Susan Sontag once observed that she was only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Me too. What interests me is aiming to attain the unattained but attainable self. What interests me is clambering from glory to glory. –We cannot remain what we are. In the realm of what Kierkegaard would have called ‘the spirit’, we are either moving forward or we are backsliding: there is no standing still.
Chandler Jones’ EP, Old Fashion, details self-transformation. Each song is an action–an active attempt at becoming something else, something better. The final line of “Phantom in Black” underscores this effort:
My final declaration is to be a better man.
Although the word is not one often used in connection with popular music, these are all ultimately songs that edify, that build up. The lyrics are thick with images, awash in color. They often use the conceptual resources of Christianity but without ever becoming ‘Christian rock’ or ‘praise music’. (Shudder.) Instead, the songs employ the concepts to sensitize, deepen and intensify the efforts of self-transformation. Consider the confrontation with a tempter, figured first as Judas, then as the devil, in “Devil, Please”. The singer is tempted to deny the reality of himself and his life, to see it all as illusion. Few blues songs have ever found their way into this metaphysical register, and yet the song remains recognizably a blues song.
I took a walk to Potter’s field
And I met a man with blood on his hands
who told me nothing’s real
The claim that nothing is real is refused not by epistemological hijinks, by refuting skepticism, by exhuming the foundations of knowledge, but by empathizing with, by forgiving the claimant–even if neither is easy. No one promised that membership in the priesthood of believers would be simple.
My lips are red
I kissed the blood off your hands
If I anoint you with oil
And start to recoil
I’m not used to this
Jones’ lyrics are aphoristic–almost any of group of lines is an individually quotable unit–and yet they cohere, held together by his unique sensibility. They are occasionally opaque, but never defensive, presenting puzzles (when they do) because they are voicing what is genuinely puzzling, mysterious. And the lyrics are tactful, pulling back at the right moment, careful of the trap of chattering nonsense that ensnares those who try to explain mysteries instead of presenting them. Mysteries are not darkness in which we cannot see, but blinding light into which we cannot peer: but by their light we see the light we see.
The melodies are well-paired with the lyrics, delicate and memorable. Jones has a warm voice, instinct with life. The guitar work–the guitar is the lone instrument on the album–has an “in the moment” feel that compliments the vocals. Nothing seems studied, overworked.
The hardest thing to say about Jones’ songs is how beautiful they are, and in the particular way that they are. I am tempted to call each a different construction out of nearly transparent colored panes of glass, fragile and lovely. But that shortchanges the pliant responsiveness of each. Maybe the best thing to say is that each reduplicates the earnest striving of a human soul, a striving after beautiful-goodness (what the Greeks termed καλός καγαθός) that–in its own mysterious way–colors the striving itself beautiful-good.
Jones is a young songwriter of real promise. Give him a careful hearing.