The Golden Beast of Love

photo by Matt Pence photo by Matt Pence

photo by Matt Pence

photo by Matt Pence

I have loved single songs off of probably every album Will Johnson has attached his name to. Multiple songs off of many of them. But I have always treated them as “one-offs” that are keyed to a particular mood. Of Centro-Matic’s albums my favorites are Fort Recovery and Love You Just the Same and I really enjoyed the recent Candidate Waltz–it was almost an 80s album with what seems to me more attention paid to the progression from song to song. And I think “Feel to Young to Die” off of South San Gabriel’s Carlton Chronicles is one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard and maybe only “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” off of Johnson’s Vulture’s Await is its emotional equal for me. Of course, the fact that it’s on an album titled Vulture’s Await and that title song follows it probably gives you as sense that when Johnson sings, “When you’re not around, nothing makes a sound,” that “nothing” is more present than anything else.

And I suppose we have to see these prior full albums as an expression of the realization of annihilation. Oceanic tides do the work of erasure (but, as Jenny Lewis sings on Rilo Kiley’s “Spectacular Views,” the tides might also “give things their turn”); and the natural process of, well, ingestion, does await us all, be it in the craw of the vulture or the maw of the tomb. But…Little Raider, an EP released about a year before Scorpion (both on Undertow), suggests a new turn.

Perhaps this is why I like Will Johnson’s work. He suggests what Hawthorne said of Melville:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists-and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before-in wandering to-and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us (Eng NB, Vol II, 163).

The “raider” is the puny human will and though puny, it’s what we’ve got. Which is to say that with these most recent Will Johnson albums there is, if not hope, an acquiescence to and memorialization of the human will to be, to say “I am.” There is desperation here to be sure, because “to live on” requires another form of ingestion…we have to be valued and remembered.

Little Raider‘s “To Place Me On a Stone” makes something of this point, and maybe Johnson is making this point for himself.

Always walking wise, always breathing strong
the summer’s quiet sheen says, honey, don’t be long
you can hold me in your hands or place me on a stone
the summer’s quiet heat says, honey, don’t be long

you can fall into a loving song by the river strong
for the summer has its way with us so, honey, don’t be long

I might also suggest that the “raider” is a kind of vagabond or desperado, an itinerant presence that seems natural to attribute to a songwriter who seems always to be at work, and that I think this is carried over into Scorpion.

Itinerant, but the movement carries meaning. And the album as whole seems unified by a kind of mythos present in the both the music and the lyrics, which, as always with Johnson, stresses the self-inflicted solitariness of the subject as he keeps on moving.

Another indication of the album’s strength as a whole is that I find it hard to discuss one song without also detailing elements from others.

Enough of preface, after yesterday’s post about the title track “Scorpion” we should begin at the beginning with “You Will Be Here, Mine.”

This song begins the way many of Johnson’s songs do, one tone-setting note and then the lyric begins with Johnson’s tone-setting voice. You should listen and then I’ll share a few thoughts at the end.

You Will Be Here, Mine

I stumble all around
with every given day
just a full time, grown up fool

and everything I have
will be everything I give
and I’ll run it right to you

but when there’s time…

anything can last
if everyone will try
it’s justified

and I recall the nights
when you would start to fade
and you’d say…

you said “when there’s time…
you will be here, mine.”

and now we’re left with this
what to do
with the golden beast of love?

save it, and save it hard
say it’s all to be
’cause I know

when there’s time
in given time…
you will be here, mine

As Johnson has said, he will often write songs around “a coupling of words or a word that I’ll really get fixated on,” and here and throughout it’s “time” and “give(n).”

The structure of the phrase is an odd one, “you will be here, mine.” (We might even read it “You, Will, be here, mine.”) It’s interesting how much it can look like a hackneyed Valentine’s candy phrase but be so full of real, almost desperate meaning. And as I think many of the songs to come are stories of relationships between men and women with the men as miners I could almost read the line as indicating that the Mine has as much “hold” on the singer (something he will be tangled in–love and labor) as the lover.

Whatever the truth of this relationship it is clearly one that is difficult if Love is a Golden Beast in conception–both shiny and valuable but so destructive. And come to think of it, that is often exactly the truth of love for so many.

“Everything I have will be everything I give” is another truth…but it’s unclear if this amounts to very much or if it’s “only” a promise “in given time.” Promises made by a scorpion after all.

While the lyric does very important and subtle work–the real power is in the way it is phrased by Johnson and the way it grows in musical strength and insistence. It is a very powerful song. And I almost believe there is a real desire for love here.

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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