The very best songs carry us along with a rousing melody or an unforgettable hook, wrapping the lyrics in an ebullient chorus we sing along to or a driving rhythm to which we can clap our hands.
After a few listens, the emotional power of the lyrics, the poignant character of the stories the songs tell, and the restive truths proclaimed by the songwriter compel us to ponder the easy juxtaposition of accepted truths and challenges to those truths.
The very best songs reside deep in our souls, and we return to them because they confront us with the ragged ways we tell ourselves all is right with the world even as the world is crumbling around us.
Rachel Baiman’s new album is full of these kinds of songs.
Slowly circling guitar picking opens the album’s first track, “Some Strange Notion” before blossoming into a shuffling, propulsive song that spirals upward with a joy that contains within it the seeds of its own sorrow. “The common nation of sorrow” Baiman sings about in the chorus grounds us in regret and mourning while at the same time offering lessons that will allow us to “build foundations/that will stand the test of time.”
The jaunty “Self Made Man,” a song written by John Hartford to which Baiman adds additional lyrics and melody, rolls along a river of banjos and electric guitar riffs as it uncovers the costs America pays for its fascination with, and seduction by, confidence men: “Don’t you wonder what he thinking when he holds your life in the palm of his money-stained hand/Don’t you wonder how long before you kick face down in the place in the place where you thought you used to stand/How many men do you think it takes to make a self made man?”
A slowly unfurling waltz, “Bad Debts” dances through the pockmarked land constructed of illusory desires and the lives ruined by them: we want, we borrow, we fall into debt, we spiral downward into a financial black hole, we can never break free.
The spry, banjo-driven “Old Songs Never Die” tracks a theme that runs through the album: the power of music to brighten our days even in the midst of darkness. Like all good folk songs, this one lends itself to sing-alongs at protests and celebrations, and it never fails to inspire: “Those old songs will be there for you/So turn it up and scream it out/There’s still so much joy to be found/When the days are getting dark and blue.”
Rachel Baiman’s emotionally raw, plaintive vocals create an exquisite, expansive soundscape that allow her lyrics to permeate our souls, calling us to consider the delicate balance of the human condition, to mourn it, to celebrate it. All the songs on Common Nation of Sorrow are “old songs” that “cry and cry out” for us “to sing them once again.”
Common Nation of Sorrow is available HERE.