Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Snowmobiles (The Admiration of Z. Mulls)

I’ve been meaning to post about Susan Werner’s new CD HAYSEED, because it’s her best album in a long time, full of her old puckish humor and cockeyed lens on human nature. I could go track by track, explaining what I like about each song, but since this is (ostensibly) a songwriting blog, I am going to go through one song that I think is a marvel of construction, “Snowmobiles.”

Starting from the title, this song works on misdirection, giving you an unlikely metaphor and sticking close to it. It’s a first person narrative (subtitled “The Worries of Patrick Lunquist” – three of the songs have these subtitles and they are the best songs on the CD).

Here’s the first verse:

The summer’s hot and the winter’s cold
That’s when the snowmobiles get sold
That’s what we got up here
Snowmobiles and deer
That’s how it is when you live up North
Winter lasts till July fourth
So we snowmobile till April, maybe longer
And my wife she says the cold it makes us stronger
And we’re strong up here
Strong as six-point beer
Comes to the weather
The weather is what it is

She works entirely in couplets in this song, but sets them apart with musical pauses and mini-interludes, and she varies the meter on each couplet. This allows for variation and gives the impression of thought and careful consideration of each couplet. Using the couplets allows the funny lines to land – line 1 sets up the thought, and the second line can click in with either a rueful or an amusing one. The “snowmobiles and deer” line and the “six point beer” line make you chuckle because of the way they are phrased.

She then starts using repetition between verses -- each verse talks about the weather. The summer is always “hot” but in verse 2 the winter is “cool” not “cold” and in verse 3 it is “warm.” Each verse mentions a particular time of the year – verse 1 is “July 4th,” verse 2 has “Columbus Day” (when the pool finally closes) and verse 3 has “New Year’s Eve” when it rains for the first time rather than snows. Patrick’s wife chimes in several times during the song “My wife says….”. Verse 2 also ends with the resigned line, that the weather “is what it is.”

But verse 3 ends with the sad memory that the weather “was what it was.” And isn’t any longer. Because – obviously – this is a song about global warming, without a single strident line in it. It’s just about how the changing weather happens slowly and creeps up on people, and how it alters lives that have long lived a certain way.

Patrick “lives for” his “Arctic Cat.” It’s part of his life. A life that is melting away.

The bridge (and anyone who knows me knows that I live and die for the bridge of a song) nails the theme, takes it from the storytelling to the central idea:

Or so I thought until a couple years ago
Now anymore we got a lot more rain than snow
I mean it really rains a lot
And then whatever snow we got
It melts away
In just a day
So strange
My wife she says that nothing’s changed

I really love those tiny little lines in the middle – “It melts away/In just a day/So strange” and then Patrick’s wife is the voice of reason, or so she thinks. I love the vernacular phrases "Now anymore" and "whatever snow we got" (And the bridge is usually where Werner pull in the most unusual chords that hit you in private places.)

It’s a song that comes on you slowly, through the chuckles and small observations, the worry and sadness and loss hit you by the end, when there is almost no snow, and everyone stays inside “drinking too much beer and watching too much cable.” And

Missing how it feels
To ride snowmobiles
When the weather
Well it was what it was.

There are many excellent songs in this collection, but this one immediately goes on my pile of favorites. The construction is elaborate and elegantly executed, the tone is pitch perfect and internally consistent, and it achieves a lightness that belies the hours of work that must have gone into it.

HAYSEED is highly recommended and is every bit as good as TIME BETWEEN TRAINS and NEW NON-FICTION.

You can watch her sing "Snowmobiles" at this artist showcase site: http://evanstonspace.com/artists/Susan_Werner