50 SONGS by Shane Cooley
To begin with, look at this album cover. The soul of this album – and, indeed, the soul of Shane’s body of work – is present here in this image. The artist sits before you, looking right at you. There is the easy-glean takeaway from this cover: “Oh, this guy with a guitar is going to play me some of his songs.” But, then, you notice the casually perfect flower painting behind him. And then, you notice that it matches – or goes with – the flower design on the mattress. And suddenly, Shane’s gaze appears “knowing” – as in, he knows that most people will easy-glean such a takeaway from this cover, because that’s what people do in our attention-span-of-a-goldfish era. He knows and accommodates this, but the care of the flower designs – and, then, when you begin to know Shane’s artistry for real: the care of everything – suggests that there is much, much more here, if you are only willing to stay a while and sink into it.
I maintain that Shane, despite his innate talent for pop-appeal and mob management (if you see one of his shows, you will understand what I am referring to: the inborn charisma, stage presence, and overall “star” quality), is actually an artist’s artist. The above mention of his “care” attests to this, but, moreover, it is because Shane is not so much a “maker” or “builder” of songs – or of his art – as he is a conduit, a channel for it. This, in my view, is an important distinction between a craftsman and artist. Naturally, craftsmen can be artists, and artists can be craftsmen, so I have no interest in splitting hairs about this, because I already agree with the opposition. And so on. I mean only to stress that, by his very nature, Shane is not dealing in terms of “other” in his art, he is not “poeticizing” his life into song form… his life, at least to him (which is all that matters, regarding his music), is poetic. And his songs are unavoidable and unstoppable expressions of the life he lives and experiences. There is a fluidity and fluency to his songwriting that speaks to this, as though it is simply raw life flowing through his channel, filtered through the lens of his heart. In this sense, there is the Shane-experience as it appears to and is experienced by Shane (for he has no idea how we experience him and his story – which is true for everyone, by the way); there is the Shane-experience as we experience it through him and his music – i.e. our notions of who Shane is and what his story has been like; and then, there is the ghost-offshoot of this, which is our imagining and communion with the subjective “what would that be like if it had happened to me” or the “I can relate to that because x/y/z happened to me” dynamic, which is the magical connecting thread that webs all of us together, ultimately, and is the great testament and proof of the importance and holiness of art, itself.
In these ways, I view Shane as an artist’s artist. And I go into all of this preliminarily because I feel that in this bare and bold and substantial album – 50 SONGS – the artist’s artist is, more fully and comprehensively than I have yet witnessed, on display and available for you.
There is so much on this album, and it is a journey that I would recommend for a long car ride or any sustained length of time when you can hand the reins of your attention over to Shane, because it is a joy and adventure to be taken on a tour through a world with this level of sincerity and care.
First off, on an instrumental level, and as I’ve come to expect from Shane on a reliably consistent basis, the impeccable fingerpicking alone makes this album worth a listen. Shane is a master of the acoustic fingerpick. Most of my following notes will reference lyrical aspects of the album and his songwriting craft, but, really, the guy knows how to fingerpick a guitar.
Some notes on the songs…
“Liberty Bell” as opening track is a good choice. Here, we have a fine example, right out the gate, of Shane’s natural-born songwriting facility. It’s a pleasure to witness anyone doing what they so obviously are. Shane introduces us to his ability to toss casual quips (such as “I’d blame her if I could, but it was all my fault”) left and right with a Dylan-esque simplicity and self-effacement. You know you are in for an interesting and rewarding journey.
Listening to “With Style,” you get a sense of the type of animal Shane is… He refuses to take himself too seriously, while refusing to not take his work seriously… He takes music seriously… And, at the same time, he can laugh at himself and have fun with being in the world. That’s a special quality in an artist – in a person, really.
Right in the first few songs of this album, you hear in Shane’s voice his sensitivity – how much he is picking up on, and then, how courageous he is to share that with us… Shane is a testament to the oft-overlooked and oft-unfashionable (yet, in my opinion, indisputable) fact that sensitive people are cool. And by “sensitive,” I don’t mean people who think it is “cool to be sensitive,” and hence project sensitivity (almost like a personal career move or manipulative social tactic)… I mean people like Shane, who are sensitive, and it is cool. That level of sensitivity is such an exposed nerve in the soul, many who have it opt to bury it or mask it somehow… Shane does not. He has the courage to share it. That’s art.
Lyric gem in “Voices” – the “voices in my head” that don’t talk anymore, eventually, “hang out with you, instead.” That’s a rad lyric.
I wish I had written “Change My Ways.” What an incredible love song. I wish I had written that.
Shane’s voice: fragile, wistful, idealistic, melancholy (in a bittersweet, poetic kind of way), but fascinatingly assured and very effectively on the mark.
In “To Be Free,” Shane actually calls himself a “man of little use,” which, to me, signifies some degree of philosophical enlightenment. I don’t even know if he knows this about himself. But, to equate being of little use with freedom is a leap of philosophical comprehension that strikes me as downright Taoist and mightily advanced, on a spiritual level.
“Drifter” – possibly the highlight, for me, of this compilation – is badass. The warm ‘80s production perfectly suits the track (the beat and keyboards are sublime). Here, Shane’s ability to deliver hooky transitions and pieces of music that will not get out of your ear reaches a kind of heavenly zenith. The track is quirky, classic, catchy as hell, groovy, and undeniable.
“Slippery Slope” and “Breaking Point” are twin highlights for me, on a personal level. Check out these lyrics from the former: “In the real world, I’m not myself, I’m barely here. In the real world, I can barely hear you. It’s a slippery slope…” For some of us, maybe the great majority, our jobs are what give our reality reality. For others of us – like Shane and myself and the general pilgrim species of the DIY Musician religion – job after job after job is painfully endured just to make money and stay alive and go on functioning in the ruthless machine of a capitalist economy. For those of us for whom this is our reality, what everyone else terms the “real world” is an endless impediment and time/energy-vampire constantly sabotaging and interfering with our just trying to do what we were made to do as well as we can do it. I’m very sure that there are lots of people – possibly a great majority – who, despite thinking they “get” this concept with their minds, really do not and cannot have any real experience of what this is like… it is variously soul-crushing, demoralizing, depressing, frustrating, hopeless-feeling, and crazy-making – and if it weren’t for the blessing of the work itself and our privilege of being in love with it (without which, none of us would still be working shit jobs for peanuts just so we can conserve our minds and time and creative energies for our real work), we would all have given up by now and aimed ourselves in other directions – toward better jobs, more money, etc. And in “Breaking Point,” Shane gives voice to the fact that those of us who are living for things other than money and material abundance really are constantly living on and at a “breaking point” – so much so, that it becomes our “normal.” And we accept this – of course we do, we have to. And I like how Shane here is not complaining about it. Because that is Nature, that is the Way of things, and we would be fools to complain about it. But nevertheless, it is real, what he feels and experiences – and the “breaking point” is real, not just for us but for all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, and so, he sings of it.
In “Phoenix,” Shane sings: “Phoenix, you’re not my home. But I love you all the more for that.” Great lyric. Profound, even.
I enjoyed Shane’s subtle shout out to PORCH LION (his book of poetry) in “Madman.” I’d recommend PORCH LION to anyone. It is pure lyrical distillation of Shane’s essence.
Notable lyrics in “Black Moon” – “…my evil ways, I’ve always been able to keep them at bay. But they still crave their taste of glory.” (!) And in the same track, he sings, “How could you trust my pirate art? Each century I’ve sailed is one I’ve failed you, darling.” Damn. That’s pretty good, man.
Ah, being from Virginia river country myself, “The Blues Have You” hit me deep.
“Force a Smile,” once more, shows that Shane speaks with the authority of one who has lived his lessons… The dude is a philosopher… He has things to say… “It’s not about moving on, it’s not about moving up. Force a smile when things go wrong.”
It’s cool to hear him transfer his instrumentalism over to piano and keys throughout the album – notably, the piano on “Zig Zag” shows that he is not a one-trick pony on the acoustic guitar. (Shane is also a solid drummer, for those of you who might not know… I would refer you to the drum track on “Elizabeth City” off his album THE GREEN PORCH SESSIONS.)
Finally, in the album’s farewell track, “Bassman,” Shane delivers his mission statement: “I can feel it move me.” There it is. What else can you say about that? That’s why we do what we do. That’s why, in my opinion, anyone should do what they do. Be moved by things – let them move you… Let yourself love and give from that love back into our universe of so many lives and worlds… Participate in the mystery… Therein lies the glory. Amen.