I saw Richmond Fontaine at The Tunnels in Bristol on Monday as they tour their final album and as a band for the last time. The Richmond Fontaine discography is considerable and it plots over time their punkrock roots, but most importantly the memorable songs written by Willy Vlautin. His musical narratives with this band, and also The Delines, tell stories as evocative as those of his novels, and of course there are reflections of themes and motifs across all. This latest album is very much a part of that continuing literary significance, as well as musically superb: as seen in a live performance of the song A Night in the City above.
In all our worlds, time advances inexorably – it is a simple law of nature – but in Vlautin’s and that inhabited by his many personas, that ‘progress’ forward is not as the cliché would have it, even if ironically, a move to betterment. Invariably, it is about dissolution, or at best, change: but it is never the same. As the album title tells us – and I am sure the line is directly or indirectly stated in many of Vlautin’s songs over the years with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines – you can’t go back. You can physically and therefore literally, but if you do, things will not be the same and they will most likely be worse, in most cases depressingly so.
Documenting such a harsh reality, as Vlautin will do from the caustic to the tenderly empathetic, is the forward momentum of this final album from his long-standing band Richmond Fontaine, and one presumes that having made this decision to end, he and the others will not go back. In many ways, all of the song-narratives are brutal, but there are those that take observation to its plainest honesty, and even the music refuses to offer plaintive sympathies to sooth the story-line. That’s how it is with the third on this album, I Got Off the Bus, and even before we listen we know the narrator has returned somewhere that should have been left in its past:
Our protagonist has returned home where a ‘friend’ said he’d pick him up, but doesn’t show; he makes his own way to Little Mexico, once a small street but now a sprawl that never ends; he calls a girl he used to know, a nurse, who had a place on 7th Street, but her dad says she has moved and is married, living in Stockton with her baby, and the dad says he remembers him, but the narrator knows he is lying; he wakes up from a sleep somewhere to see a policeman standing over me [the chorus]; he goes to the movies but falls asleep there where a nervous 16 year old tells him he has to leave; the narrator – perhaps seeing himself in the boy – reflects you can’t go back if there’s nowhere to go back to; he goes to sit by the river where the sky was full of stars and the water was rust and the night was never ending; then there is a return to the chorus and he tells the policeman I didn’t mean to run out of everything but the policeman replies he doesn’t care as long as the narrator got out of there, and the song draws musically, and simply so, to its close.
This isn’t lyrical, but it is realistic, a tale told in the nothingness of its ordinariness but which touches because of that. The music here is more backdrop to the delivery than a mimetic carrier, and that gives it its own significance amongst the other stories of drifters and losers who reflect on their loss and misery. However – and this grows with the listening again and again – other songs are transferred with a greater musical partnership, this often conveyed through the inherent yearning of pedal steel, as with fourth Whitey and Me.
There are two songs that stand out for me in this memorable whole of such emotive storytelling, and the first is I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up and Remember. Rather than paraphrase the narrative – you will know its despairing reflection – it is Vlautin’s wholly empathetic vocal that pains here, the constant inflections upwards mirroring the hurt, it seems, and a beautiful wordless chorus line – also the guitar vibrato that slowly follows. The musical build-up to that cooed chorus – drums and bass so gently worked to offset the relative crescendo, and a brooding synth backdrop like we hear in Springsteen’s similar slow ballads – is unsettling.
The second is the penultimate song on the album, A Night in the City, and the pedal steel here, played by Paul Brainard, conveys the haunted telling again of unhappy living, this time the narrator breaking routine in some useless hope of the different and better: for once I didn’t go home after shift, called my wife and said I’d be late, every day it gets harder to go home after work, so he instead and ironically goes to the home of a workmate where his life is the same or worse, and the rest of the escape from this monotony is a tale of ordinary woe, and here the relentless slow beat of the drum drives to the mean poetry of the chorus the night in the city, oh the city at night [having arrived as listeners in a musical crescendo again], this symmetry offering no more than its platitude and this rhetorical question: is this all there is, is this what life is, a job that means nothing, a woman who sleeps right next to you – and she ain’t yours at all….?
It is hard to know/describe the engagement one has as a listener to this despair without redemption of any kind [though the music, of course, in all its – there is no other word – plaintive glory does affect] and the best answer I have is its utter honesty. For a final album, Richmond Fontaine as a band and Willy Vlautin as a songwriter have never been better, especially in their musically melancholic but memorable evocation of lives that are never better for being lived, compelling us as listeners to engage with this certainty even though we believe it will never happen to us.