Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Best Album Ever?

What constitutes a best album? Obviously this is an unbelievably subjective question that each person will answer differently. Nevertheless, I am going to make a case for Tom Russell's The Man From God Knows Where. What's odd about this is that not only is The Man From God Knows Where not my favorite album, it's not even my favorite Tom Russell album, a title that belongs to his seminal Borderland.

What makes me nominate The Man From God Knows Where is that it is the single most compelling album I've ever heard. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I can work with all of them playing--rock, country, bluegrass, folk, creative jazz, atonal compositional material, noise music, etc. But I cannot work when The Man From God Knows Where is playing. I just get sucked into that album and cannot get out. Each song carries you along and sucks you in deeper and deeper.

The Man From God Knows Where is nominally about Tom Russell's immigrant family. He is part Irish-part Norwegian and the songs are mostly about his ancestors. But really it is about the American immigrant experience and the American historical experience that you don't see on the history channel. Russell writes in the liner notes, "We sing here of the triumph of individuals in the face of isolation, rootlessness, disease, and suicide." And in doing so, song after song is either a heart-wrenching tale of immigration and immigrant life in a new country, an amusing song about that same subject, or a piece about his father, a Hollywood gamble eventually convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to several years in prison.

To make this album even more powerful, he brings in different voices to play different parts. Russell sings variations on the haunting theme song, "The Man From God Knows Where" throughout the album, the songs about his father, and various other tracks throughout the album. He also wrote most of the songs. But he brings in Iris Dement to sing on several songs, folk legend Dave Van Ronk to sing "The Outcast" (more on this in a minute), and Irish and Norwegian singers to play the roles of his family members. Irish singer Dolores Keane and Norwegian singers Sondre Bratland and Kari Bremnes make an invaluable contribution to this album.

There are songs about the scary ride over to America and friends being sent back home and dying on the way. Songs about the deep sadness of missing home. Take "The Old Northern Shore" which finishes:

"Praise God for the health of our children
Praise God for his kind loving grace
Praise God for the food on our table
When we die we shall see his kind face
Praise God for this land of great freedom
May there be no more bloodshed and war
Praise God that before I pass from this life
I'll lay eyes on the Old Northern Shore"

There are songs that communicate both the great freedom and wonder of the United States and the great sorrow and tragedy of never seeing your family again. Songs that step forward a generation and discuss the discomfort of immigrants watching their children grow up as American kids and the loss of traditional values (see the hilarious "When Irish Girls Grow Up"). Songs about those kids going to Hollywood, as Russell's father did.

2 other reasons this album is so compelling:

1) Tom Russell's version of David Massengill's song "Rider on an Orphan Train." This is probably the single saddest song in the world. The orphan trains were just what they sound like. Orphaned children from eastern cities, often immigrant children, were packed onto trains and sent west to farm families for whom kids meant extra hands. This happened beginning around 1850 and continuing into the early 20th century. The song is about 2 brothers who were separated and one's search for the other when he's an adult. Unfortunately he never finds him because the records were lost in a flood. Quite literally about every other time I listen to this album, this song brings me to the point of tears. It's an amazing song but one that is so intense that's it's hard to listen to very often.

2) Dave Van Ronk as "The Outcast." These are 2 brillant songs which basically are a big "Fuck You" to the geneology nuts who try to sugarcoat their ancestors and their past in order to somehow justify their lives in the present (or maybe that's just my interpretation since I find the Mormons tracing their ancestry to Adam idiots and the social climbers who try to connect themselves to kings of England or presidents absurd). He reminds us of all the drunks, the homeless, the hustlers, the desperate immigrants, the gays, the retarded, the working-classes, and all of the other underground members of American history who get left out of popular texts, though certainly not academic texts. These songs are hilarious and make a great point.

Anyhow, whether or not these intense, amazing songs make a great album is debatable and subjective. But for me, I cannot think of an album that achieves the same kind of heights as The Man From God Knows Where.