Things with layers: ogres, onions, parfait, and Lake Street Dive’s Free Yourself Up. It weaves politics disguised as love into almost every track, and ties them together with threads of jazz, funk, rock, blues, soul, and mid-20th century pop.
Baby Don’t Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts falls well within the lineage of soul songs that while ostensibly about romance are actually socio-political critique (if not legit activism). There’s great sexual overlay in “I’m not above using you to get me through the night,” but it’s coating for trying to survive and advance this presidency (“People out there crackin’ up, crackin’ up, and I’m just tryin’ to keep it together”).
Indeed, everything is trash and we, the people, are litterers as well as receptacles. Some of the critique of that is obvious. “An old man—an old man—has got his little hands on the button” is a poke at 45’s insecurities—and not just as blame, but also to paint him as symptom.
With the elevation of her security, her good, above his needs, there’s feminism in these layers too. Because of course she may use sex to cope with the “prison of the present time.” Clap-clap-bravo to her being explicit that “This is not about love.”
This song is packed, because notwithstanding all the above, there’s also what feels like a personal shout out to my own solvency for tinnitus: “Hold you so that I don’t hear the ringing in my head.” America being in a toilet spiral or not, not wanting to be left alone with my thoughts—wanting distraction—is wildly relatable.
In Good Kisser, our protagonist ends up subjected to the whisper network (“Now, everybody’s talkin’ bout me”), because of some guy’s desperate whispers to her. It’s a throw-your-middle-fingers-to-the-sky kind of song. I love it as a spin on his public relations operation (“Cuz you would dirty me up just to get yourself clean”). Because while it’s an affair they both regret, the burden of the guilt is left to her. So, with an implicit threat, she lets him know she’s not here for the redactions she’s heard through the grapevine: “You’ve got your story, and you know I’ve got mine.”
As easily as Shame, Shame, Shame is about a regretted lover, it also reads like impeach, impeach, impeach. With “Change is comin’,” it’s probably an homage to Sam Cooke’s classic. That hope for change segues into the wondrous I Can Change.
Hate is a lie. It’s “an old battle that clings on like vine to me, whispers dirty lies in my ear.” That cling is the passage of time, the concession of its appeal, the ease with which it repeatedly persuades. We deserve this song. We deserve its explicit reminder that we’re not (usually) as separate from the things we decry as we convince ourselves we are.
But there’s hope for us yet: to recognize the habits that keep us from better patterns, to dismiss the comfort of fear, and, in so doing, to avoid the discomfort, the harm, our fears cause others. That’s why “I can still change” is refrain with no end. The earnest promise of a better tomorrow is worth the uncertainty of whether we’ll be able to keep it (“I am scared that I won’t get it right”).
That line from Dude—a funked-up, rock run a la Bey’s If I Were a Boy—hurts. Having to define yourself to someone (or something) that otherwise only understands you as service to them? That hurts. It also pairs well with the funky, jealous Red Light Kisses (whose theme, fighting off competition, reminds me of Miranda Lambert’s Priscilla).
Doesn’t Even Matter Now reminds me of April Smith and the Great Picture Show’s Drop Dead Gorgeous. But its real story is gender-based inequality: “You got to be excused... but I still stand accused” (Clinton much?); “I’m blameless, yet somehow I’m still on the hook;” and “When a breakup’s on the table, the lady’s always called unstable.”
You Are Free’s chorus is an explosion. On the spectrum of like-it-never-happened to go-fuck-yourself, “You are free” is much closer to the latter. So, since she’s given him chance after chance, there’s a swell when she offers him a choice: Commit, make a genuine effort of it come what may (“And if in hindsight, it’s a mistake, at least we tried”), and see if you can earn my love. She’s focused, not forgiving.
“Did you want me at home more?” “Did you want more alone time?” Musta Been Something nails the way we hyperexamine. “Memories twist the light” is impeccable, because yeah: they’ll cast shadows where there couldn’t have been.
It’s unfair reflection, though. Holding a mirror up to parts we can’t change isn’t self-help. Amongst fair questions (e.g., “I don’t know why I didn’t tell you what I meant”), she slips in blame where it shouldn’t be: “Was I callin’ you up every night when I needed you?”
The album closes with Hang On. She may even prefer much of the love she’s letting go (“You brought me to another world where the cryin’s done”). But it’s not enough for her to stay.
It may be all game, though. The implicit vow in “Hang on; first, I gotta go and break a heart” is only a whisper that she’ll “be back again another day.” And, of course, if the fire burned as fiercely as she claims, I bet she’d be back sooner than someday.
May 4, 2018
Dan Knobler · Lake Street Dive
Bridget Kearney · Mike Calabrese · Mike “McDuck” Olson · Rachael Price