Used to be that borrowing a cup of sugar from the person next door came naturally, an act that signaled a bond between neighbors and an ease with others that overcomes superficial differences, at least for a moment. Neighbors looked out for each other’s children, picked up each other’s mail, and cut each other’s grass. As Tim O’Brien cannily writes on the title track of his new album it’s not fences that make good neighbors, as Robert Frost would have it, it’s borrowing a cup of sugar—as long as the neighbors don’t talk politics.
On Cup of Sugar, O’Brien explores various facets of human nature—and non-human nature: a fish, a bear, a dog—often with a humorous wink and a nod, but always with a sobering moral about the vagaries of loss, hope, and love.
Propulsive guitar strumming drives “Bear,” a little fable that features the song’s ursine protagonist coming out of hibernation to find the world around him changed, doesn’t like what he sees, and issues an angry warning: “Ignore me at your peril, I’m a bear.” O’Brien’s moral of the story, of course, cuts across the cultural landscape from the effects of climate change to the devastation of war.
In the jaunty, toodling “The Pay’s a Lot Better, Too” co-written with Thomm Jutz, a weathered gravedigger dispenses the wisdom that “The weather is better than six feet under/And the pay’s a lot better too.” Crystalline guitar runs cascade like water on the funky “Thinkin’ Like a Fish”—co-written with Chris Davison, Donnie Davison, and Ronnie Bowman—which features the soulful strains of Mike Rojas’ B3 playing call and response with O’Brien’s fluid lead runs; it’s a perfect little musical foundation for this parable of a cunning fish who’s grown old by knowing how to avoid taking the bait.
One of the highlights of the album is the shimmering folk ballad “The Anchor,” on which O’Brien inhabits the persona of Walter Cronkite, telling his story of that’s the way it is in a world in which news is more carnival than reporting: “There’s only a few that will tell it true, most don’t even try/There’s an audience for every kind of news, shaped every kind of way/Salesmen play on our hopes and fears, and make poor people pay.” On the somber, poignant duet “She Can’t, He Won’t, They’ll Never” O’Brien and his wife Jan Fabricius (who wrote the song together), reflect on the ways a relationship breaks down when each person involved becomes mired in self-centeredness. The tender waltz “Goodbye Old Friend” offers a loving tribute to a dear friend who has recently died, while the album’s closing track “Gila Headwaters”—written by Fabricius and O’Brien—offers a glittering, soothing ode to the healing powers of sacred places.
Cup of Sugar demonstrates Tim O’Brien’s ability to deliver often humorous songs that cut to the core of our being with one or two lines. In his crafty way, O’Brien writes songs whose music invites us in warmly, wrapping us comfortably in sound before unveiling the lyrics that often reveal our shortcomings or sometimes celebrate the bonds we share with others.
Cup of Sugar is available HERE.