Can't Go Back

(Gnomonsong; 2007)

By Craig Eley | 9 March 2007

Listening to Can’t Go Back is like looking at an old photograph with a magnifying glass. Initially there is a warm familiarity (“That’s me!”), then a drug-like disorientation (“That’s me?”), and finally the looming and perhaps unconscious fear that what’s been documented about the past is somehow different from the way we choose to remember it (“I’m ugly”). The past is terrifyingly concrete: it’s over. It’s your high school yearbook, and no matter how much you may want to, you can’t rewrite the chapters of that one. But still we look, and still we remember. This is Can’t Go Back: an album of longing, regrets, faded memories and lost loves. It’s about the places and times (and music) that we literally can’t go back to, even as we insist on dwelling on them from the present.

Though nostalgic, the album’s not self-indulgent, nor a mere time capsule of the late-‘60s folk-rock that so obviously influenced it. It’s got the kind of craft and intimacy that we can expect from Jason Quever’s home recordings (as previously exhibited on 2004’s Mockingbird), and the music reflects a keen understanding of matching lyrics and mood with instrumentation. He knows when to use the washboard and when to call in the string section, and, most importantly, he knows how to share his stories with us, one highly focused glance at a time. But, importantly, these glances are mirrors as well as lenses. That is why this album, on one hand so simple, so easily explainable, is also so deeply affecting. Many songs are just quirky, or pleasant, or fun, if that’s the mood you’re in, but if you’re wont to really let an album take you over, this one will.

The opening track is your invitation inside, your clue to the voyeuristic satisfaction that the album promises and then holds you accountable for, even when you want to turn away. In “Dear Employee” we listen in on a Secretary-esque story that ends badly. We join in as the romantic relationship between the lovers has already fractured, yet the more formal employer/employee relationship is still intact. The boss, filled with self-loathing and cruelty, asks that the employee bring him his papers and coffee, while lamenting, “You’re just my employee now.”

Equally powerful and provocative is “Sandy,” where Quever croons to the titular girl over acoustic guitar and a slight snare drum, with organ to join the mix as the song progresses. Sandy is misunderstood and, of course, dreaming of bigger and better things even as she expresses apprehension and low self-esteem. The narrator sees this; in fact, he seems to see something in her that no one else does. Through his acts of flattery and encouragement his love to her is revealed, though he knows that if she takes his advice it means he will be left behind. His lines reveal him to be static and protective and slightly paternal; he would lock her away if he could, and in his arms: “You’re still just a child.”

Even though most of the album is equally lyrically devastating, it also has some pretty easy escape routes. A few of the songs are simply passable, sprinkled with retro fairy dust and smothered in pot smoke, especially on the back-to-back “Take the 227th Exit” and “Outside Looking In.” The first is filled with turns of phrase and lyrical trickery surrounding the number 227, complemented by honky-tonk piano, washboard, and a guitar solo that sounds so thin it could break. It’s a thinly-veiled tribute to Bob Dylan. “Outside Looking In” has the narrator as -- you guessed it -- an outsider to the “cool” high school world of drug use and popularity. Noodling guitar suggests the haziness of the subjects.

The nostalgic sound actually works best when it moves earlier in the 1960s. Album highlight “Summer Long” has big reverby percussion and lush orchestration; it’s a sound that’s somewhere between Specter’s Wall of Sound and -- dare I say it -- pre-pipe organ Arcade Fire. The music scores a deceptively simple adolescent drama involving a limousine and a dance and the inevitable summer break. The track ends with the seemingly endless repetition of the song’s key line, “Can you wait all summer long,” and, while logical, perhaps even predictable, the force of the music and the earnestness of the vocals make it compelling.

Ultimately, the songs here create no unified story or narrative thread, but create a sentiment that is simple enough for us all to hang our closeted regrets on. It’s cathartic, it’s voyeuristic, and it’s fun. Because ultimately, these aren’t your pictures, they’re sepia-tinged yard-sale finds, capturing moments while allowing you to fill in the backstory. It’s a brilliant exercise in imagining memories, one that can be as intensely pleasurable and personal as you’re willing, or able, to travel into your own past.