What we find is this. That James Swanberg, whose name literally means Supplanter of the City of Swans, has unleashed upon the listening world his first solo album, via his label Tripp Tapes, and while it’s not an entirely trippy affair, it does at least appear to have been recorded via tape, or at least via the idiom of tape even if it was, in fact, recorded digitally. The precise method to this madness is irrelevant, although it would be a blinding omission to not report that “The One And Only” was produced by Colin Croom and Cadien Lake James of local indie rockers Twin Peaks. Granting that, and Swanberg’s bona fides as the purveyor behind Today’s Hits (sometimes stylized in self-deprecating fashion as “todayshits”) and one who’s known to traffic in melodies of certain damaged bands such as The Lemons, we may proceed to the actual album.
The learned reader may begin to wonder if the esteemed writer of this here demon seed is being paid by the word, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t preface this consideration with a word about the methodology. From a critical perspective, I’ve always maintained that there is a poetic relationship between a work of art and the title that the artist imbues upon it. Just as this is true of poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, photography and what-have-you, as an artistic product (shudder), it is also true of the way songwriters name their songs and how collections of those aforesaid songs are named as albums. So, in each case I catalogue my initial interpretation of the title of each track on “The One And Only” before providing thoughts on the songs themselves. In an attempt to be tabula rasa, or sui generis as they say on “Law & Order” reruns, my thoughts on the titles will appear as they popped out of my head before listening to the actual songs, and only through comparing the “before-and-after notes” will we together be able to judge whether or not this approach by title is successful.
Just as one shouldn’t judge a book, or record album, by its cover, one shouldn’t judge a recording by its title, either. As a name for his first solo album, “The One And Only” seems to be a conceited title from James Swanberg, but the title isn’t referencing himself, it refers to the love of his life, a “girl” whom he rhapsodizes eloquently and frequently. This “girl” (and I use that word in quotes as Swanberg prefers the term and seems to challenge himself to find just the right rhyme for it throughout) is clearly “The One And Only” he is referencing, and although his relationship with the “girl” in question seems to be in different stages throughout the running order of the record, the album (or at least ninety-five percent of it) revolves around her and the narrator’s feelings toward her.
The affair commences with “Harder One Me,” which from a title perspective represents multiple challenges. Is Swanberg claiming to be “the harder one,” the superior male partner compared to another competitor? And is the situation “harder on me” or is it “harder one me?” Perhaps he’s changed the word “on” to “one” to symbolize his sense of loneliness in the absence of this love of his, or perhaps in typical Swanbergian playfulness, he’s changed the word “on” to “one” to represent the song’s running order on the album. Either could be the case, or perhaps it’s a little of both, for the words “harder one me” do not appear in the song, the lyric on the chorus is “harder on me,” as in “her absence is harder on me” than it is on her.
Musically, “Harder One Me” is an outlier; it channels 1980s synth-pop vibes and simple electric guitar accents in a way that it could have been an album cut from The Cars (think “Dying In Stereo”). Perhaps Swanberg is alluding to the musical textures by using the title “Harder One Me” as well, as this is one of the more pummeling tracks on the album, although that’s a low bar, comparatively (maybe more “rocking” is more apt). Regardless, like most of the tracks here, it does a lot in less than three minutes.
Many have speculated as to what occurs “Behind Closed Doors,” and Swanberg is the latest to theorize what may be happening. It’s not an original sentiment, but Swanberg believes in originality only insofar as he can take the well-worn tropes and chord progressions of popular song and make them his own as far as he wants to go. Behind these closed doors in particular, Swanberg is admitting (with a sha-la-la-la) that he may have had many loves but that “down at the core” “they’re all you.” This track is more “of a piece” with the rest of the sweet pop ballads included here with its lovely, lilting acoustic guitar parts and soaring, anthemic choruses.
While the Pixies chose to gouge away, James Swanberg decides to carve away. Is he sculpting away the negative space, or is he working a prime rib carving station at an Easter buffet, in an Easter Bunny costume but while wearing a chef’s hat? Given the title, one would assume he’s reducing his thrust to the essence, and indeed, lyrically that is what we find on “Carve Away.” “Everyone has given up or given in / And you don’t really want some silly broken heart,” Swanberg sings on the bridge and the chorus, as if to say if you “carve away” “all you’ve saved” all that will be left behind is a face on “a rainy day.” Despite the minimal lyrical construction, this cut is overflowing with musical flourishes and rhythmic accents, as if Swanberg is saying, “I can be minimal in words but maximal in instrumentation,” but again, it’s over in three minutes.
No matter the pain and suffering, Swanberg would still take a love, and why not? What power is greater than love, that can overcome all other powers in the world? The title analysis of “I’d Still Take A Love” is one-hundred-percent dead on, as Swanberg sings on the choruses that he’d “still take a love” that he knew “would be rough” and he’d still take a love that he knew he’d “have to give up.” This countrified track could be a lost outtake from the British folk-pop outfit from the 1970s, America (the B-side to “A Horse With No Name”?) and it’s achingly beautiful.
I believe Swanberg thinks he knows everything, and he may be right. In this aggressively, interrogatively entitled track, “Don’t You Think I Know?,” he assumes the role of a person that “knows” with a capital “K” and that is what I find. It’s almost an interlude, but Swanberg is again harnessing a sublime simplicity, that repeats mantra-like that his “woman” and “girl” (he uses the terms interchangeably, but it’s clear that the female in question “belongs” to him, as he uses the word “my”) is “the only in the world.”
There may have been seven wonders of the world, but Swanberg negates this position on “It’s No Wonder.” His position is that this is no wonder. What is it that he refuses to wonder about? We can only wonder until we hear the song, which for me was revealed as a semi-spoiler as it was one of the advance singles, and quelle surprise: the subject at hand is again love. “It’s no wonder we’re in love” he sings on the choruses, again backed by Beatlesesque la-la-la’s harvested straight from their “Octopus’ Garden” and as he whispers while the song fades out, the only wonder here is how Swanberg is able to craft such lovely love songs that are hardly original but still stand beautifully on their own.
Haven’t we all been there? When everything has gotten away from us? Sometimes everything just cascades away from us, like an avalanche of all of our worlds being flattened on top of us like a Paul Bunyan-driven steamroller. When it “All Got Away From Me” for Swanberg was following seeing “a pretty pretty girl” but he leaves “her standing in the sun” because he “thought that she would come” but now it’s all far away from him” and there’s no hope of winning that “pretty pretty girl” back—it’s all only a memory, and Swanberg concludes that “I started cracking up.”
“Angry Young Man In America” is a timely title; will it live up to its potential? Could this be the track that picks up the gauntlet dropped by Green Day’s “American Idiot?” But what is this young man angry about? Is he a red hatter, or is he someone simmering that our rights are being eliminated? As if to signal to the listener that “This Will Not Be A Love Song,” Swanberg swings in with some sonic trickery and a clearing of the throat as the boom-boom bippety-boom rhythm clicks in and clearly this is not another love ballad. “I’m an angry young man in America,” Swanberg sings ominously yet monotonously and “You got the liars the cheaters the woman beaters on top / And all this homophobic racist shit won’t stop.” He’s clearly not happy about it and wants to make a statement, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the magical melodies of the rest of the songs; not only is it well short of “American Idiot” country, it doesn’t even border on “Ignoreland,” to pick a similarly themed and sonically draped R.E.M. track.
Does she have a “Way About Her” or is Swanberg way about her? Swanberg seems obsessed with her, whoever she is, either way. Indeed, she’s got a way about her and inspires the loveliest couplet on the record: “The sunshine waits to see her face / And flowers don’t grow where she don’t go.” Swanberg’s poetic waxing continues to drip honey-laden tidbits on the next line: “It seems the earth spins at her pace / My pace too if I go slow.” Just as George Harrison tried to capture the ineffable on “Something,” so too Swanberg is trying to pin down what makes his love so wonderful, and even though he can’t pin and mount her like a butterfly, the picture he paints is just… lovely, and provides a stark contrast to the preceding track, as Swanberg is just saying “this is just to say:” “I know my strength, I just thought we needed a brief public service announcement about how some people are bad, now back to how much I love this lady.”
Has there been a bluer summer in recent memory? Not in modern times. It might be “sunshine-hot” but if we can’t enjoy the sun and everything that happens in the summertime, what’s the point of a summer? Could this blue summer be the cruelest summer of all? For Swanberg, this summer is a “Blue Summer” because it’s a summer without the object of his love, and the only “bright spot” is the promise of the return of his love in the fall. Reminiscent of Meredith Willson’s writing (for “The Music Man” that “Til There Was You”—later memorably covered by The Beatles), the singer never saw the birds all around “winging,” Swanberg sings that the “birds still sing” and the “phone still rings” but “It’s never you / It’s Nothing New / The days go by / I wonder why / Oh but I know I’ll get to fall in love with you.” Here he’s using the word “fall” with two meanings: the autumn season will be when she’ll return and he’ll fall in love with her all over again. Many happy returns, one supposes, if a “Blue Summer” can transition into a… whatever a happy color may be for the fall with a capital F—perhaps a “Golden Fall,” or an Auricular Autumn or some such seasonal hue. Can this something “gold” stay?
From a title perspective, “Inside My Wallet” may be the most difficult track to analyze. Will it be a catalogue of the contents of Swanberg’s wallet? Credit cards, driver’s license, family photos, a torn old dollar bill, membership cards, a condom? Or does he find inside his wallet only a collection of pictures of his “one and only” girl? Planning my first date with my first wife, I stocked my wallet with pictures of previous girlfriends, friends from high school who happened to be girls and stock photos of pretty girls that had come with previous wallets. Before the movie started (Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), I stepped away to the restroom and asked her to hold onto my wallet in my absence, and WHAM! my reputation was made. Of course my stratagem of presenting myself as some kind of incredible “ladies’ man” was a slam-dunk success, but it ultimately backfired, as this gal who later became my girlfriend and even later my first wife worried she would never measure up to all the girls I’d “loved before” displayed inside my wallet. Alternately, is Swanberg providing the musical answer to Material Issue’s “Goin’ Through Your Purse” (in which Jim Ellison finds “a photo of your mother too / And all the boys who dated you”)?
After a calliope-like fade-in, acoustic guitars duet and we hear Swanberg singing that:
Inside my wallet is a beautiful girl
Despite my presence it’s a beautiful world
With any luck I won’t fuck it up
Oh, won’t you say the prayer for us
Of course, later—again, not much later, as the song is just barely north of three-and-a-half minutes—we learn that he has indeed “gone and fucked it up” and that picture inside his wallet is “all that’s left of us.” Thus, “Inside My Wallet” is not a celebration, nor a screed, but a lament—“that play has run,” as Swanberg sums it up. It’s only a sad song in the way that “Surfer Girl” or “Wendy” by The Beach Boys, but it’s still a beautiful reminiscence and there’s even some jazzy bongos that come in toward the end, as if to say, it’s a sad song, but you still might be able to dance to it.
To wrap up “The One and Only,” Swanberg is saying that the object of his affection is everything on “All Were You”—she was the everything, but this is in the past tense. She was all but perhaps she is no longer? Or is it everything that he finds (in his wallet and elsewhere) was her, and not that “she” is in the past tense?
What Swanberg discovers when he makes a list of his “favorite things” that they “all were you” and in the future he can only promise her that “it will all be new.” This is the most “rocking cut” of the dozen (I’m not sure I’ve heard such halcyon day 1970s reckonings from a Chicago source since the first Smith Westerns outing), with acid guitar propelling classic rock lead histrionics, and there’s even some crazy Ringo Starr-like drum-set pounding reminiscent of the climax to “Abbey Road” in the middle and he concludes:
And there are things the world will bring together
An ocean is but many streams of one
And I believe that we belong together
The world agreed by putting me with you
“It’s everything that you do / You do / You do / You do do do”—da doo doo ron ron is all I want to say to you, and so on. In an echo of a conceit borrowed from his band The Lemons, the track (and the album) ends with intimate applause and James thanks his audience and offers “Peace and love and positivity, today and forever,” again channeling Ringo, with his “peace and love” mantra.
There’s no doubt that James Swanberg is tilling familiar fields with “The One and Only,” but it’s so generous and genuine, it’s clear that he’s inspired by fellow true pop believers—like Green, The Idea, The Lilacs, Yum-Yum, Very Truly Yours and their ilk—rather than ripping them off. You can hear yacht rock echoes à la Pablo Cruise, 10cc, Air Supply, The Carpenters and such, but Swanberg never falls so deep into the syrupy saccharine quicksand of adult contemporary sounds that he can’t nimbly extricate himself. While I’m sure he would take additional Beatles comparisons as a compliment, he’s not trying to be ELO or The Rutles or Liverpool or 1964 or Rain or whomever.
Given social distancing demands, I’m not the only one to remark that 2020 may be by necessity, the summer of the solo album, and if I made a list of my favorite things about this summer thus far (it might be short, to be sure), “The One And Only” would definitely be near the top.
What have we discovered about the efficacy and usefulness of applying criticism by title? While imperfect, it is an excellent way of challenging our preconceptions and noting where reality and fantasy differ. Naming things is one of the fundamentals of what makes us human, so not only should the title applied be considered with at least some importance, there can be no doubt that there is a poetic and artistic connection between what a work is and what it is called. Surely within the haze of meaning that hovers around artistic works like a fog, this could be an anchor to attach ourselves to the firmament, or at the very least a fog horn to provide a cautionary clarion call warning of the obstacles that so often hide from view, thus aiding in our avoidance of destruction, if not deconstruction.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.