4. Engine To Turn – Tift Merritt When: Summer 2013
“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” Abraham Maslow
Songs can save lives. They can enrich, nourish, bring hope, ease pain, and give expression and outlet to feelings that might otherwise overwhelm.
Three months ago I stood below deck on a moored boat in Bristol, beer in hand, and waited for Tift Merritt to perform. I was all over the place. Two years, perhaps more, of surgery, ill health, redundancy, change, lack of control, listlessness, and uncertainty had coalesced into a series of panic attacks. Constriction of the chest, shortness of breath, a chorus of competing voices yelling for attention in my head; no idea which of them to listen to first. Or whether to listen to any of them. Emotionally and mentally I had run out of road – exhausted – and my body just shut me down.
It’s a terrifying experience to wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, heart accelerating in your chest like it’s trying to hit enough speed to break out. I thought I was having a cardiac arrest. Doctor checked everything out and all was fine. Except, obviously, it wasn’t. I was mainlining adrenaline and cortisol, a primitive physiological response to stimulus, to stress.
Societally stress is a loaded word. Sometimes used blithely, mundanely (“stop doing that, you’re stressing me out”) but in its clinical manifestation it’s anything but mundane. And it’s hard to empathise with, to understand. Tolerances are so different, symptoms vary, and causes are wide ranging: one person’s bad couple of years is another’s exciting set of opportunities. I can tell you about the ruptured ligament in my knee and the resulting operations and it’s easy, you’ll “get it”, you can understand the mechanics of it. To tell you about my battles with depression, with an unspecified mental malaise, will be a little harder. I may need to hide behind some records. I may need as many as 42.
So, back on board The Thekla, moored and anchored – ain’t it grand when life throws you a free metaphor ? Tift Merritt is touring her wonderful new album, “Travelling Alone”, and takes to the stage, opening with “Engine To Turn” from her previous record, “See You On The Moon”. It’s one of my favourite songs of hers and, in the space of three minutes, it strips everything away, helps me let go of everything I’ve been holding on to – some of which is profoundly damaging to me – and all that’s left is me, a beer in one hand, my wife’s hand in the other, and the opportunity to listen to a great singer perform. Tears roll down my face and I lose myself in the next 75 minutes of the gig.
“Engine To Turn” is, like much of Merritt’s later work, a deceptively simple song. Four chords; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Lyrically direct, honest, straight, unadorned. Within familiar forms she addresses universal themes – there’s no mistaking what the song is broadly about but it leaves enough space for you to layer in your own experience, for the words to attach themselves to your own meaning.
From the outset the song sets out its challenge, opening up a theme – uncertainty – which has already cropped up in the 42 and, no doubt, will again:
I don’t know how to fix the world.
I don’t know how to fix myself.
Clearly for me personally this strongly resonates, speaking directly to a sense of being unwell, of being broken, and not being entirely clear what to do about it. This is further explored in the metaphor that gives the song its title – “I’m just trying to get the engine to turn”. The machinery is all there but it won’t come to life and typically, to extend the motif, an engine either needs fuel or a spark to get going. As I wrote earlier, I was running on empty, had run out of road. Any more car imagery and this is in danger of turning into a Springsteen song…
However, this isn’t a song that wallows in its own uncertainty, it’s not a pessimistic lament to a life without meaning. There are solutions here, simple articulations of what might work:
…seems like some tenderness could turn the whole thing around…
…seems like I ought to slow down…
…maybe the pieces are here if I just took a good look around…
And finally there’s an almost defiant statement of intent that closes each chorus and, ultimately, the song:
I’m just trying to smile through my tears
And I still got so much to learn
But the best I can is what I have to give
Gonna give it while I’m here
Not beaten. Unbowed. Determined. An eloquent expression of, perhaps, all that life is about.
The final chorus is prefaced by the wonderful bridge, an internal rallying cry that’s the exact opposite of my previously referenced competing voices yelling for attention:
Sometimes there’s a choir in my head
Singing at the top of its voice
Singing at the top of its voice
They sing: don’t look back
Don’t be scared
Don’t be scared
If, at risk of sounding like an X-factor contestant, my “journey” towards dealing with my own demons (and its expression through these words) is about anything then it’s about finding a way for these shouting, squabbling, picky, destructive, competing voices in my head to cohere into a choir that sings up in defiance, support and reassurance.
There’s a Bukowski quote that feels apposite with respect to Merritt’s work over her last couple of records, and particularly so with respect to “Engine To Turn”: “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”
There’s presumably a story to be told about Merritt’s career, from feted Americana star (debut “Bramble Rose”) to Grammy nomination (second album “Tambourine”), being dropped by Lost Highway, her label, moving to Paris, then to New York, and ultimately recording another three fine singer-songwriter records in the best traditions of Carole King, Lucinda Williams, or Emmylou Harris. But, interesting story that it is, my connection to her, my interest in her, is through her work – through what seems to be her ongoing assertion of personal and artistic integrity and growth. There’s a great recent interview with Backseat Mafia here which explores some of this territory.
Since that relative commercial failure of second album “Tambourine” and the subsequent fall out, Merritt has mined a progressively simpler, sparser seam of songs. In paring back the production and some of the instrumentation in the songs all that’s left is the craft of her songwriting. It says much about her skill that her work sounds just as vital now, if not more so, when delivered with just a voice and acoustic guitar as it did backed by a full band, Memphis style horns, and George Drakoulias production.
In many respects it’s a travesty that her audience in the UK is so limited, there must have been 80 of us at The Thekla on a Friday night. However, I suspect that’s no longer her overriding motivation. There are times in the performance that I saw – and also when I saw her play solo at The Radcliffe Centre in Buckingham (a converted church with a grand piano and great acoustics) a couple of years ago – when she and the band are transported in the performance, caught in a moment in which everything else falls away. The Maslow quote that opens this piece about sums it up; the impulse to create, the impulse to connect, irrespective of the size of the crowd, seems to be the motivating force at work. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience but she created a moment that allowed me to, if only briefly, let go of my troubles and regain some perspective. Music can do that.
Songs can save lives. Don’t be scared. Bukowski again: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us”. Now to work on getting my choir to believe it and sing it loudly and often.