This shambling ramshackle folk-style anthem from A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden moves like a lingering half-speed take on Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," similarly tracing an illicit underground economy. The character of Van Gogh, introduced during the first verse, translates the singer's relational troubles into a painting "all in yellow like a fire full of smolder." The first of many inventive juxtapositions, "smolder" suggests a fire that's died or dying, a fitting metaphor for a post-breakup paean.
TUS songwriter Jesse Elliott introduces commerce into the equation, invoking the idea of "fancified fakes" and singing, "Tou have to give a dollar, or you don't paid, you gotta get rid of what your Van Gogh made. The Dutch artist becomes a cipher for the singer's creative alter-ego, caught in the typical art/commerce conundrum, coupled with a footnote about authenticity.
As the song winds down it begins to resemble a rallying call, as Elliott notes "some get lucky, most get caught," admitting, "I ain't gonna claim we've got the good fight fought," acknowledging the somewhat frivolous, self-indulgent nature of the endeavor. The final verse ends with the wonderful observation that ties it all together, "a lot of lines fade when you're smuggling your art." (For further evidence see Sting, or the remaining living member of Milli Vanilli.)
We spoke to Elliott, who had returned to his Washington, D.C., home from New York.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So I understand you spent time in Iowa. How'd you end up there?
JESSE ELLIOTT: I went to school at Iowa. I grew up in the Midwest, went to high school in this river town called Elgin, Ill., outside of Chicago. Swallowed up by the 'burbs. Everybody from the 'burbs of Chicago goes to the University of Iowa when they want to go out of state but not be too awfully far from home. I went out to Iowa City for a few years and spent some of the best years of my life there.
How'd you wind up in D.C.?
There was a whole bunch of hopping, skipping and jumping in-between, but the real short story is that I went down to Mexico and then over to Europe for a bit. Then I lived on the Jersey shore, and then back over to Europe. I was a little bit tired of being so all-around all the time, so I was kinda looking for some excuse to be somewhere for a little longer period. This guy who I had met in my Iowa City days—an author who wrote this book, The Rise of the Creative Class [Editor's note: Richard Florida], and needed someone to do some editing, ghostwriting, speechwriting, all that fun stuff—his organization dropped me a line and said, Hey, you still doing writing?' because when we met I had written a review of his books and thoughts, and things like that.
I said, Yeah, I sure am.' I was kind of surprised and flattered because it wasn't 100 percent flattering review that I wrote, but I guess the holes I poked in his arguments he liked well enough to want me to be on his team instead of someone else's. He was in D.C. He's actually in Toronto now, but he was based in D.C., so I came out here because I was looking for an excuse to come back from Europe, because, as much as I love Europe, I was missing American soil at the time.
What were you doing in Europe?
I was working for a while in a couple different places. It's a long, torturous and twisted story how I sort of got from writing to politics to film and back to music and writing again, but the short story of that is that I was over there working at this big world international court in the Hague, in the Netherlands. Then I was on to Copenhagen, doing this research fellowship on human rights. So yeah, I used to do something noble with my life before I threw it all away. It was kind of those experiences that led me to believe that some good can be done in those arenas, but I don't have the temperament for it really. I got tired of the whole politics and international relations thing. I just didn't think I fit personality-wise. Little did I know Barack Obama would come along and reaffirm everybody's faith in some kind of decent something or other. If I would've held out for another year and a half
I still have this kind of naïve idea that music can make some kind of difference. I'm in that kind of Zen mindset where people change from within. You don't change people from within through politics so much as by saying things and making sounds. But I'll have probably given that viewpoint up in a couple years. So we'll talk then. But I like that in this business there's not any pretense of people being benevolent. People are just usually slimy from the beginning. I at least know how to deal with that a little more.
So would it be correct to assume "Slow Crows Over" is something of a road tune, in the tradition of a band's tale of life on the road?
Yeah, it's a little like that, I guess the way I originally conceived of it before I began making up all kinds of random imagery. Songs kind of take their own direction once you start with them. But actually this is a good one to ask about because this is one of the few songs where I actually did have an idea starting off, and it was a little more about all the subjects we've been talking about essentially turning art into commerce. It uses mixed metaphors, as most of the stuff I write does, that veer wildly from implications of music and art, and drug dealing and politics, and how all those things kind of work the same way. They're all sort taking something that could fundamentally be good and turning it into a border-running scheme basically.
I like the line about running "ten tons of magenta and red" across the border.
That's some sort of thinly veiled paint and drug reference.
How about the line "bad slink back, the good go forth"?
I don't know. That's a line that doesn't fit with the rest of the song somehow, but that I aesthetically liked. I don't know what to tell you about that. Because I think logically if you follow the story through the rest of the song, it would be the opposite way around, with the good slinking back and the bad going forth, but maybe I just want to inject that single knot of hope so it could conceivably still be used as a Barack Obama campaign song. I'm just joking. This was obviously written long before. But I think there is a part of me that never wants to yield 100 percent completely to cynical analysis of the world, even in my very most cynical song, which that one probably is.
Does title have any specific meaning?
This is another anomaly for this song. I usually hate songs that are titled the same as the first three words of the song. It seems to me like a default option for poor songwriting. I usually trade in some poor songwriting, but I fancy myself not being that bad. This is the rare occasion where I just liked that image and the words, the way that they sounded. That was the first line that I came up with for the song, just that first couplet, and then it all grew from there.
How did you do the song's odd percussion?
It's a whole bunch of things, but essentially it's a drum kit broken into its constituent parts, recorded separately and then layered back over the top of each other. Which is basically how we made the whole album. We stripped the album down to a single layer- so any given song would have 30 different tracks and each track would just be a sound, whether it was a cowbell, rimshot, kick drum or a clasped weird high-hat. There's nothing live about this album—except for there's a couple songs semi live—but the rest of it is everything stripped down and beat on or blown on or strummed on, and kind of reconstructed, relayered back over itself.
We didn't write parts in the temporal sense, like, "OK, this is going to happen with this instrument in the song." We really just made sounds and then took a scratch track of vocals and acoustic guitar; all these songs started simply enough as stupid folk songs because that's all I can write musically. Then we layered stuff over that. We'd say, "OK, let's drop this in here, now let's fade this in and out." Literally turning faders up and down, kind of at will after we had them all painted over, and then started chipping away at stuff.
Me and the guy who made this, David Strackany, aka Paleo, he's a pretty incredible producer, and I have to give him credit for 85 percent of these effects that I'm describing. We came up with them in theory, and then he actually spent the time to do them. He's the technical genius between the two of us. We were sitting in the same room, and there were actually a lot of times when he was doing it by himself. I always feel the immediate need to apologize to people. It's nice that you're clearly interested in words and song structure and all that, but if people aren't interested in that and they just like the sound, in the first ten seconds of talking to them, I say you should talk to my buddy Dave because he's the one you're looking for. It ain't me, babe.
These United States plays Nightlight Wednesday, March 5, at 9 p.m. with Auxiliary House and Sweater Weather. Tickets are $5, which is a bargain.