Wrapping up Turkey Week: When bad songs happen to good songwriters

Perhaps today you opened the refrigerator and dug out some leftover turkey.  You heated it, along with some of the gravy and dressing.  Maybe a sweet potato, too.  And then you took a bite of the turkey.   At first taste, everything seemed okay.  Yummy, even.

But after a few more bites you realized that the turkey wasn’t nearly so fresh as it’d been on Thursday.  Maybe (so you thought) someone dallied a little too long over wrapping it up and putting it away.  It was edible, with enough gravy and dressing: some salt, and the recall of a few pleasant memories of the turkey as it was, helped you get it down.  But by the time you’d cleaned your plate you weren’t under any illusions about the turkey itself.  It needed to be relegated to soup, like yesterday (and don’t skimp on the spices, please).

So it is with today’s While We’re Paused turkey – R. L. Castleman’s “Paper Airplane,” the title song from Alison Krauss and Union Station’s latest album.  Now, despite almost everything I’m going to say presently, I should go on record as saying that I think Castleman is an outstanding songwriter.  Twelve years ago he wrote the delightfully cheeky title track for Alison’s Forget About It, and Krauss’s subsequent albums have been littered with his delectable ditties.  Moreover, if you were looking for a band to dress a tune in an impeccable arrangement, and play it with taste and sensitivity, you would look long and far before you’d find Union Station’s equal.  As for Alison, I’d pay good money to hear her sing the phone book.

She also happens to be almost the only singer I’d pay to hear sing Castleman’s “Paper Airplane.”

As you may have done with Saturday’s leftover turkey, I took a few bites of “Paper Airplane” before I realized it isn’t exactly a fresh song.  I was too enchanted by Alison’s voice, too taken with the brilliance of the accompaniment, to notice.  My judgment also was clouded by Castleman’s reputation – he has pretty luxurious laurels to rest on – as well as the band’s own assessment of the song (which you can see here, at 5:12-8:00).  I do not, for example, disagree with Ron Block (for whose taste and work I have the highest respect and admiration) lightly.  But one day, as I was listening to “Paper Airplane,” I thought about the words, for a second.  The song would never be the same again.

“Paper Airplane” is a sad song.  Sad songs have been Alison’s beat for two decades now.  Her delivery of this one is perfectly plaintive.  But just what is she so sad about?

I’ve put it all behind me, nothing left to do or doubt –

Some may say.

Not a horrible opening, but not a great one either.  We get some mystery, at least – what is the “it all” the singer has put behind her?  The “some may say” adds a question about whether she’s really put “it all” behind her.  The lines cannot stand alone, though.  They need help, and soon, if the song is going somewhere.

But every silver lining always seems to have a cloud

That comes my way.

Castleman can turn phrases like a chef turns omelets.  Here, though, he gets his spatula stuck on two redundancies.  First, why the gratuitous “always”?  He’s already said that every silver lining has a cloud.  Second, and more significantly, why are these lines here at all? The “some may say” which preceded them had already established that not all was well beneath the smooth “I’ve put it all behind me” veneer.  But onward:

Anticipated pleasure or unexpected pain

No choice I fear.

For all we know, there may be a rich story happening outside the singer’s head, but it doesn’t sound like we’ll ever hear about it.  The psychobabblers have stormed the gate and taken the song by force, so apparently the only events we’ll hear about are the movements of gray matter between the singer’s ears.  Which, judging by the next line, may have rhyme, but not much reason:

Love is hard to measure hidden in the rain

I have no words to say about this.  Only sounds.  Like “umm . . . ,” “hmm?” “meh,” and, ultimately, “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .”

That’s why you’ll find me here all alone and still wondering why,

Waiting inside for the cold to get colder.

I like sad songs, and I’m usually a sucker for a pair of lines this devastating (especially when Alison is singing them).  Here, though, I can’t help wondering why she’s so fantastically forlorn – no explanation has been forthcoming.  Was she in love with a blackguard who up and left her in a lurch?  With a traveling businessman or musician who’s been on the road a lot?  With a dude who fell asleep somewhere in the middle of the first verse?

Here where it’s clear that I’ve wasted my time . . .

The song has now wasted about eighty seconds of ours.

Hoping to fly, ‘cause it’s almost over now.

I hope the song isn’t, because it hasn’t actually said anything yet.

Admittedly the song does improve – a little – in its second and third verses. Castleman is too good a songwriter to remain at the level of his dreadful first verse for long, even during a dry spell.  And, getting back to the stale Saturday turkey analogy, this turkey’s penultimate couplet at least does us the courtesy of disclosing the source of its own corruption:

Our love is like a paper airplane flying in the folded wind

Riding high, dipping low.

The paper airplane is as apt a metaphor for Eros as I’ve seen – flighty, fickle, fragile.  The problem with this song is, having seen Eros for the paper airplane it is, what is the singer going to do with it?  Judging from the song, she’s going to observe it wistfully, analyze it, live with its crazy zigs and zags, and die with its inevitable nosedive.  The idea that she might actively exercise a little dominion over the paper airplane – like, say, by grabbing the blasted thing and throwing it – is nowhere to be found.

This is the inglorious paralysis to which we’re reduced when we let Eros put a halo, a mitre, or a crown on the inflated head that already bobs unstably on his pencil neck.  Submission to a god who’s famously a thrall even to a moderately stiff breeze is the kernel of sundry evils – from Duke Orsino’s pathetic lovesickness in Twelfth Night to Marianne Dashwood’s brush with death in Sense and Sensibility to scores of appalling “it’s not you, it’s me” speeches and, now, to this song.  Next time you write a song about Eros, Mr. Castleman, please remember that the headwear appropriate for him is a jester’s hat.

Now for some palate cleansing.  So I’m off to the refrigerator for some pumpkin pie; on the way I’ll skip to the next track on my iPod playlist.  The relief of tasting the nutmeg in the pumpkin custard, and of hearing Dan Tyminski belt out the opening lines of “Dust Bowl Children” over Ron Block’s tight banjo rolls, will come none too soon.

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Posted on November 26, 2011, in David Mitchel, Music Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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