By Joel Hartse
With this post we welcome another contributor to Good Letters. Joel (see his bio on the Contributors page) will be focusing mostly on music.
One thing that I learned in 2008 is that everything is going to keep changing, all the time, and is always going to be not what it was last year. And what I want from songs now is comfort. Not to be pushed forward or challenged, though this is occasionally necessary, but to hear music that says yes, we are tired, but we are alive. So here is my end-of-2008 list—ten songs, not really the best anything of the year. A lot of them are sad, but most have this fierce and tender core: a kind of hopeful recognition that we are blessed who endure.
Club 8—"Jesus Walk with Me" from the Jesus Walk with Me EP
Club 8's album The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming came out in 2007, but the EP single (with a variety of remixes) came out this year. I simply cannot think of a song released in the past year (or maybe ever) that better sums up how difficult it can be simply to wake up, how faith is just barely enough to sustain us, and how God, no matter how much we doubt, is there.
Hello Stranger—"The Devil's Highway" from the My Blueberry Nights Soundtrack
I know very little about this band and this song, which comes from my favorite soundtrack of the year, Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights, which is a weird and sad roadtrip movie that doesn't really go anywhere. In a little over five minutes, "Devil's Highway" completes a circle not unlike the one in the movie. This track is its own drive down a dark, twisting road.
El Perro Del Mar—"Do Not Despair" from From the Valley to the Stars
Driven by a two-chord, funeral-parlor organ, Sarah Assbring's impossibly delicate, sad voice repeats the mantra of the song's title over and over. She never once mentions God on the whole album, but calls "do not despair" the "message that comes from above" that is "filled with your love." I discovered this song the same week I heard a friend had been diagnosed with a mental illness. It helped some.
Hem—"Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard" from a forthcoming release
“Things Are Not Perfect” is a demo for a forthcoming 2009 album by Hem, whose music has always radiated consolation. It's a return to the symphonic tininess of their debut, Rabbit Songs, a step back from the polished “countrypolitan” sound of their last two recordings. The "chorus" of this short, perfect ditty is sung only once, but is stated so succinctly it needs no repetition to make its point: "Things are not perfect in our yard, but our love is growing."
Kanye West— “Coldest Winter” from 808s and Heartbreak
West took a big risk by making an album that sounds like a sad robot in a 1980s disco. Vibe and Entertainment Weekly loved it, All Music Guide and Spin panned it. I happen to think it’s fantastic, but an absolutely draining experience to listen to. It’s the self-doubt, anger, and frustration of a man in dire circumstances who doesn’t know what he wants. Not a bad way to sum up the year.
Jon Foreman—"I Am Still Running" from the Winter EP
Switchfoot comes close to schlocky as a thoughtful "crossover" band—their major-label output was heavy on anthemic singles in praise of that vaguest Christian rock deity, "Something More." Foreman's solo outings (four EPs named after the seasons) have been a revelation in their intimacy. "I Am Still Running" is by no means the only pretty song of the bunch, but its blend of contentment and weariness is awfully comforting.
Mountain Goats—"Tianchi Lake" from Heretic Pride
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has written some of the most vicious acoustic ballads ever committed to tape ("No Children," which proclaims, "I hope you die / I hope we both die" probably takes the cake), but just as often he writes these gorgeous polaroids, like this song about a mythical monster in a Chinese lake, unnoticed by the religious people visiting the site.
Death Cab for Cutie—"Your New Twin Sized Bed" from Narrow Stairs
Death Cab has always had a way of making misery sound upbeat, and "Your New Twin Sized Bed" is a happy little ditty about the end of a relationship and attendant buying of a new mattress. Almost any song from Narrow Stairs could fit here—the peppy “No Sunlight,” about the loss of optimism that comes with age; “Cath,” about marrying the wrong man; “Grapevine Fires” about homes being engulfed in flames—take your pick.
Rivers Cuomo—"Can't Stop Partying" from Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
White emo-rock-guy from Weezer plays R&B song about drinking expensive champagne in da club; hilarity ensues, right? Actually, Cuomo's acoustic recording lays bare the emptiness and desperation in Jermaine Dupri's song. When he sings about the drugs, drinks, and women he's "gotta have," it's not bragging—it's the sound of being trapped.
Portishead—"Deep Water" from Third
I am still racking my brain trying to understand how Portishead, a band known for writing dark, film-noir-ish trip-hop, managed this perfectly crafted ballad that sounds like a hit single from the 1930s. It’s a song about not having drowned–not exactly something to celebrate, but as good a place as any to start a new year.