Andrew Savage’s second solo album, Several Songs about Fire is an elegant collection that tackles existential questions with a sweeter tone than his earlier work. By Shaad D’Souza.
Several Songs about Fire
On Sympathy for Life, his seventh album with longtime New York outfit Parquet Courts, Texas-born musician Andrew Savage turned his wry gaze towards the encroaching tides of commerce that were threatening to swallow his adoptive home whole. “Amazon fire, 20 per cent off”, he sang on “Just Shadows”. “Global cost, vast species death / Suggested for you”.
Savage’s music, both with Parquet Courts and under the name A. Savage, has always tended more oblique and psychedelic – or shatteringly personal and earnest – than outright polemic. “Just Shadows” felt like a distinct shift in his point of view, an acknowledgement there were noxious, even outright sinister, concerns permeating the boundaries of his work. Savage’s writing bears the contradictions inherent to a distinctive, built-out worldview. His songs are somehow at once austere and whimsical, bitterly sad but enthralled by the world’s potential for beauty. “Just Shadows” felt like an acknowledgement that there were forces with the potential to set that world ablaze.
Several Songs about Fire, Savage’s second solo album, doesn’t have the sledgehammer sensibility of “Just Shadows” but the themes carry through. As on Thawing Dawn, Savage’s 2017 solo debut, Several Songs about Fire is sharply attuned to the indignities of modern life and Savage is still more able than most songwriters in his milieu to write specifically and literally about 21st-century culture without resorting to hoary metaphors.
He is no longer writing about texting and wellness. He decamped to Paris a few years ago in an attempt to find “somewhere where I’m just a little bit better taken care of as an artist”, and across Several Songs about Fire he ponders the question to that answer: is it even possible to live as an artist anymore? Sometimes – as when he zeroes in on a homeless acquaintance who died, a recurring character, or when he sings about “the thin poly film of an envelope pane” as a harbinger of a crushing debt notice – he zooms out even further. Is it even possible to live anymore?
Savage doesn’t have an answer – who could? – but Several Songs about Fire isn’t unrelentingly bleak, as one might expect, and it’s not elegiac, as Thawing Dawn often was. It’s cosmopolitan and romantic. Savage’s music takes on a new prettiness thanks in large part to the musicians he plays with: drummer Dylan Hadley and saxophonist Euan Hinshelwood, both of Welsh musician Cate Le Bon’s band; Le Bon herself, playing piano and bass; guitarist Jack Cooper; producer John Parish, playing percussion; and Parish’s daughter, Hopey, singing backing vocals with the rest of the band. The hypnotic rhythms and unusual textures they provide – always seemingly forged in direct contrast to Savage’s distinctive, essentially American baritone – recall pastoral ’60s psych-folk confections or simmering chansons designed for dingy European rock clubs, natural zones for Savage’s witty, literary lyrics.
New York City has long coloured Savage’s work. Several Songs about Fire functions, in part, as one long lament for the New York he lived in when he moved there in 2010. “Hurtin’ or Healed”, the album’s first song, sets the scene. It finds Savage feeling an ambient sense of unwellness: seeing a gaunt reflection in the mirror, blood in his toothpaste foam, eating “popcorn and Coke every Friday like communion”. It has the soft country swing of Thawing Dawn – a sound that is emphatically rejected on most of the album – but it is a remarkably brutal song: even when Savage slips into a romantic reverie halfway through, he can still only relate it to the fact there’s no chance of him ever providing for his partner. The song’s final notes present Savage’s kind of epic invocation: “Until the hope in my soul / is just mine and not something they say that I stole / Nothing feels certain / I don’t know if I’m hurtin’ or healed”.
Savage’s writing flickers constantly between this kind of clarified straight-talking and insouciant, fragmented poetry. On the churning “Elvis in the Army”, he paints New York as a place of seaminess and failure. “Where do I go after one dozen laps / Around the sun in this town with the people it traps? / Riches and roaches come and go with ease”. There’s a sense of cynical triumph as he compares himself to “Joyce in Trieste” and notes his “heart’s disavowal / Of the suffering myth”. Set to a post-punk stomp that teeters on the edge of rockabilly, he makes leaving the city and its artistic rat-race sound like a narrow escape from a bar fight.
“Elvis in the Army” is sweeping but structurally taut, surgical in its dissection of a certain way of life. By contrast, “David’s Dead” – its title referring, I assume, to “the drunk fool on my stoop” who Savage sings of on the former track – is looser, more personal, but also a little sloppier: a word I wouldn’t ordinarily associate with Savage’s work.
It’s the kind of anti-gentrification screed that’s extraordinarily hard to pull off, and he almost gets there. After touching on the hokey tropes that usually populate these tracks – “Used to be a corner with a mural of folks / That you would see walking around / Used to be a shop where a guy could fix / Anything that had broke down” – Savage positions himself as the sole figure in this tableau who will exist after the corner shops are supplanted by high-rises, implicating himself as a gentrifying element. “You can see a stranger asking me for a buck / And you can see me saying ‘sure’,” he sings, “Because I just got the word that David’s dead / You won’t see him ask me anymore.”
It’s a functional but clumsy song, an unusual oddity on an otherwise remarkably elegant record. Savage has an amazing way with simile and metaphor; his talent lies in turns of phrase that are oblique but make innate poetic sense. Across Several Songs about Fire he nests images like a bartender walking around and stacking used pint glasses, adding more and more until the whole structure threatens to wobble and collapse. Take this verse at the beginning of “Thanksgiving Prayer”:
My money melts like sugar in the shower when I don’t sing
Like a broken mockingbird that’s put in pawn
And traded in for diamond jewelry
That shines but only briefly in the golden heart of fall
Where the afternoons wane quickly and your breath
Floats in the final beams of evening
The whole thing is like an optical illusion, a cascade of images that don’t seem connected at first glance. Threading them together reveals a kind of summation of what Savage is trying to achieve on “Thanksgiving Prayer” and Several Songs about Fire in general – a transmutation of art-making from something inherently mercantile into something essential and metaphysical.
Savage’s voice is so totally indelicate that it makes moments like these feel jolting. It’s a quality he shares with songwriters such as Bill Callahan and David Berman, balladeers whose rough-hewn voices are perfect for delivering delicate, heartbreaking missives. It’s a trick he pulls over and over on Several Songs about Fire and it never loses its surprising charm. On “Le Grand Balloon” he describes a depressive period as “a dark stretch on the road that connects my spirit to my spine” and sings of smiling “like teenagers when they’ve found a song they can’t quit singing after they get high”. To write a song is, he tells us, to “drag myself by my own jaws toward a feeling”.
Savage’s songs are wordy and sometimes dense but they almost never feel convoluted or overwrought. He’s rarely let himself play with language as much as on Several Songs about Fire and it means that most songs here feel like miniature marvels, crammed with droll details that bloom into fantastical, starry-eyed images. By “Out of Focus”, the album’s final song, the more existential questions of Several Songs about Fire have mostly slipped from view. It’s a generous, magnanimous break-up song: “All my time’s been yours till now and it’s up / So we’re both feeling down,” he sings. “Maybe in the next life, if we’re lucky.” Compared with the clinical sadness of “Hurtin’ or Healed”, it’s warm and dewy – and with that deft shift of mood, provides its own kind of answer.
FESTIVAL Melbourne Fringe
Venues in and around Naarm/Melbourne, October 3-22
MULTIMEDIA Concrete Mirrors – Constructing Systems of Dust
Land Street Gallery, Meanjin/Brisbane, October 4-21
Carriageworks, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until October 7
VISUAL ART Statement: Jack Green’s Paintings
Museum of Australian Democracy, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, until June 29
MULTIMEDIA Print Play Studio
Fremantle Arts Centre, Whadjuk Country, until October 22
INSTALLATION Borealis on the Lake
Lake Daylesford, Dja Dja Wurrung Country, until October 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Slow burning".
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