The Long Winters’ frontman/songwriter John Roderick is a smartass. Meaning he is both intelligent and an ass. But Roderick only acts like an ass because of his superhuman modesty. He wants you to believe he’s just one of the guys, when in fact he’s infinitely smarter than “the guys” and also happens to be one of the best lyricists in music today. No bet-hedging qualifiers like “indie music made in the Pacific Northwest,” just music—the profession of folks like Leonard Cohen, Patty Griffin, Elvis Costello and Matt Berninger.
Roderick’s lyrics are cheeky, meaning that if you pay attention, they carry enough emotional weight to send tears rolling down your cheeks. And they’re cryptic, meaning you’ll still be relishing his wordplay when you’re senile, incontinent and look like The Crypt Keeper.
I loved The Long Winters’ music from the very first listen, but it took me a while to realize just how good a writer Roderick really is. When guitar hooks are this catchy, you don’t have to write amazing lyrics. People are too busy enjoying the pretty, shiny guitars to care what you have to say, anyway. And it’s probably safer to block out Roderick’s lyrics because the dude stuffs his sonic strudels full of razor blades. You swallow them down and lick your fingers, but it’s only when you start to digest what he’s saying that the sentiment begins slicing up your insides.
Here are my five favorite lyrics from The Long Winters’ newest album, Putting The Days To Bed, which came out on Barsuk records in 2006. Disclaimer #1: I included two passages from the same song because it’s a stupefyingly good song. Disclaimer #2: And I had to narrow this exercise down to just the newest album because that’s the one you’re going to drive out this afternoon and buy if you know what the hell is good for you. Then I’m going to give a quick explanation of what they mean to me. Feel free to leave a comment if they happen to mean something to you as well.
5. “Are you still training for the big race / By hoping the runners will die?” (“Hindsight”)
You know how stung you feel when a relationship ends? When you’re constantly cooking up these haymaking verbal jabs in your mind that you might one day have an opportunity to sneak into casual conversation. Maybe when you bump into each other several months later in the street and you nonchalantly rattle off this question right in front of her new lover. Then when she stands there dumbfounded, you just turn around and walk away and keep eating from your bag of Cheetos, grinning. At least that’s how it plays in your mind.
4. “My arms miss you / My hands miss you.” (“Ultimatum”)
The lover being addressed in this song sounds like a terrible, awful human being. And yet there’s something utterly relatable about the lyric in question. The physical ache of needing to hold, squeeze, fondle someone you love. Even when that person is trouble. Even when loving that person feels like trying to dunk a testy feline into a bucket of soapy water.
3. “Tower likes to fall and cream likes to spoil / Everything living tries to get back to the soil.” (“Clouds”)
It’s not the indie-rock lesson on entropy that gets me here, but the enthusiasm that living things alleged feel for the process of dissolution. Who knows, maybe he’s right and death is like getting to sleep in forever and ever. Sounds pretty good.
2. “Did you see me the way I imagined? / Every eyelash a picket or a wire / Did you tease me when I went out of fashion / And your interest in me had expired?” (“Seven”)
Are you devastated yet? One of the more straightforward lyrics on the record, but the mountain of looming backstory here is what staggers the mind. Only the loss of a truly special love can reduce someone to this kind of torturous self-doubt. Another lesson in entropy—the romantic variety this time around.
1. “If you're my anchor then I'm throwing you over the side / Before I have the time to say / I never wanted anyone this way / But I'm smoking cigarettes when no one else does / And if I hold you now will I be holding a snowball / When the season changes and I'm craving the sun” (“Hindsight”)
I've changed my mind. I don’t think I’m going to follow up this passage with any interpretation. I’ll just let the taste linger on your tongue. A gorgeous, devastating ditty, this one. The following video is only the first minute of the song, but you'll get the idea.