A Magical Record That Sounds Like Love Feels
Great songwriting is alchemical, an act of sorcery. And even though a great song emerges from what, on paper at least, reads as a simple, almost banal mathematical formula—something like terrific lyrics + amazing chord progression + fresh arrangement + catchy vocal melody = great song—said equation can’t capture the magic that flows from the song, imbeds it in your head, gets your foot tapping, and your mouth humming. The song possesses you for days, elevating your spirit. It’s an offering to you from an alchemist who knows how to derive gold from the formula.
Some songwriting alchemists have the ability to sustain the magic for an entire album. Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited comes to mind, as do Brian Wilson on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Van Morrison on Astral Weeks, Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run, Paul Westerburg on The Replacements’ Tim, Elliott Smith on Either/Or, Jeff Mangum on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Sufjan Stevens on Illinois.
Songwriter Jimmer Podrasky is of their company. The hook-filled, lyrically-inspired records that he made with his band The Rave-Ups—Town and Country, The Book of Your Regrets, and, especially, Chance—are magical works in their own right and hold their own with the records listed in the previous paragraph.
It’s been 23 years since Jimmer put out Chance (be sure to snag a copy of this masterpiece if you don’t already have one), so the release of yet another work by the master—this year’s The Would-Be Plans—is extra special: an unexpected treat from one of the best songwriters of the past 30 years.
The Would-Be Plans grabs you with “The Far Left Side of You” and doesn’t let you go. The vocal melody is as catchy as it’s brilliant, and Jimmer sings it in a voice that’s fresh and shows its experience at the same time. The lyrics demonstrate a facility with wordplay, but the song remains earnest and heartfelt, never taking the easy path of irony. “Left Side” is simply a great pop song.
The organ touches and guitar arpeggios make “Empty” instantly memorable, as do the introspective lyrics and bright melody. It’s like The Byrds have met Big Star in a jam session in heaven.
“Big Ball of String,” “Satellite,” and “Molotov Moon” are amazing, rootsy ditties, all picked banjo chords, strummed acoustic guitar, steel guitars, and harmonica. Jimmer again sounds terrific on lead vocals, delivering poppy and moving melodies that you won’t forget—I guarantee it. His vocal performance on the reflective “Molotov Moon” could be the best on all of The Would-Be Plans.
The moody title track finds Jimmer continuing to reflect—fearlessly. “How can I be so much older than I should be?,” he asks, writing from the point of view of a son addressing his father. This track really gets at the complexities of father-son relationships. Is Jimmer the son? The father? He’s both—that’s what’s so incredible and dexterous about the poetry here.
“She Has Good Records” changes up the mood, with a melody of which Brian Wilson would be proud. But the lyrical wordplay is, again, amazing—and, I can’t emphasize this enough, used to delve into an earnest exploration of the relationship between two lovers. Perhaps the strongest cut on The Would-Be Plans, it simply soars at the end, with the addition of strings to the mix.
Just the opening chords of “Just What You Don’t” are enough to bring tears to your eyes, as are the lyrics that express the singer’s longing for a lover whom he’ll never have. The song is country-tinged; it’s somewhat of a road song. But the lyrics are so beautiful, the desire so dire, that the track’s just as fresh as it is traditional.
Spanish guitar and accordion form the foundation of the superb “With This Ring.” This is another rootsy song that might remind you of Calexico. But Jimmer’s self-revelatory lyrics and willingness to sing his true emotions separate the tune from Calexico and all others. It’s a stunning song that sounds like love feels.
By the time you reach the climax of The Would-Be Plans—”Fall”—Jimmer’s snagged you yet again with another unforgettable melody, cool chord progression, and a great set of lyrics, which are funny and sad at the same time: “Summer came like a phone bill / That I knew I couldn’t pay” and “There was something in her eyes / That said she was older than a star, / And she was sweeter than a Milky Way, / But she was younger than my car.”
I’m going to go ahead and say it: The Would-Be Plans is the perfect follow-up to Chance, even though it took 23 years to reach us. It could even be its better.
But, ultimately, comparisons don’t matter when you get the chance to welcome back one of America’s greatest–and most magical–songwriters: Jimmer Podrasky.