There are a lot of reasons for liking something. There are times I fall for something just because it showed up in the right place at the right time, and sometimes it’s because it contains an echo of something else I already like. Other times I learn to like a thing simply because it delivers something I want. The most enduring connections, though, seem to happen when the object of my affection gives me something I need, whether I realize it at the time or not. When you find something that scratches that kind of itch, it’s not always possible to say exactly why. It’s an intimate connection, though, and something about the right music at the right time does it like nothing else.
Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Afterglow, the latest album from former Railroad Jerk and White Hassle frontman Marcellus Hall. Part of the album’s appeal lies in the live versions of the songs — Hall is a charismatic performer with both an intense gaze and an infectious smile, not to mention some hot moves. But while the songs as recorded are calmer and more intimate than the live performances, they still contain fierce undertows.
Who doesn’t want to hear a hunky rock star sing that he’s “yearning to fall in love with you”? Of course that’s enticing. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a studied carefulness here — the lyrics often feel like overheard snippets carefully trimmed and arranged collage-like into classic narratives of love and longing not quite consummated or burnt out too quickly, as if the NSA and the NEA had started a songwriting project together. There are contradictory bits here and there of truth and fiction, wryness and sadness, cynicism, and faith, all held together by Hall’s honeyed voice — which moves effortlessly from placid to ardent and back again, sometimes with the shifts in the lyrics, and sometimes against them. This could come across as hollow without the desire that gives shape to the narratives, or could feel artificial in less skillful hands. But in the end it all feels genuine and affecting, thanks to Hall’s deft phrasing and the band’s melodic drive.
The songs’ stories all sit on a cusp of potential. One thing has happened, for better or for worse, but something better might be coming down the road. Or it might not. Balancing there on the threshold of possibility, a current of hope gives buoyancy to the album, while a cross-current of wry cynicism keeps the stories from tripping over themselves and falling flat. Self-awareness likewise keeps the sincerity in check without diminishing it. Those rich layers, carried by catchy riffs, are, for me, the key to the album’s deeper appeal. Like palimpsests they reveal subtle traces of the past that persist to give context and shape to the present, which will in turn be scraped away to make room for the future. Whether that’s a comedy or a tragedy, or maybe a bit of both, is left up to the listener to decide.
Afterglow made me feel that sometimes the act of picking up the pieces of life and fitting them together to create new connections is as much the story as any story their original connections might have told, and perfect imperfection is perfectly possible, if you know what I mean. The album is infused with unfulfilled desires for connections of one kind or another, but that longing for fulfillment is tempered with humor and equanimity, and of course the neat solution of harmonic resolution. I could certainly use a more well-tempered life, and the musical resolution feels like a balm to my perpetually unresolved soul.