By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I never thought of it that way," Cleaves says dubiously. "Except for [Forbert's] The Mission of the Crossroad Palms , I don't really care that much for him. That song ["Not Going Down"] comes from me living up North and just watching things crumble or being torn down. I think this album has two themes: resignation and defiance. The characters are all wishing for freedom, but there's a freedom in acceptance, too. I wrote that song during a year that wasn't very successful for me, when I was just sort of floating in between things." Another song--"29"--is a bare (only Cleaves' voice and producer Gurf Morlix on Dobro) examination of a bright light burning out too early; at first blush, it might be about Hank Williams. "That song started out as a tribute to a friend of mine who died on the road, but I put the Hank references in so it could apply to anyone."
That widening of scope helped. "My first couple of records [back East] were full of local references and very popular in the south of Maine, but the local-hero character in a song gives a little less for other people to latch on to; on the new album, I really tried to be more universal." Texas provided a different lens through which to view his New England childhood, growing up in a house that has been in the family for three generations and overlooks both the sea and the surrounding highlands. "The water is named Brown's Cove, for Captain John Brown, who bought the land from the Indians in the early 1600s," Cleaves reports. "Our house was built in 1692 and was burned by Indians. It wasn't until I came to Texas, where everything's relatively new, that it sunk in just how old that is." Surface differences aside, Texas and Maine produce similar citizens. "Maine has a reputation for pride and ruggedness, and I brought a little of that attitude with me," he recalls. "At first, Texans and all their talk was--well, I wouldn't say annoying, but, ah, people here really have no idea what Maine's like, they think it's some big industrial state when actually Portland--the biggest town in Maine--only has a population of like 60,000."
Cleaves soon discovered that those mindsets and the music he admired were linked. "It took me a while to see it, but after immersing myself in the music, I could see how the music spoke to the attitude and how the attitude reinforced the music." At the same time he was soaking in his new home state, however, he was also delivering aspects of the East Coast to Texans. The dominance of automobile imagery in his songs comes from there. "Back East, we had boardwalks and beaches and all that--just like Bruce--and Maine is really pretty sparsely settled, so cars are essential to growing up. That imagery just naturally fell into my work."
"Skunk Juice" and "Last of the V-8s" are No Angel's tip of the hat to the Magic Rat, their Atlantic Coast gearhead vibe leavened with good ol' Southern shade-tree attitude. "Skunk Juice" is a funny, clever tale of combing junkyards for parts that is full of funky character; "Last of the V-8s" is a not-so-successful song that doesn't quite escape cliche (to get away with a song so titled, you'd have to outdo the awed, reverential tones in which a character in the movie Mad Max says those very words upon seeing Max's blown-out pursuit car. There are entire worlds in that line, and Cleaves just doesn't come close).
Cleaves still drives his 1974 Plymouth Duster--"Skunk Juice" was born during countless searches for its hard-to-find MoPar parts--and lists the 318 V-8 as his favorite powerplant, although he did go through an infatuation with the burlier 386. "I've gotten some criticism for that [imagery]," Cleaves admits. "But you look at a guy like Fred Eaglesmith--his last record was something like eight songs about cars and two about trains, and that was a great album--so I'm not going to step back from it."
The title track has a hard bluegrass feel, full of mandolin and fiddle; Cleaves even bends his voice toward a high, lonesome edge. "I got the idea for that from a Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire [about an angel who returns to earth]...what no angel knows, of course, are the implications of mortality, of being flesh. That song started off as a ballad, but when we started using the mandolin, it just sort of sped up."
Cleaves tries to put as many layers in his songs as possible. "When I was in college, I took a lot of writing classes, and a lot of literature and modern poetry classes--T.S. Eliot and all that," he explains. "In those classes, you learned to pick out the different levels of meaning that a poem or a story works at; now, I try and put those levels into what I write. I once read that Hank Williams said that a song should only have one meaning, but I go against that. It was pretty much true for his songs, but I find a lot of pleasure in those different levels. They help you get something different out of every listen."
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