Will Johnson’s 2012 album Scorpion is a beautiful work. Each listening will deepen your experience. When asked in an interview on WFHB’s “Firehouse Sessions“–by me–about the titles of his “Will Johnson” albums (rather than those of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel) having much to do with danger and death (Murder of Tides, Vultures Await, Scorpion), Johnson admitted to the “somber” aspects and then pointed out that the scorpion was a creature common to his Texas home:
Sometimes I’ll find a coupling of words or a word that I’ll really get fixated on…growing up in Texas we encountered scorpions so regularly they were such a part of our daily life so often…there was always something enchanting about them to me as a kid of course I never wanted to get to close but there was something really majestic about the way that they’re built and the way they’re laid out and they’re kind of beautiful but they’re also very terrifying at the same time.
It turns out this album, which to me seems one of his most conceptually unified works, was “almost an accident”; having studio time planned for another project that fell through (a hip-hop album with Picasso!), he just made use of the time that he’d already paid for at the studio. Perhaps that “made in one moment” accident is what gives the songs their sense of connectedness. More on that as I continue to think through the songs. But let’s start, not at the beginning of the album’s songs but with the title track, “Scorpion.”
Listen to “Scorpion.” Here are the lyrics:
honey, war is woven in our touch
but there’s promise in our sleep
your warmth is strangled by the clutch
of winter’s long release
Lola, call out to me from above
and give to me your trust
untangle from your devil vines
(from) your want to not believe
scorpion today awaits
to threaten and to rush
with a tail to swing at all we built
the hope for you and me
and maybe it’s just not our time
and maybe it’s to be
or maybe it’s just what you get
what you get…for loving me*
I can’t say anything about the human relationship that we get a glimpse at here–except I suppose that it’s expressing something destructive. “Lola” has trusted the speaker of the lyric who must be the “scorpion.” You probably know Aesop’s fable; it’s as brief as the song:
The Scorpion and the Frog
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The
frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion
says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of
paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”
Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”
So that’s what we have here as well. We are what we are. And I think that the structure of the repeating musical phrase in the song (it begins the song and recurs throughout) in which the same notes are repeated encompassed by changes on top of them reflect the truth of all of us. We are “our nature”–those same repeated notes–no matter how different we might act to friends, family, co-workers, strangers–we are those same primary notes. They may be beautiful, but they also may reveal something terrifying and destructive, just as Johnson describes the scorpions of his boyhood in Texas.
I do have to say that the first line of the song is a perfection; and forgive me if the line “your want to not believe” reminds me somewhat of what Hawthorne said of Melville.
Here’s a youtube of a live version that is much different.
I’ll assert that these songs are, even if the product of happy accident, deliberate and beautiful, and I’d suggest that in this album Will Johnson seems at ease with both his lyric self and his musical self. That is, the beauty, desolation, and darkness in the music and lyrics (and Johnson’s surprising and distinctive voice) are perfectly in harmony on this album.
The opening track (“You Will Be Here, Mine”) ought to be considered alongside of “Scorpion” but I’ll leave that for another post.
Aside: As I had Johnson captive in the studio’s at WFHB I asked him to read a quote from the Modernist French composer Edgard Varèse about the music of the Italian Futurists for the Books Unbound program about the poet Mina Loy. I am thankful to say, he happily agreed.
*I posted the lyrics as they are on Johnson’s web site but I altered the last line to appear as it is sung, with the repetition of “what you get.”