Sweating the Small Stuff: Chris Hickey’s *love away* (album review)

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the Gods are everywhere
“The Builders”–Longfellow

Anyone who has followed Chris Hickey, from his solo albums in the eighties to his work in the brilliant band, Uma, and all the way to his most recent work, highlighted by Release, knows the intricate, intimate care that goes into his music. His sure craftsmanship shapes every song. He displays that craftsmanship again on his new album, love away.

The smallness and stillness of the songs is perhaps the most striking feature of Hickey’s album on first listen. The songs at first sound so small that they seem to leave no room for craft, beyond the crafting of the melody itself or the words themselves. But Hickey masters small spaces. He can write an anthem in a matchbox. Somewhere I have a tiny, leather bound copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a copy hardly bigger than a stamp–an icon of Hickey’s music, of this new album.

Hickey works in midlife; he knows it. The album has an air of deliberate urgency, but he is not in crisis. He knows that the night is coming, the night in which no man can work. The album begins by acknowledging where he is, and with a plea to the listener. “let me just straighten up a few things”. Like Descartes in the Meditations, Hickey finds himself in the midway along the road of life, at an age when the clutter of earlier years needs sorting, sifting. Much that used to matter no longer does. He takes the trash out. He prioritizes, finds out what he trusts and what he must surrender. Imperfections in what he trusts no longer distract and dismay; he takes them as they come, even welcomes them: everything is always already broken. Nothing can hold in perfection but a little moment. To trust things only in their perfection is not really to trust them.

The album ends with “so little time”:

so little time for posturing anymore
getting closer to the back than I am to the front door anymore

At one point in the song, Hickey reaches out to his dead:

where have you gone, Joe Strummer?
god bless you please, Johnny Cash!
where have you gone, Chris Whitley?
god bless you please, Grant McClennen!

Hickey does not fancy himself a go-between, a medium. He reaches out to the dead who live for him and who, in one way or another, he reanimates in his songs.

Hickey’s delicate taste controls his fierce intelligence. No song oversteps its internal limits, calls attention to its cleverness. Each song carves out a conceptual space with exact borders. Hickey tolerates fuzz, vagueness, even less well than Gottlob Frege—or Ezra Pound. I do not mean that the songs are easy to understand, one, two, three. I do not mean that the songs lack life, spontaneity. Often the songs require frequentation, pondering. And you will hum as you ponder, wonder with your feet.

let me just straighten up
a few things
standing on the groundless ground
falling with no end down
so maybe I’ll reach out, try to grab some
knowing there is none

Hickey focuses on our common lives on common ground. But he does not hypostasize that ground, attempt to turn it into a metaphysical guarantee. He knows its this-worldliness, its fragility—it is no more dependable than we are. Despite the importance of form in his songs, he is no friend of the Forms. Or, to put it another way, his forms are patterns in time—not Patterns above time. He worries about being in time.

in the fragmentary desert
we will try to fit in
but nowhere to go
nowhere to have been
just the unfold
is all that can be
the rest is a memory or a want to be (“let me just…”)

Hickey meditates on the flow of things: the river we cannot again step in, the train trip we are on and whose stops we cannot choose. We can just straighten up a few things, not everything.

the winds wash over like the tide, the blood in your veins
the water on the pavement, moving away
it’s all the same
it’s all the same
do you know
it’s the same train
same we are
on the same train (“same train”)

We share our impermanence. For us there is just the unfolding, just the rails that seem to converge on a nameless horizon. But the flow of things does not depress Hickey, cage him. It liberates him. The songs on the album figure freedom first in one way, then another, and then another. Release and relief—longtime themes in Hickey’s songwriting—come and go and come and go again. The desert may be fragmentary and shifting; still, it is home to our nomadic tribe, our free range.

The song at the heart of the album, “broken”, is a spiritual exercise, complete with rubrics.

is already broken
breathe a sigh of relief
the glass is already broken

is already dead
breathe a sigh of release
the life is already dead…

The open-spaced reminder here images incompleteness even as it speaks of incompleteness. The point is to learn to eliminate the rue, the dread that recognizing incompleteness usually causes. (We should see a blank spot to be filled in front of “is already broken”—the glass is one thing that can fill the blank spot, but so too could any other artifact, any other thing, any other anyone.) We do that by seeing the end (the breaking, the dying) as itself present in the now. The end cannot be avoided, evaded—we need not wait in suspense for it, hoping it will not happen. No, we can breathe, even relax. Its end is part of what each thing is. The message here is at once Stoic and Buddhist. The way up and the way down are the same way, same train.

What I have so far said may make it seem that the album belongs on a podium instead of a turntable, that listening to it is like listening to a lecture.  That is wrong. There is Hickey’s gift for melody. The melodies are beautiful. The instrumentation, while spare, is just right. Hickey’s unduplicated talent for starting (and often ending) the music and the lyrics of a song at the same time works like magic. Songs often seemed conjured from the air (and often to dispel back into it). Many of the songs chart the sorts of courses we expect from popular songs—the beginnings of love, the sharing of love.  But they do it in Hickey’s way.

I sat down beside you
there was sadness in your face
but it was mostly faded
there was just enough to trace
and so your beauty isn’t
the kind that wears away
I still see it every day
since I first saw it
it was all I needed
it was all I needed to
go waltzing to clinging to you (“waltzing to clinging to you”)

The album’s title, love away, bears thinking on. It can be heard as an imperative—as either an order or an invitation, depending on imagined tone. It can also be heard as a (fragmentary) declarative, linked with the album’s frequent images of things moving away, and its efforts to accept leavings and endings.

It is easy to lose heart in the flux. It is easy to think that since everything is already broken, nothing is worth making well. Why sweat the details when the tale is already told? Hickey’s album answers and is itself an answer: the gods are everywhere.

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