Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
When it gets down to brass tacks, aren't we all just weak and insecure creatures, trying to survive? The crux of Wes Anderson's adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, "Fantastic Mr. Fox," is that these fox and weasels, rabbits and badgers are just wild animals and sometimes those instincts - despite their sophistication and high level of intelligence and civility, in this case - kick in and make them devour food like savages, or thief chickens and geese in the night. They can't help it. They just do what they can to survive, to feed their children just like everyone else, and get to the next day, wherein they'll do it all over again if there's no better way. All of those animals and we as animals fall into a similar category of beings that are ultimately frightened and sometimes unsure of where the next meal (or paycheck) are going to come from and we resort to doing things that are solely necessary for survival and nothing else. It's when we've finished with these actions, when we've let ourselves recline a bit, shake the crazed feeling of entrapment and wildness from our eyes, ears and tingling hands that we think about what we've just done - how we've overcome those scary feelings of immediate, presumed peril, starvation, homelessness, lovelessness or otherwise for the instant. They will return and it's then that the state will be reviewed and a determination will be made or a split decision carried out to remedy the needs once again. Robert Francis, a young new signee to Atlantic Records, pokes and prods this very understandable and reasonable fragility, this sense of survival against all odds that we tend to not think about in the same literal and ever-present terms that Mr. Fox and his gang do. He is not being chased out of a hole using alcoholic apple cider, nor is life so life or death, but there is a surrounding thought of exquisite urgency and a need to act courageously to achieve some kind of wanted end, and not just a lowly circumstance that any old person could have. The songs on his sophomore album, "Before Nightfall," are rife with beautiful ballads full of men sickened with love, staring at a huge, starry sky and not recognizing love, not knowing if they're going to survive a spoiled love or if it's going to eat them, bones, skin and all. Francis brings a darkened heart and a mouth full of soul - some of that deep river soul, the hairy-chested soul - to every one of his songs, making sure that they are capable of bouncing off the barren hills, racing across the endless prairies and getting to the very reasons for the pained expressions and the animal emotions that make us do anything that will put our necks/hearts on the line. Survival doesn't just have to be about food and our blood still working through our limbs. There is something very logical to be said for the need of love to be considered an even greater need and Francis brings this argument to the fore, with his plea to the darkness to be his friend tonight in "Darkness," as he needs one - someone to love him a bit. It's there when he's moving on from his honey in "Nightfall," walking over stained glass and losing his mind to his sorrows. "Mescaline," arguably his finest song, is an ode to a drug that makes a heart race like a squirrel and a motor, but inside the story is still a love that defies reason. It's a love that exists simply out of perceived need - one that if it were to fade away, would leave at least one person nearly destroyed. Most of Francis' characters are on the verge of destruction, at the hands of their affinities and it shows them to be as real as they could be, as spoken for by the very powerful waves of survival as affected by the sometimes lousy, sometimes brilliant light of love. It's all light and it's all dark and Francis sums up the subtle similarities and differences - in his somber-throated testimony - on "Mescaline," when he sings, "I can't put out a fire when it looks like you." So he just lets the fire course.
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