Middle age may be discovered in that moment when life’s surprises are no longer viewed with hope but with trepidation, when dreams focus on the past, not the future. Tom House’s third and most fully realized album explores what comes after with rare grace and candor.
House writes hard songs that don’t blink and sings them in a reedy voice, something like a rusty weapon glinting in dim light. Yes, he’s a poet first, and certainly he knows there’s no fame in his future, just more hard work and the hope that his records will matter once he’s gone. (They will.)
Very hard songs. “Sister’s Song” presumably (given its title) finds House singing from the perspective of a woman who turns away from her long-lost brother, crossing the street to avoid seeing the shell that heroin left behind. And yet she stops to look in the mirror of a shop window, and to remember tenderly their childhood. Tough love, delicately rendered, but House’s voice never breaks.
Well, love is tough in House’s world. The next song, “The Cold Hard Curve Of A Question Mark”, takes place in a featureless hotel room, an anonymous couple clinging to each other against the solitude of the night, deciding where to wake up. House’s own choice — his day job takes him to a variety of towns, and he mostly stays in hotels when at home in Nashville — is made explicit in “Driving Round Houston”: “I like passing out in cold dark rooms alone/Waking up not even knowing what town I’m in.”
These are, of course, drinking songs. The album’s centerpiece, “Long Hard Drinking”, is a hopelessly catchy tune that fairly asks to be a sing-along, but the chorus rings out “This long hard drinking/is finally sinking in,” and the words are hardly the life-affirming celebration the music otherwise suggests.
No wonder there’s a fair amount of drinking in these songs (“He’s a rounder and a rover/and a good friend of mine,” House sings in “The Black Sheep”). Charles Bukowski probably gave drunks a bad name; certainly, he ruined at least one generation of young poets. House doesn’t write with Bukowski’s beat sensibility, nor do his portraits have Bukowski’s lurid machismo. There is no glamour in these songs, just a certain resolve to find a way to get through the night and to wake up the next morning, more or less intact.
On the television this morning, a smiling spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce affirmed that everybody in America who wanted to work had a great job. As I write this, the World Trade Organization is meeting in Seattle, and the streets of my old hometown, and of London town, are filled with protesters creating chaos. The perplexed suits would do well to listen to the stories House sings, but his characters are too complex for a miniseries, or a briefing paper.
It’s all supported by a jaunty, acoustic band (Tommy Goldsmith and Pat McLaughlin presiding), with backing vocals from Tomi Lunsford and a guest spot from Sam Bush.