Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Shawn Biggs
Riding around on a winter day that could never have been considered a winter day, listening to the "New Multitudes" album that Jim James, Will Johnson, Jay Farrar and Anders Parker made using unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics, I wrote the word "DWELL" on the topside of my hand, at a stoplight. When I did it, having to retrace over the letters a few times, with the ballpoint pen's tip not behaving well with the oily texture of the skin right away, it made a lot of sense as a point of reference. It dawned on me and I was proud of thinking a certain thought that tied all of the songs and men together nicely. This morning, the letters were mostly faded from the hand and the reason for the word being there had faded some, but then it came right back once the music started playing again. It could just be that these four songwriters endeavored with this project because they've always felt there to be a connection between what they believe to be the true sadness and the true happiness in life to the same that the late Mr. Guthrie did.
There was always sadness in the words that Guthrie wrote, just as with any man being genuinely honest with himself would have. He looked and he listened and he wrote with great humility and with an expansive grasp on humanity and the calamities that it can't seem to find its way of avoiding or diminishing all that much. They carry on, while they suffer and rejoice in all of the ways that they know. They find a good woman and they try to be true to her. They apologize when they've done wrong - and they always know when they've done wrong. There's a firmness to the pride that you hear in the lyrics that James, Johnson, Farrar and Parker worked with, writing the music to make them cut as deeply as they desired to cut. The words chronicle men with addictions and with problems, men who have no problems with eating crow when they've fucked up. They are men who felt that they once had simple lives and they want them back again. They know that most things are conspiring against them as they dwell in a world where the best looking parts are ones that are feared to be gone forever, back there with their good knees and the only girl they ever really loved.
Guthrie writes a lament like, "Old LA, it's a pretty good place to be/Looks good/To me," and it comes out as a beautiful love note, but one of pain and a recognition that it's something that can never be rekindled. These four contemporary songwriters have all built their reputations around similar feelings to the ones that Guthrie exhibits here: those of desperate, but mindful longing and a fears of both life and death that come and go, or alternate with one another. Given the day, it's death that's scarier. Given another day, it's the living part that couldn't be more frightening and has them tied up in knots. There are two songs near the end of "New Multitudes" where the two deviations are shown in succession. Guthrie writes, "Tomorrow's chances feel like a singing gun," and that's where the rub has always been and what must have made these unused words so attractive to these men.