Song essay for Music. Defined.
The Triffids – Wide Open Road
I know The Triffids’ “Wide Open Road” is my favorite song because it has remained my favorite song for more than five minutes. It’s been my favorite song for almost six years, beating its predecessor, Brian Eno’s “By This River” by three. In 2008, I was visiting home from my freshman year at college and while searching the internet for a live version of John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith In Me” (I found it and it briefly became a contender for my favorite song. It was a weird summer) I found a website that quickly became one of the most important things in my life. I say this even after taking into consideration the websites Google, AOL, Dogpile, Xanga the Electrical Audio tech forum and BibleGatweway. The site was a blog called C-60 Low Noise and besides my wife’s iPod it was the music collection that most informed my musical taste. From what I could gather by the limited information on the blog, C-60 was run by an older film industry worker from Nottingham, England who went by the name Time Bandit but was really named Peter (I think). His avatar on Blogger was that of Larry Llyod who I am now researching and discovering was a very important soccer player. Don’t bother going to the site; he obliterated the blog unexpectedly around 2011. The Wayback Machine doesn’t even have it. The entire archive is gone save for two posts: one about early 80s roots band The Long Ryders and one about late 80s art rockers New Model Army. I like to think that he kept these records on display because of how well the intersection of the two represents the blog as a whole. He’s in love with the staunchly traditional and the unlistenably weird and abstract. His blog was full of art damaged rock and roll, country, rockabilly and punk from roughly 1970 to 1995. Through him, I found records by Giant Sand, Mary Gauthier, Jason and the Scorchers, The Damned and Neil Young. The most important record came to me like so many others: while I was mindlessly clicking through the hundreds of records in his archive.
Nothing stood out as exceptional when I started reading Time Bandit’s entry for The Triffids’ 1986 masterpiece Born Sandy Devotional except that they were from Australia and that their frontman David McComb was very tall and died young (unrelated to his tallness). The brief summaries that Time Bandit included with each entry were always impeccably written but had a clinical tone or were preoccupied with English rock club trivia. To my memory, this record and the debut record by art rock band Doll By Doll (which I didn’t really get) inspired sudden, uncharacteristic fervor and gushing by Time Bandit, only enhancing for me the intrigue evoked by the deserted beach on the record’s cover.
I started with the video for the record’s lead single and the band’s biggest hit “Wide Open Road”. It’s hard to explain why this song hit me so hard. In 2008, I wasn’t listening to anything featuring drum machines, synth pads, terrible digital reverb or, really, any songs from the 1980s. The song doesn’t have much of a hook (weirdly, the closest thing to a hook is the bass guitar line) and it opens on nothing but a slow drawl of a synth line, a skittering drum machine and one hell of a bad mood. The song lives and dies by its atmosphere and while the skeleton of that mood is established by the minimal music, the real star of the show is David McComb’s cavernous voice and Imagist lyrics which are obsessed with isolation, loneliness and redemption:
“The drums rolled off in my forehead / the guns went off in my chest / I remember carrying the baby just for you / Crying in the wilderness
I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin / I cut them off as limbs / I drove out over the flatlands / hunting down you and him”
I like lyrics that are based around strong images (Eno’s aforementioned “By This River”) and “Wide Open Road” delivers on that. Some might label this song “cinematic” but I don’t really think it is. The song sounds huge but the lyrics offer by contrast a highly specific, highly personal journey. We catch a glimpse of the expansive Australian wilderness but mostly we focus on our protagonist alone in bed, alone in a car, alone in the desert. McComb’s voice is equal parts angry, weary and vulnerable. My favorite part in the song comes at the end, when the song’s title is refrained. By the end of the song, the optimistic thought that “it’s a wide open road” morphs into a claustrophobic mantra. The narrator is being mocked. The highway is usually a symbol of freedom but to our narrator it’s just another terrible thing that stands him and the object of his revenge. Think of it like a weird country song. The myth of the road, the scorned lover and the act of cutting out into the wilderness alone are all common images and themes in country music (see Hank Williams Sr. “Lost Highway”’) I don’t think the pomp of the production style dilutes this interpretation but rather helps transport what would be a traditional story song into an alien landscape where familiar images of the open road can become freshly sinister. There’s a reason that McComb had a pedal steel player in his band but there’s also a reason that the pedal steel sounds more like screeching machinery than a country + western standby.
I’ve tried playing this song since I first heard it and it just hasn’t worked out. It’s one of those songs that is tied up in the writer/performer and it’s not easy to make it sound right in another voice. I think this adds to the mystery of the song; it’s kind of untouchable to me. You don’t hear anyone sitting around playing it like a Bob Dylan song. It isn’t a “singer’s song” or a “guitar player’s song.” It’s a diary entry from one guy, David McComb, and there’s no way to change that foundational characteristic by just changing the handwriting. The recording perfectly captures the world that McComb intended to create and I think that makes it even more precious, like a limited physical resource rather than words and music that can be transcribed or written down.
Thanks, Time Bandit. Blog on you crazy diamond.