Willy Vlautin’s Lyrics of Despair

delines imperial - copy

Willy Valutin’s latest The Delines album The Imperial is lyrically as it always is – an encapsulation of a world-weary, blue collar reality. The ‘beauty’ of a starkly sustained expression of such is in the music: songcraft, obviously, but most precisely with this group [rather than previous, Richmond Fontaine], the vocal of Amy Boone, and the band, notably here in the horn laments and their soul-infused layers.

In tracing the narrative focus of the lyrics we can see how Vlautin never adorns – and I mean ‘lyrically’ as in beautification of language/expression – but always captures the heavy burden of having lives destined to failure and sorrow. That we learn to strongly empathise comes from the honesty of that and its relentlessness, how the characters do not feel sorry for themselves but just live it [and I would not necessarily say endure], and then of course how, crucially for The Delines’ pair of releases, Amy Boone gives it a direct voice.

Opener Cheer Up Charley does not exactly elicit the empathy I am arguing for, but it sets an immediate ordinariness to the struggle

Cheer up Charley
You know your wife
She ain’t coming back
And I know she broke you
And it breaks my heart
To see you laid so flat
You’re using up all your vacation days
If you lose your job on the docks
It’s a job you’ll never get back
So come on cheer up Charley
Cheer up Charley

Interestingly here, there is an external voice offering its support and sympathy when this is not usually the case in the storytelling. What matters here is our awareness of the emptiness of that exhortation to cheeriness for Charley. It won’t happen. It can’t happen.

Second, the album’s title song, is another dialogue – or actually singular address to our new persona – and its closing stanza/chorus wraps up the inevitability in one reference to cause

The Imperial Apartment 315
Imperial all those nights just you and me
Imperial we were living on clean money
Imperial before your cousin came to town
And you all got involved
In that deal that went south
Imperial you and me
Why did you do it?
Why did you do that to me?

and the rest is the inexorableness of effect. The apartment is – I want to say metaphor, but it’s too real for that – a small impersonal place of habitation, a place for everyperson and not a home or environment for building a future when relationships break down either out of losing a connection or it being disrupted by outside influence.

Next in a trio of opening hard-luck accounts, Where Are You Sonny?, the opening verse sets our scene of separation, where

We park in the lot at Walgreens
You get out and slam the door and leave
A pint of Crown Royal you throw back
At the car and me
Windshield cracks
A woman carrying a baby walks by
Next to me there’s an old couple
Whose car won’t start
And the snow keeps drifting down

and Sonny isn’t seen again, so life – to whatever parameters of ordinariness it ever was – has changed forever. In that one moment of presumably an argument, a great chasm has been created. The reference to Walgreens and Crown Royal establish the familiar and root it there, but those four last lines of this verse, which are seemingly as normal, are heavy with their simple sense of things that are never right/working.

In the next Let’s Be Us Again, Vlautin continues to paint the hopelessness of hoping as we know change cannot occur. So when we hear

The leaves have changed
And we’re together again
I’ve waited so long
Do you think we could be us again?
Let’s go downtown
And hide in some old lounge
And let it get loose and easy
Let’s be us again
Oh let’s be us again

we know it is a transient moment of connection and desire for a return to whatever was, but won’t be again. Like leaves, but this is a singular cycle. The song is a slow soul-blues, and Boone sings with such sweet reminiscence and forlorn optimism that it can be painful to think too hard on it, the horns a rousing backdrop of prettiness than could fool us as well.

I’ll present Roll Back My Life in its entirety, brief as it is in the completeness of a further mini-portrait of dark hope

Roll back my life
Past all those years
Of just scraping by
And pour me a drink
Turn down the lights
And roll back my life
Roll back my life
So I can see where not to stall

and the solo vocal of Boone with single piano accompaniment and faint guitar at the very end echo in a room that is empty – how can one ‘stall’ in a life that is so far past the point of imagined divergence from the inevitable? I think this is an evocative lyric in its simplicity, but the plaintive music slows it all down to crystallisation.

The sixth track on this album is Eddie and Polly, a seemingly upbeat song after the loneliness of the preceding, and we have a pair of characters who are starting off in their togetherness, but already doomed [well, we just know…] but also in the qualifying ‘desperation’ of their loving in the second and third lines

Eddie and Polly blow into town
Desperately in love
Desperate and in love
Eddie and Polly go on a spree
Hit every club around
Paint themselves into the ground
Can’t you see
Chipping is how the habit is made?
Can’t you see
It’s how the morning drink takes hold?

This is from the first stanza of three, and in the second Eddie and Polly start to fight, and in the third they break up. The song’s call and response of can’t you see in all three verses is almost comic in its lightness, but their separation is not so lofty because this is how you make scars.

Holly appears in the next song Holly the Hustle, though it isn’t necessarily the same person, and that is fundamentally irrelevant because all personas/characters are the same. This is more straight storytelling in the Vlautin novel-esque vein, though a finite lifespan condensed, and through a series of misjudgements and wrong turns, Holly makes only momentary victories in her hustling so is doomed all the same, and violently so

Holly the Hustle got beat up
By a man in El Paso she misjudged
She was nineteen with two broken ribs
Three busted fingers and nowhere to live
She healed up in Phoenix
And worked a married man
Took him for sixty grand
She moved to Pasadena
And it worked the same
But he left her in the Santa Anita Inn
Drunk and bleedin

In That Old Haunted Place there is a musical crescendo to rouse our sense of knowing the inevitable, and here the voice of someone who left for a better place aged sixteen may well be determined not to return, but that will be the complete success of decision-making: escape to another same. Where there is ‘hopefulness’ it is in the brief mention of other characters who did try to help our speaker: Eileen who kept me from living on the streets, and the others for whom the persona feels he owes a debt

I owe you this and I owe you that
For putting shoes on my feet
Clothes on my back
Fed me every day for sixteen years
And now I need to pay you back
I’m sitting flush and you all know
So you say I need to give you
What I’ve always owed

but he ain’t going back and will have to live with the guilt. That is unfair. And the cycle is likely to continue. This is a song most like many of Vlautin’s novels where within the overall despair and forcing to endure there are people who offer occasional humanity to our protagonists, and as readers we take some comfort from this, however sparse.

The penultimate song on the album is He Don’t Burn For Me and is a heartbreak lament. It is quite simply saddening in the irretrievable decline

Stop me from thinking this way tell me it ain’t so
I’m so broke up and worried I’m barely me anymore
He won’t talk about us gets more distant as time goes
Spends his nights out drinking with his brother
It’s dawn before he comes home

and the nature of having to rely on another is a bleak prospect for the future.

The closing song Waiting on the Blue reverberates its despair like the keyboard notes that layer beneath its storytelling. It is brief and stark like Roll Back.. so here it is complete

I know the night will end soon
I just get so weary waiting on the blue

Garbage trucks will start banging
Delivery trucks too
They’ll be my saviors
From thinking about you
I know the night will end
I just get so tired

Soon the birds will start singing
Alarm clocks ringing too
I’ll be saved once again by the blue

and the music is so much a part of the pain and weariness conveyed, a stratum of almost siren-sounds near the end coming to attend to that, not that there is any treatment – especially as it is only the blue which alleviates a worse despondency. But yet again, Boone’s empathy of delivery is palpably heartbreaking and transfers understanding to us, and thus some degree of purpose in writing about these everywhere lives.


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