by Dylan Laug (@blackwithsapdad)
Falling in love can be a tricky thing to navigate, no matter one’s place in life. After the slow dance of moving past insecurities, the years of baggage accumulated from heartbreak, loneliness, and selfish habits do their best to unravel even the most promising of budding relationships. Even after that, there’s still the necessary relinquishing of parts of oneself for the sake of the relationship. Tied up in this whirlpool is an ensnarement of emotions that rear their head at unpredictable times, forcing one to deeply consider the value and meaning of “self” in an increasingly interwoven relationship. Thawing Dawn, the debut solo record from Parquet Courts’ A. Savage, simultaneously wrestles with and revels in this process, never shying away from the messier aspects. In airing these stories, A. Savage utilizes the darkest and loneliest parts to act as a foil for the messy beauty of romance, forging his most personal and poignant work to date.
The first half of Thawing Dawn is particularly wistful and plaintive in its loneliness, both lyrically and sonically. The record begins unceremoniously with a lonely strummed guitar underneath a pedal steel guitar that calls to mind a prairie sunset from a time long since extinct. As the drums and bass kick in, “Buffalo Calf Road Woman” sets out to document the many ways in which the United States has trampled the rights of the indigenous people of North America, from exploiting shared land to violently forcing relocation. If obligated, one could likely draw parallels to the more prominent themes of love and loss found on the rest of the album. However, the indignities highlighted in “Buffalo Calf Road Woman” more importantly serve to document the mountain of injustice that continues growing to this day. The hopeful ending to the song, in which the Buffalo Calf Road Woman fires the shot that kills Custer at Little Bighorn, rings out like a call to action aimed at the art school anarchists; fight to dismantle the systems that oppress and persecute. In light of what’s occurred with DAPL and other recent events, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting time for such a reminder. “Buffalo Calf Road Woman” assuredly introduces the concept of unending struggle, setting the tone for the more personal aspects explored on the rest of the album.
“Eyeballs” begins the more personal story of loss and longing for Savage and simultaneously warms the listener with a song that brings to mind the jaunty guitar of Parquet Courts and the playful repetition of keys that could be found all over Fergus and Geronimo songs. However, the lyrics perfectly juxtapose the upbeat feel of the song, “If I showed you my eyeballs maybe you could see that I’ve been hurting inside.” A quiet echo effect on the chorus makes the line sound as if it was being overheard from a prison cell down the hall; a voice quietly contemplating its own painful words. On “Wild Wild Horses,” the bleakness of Savage’s words is matched by the minimal backing of drum rim clicks and subtle guitar and organ noise, calling to mind the shimmer of wind chimes gently ringing in the calm before the storm. As prolonged introspection often does, the monologue-like lyrics in “Wild Wild Horses” set the stage for the profound internal struggle documented a couple of songs later in “What Do I Do.” The dream-like hollowness of “Wild Wild Horses” provides room for Savage to reflect, “I’m not sure what to do,” and the listener is forced to wait and see if he finds an answer.
Thawing Dawn seems to thematically center around the 8-minute guitar and saxophone collision of “What Do I Do.” Here Savage lists the work-arounds he’s developed for coping with any number real or imagined dilemmas life throws his way: “If I have no god, I’ll worship everything and everything will then become an icon of devotion”. As the march-like repetition gives way to unpredictable guitar feedback and saxophone squeal, Savage reveals the one question he doesn’t have a good answer for: “What do I do?” Aside from its existential moorings, here, the trauma induced by this question seems to be birthed from a place of genuine confusion in the face of not having an answer. The back and forth between orderly repetition and chaos provides a brilliant soundtrack to this inner turmoil.
Fans of Savage’s former band, Teenage Cool Kids, can find solace in the home-cooked meal of a song, “Phantom Limbo.” This track dates back to Savage’s days in this criminally overlooked band of the late 2000s and was previously only to be found on a video of a live session recorded during the end of their run. This formerly raucous, Pavement-esque, country-fried number has been slowed down on Thawing Dawn and given the Texas two-step treatment, adorned with beautiful pedal steel accompaniment. Following the soul searching of previous songs on the album, Savage now hints at finally coming to terms with the mess of emotions that go hand in hand with falling in love: “I’m sure you’re the sweetest breeze that’s ever blown through me.” It’s a sweet love song -- one that ponders whether the other person involved in the relationship struggles with some of these same complicated feelings. The palpable sadness of this question is softly masked by its innocence, but never buried, underlining Savage’s talents as a lyricist.
As with his previous projects, Savage liberally borrows and plays with elements from a wide variety of influences on Thawing Dawn. Although these forays mostly seem effortless for him, his talents as a lyricist really shine through on album highlights “Indian Style” and “Ladies from Houston.” The gently plucked guitar strings that give way to soft strumming on “Indian Style” allow Savage’s voice and lyrics to take center stage. Throughout the track, with lines like “Picture this replacing the abyss you’ve painted my face on, can’t you feel my love for you is realer than the beast you’re racing from,” Savage builds upon the themes of struggling in the context of new or rekindled romance in ways that are hard to shake. The memory of Leonard Cohen looms large on “Ladies from Houston” in the deliberate delivery Savage adopts as the lilting melody of the chorus is punctuated with piano chords that evolve and adopt and bouncing spring-like tone. Despite the track extending past the 7-minute mark, it’s appropriately broken up by anthemic guitar solos that would make fans of Crazy Horse drool. Just when you’ve been lulled into a trance by the track, it abruptly fades into the despondent, echo-heavy vocals and mournful church organ-accompanied “Untitled.”
When the organs gradually give out and lead into the title track, “Thawing Dawn,” a piano, acoustic guitar, and bass introduce the medley-like closer. As the song progresses, sudden stylistic shifts call to mind surfing the radio dial and happily landing on gems from bygone eras. Organs and electric guitars cut in and out with seams proudly on display, as if they had been stitched into the rest of the song, mirroring the eclecticism of the rest of the album. “Thawing Dawn” serves as a perfect lyrical conclusion to the record, as well. The reflections on prolonged heartbreak and the recovery that comes from settling into the uncertainties of new romance are all revisited here and, within the song, the oscillation between these polarities suggest subtle similarities in the doubts created by both. As the song concludes, the listener is treated with the most joyous keyboard part set to the shaking of a maraca. With one final line given to digest, the record ends just as abruptly as it begins, “Of all the pieces of I’ve combined, still the cruelest mixture yet is the softness of the thawing dawn and the hardness of regret.” Clearly, the ruminations presented on the album haven’t brought Savage any closer to solutions to his struggles, just acceptance of the sweet and sour aspects of love.
On Thawing Dawn, A. Savage’s moving songwriting is balanced by an impressive scattering of musicians whose collective pedigree includes bands such as Psychic TV, Woods, Meneguar, PC Worship, Ultimate Painting, and EZTV. The value of their contributions throughout the record really should not be overlooked as they consistently provide a great depth to the songs. The drunken piano keys buried in the chaos at the end of “What Do I Do” are a stand-out on the track as they miraculously cut through the clamor around them and remain memorable long after the song ends. On “Winter in the South,” the saxophone sounds like a snake charmer seductively goading the steady bounce of the bass, propelling the song forward and standing as a testament to the importance of the players on the record.
The diversity of the songs on Thawing Dawn is no surprise when considering Savage’s previous work, but the fact that these varied songs written over the course of the last decade provide such a cohesive and moving piece of art is truly astonishing. The vivisection of falling in love documented on Thawing Dawn is embedded with such personality that it’s hard not to relate to the struggles it presents. Furthermore, it’s during this examination that the “cruel mixture” of pieces A. Savage combines gives the complex emotions of burgeoning romance a tangible weight, yielding one of the most stirring albums of the year.
(This review has been brought to you by “The More It Works”)