowboy Mythology.

It is, however, album closer ‘Forever Chords’ that we have chosen for our Unpopular advent mix (we strategically ignore the indulgence of ‘Cruel Fisherman’ that fills the final side of the double vinyl set). Another of his lengthier pieces (it clocks in at nine minutes and twenty one seconds), ‘Forever Chords’ manages the difficult task of making something that is expansive also simultaneously intimate. To draw back in our photography parallels again, it is the difference between an Ansel Adams landscape that unveils to us (merely?) the majesty and wonder of vastness and scale (and thus holds us at arms’ length) and a Minor White one that balances this with a humanity that draws us in.

‘Forever Chords’ draws us into Showalter’s world through a delicacy of instrumentation and composition that builds slowly and organically to thrumming waves of pressure and relief. In this there are clear connections back to the start of our advent series and those Spiritualized suggestions thrown out by Lawrence Collier and his Diamond Family Archive. ‘Forever Chords’ certainly inhabits a peculiarly similar landscape in that it stretches, loops, throws spectral shadows and expressionistic forms. It may be altogether more orthodoxly Rock in its crescendo, but we should not hold that against it.

It’s into that electric crescendo that Showalter sings “Chase the moments of bliss / They’ll outshine the bad / If you believe you can be loved / You’ll outlive your past”. Stripped from the context of the song we concede that those lyrics might seem trite. Yet as we know, context is everything, and held within the appropriately blissful threads of sound these lines instead transcend a potentially limiting vacuity and inhabit realms of sublime honesty. They offer us a balm that as disconnected, empty words they may not. The song and the luxurious completeness of its intimate communion is all.

“I hope it never ends” indeed.

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