This is another song I look forward to hearing every holiday season. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” isn’t technically a Christmas song—it’s more of a general “Jesus sure is great” song—but it just sounds like a night spent in front of a fireplace and a Christmas tree.
Maybe that’s why Sufjan Stevens included the song on his collection Songs For Christmas. Actually, it originally appeared on one of his semi-annual Christmas recordings he made for friends, which he then released in 2006 as Songs For Christmas. It’s a goofy, heartwarming, touching bunch of songs, ranging in style from power pop to hushed folk.
Quick history lesson: The origins of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” date back to 1757, when pastor Robert Robinson wrote the hymn. The melody in most versions is cribbed from the hymn “Nettleton” by printer John Wyeth; its lyrics come from 1 Samuel 7:12, in which the prophet Samuel raises a stone (which he names “Ebenezer,” meaning “stone of help”) and says, according to the King James Bible, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
The serenity of the hymn, and of Stevens’ version in particular, makes Samuel’s gratitude sound less joyous than quietly grateful. And I think there’s power in that gentle approach, because it denotes a kind of confidence that Jesus will always come through for Samuel, that there’s no reason to be surprised about his devotion to mankind.
I’m not at all religious, but we can all relate to love and devotion, and that’s what “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is about. Putting these hymns (and, uh, songs called “Get Behind Me, Santa!” and “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!”) in arrangements with guitars and banjos make them more accessible, and Stevens is a master musician and arranger. Everything here just works.
It’s hard to explain why I love this song, but let’s start with the combination of drums and piano. That duo is the first thing you hear when “A Sorta Fairytale” starts, and it immediately makes the song sound so agile. The drums are light and syncopated, and Tori Amos plays simple, high chords. The thing sounds like it could fly away at a moment’s notice.
The chorus doesn’t work as well, in my opinion—it’s a little muddy, for lack of a better word—but I love everything about the verses, which are just feisty enough to make an impression. Amos is best known for her piano-driven work, of course, but the way she sings with a full band here is impressive. Her vocals wrap around every beat and acoustic guitar thump, like she knows she’s a moving target. Listen especially for the way she sings “up on the 101,” noting the California freeway setting as if it’s the backdrop for high drama.
I like so much of Amos’s signature work, from “Silent All These Years” to “Winter,” but it’s this comparatively middle-of-the-road track I come back to most. I know it’s not as interesting as her earlier work, but I love the way it rolls along, punctuated by that agility.
Eleven years later, this song still sounds like it comes from another planet. “Work It” is like a blast of weirdness from the future.
Which itself is strange, considering much of the track is so old-school in many ways. From the song’s intro, which features a sample from “Request Line” by Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three from 1984 to the breakdown that cribs from Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper” (itself a sample from Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” a cover of a song by Paul Simon). Much about Under Construction in general is old-school, especially its cover, which features Elliott in pink Nikes in front of a huge boombox.
So how in the hell does this thing sound so much like science fiction? There’s Timbaland’s beat, which sounds like a theremin gone wrong, but there’s also the famous backwards line (which is simply “I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it” reversed). It’s not a complicated production move, but all these years later, it sounds amazing. I think it works so well because it’s so stark and simple, so clear in its craziness.
Elliott herself accomplishes some innovation in this song: most importantly, she raps about her sexual prowess, in terms both amusingly ridiculous (“I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” for starters) and blunt (“before you come, I need to shave my chocha”). I love that she does this (ahem) reversal, but I also love that she does it without calling much attention to it. Nowhere in the song does she point out that she’s rapping about sex the way her male colleagues do; she’s simply doing it, unapologetically and honestly. Like the song’s production, Elliott’s lyrics are stark, clear, and awesome.
One other innovation to mention: “Work It” is credited with helping introduce “badonkadonk” to the mainstream. Now you know who to thank.
It’s been said to death at this point, but I’ll say it again: Neko Case’s voice is amazing. It’s got everything in it—experience, hope, sadness, years.
In “I Wish I Was the Moon,” it also has weariness and resignation. It’s not clear what made the song’s narrator so cold and unfeeling, but it sounds like some kind of romantic disagreement or entanglement. Whatever it was, I’m glad that Case left it undefined and mysterious, if only for the sake of the song’s intrigue and universality. “I’m so tired” is a banal complaint, but in Case’s hands, it’s a powerful statement. Something bad went down.
Blacklisted is a gorgeous album, the first on which Neko Case was something other than “alt-country.” The record is dark, but never punishingly so; Case’s voice lifts the songs so they never become oppressive. The melodies don’t hurt, either, especially on “I Wish I Was the Moon,” which is just about the prettiest song you’ll ever hear about feeling numb and cold.
This song breaks my heart every time I hear it, especially this verse: “God blessed me, I’m a free man/with no place free to go/I’m paralyzed and collared-tight/No pills for what I fear/This is crazy/I wish I was the moon tonight.” That, my friends, is damn good writing.
Whenever I hear “Oh!” (or really, any Sleater-Kinney song), I think about how thrilling it is. Even when they’re playing a slower, quieter song, it provides something like an electric spark. They’re like energy in the form of sound.
I love the Sleater-Kinney songs that sound like deranged bubblegum music, like “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” and this song. On both tracks, it sounds like the band is wrestling with a dark side in hopes that the light side will prosper. There are lots of explosions, but there are also moments with harmonies and lyrics like “Nobody lingers like you longer on my heart.” It’s certainly not what I would call a dark song, but there’s a fierce edge to it, the kind that makes me wonder what they’re up to.
I’m bummed that Sleater-Kinney’s no longer around, but Wild Flag, a band that features two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney plus Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, carries the dark bubblegum torch just fine. I hope they continue to do so for a while.
For a long time, John Darnielle recorded songs on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. He’d write songs every night, and as soon as he could, he’d hit “Record” and “Play” simultaneously, and perform the song before it got stale. These recordings were released as-is, usually on vinyl or cassette. He called himself The Mountain Goats.
The “last grinding burst of the machine,” as Darnielle put it, was the collection of songs that became All Hail West Texas, an album that consists of (according to the cover art) “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.”
This album is my favorite of Darnielle’s boombox records, because the songs are so damn good. They’re completely believable stories, and Darnielle’s informal delivery makes it sound like he’s describing people he knows. And hearing them by way of a Panasonic boombox gives the songs a “found artifact” feel, as if you’d found a cassette buried under dirt on the side of a road.
Among the great songs on All Hail West Texas is “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton.” I had a hard time choosing between this song and the devastating “The Mess Inside”; “Death Metal Band” won out because it’s also a song I like to play whenever I perform. Not only is the song equally funny and heartbreaking, but it’s constantly surprising over the course of its two and a half minutes (and I can tell you firsthand that there’s a special thrill that comes with loudly singing “Hail Satan!” as a big finish). On one live recording of “Death Metal Band,” Darnielle introduces it as “A song about how they treat children badly …The ‘they,’ I guess, is just, assholes. This is a song, a story, that needs to be told to all the assholes.”
Darnielle knows from child abuse, and one of the most interesting aspects of his songs is his treatment of child abuse–including his own–as an adult singing from a child’s point of view. In his song “This Year,” Darnielle captures the simultaneous feelings of liberation and dread that result from rebelling against those who can (and probably will) hurt you. In the case of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” Jeff and Cyrus may not have been the victims of domestic violence, but they were certainly mistreated by being told that their band would never amount to anything, and by Cyrus getting sent to the “locked treatment facility” noted on the album’s cover art.
The details of this song’s story are sketchy (and who knows how terrible and grisly the duo’s “plan to get even” was), but it’s another instance of Darnielle speaking up for mistreated kids. He’s very good at it, for an unfortunate reason.
I remember where I was when I first heard “With Arms Outstretched.” I was driving from Cambridge to Concord, commuting from my apartment to my reporter job, a trip that I always looked forward to. Though I love writing, I didn’t particularly like being a reporter, and the half-hour commute was a good opportunity to clear my head. I usually listened to WERS, and one morning, they played this song. I remember thinking that it was exactly what I wanted to hear. Acoustic guitar, handclaps, bells, group singing.
It’s still pretty damn perfect.