love songs

mostly love is about failure, and also dad rock

On Saturday there were fireflies in the park. It was dusk and everything was green, the big buildings sweeping up the corner of the view. Almost everyone else had left the stretch of lawn where I’d been sitting, and the fireflies came out like they had been waiting for the picnickers to vacate their space, little neon green-yellow sparks appearing and disappearing just above the top of the grass. As soon as I thought I knew when to look, they blinked out, and reappeared next where I didn’t expect them. I just stood there, soaking in it. I had a picnic blanket under my arm, the one I bought last year when the park was the only available place to go to see friends. It’s one of those blankets with plastic on the bottom so it can sit on muddy grass, or tree roots, or whatever other imperfect thing the lawn actually is when it only looks like clean lawn from a distance. I had a bag full of empty cans and half-finished snacks and when the fireflies appeared I was sweaty and uncomfortable in my clothes, the way bodies feel the wrong shape and size in the heat, too much and not enough at once. 

Fireflies always look suburban to me, or at least firmly not of a city. Surely there can’t be fireflies here, on the upper west side of Manhattan, in this narrow park surrounded by high-rise homes and famous people and cruelty and speed, in this place where everything has to be fast and mean and smooth and angry. Fireflies belong to small-town adolescence, long twilights and first loves, holding hands with neighborhood kids and running in late through a softening dark, the kind of childhood nobody actually has. Fireflies exist in the lives of people who fell in love early and got to learn its language slowly, doing their stumbling with other stumbling people, growing up into the story of bodies in the way people are supposed to, doing formative things at formative times. I know nobody actually has this, but I spend most summers longing backward toward it anyway.

The Saturday when I saw the fireflies was the day after Lucy Dacus’s new album, Home Video, came out, and I hadn’t stopped listening to it for nearly twenty-four hours. I had gone to meet a friend in the park, and I took the longest possible route there in order to spend more time listening to Home Video. When I finally showed up, my friend was listening to it, too, and the first thing we talked about was how much it had destroyed us. We were ecstatic about bad it had made us feel, scrambling over each other’s words to share which song had punched us in the heart the hardest.

Matt Berninger of The National—still, unfortunately and forever, my favorite band—once described going full-time with the band as “quitting my job to go write love songs” and it made the thing I had never really articulated about why I love that band so much and so persistently, in spite of how absolutely fucking embarrassing it is to do so, finally make sense. I had tried to make up fancy and convoluted reasons— dads, therapy, apologizing, horniness but feeling bad about it, wine bars—to summarize this band and why their music compels me in such an outsize way, and here it was in the absolute simplest possible language: Oh right, of course, it’s love songs. The one and only thing I like. Almost every time I really like an album, it starts to become clear that this is the umbrella under which it lives, the thing it shares with every other album I’ve ever played until all the feeling frayed out of it.

Dacus is young, and her songs are about being younger. Home Video is a reckoning with a particular section of personal history, the moment when a new emotion feels like all the lights have been turned on in the house or the technicolor has flooded into the movie. It’s about that early juncture when, all at once, you can actually hear love songs for the first time. Suddenly, love songs are everywhere, taking over the room and the car and the blacktop and the grocery store and the mall and the sky and the small rooms in which your parents shuffle around in their lives. At any minute now somebody will hold eye contact with you and you will break out of the smallness of old rooms into whatever all the love songs are promising.

Home Video is an album of love songs which is to say it’s an album about the past. This doesn’t mean that all the songs are about pleasant relationships, or requited feelings, or even mutual attraction. They focus on formative experiences, which means both that they inhabit the genre of love songs, and that as many of the songs deal with harm as with infatuation. One available way to read Home Video is that each of the tracks is a memory, and many of those memories are about unrequited love, or adolescent hand-holding, or youthful flirtation, or the collision of bodies with bodies and the un-enacted longing of bodies for other bodies that they never touch. But many of them are about pain and recrimination as well, because these things make up equal parts of our formative experiences. The album lingers on the kind of early things — secret-keeping, and desire, and kindness, and bad family dynamics, and friendships that were never really friendship but couldn’t call themselves romance because they had no language for it on offer—that get printed into new wet clay and form someone’s whole life, indentations left there forever. Home Video depicts the years that are supposed to be the best ones, and never are, that are supposed to be free from responsibilities or anxieties, and are exactly the opposite. It is about the early love I imagine when I see fireflies in the park, and the hard-floor truths underneath it. It’s love songs. 

Love songs are about being young, which doesn’t mean that they can only be written by young people, or even that they have to be about experiences had at a certain age. Last summer, the album I couldn’t stop listening to, the album that carried me through that whole compulsive, nervous season, was Paul Simon’s Concert in The Park from 1991, a live album that pulses with the wet green end of the summer. Like everything Paul Simon ever recorded, it is full of love songs. Simon is old, or middle-aged anyway, in 1991, and his songs are very specifically about being middle-aged. Everybody is getting divorced, everybody going to obnoxious dinner parties at rich people’s apartments, everybody is remembering their youth, or buying art, or going on desultory second honeymoons, or meeting up at expensive restaurants to have quiet arguments. Everyone is a dad, losing their hair, paying bills, thinking of old loves, and having regrets. But all of Paul Simon’s best songs are love songs. Love songs are why Graceland is a perfect album, and why the 1991 Central Park concert is the kind of album you could spend a whole summer listening to on repeat, buoyed back and forth across long sweaty walks, lost in your headphones. 

Simon’s songs are hugely sentimental, and they know that that sentimentality is embarrassing and unsustainable. Simon’s character in the songs tries clumsily to cover up this sentimentality with cynicism or sophistication or just generally being a jerk. He fails every time, which is how you know these are love songs. Love songs are about failure, which is why even the saddest ones are hopeful, lifted up by an against-the-odds forward motion.

Simon looks backward again and again to old love affairs, but it’s the naive belief that he might gain something from all that backward-glancing that makes the songs feel young even when they’re all talking about being old, and even when the singer has not been young for a long time. Love songs are hoping to fail; love is a ruinous and unlikely prospect. It offers little in the way of material gain, it is inefficient and wasteful, wasteful of time, of resources, of energy, of our hearts and our long days that get shorter as we use them up by mooning over somebody who isn’t even all that special. 

The ecstasy of Simon’s songs, where they really reach their full expression, is the parts where love fails, where shit does not work out, where Carrie Fisher is never coming home again. There’s an optimistic masochism to love songs, the willingness to enjoy something from which we will gain nothing, seeking out failure just for the joyride of it. Much of the language of infatuation and crushes (not in these albums necessarily, but in culture in general) is about obliteration: I would let her ruin my life, and I want them to destroy me, and other off-hand pronouncements of the desire to get run over by a car or get otherwise murdered by the object of one’s affection. Love songs are about youth even when old people sing them and write them because they are about the willingness to fail and the hope of being destroyed. Love songs assume there is always more in the future, and that failure is worth it. Love is so stupid, says Hera Lindsay Bird in a poem I talk about too much, but being stupid on purpose is a way to defy the accumulation of time. A love song means refusing to take anything, even one’s own dignity or the safety of one’s own heart, all that seriously. Love songs rush into failure, giddy for the brief experience of being obliterated by love.

Dacus’s previous album, 2019, contained several dad rock covers, offering brilliant versions of Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark and Phil Collin’s In The Air Tonight. That influence surfaces in an unlikely way in Home Video, which uses some of the musical tropes of dad rock to tell very different love stories than those songs might tell. But they’re love stories all the same. Dacus is writing dad rock and doing it better than the dads which means she’s writing love songs, and means an unlikely thread can be pulled from her newest album to something like Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. These catchy, musically complex, evasive personal histories are love songs, shrugging at failure, and running up toward the big feelings, hoping to be once again obliterated by them. They live in the place where the ruination of love sounds like the crashing kick-in after a song builds and builds and builds and finally gives in, opening up into brightness. 

I had the first track of Home Video, a lush earworm of a pop song, Dacus doing Carly Rae Jepsen one better, stuck in my head as I walked home through the gathering dusk. It felt of a piece with the fireflies hanging around the green side of the street. All of it was somebody else’s story, a formative and sentimental idea of a summer nobody really has. My version of love is old, and weighed down with logistics, emails and grocery lists, keeping appointments and negotiating space in a small apartment. I should have been annoyed at myself; I should have been doing something more productive with my day. The love song in my headphones and the little bugs rhinestoning the park had no bearing on the realities of love when it lengthens out into domesticity. But maybe that was why I wanted to marinate in it, returning for a moment to the wasteful and pointless version of love, the place where all the songs start. I wanted to use up my emotions for no good reason, to pretend it all cost nothing. I lingered in the soupy weather, in my sweaty headphones, in all the luxurious velvety failure of a love song, until it got dark enough to give up and go inside. 

thanks for reading. this is the weekly free edition of griefbacon. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? I’ve been writing a long piece about couches in several parts, and I’ll get back to the final piece of that next week, but I loved Home Video so much that I wanted to take this week to write about it while it’s still new. Next week there’ll be a final all-together-now couch essay, and then after that there’ll be some stuff about basketball, mostly, but maybe also other things. There’ll be a Saturday subscriber-only edition this week (we’re back after a few weeks off for various reasons), and those will be more plentiful going forward. It’ll be something weird, probably. I hope to see you there; if you’d like to subscribe but can’t afford it, you can always email me. If you’d like to buy a gift subscription for a friend, you can do that here. If you’d like to take a long moody walk around the park, I really can’t recommend that Paul Simon album enough. go listen to some love songs. xo

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