Alderdown Music, 2007
Simply put, Jud Caswell’s new CD, Blackberry Time, is another collection of smartly written and beautifully performed songs. Yet, nothing so accomplished is ever that simple. His composing and guitar playing are complex and intricate affairs that wow me as a player and writer, but do not distract me from the often-tender melodies that emerge from such an accomplishment. He is both a lyricist of first order and a storyteller as wry and irreverent as you’d expect from a Northerner.
All of his records stretch way beyond the cloistered folk conceit of naval gazing, using musical styles, genres and tunings to advance his voice, which is an instrument unto itself. It’s not soft, but soft-spoken in its integrity; it’s baritone sweet, yet can edge into a nastiness required by the demands of the song. But this is all academic, really. What is unique about Jud Caswell is his ability to stand outside the lives of others and not meddle too much, but report on the conditions of life that capture who we are. Best of all, he stays put with us, whether in sympathy or epiphany.
We are born into this world with an encyclopedia of emotions, most with such definition that they become part of the permanent text of our souls. The self-text, permanence itself, is shaped by the recurrence of our encounters and the way we negotiate the memory of their impact; our forgotten self is the negligent memory or experience, and results in the impermanence and transient aspects of time ill considered and ill spent. Memory and emotion are his turnarounds, wrought through reversals of sympathies and a sleight of hand point of view.
Blackberry Time opens with “For Sale,” a tune about big city, big East, big money, and big business encroaching on Small Town, USA. It’s the story of America and how we yearn for the old days as we throw them away; America as the junkshop where old, creaky bicycles are cast to the inevitable landfill of memory and dirt; and the past as the unstated eminent domain of Wall Street and prep school ethos. It’s a big ass theme, but Caswell reduces it to the size of his little town and populates his protest not so much with images of his disappearing town, but by the lone, understated rage of a character not only losing his junk and bicycle store, but the very home he attempts to save by retrieving the rusty bikes from the dump. An act of desperation, yes; but not for those who know the difference between hometown and quaint Americana. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Pat Wictor’s elegant slide guitars weep and remind us of the lost treasure, despite Caswell’s upbeat music.
But it’s not merely complex sentimentality that makes Caswell fret so, as he locates a different sympathy regarding loss in “Whatever Happened to Rob”—a deceptively light-hearted song about the disappearance of an acquaintance, or perhaps a friend—we don’t know. The storyteller keeps his distance, but admits that he himself is tempted by the urge for the “freedom to breathe and rearrange” one’s life. As he catalogues what happened to the lives of others in his small circle of acquaintances, he never losers sight of Rob, whose disappearance functions as a way for him to punctuate his own stagnation and the dumbfoundedness he feels over what clues and signs he missed regarding Rob’s courage to get out of town. In losing complete sight of Rob, he has perhaps lost sight of himself in his failure to participate in the “further adventures of faraway friends.” This evocation serves not only the song but functions as a dedication for the entire CD. This is the best kind of melancholy.
Caswell’s entire recorded canon reminds me of my favorite places and the simple but wondrous conversations we have with ourselves and our friends— conversations that peel away the sympathies we just have to have for life to mean anything and for it to reveal utter truths that are glossed over when the world is too much with us. Sometimes we just got to get out of town. Musically, this song is a textbook example of what one can do with a guitar when one is unafraid to let the guitar converse with the voice. The conversation turns on an odd chord or phrasing (“Nobody here has any idea…”) and something musically adventurous adorns the tune. As a result, in each listening, the song craft throughout Blackberry Time reveals itself as an uncommon courtesy to ears that long for something more that a predictable bridge. Often devoid of incremental repetition, Caswell’s art often arcs into something warm and jazzy—a fresh folk idiom that permeates Caswell’s playing style, and functions well with all the other idioms he manages to incorporate in so many of his tunes.
It’s hard to resist Caswell’s politics. “The Men Behind the Bushes” is a lyrical concordance of the past and ongoing crimes against reason and decency perpetrated by the pedigree of Nixonian henchmen who metastasized into the current crop of neo-conservative cronies who’ve had ruinous dominion over American politics for far too long. His collaboration with Amy Speace on “Peace & Quiet” laments the perpetual fate of Beirut as the never-changing human real estate trapped in a world of ticking time bombs and smashed global promises. When gentle hearted voices like Caswell & Speace convulse over the broken treaties in the Mideast, and the annihilating policies of the Bush administration—whose legacy of arrogance and deceit casts a long shadow of dread over too much of that part of the world—we cannot afford to hold onto any moral neutrality. In “Peace & Quiet,” we initially encounter a polemic on Mideast political anarchy, with images of fire, ashes, graveyards and asphalt; yet, the polemic is distilled (again) to the personal, to the yoke of an apparently conflicted and exhausted relationship simmering over a breakfast of “eggs and tea,” while one lover reads the morning newspaper chronicling the “crooked bridges and minefields” of Lebanon while their shared “cynical civility” acts as a moral detente to keep them “together and alone.” The arc of the metaphor suggests that the personal and political wars are not the full story. And that the distance we put between ourselves and a world in turmoil, whether it’s by engaging the world through the morning newspaper or the evening news, or allowing a declension of love to stand in for protest and for actually caring about the world, thoughtful people cannot help but be disturbed and feel guilty about the peace, quiet and wholeness of their own lives when measured against the horrors of a broken world. The urgency in the music, Caswell’s off kilter finger picking, Speace’s plaintive harmonies and, again, the musical turns—all make the case for disturbing this peace.
In “The Men Behind the Bushes,” Caswell stirs more than tea. He rakes up the moral detritus that the Bush administration and the prior legacies of Nixon and Regan—the concentrated political bile that has fertilized the grand deceits of our times— and has raked them into a pile of righteous acrimony. The docket of indictments is full: The accused are “slippery as oil, mean as gasoline” and “black as Christmas coal”; they “use Jesus as a body shield”; and, alas, we are all caught in their “riptide of arrogance and influence.” All of which frightens Caswell and should frighten anyone who opens his or her eyes. The music is menacing and taut, with Wicor’s slide slipping serpent-like between Caswell’s gymnastic rhythms, ripplings and pull-offs. [When I listen to this song, I think of Caswell’s brilliant “Stocks” (take note NPR’s ‘Marketplace’) from Between the Pavement and the Sky (2001), and marvel how he so easily lacerates those in power and those who use unregulated money and investment schemes to short circuit the very democracy that gives them freedom to do so. As “Stocks” MC Escher’s the very reptilian impulse of Wall Street’s self-gorging greed, “The Men Behind the Bushes…” pulls open the frayed political deceits of almost three decades of neo-conservative conmen.]
For me, though, these songs are parenthetical to what Mr. Caswell is really up to on “Blackberry Time,” and it is most personally revealed in the title song: “It’s the secret of a season in its prime / When all the world is full and ripe….” If and when you get to any of Jud Caswell’s music, you must arrive as an adult, because you cannot filter out the sneaky suspicions we all must have when we realize that our archived and cultivated time on this earth is ripe for picking. And while this ripeness may sometimes reveal itself as reduction or indifference (“Immune”), missed chances (“Too Late”), the intersection of doubt and knowing (“Leave Him”), the stillborn weight of regret (“Let It Go”), or the falling itself—the core of one’s being echoing past time into death (“The Raven in the Apple Tree”)—as the Raven itself reminds us: the only ample explanation we have is that it all happens because.
These most personal of Caswell’s songs are glimpses into what remains of the restlessness of the near settled mind—the imperfect persona we all possess that seeks through contemplation an understanding of the growing inevitability of the shapelessness of love, longing, time and place. These are songs where people find themselves as they are, or find themselves as the other. These songs beg a relationship. As a reviewer I cannot presume to know anything but what I know. Sounds obvious, but it’s not. Most of learning regards so much of the unknown and either waters our thirst to know or trickles into guesswork or ignorance. The best songs make us feel that the artist knows who we are.
"Let It Go" and "Too Late” settles some unresolved past in me like some eye-opening memoir, book marking what I thought I knew about regret and missed chances way back when, but wished I had remembered now. The most heartbreaking of songs dealing with one’s own emotional shapelessness is “Immune”— an overture to a grace lacking, but a grace sought; and by laying it out before those who really listen and do not just hear, its the kind of hard poetry (“Armored in apathy…”) that softens the soul and asks for amends: "All alone you made us simple once again/ Reducing us to friends…” I am quite startled by its frankness.
For a CD with so much intimacy, quiet rage and dazzling musicianship, Caswell’s centerpiece, perhaps his masterpiece thus far, is “The Raven in the Apple Tree.” This song transcends all others on this collection. He has won a cornfield’s worth of songwriting awards for this piece, and deservedly so. It unhinges with antithetical poetic conceit the ‘nevermore, nevermore’ ethos of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Caswell’s raven is all about ‘because, because,” articulated as a raven would in the slight dry rasp of the reluctant voice of impotent predation, or, as the storyteller claims—“His voice is like the rattle of a rusty iron gate.” Unfit to stalk and kill like the hawk or eagle, the raven merely watches and refuses to explain. He is the sentinel of old graveyards, where “rows and rows and rows of family names” carved and fading in stone give him audience as he watches the little Caswell girl skip to the beat of life among the “siren songs” of the dead. The music is dark and beautiful, and its images remind us to listen to everything around us—the wind, the bells, and the murmurings of inevitability—because what echoes in us as history and home, eventually returns in a “passing storm” to its roots and to earth. And why? “Because, because, because…”