Talkhouse Contributing Writer Kathy Valentine has toured everywhere several times over, recorded major label and indie albums, done countless TV performances, and written or co-written hundreds of songs, including hits by the Go-Go’s — the band she joined at age 22 and made music history with. Kathy lives in Austin, Texas, plays guitar in “garage glam” blues band the BlueBonnets, and produces aspiring female artists. She is writing a book and screenplay while working on a degree in Fine Arts/English. She’s on Twitter and Facebook.
The first time music made me cry, it was because of the sheer melodic and soulful beauty of what I was listening to, not because the lyrics were speaking to me. It’s usually my own lyrics that leave me in tears, and these are the songs that I leave unfinished. Not because I’m afraid to show and tell (well, maybe a little), but mainly, they’ve served the purpose of taking me on a direct non-stop trip to some painful destination I’ve been putting off a visit to. These are times when songwriting is my BFF — I can shelve the pretense of being OK all the time. Growing up in my world, to be weak and hurting would be equal to complete chaos. Stoic children end up as adults with some work to do, and if we end up writing, eventually we crack open, like a tightly-sealed vise, and reveal any unclaimed desperate and despairing feelings of betrayal, abandonment, injustice, and shame (and its alter ego, blame). The pen and paper pops the top and out it spews, like a steaming overheated radiator.
But here’s the thing; I don’t want to be a gaping, open wound in my songs. I want to allude to metaphorically, allegorically, and with all the other tools I can muster — with subtlety and cleverness the morass of issues, neuroses, done-me-wrongs, heartache and heartbreaks. The conditions we also know as life.
I only saw Blue October once — I didn’t know much about them. As I wandered around the venue, I began to notice the faces in the audience, rapt, and utterly present. They were singing with the same intensity and feeling as singer Justin Furstenfeld, like human instruments linked by invisible cables through the interface of his song, his every nuance triggering a response. The connection was startling. I was curious to know more about this band with this regular-guy singer who knew how to speak to, and for, a sizable sample chunk of his generation.
That was sometime in 2008, after their 2006 breakthrough single “Hate Me.” Since I’m from Austin and they are an Austin success story, I paid more attention than I might usually pay to some band passing through the music landscape. At this point I started realizing — maybe a little late to the party — that, damn, this guy Justin Furstenfeld doesn’t fuck around. He holds NOTHING back. I was in awe. Producing a band at the time, I told their songwriter to listen to Blue October and learn what unflinching and honest and real lyrics do.
By the time Any Man in America came out, what those lyrics did to me was make me ache with sadness and cry like a baby. I’m not a thirtysomething, and I’m not a man, and I haven’t had a breakdown, but some of those songs were speaking to me and for me. When an artist can survive his life and show countless strangers everything, from his self-loathing to his murderous rage, his bitter, vindictive pettiness and his beaten-down acceptance of what is — and he can do so without becoming a one-note train wreck — then this artist has reached a rare place of complete freedom. Anything goes.
Complete freedom is also what will keep Blue October relevant. They were smart to ditch the corporate route — Sway was largely financed by a PledgeMusic campaign and released on their own Up/Down label. The audience who latched on to Blue October is going to follow them wherever they go, because honesty begets trust and trust begets loyalty and loyalty is without a doubt the best thing a band can get from their fans — way more valuable than their bucks.
So with Sway, our hero appears to have landed intact, redeemed, and saved from himself. The songs brim with reflection, introspection and insight. Anything goes, right? By way of introduction, “Breathe, It’s Over” tells us in a one-minute song that a spiritual awakening has taken place and the electronic pop of the title track confirms that there is going to be a lot more uplifted lightness than angst driving this record.
At times, the music is produced to the rafters; on “Debris,” for instance, it’s the production and performance that keep the listener engaged more than the actual song does. “Angels in Everything,” string-laden and vocal-layered, still has depth and earnestness even if it lacks the punch of a single, which instead comes in the form of “Bleed Out.” Here is where the record brings out Blue October in their epic anthem comfort zone. Moody instrumentation and arrangements that go from quietly confessional to soaring carry songs like “Fear,” “Things We Don’t Know About” and “Not Broken Anymore.” It’s thera-pop at its best, telling the classic story arc of a man who has lost and now is found.
My personal favorite songs on Sway are clumped together: tracks 8-11. I’m ready to rock when the gritty “Hard Candy” chugs through a repeating cycle of verse, pre-chorus and refrain. “Put It In” is the song I most look forward to hearing live, with a whole shitload of words fitting into a great melody and plenty of band power driving it along. “Light You Up” and “Things We Do at Night” reveal the underlying snarl that hasn’t quite been obliterated by the feel-good themes of hope and regeneration.
It’s worth noting that for a band revered for its lyrics, some of the best hooks are wordless syllables: the primal ooh-ooh that punctuates every line on “Hard Candy” and the whoahs are the payoff at the end, the instantly sing-along melody of ahs that closes “Fear.” And the last track, “To Be,” is lyric-less but not without words. It leaves no doubt that, ahem, steps are being taken to right the wrongs of the past and to trust that to be “happy, joyous and free” is an attainable and worthy goal.
As I approach my own 25 years of sobriety I recognize and remember shedding the old responses and reactions that don’t work once you’re living life on life’s terms. I also remember the songs I wrote — my therapy in the early years. They were hideous embarrassments that served one purpose only: to show me that creative channels are a way of finding and being my true self. That Justin Furstenfeld can document, reveal and share who he is, no matter how ugly or pretty it gets, and that Blue October can make the journey more than a singer-songwriter’s inward musings is no easy feat. It’s being of service in the best way that an artist can be. And I am reminded that as painful as it is to feel your own feelings sometimes, to write them down without vague allusions and opaque references, in the guise of leaving meaning open to interpretation — this is as brave as a songwriter can get. In “Things We Do at Night,” Furstenfeld intones:
I know exactly what the fuck I’m doing.
Everyday I wake up
Knowing what and who I’m pursuing.”