Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
It's heady business trying to pin down the fine line between those who can walk the ever-tightening road of depressive things and those who tumble off and find themselves splattered and cracked, unable to be put back together again. It's a life's work for many to construct and deconstruct those offerings that can turn a person into a wounded cushion, for prodding and walking over, when the limbs and cheeks just go numb and limp and there's no longer anything reminiscent to a hop or a spark in any step taken. We're left to contemplate what sets those who can handle sadder times, who can almost appreciate and deal with them in a better way than they can festive ones apart from those who buckle into a debilitated glob and determine on their own that there is nothing but a dead end street to travel.
Occasionally and heartbreakingly, people we know and people we don't - last week it was the tragic hanging suicide of writer and novelist David Foster Wallace - take the big step toward finality, ending where they've come from, where they've been and where they may have taken their life. They get out when the din overwhelms them and they turn the lights out and sometimes it has to be done violently - the urge consumes them to act. Will Johnson plays so often with these tragic flares that people act in shame and deference too - those that if they're fucked with or stoked in the wrong way, they could turn into blood, they could turn into some rich sorrow. The lake looks good enough to sleep in. The car feels fit enough to take into an embankment. The chamber doesn't contain a bullet. Or maybe it's all the opposite. What's going to happen will be as expected as anything ever was. Johnson, as the songwriter for music that is released under his own name, South San Gabriel and here at Centro-matic, delivers the sullen side of paradise, where there isn't anyone clicking their heals too gaily together and rejoicing in getting dished more of the same.
Coincidentally, he isn't normally all that into presenting people as lost causes. He doesn't give us too many portraits of those so far down on their plights that they want to snuff themselves just to pull the plugs on the painful parts of being awake. He does hide his optimism rather well, concealing in below the floorboards, where the beating of the hideous hearts usually win out in decibels heard. The songs aren't about when the bird goes through the fan and comes out on the other side a puff of feathers. It's not when the rabbit gets pulled into the combines and thrashed through the belts. We are talking about people - all people - for one thing, and where Johnson and his cool as a boot band of low-key country players take us is when it's either just about to get really combustible or the shoe's already dropped multiple times and there's more of a concession that this is all there is left - you're looking at it. Johnson looks us in the eyes with his steady and sticky as a southern heat voice, locking us in with his leisure gaze and gives moment to the terrifying idea that there might not be an upside to come.
He also gives an uplifting sense that things could get much more terrifying than they are, so be grateful. He sings in "Quality Strange," "It's fine just to kick these things in line/'til the damage just sticks in its own permanent way," sending a chill down the spine that notes how all of the human damage that gets done is a tattoo. It hurts for a while, gets red and swollen and then it scars into place and you agree to forget, though there's no getting around what's been done. He's there when the shit hits the fan, but he stays beyond the last lights - when the feathers and the garbage/emotional carnage are still covering the ground. He isn't there with the broom to sweep anything into a neat pile for the dustpan crew. He's just there to chronicle the madness that was, to once again see the delicate balance shift itself back into its place as it's always wont to do. With that shift comes the soberness and the appreciation of its powerful hand.
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