Complicated thinkers make compelling art, and Tim Showalter was never one to look at the world simplistically. Whether it’s the hazy metaphorical view of loss and death in Pope Killdragon or the gutting emotional catharsis of HEAL, the Strand of Oaks frontman has historically excelled at reflecting on the turbulence of his life — and by extension, all of our lives — in an acute, multidimensional manner.
The latest Strand of Oaks record, Eraserland, is out today. It’s Showalter’s sixth release under that banner, it’s a culmination of most styles he’s dabbled in over the past 15 years — the folk introspection of his early years, the atmospheric mysticism of Killdragon and Dark Shores, the bold rock of the HEAL era, the dripping psychedelia of Hard Love — not to mention, as has been much discussed in the album rollout, it was made with some pretty famous friends.
Showalter’s backing band in the studio included most of My Morning Jacket — guitarist Carl Broemel, keyboardist Bo Koster, bassist Tom Blankenship, and drummer Patrick Hallahan — with contributions from Jason Isbell as well. In that regard, the album sounds extraordinary, but for this longtime Oaks listener, the people who worked on Eraserland might be the least interesting element of it. These songs are the most honest, raw, and vulnerable Showalter has ever been in his music. In them, we see a person who is not simply sad, or angry, but hopeless and terrified, confused and at an impasse, unsure of where or whether to go. And throughout the album’s ten songs, he articulates every one of those feelings.
Eraserland is a personal journey of somebody who’s trying to make sense of their place in world, their place in their career, the worthiness of their long-running form of creative expression. It’s packed with Easter Egg callbacks to previous songs in the Oaks catalog — “Bonfire” and “Goshen ’97” make lyrical cameos, to name a couple — as well as homages to some of the music that affected Showalter most profoundly throughout his life, shoutouts to bandmates long gone, and more. Over the course of the record, we hear Showalter laying out struggles as a musician that are hyper-specific to his life, but at the same time he leads us along in a manner that we see ourselves in his path, all the way to the concluding serenity of “Forever Chords” and the great and beautiful sleep we’ll all lie down for at one point or another.
Today, we’ve put together a song-by-song breakdown of Eraserland, with the most resonant lyrics in each; read it below, and listen along on the streaming platform of your choice.
1. “Weird Ways”
What’s calling me now is jumping in line at the store.
Keep racin’ ahead, there’s no value in the score.
The expansive album opener finds Showalter questioning everything he’s spent the past decade and a half doing. What’s the point of it all when, as we hear in the album’s first words, he doesn’t feel it any more? Is the fleeting euphoria of great gigs and the constant comfort of good weed really what he wants to be spending his time on? On “Weird Ways,” he yearns to break free of the writing-recording-press-touring cycle…and even if we are not a musician ourselves, we have all at one time or an other gotten lost in some sort of energy-sapping monotony. There can be more, though; Oaks is urging us to find a way.
2. “Hyperspace Blues”
Give up your reason, give in to the feeling.
Your head is exploding, whistling neon.
It’s a shame that I can’t stay here.
Those gigs, though — they can be total bliss. It can be confusing and confounding when something that gives us so much joy, and brings joy to so many others, becomes just a routine. The raw space rocker “Hyperspace Blues” acknowledges that emotional contrast, revels in the moments of performative bliss as the performer is ready to move on. Though this song might on the surface have the album’s sorta corniest sonic moment (“I’ve got the HYPER! SPACE! BLUUUUUESSSS! SOMEBODY PUT ME BACK TOGETHERRRRRR”), it becomes endearing and you find empathy as you understand what those blues are, exactly.
But what about you? It’s always me.
It’s time we listened to your dreams.
It’s easy to let your life slip away.
Oh god, “Keys” destroys me. Showalter has been playing it live and acoustically at the past two years of Winter Classics at Boot & Saddle. It’s a very direct and true meditation on his bond with his wife Sue, from little things like meeting her at the Regional Rail station every day to dreaming of running away and starting their life anew. As anybody who read Oaks interviews circa HEAL knows, the Showalters’ relationship has had its rocky moments and dark times, but they’ve made it through. And that’s because, in addition to being together by nuptial circumstance, they’re together because they have a mutual love and respect for one another that is pure and true. Everyone talks about how their spouse is their best friend; spend any time withTim and Sue and you get the sense that they actually are best friends. Tim enthuses about his admiration for her, whether it be on Twitter or onstage or hanging out along the Wissahickon trails. In “Keys,” Showalter posits that his career has driven their relationship for long enough and wants to turn the tables, and shift focus to his partner.
2017 tried its best to take the magic from me.
This is a lyric that just about anybody can see some of their own circumstances in. I mean, really, who had a good 2017 in a country and world that practically collapsed into a more divided state than ever? For Showalter, the magic in question is a nod to his biggest hit, “Goshen ’97,” and its muse on music-making, “I found my dad’s old tape machine, that’s where the magic began.” He spent most of 2015 and ’16 meticulously crafting his follow-up to HEAL, recording it and re-recording it, planning Hard Love as a celebration in the wake of overcoming personal trauma. The album’s mantra was “get loose,” its spirit was about freeing yourself from stressing ephemeral concerns of the world, its tone was very informed by psychedelic drugs. The record was finished, ready to drop in early 2017…and then the November 9th happened. And at least 50% of the country was extremely not stoked by the results of the presidential election.
While Hard Love wasn’t exactly a carefree and jubilant record — it’s nuanced, as all Oaks works are, with moments of paranoia and tragedy — the album was nonetheless framed in an optimistic manner, and fell somewhat awkwardly among listeners and critics who did not feel that way at all. Showalter has talked about this extensively, particularly at those Winter Classic shows. (In 2017, the punchline of the story went something like “…and then Voldemort got elected.”) He was suddenly enraged at the world, which tried to take the magic from a lot of us at a macro level, and at the same time he was committed to a year of going out on the road in support of a record that he was proud of but was at the same time was not reflective of the urgency of his emotions. In a way, the year of Hard Love had the opposite of its intended effect, and in Eraserland‘s heavily psychedelic “Visions,” Showalter closes it out on the other side by tripping on the Jersey shore, alone, trying to make sense of everything that went down.
5. “Final Fires”
All my brightest failures keeps shining out the winds
The second of the record’s homages to beloved classics from Tim’s record collection (the first being “Keys” and its super lovely Mazzy Star atmosphere) the buoyant “Final Fires” is perfectly Smiths-y, using Johnny Marr guitar lines and a Moz-style delivery as Showalter tries to have a laugh and find a little light at the end of a difficult year. At this point, despite the upbeat and poppy air, everything feels like it’s over, the fires are still burning but near their end, and our hero is now poised to take a deeper look at all that happened.
6. “Moon Landing”
I think about Carter, and I think about Chris.
Deven found a band that makes a lot more sense.
Bobby’s seen the prophet with the futuristic eyes.
I’m sorry how it ended, I was too dumb to try.
A heavy song, and another referential one at that — shoutouts to my wife Maureen for noticing how neatly it parallels Marianne Faithfull’s “Why’d You Do It” from Broken English — but the amazing thing about Eraserland is how cohesive its nods and homages all sound under the Strand of Oaks umbrella. HEAL at the time was described by Showalter and by the press as having a mixtape sort of vibe, and if there is a criticism to levy at that brilliant album, it is that the songs do jump around stylistically. While Eraserland jumps around as well, there is a uniform aesthetic about it that makes for an engrossing listen from top to bottom.
But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about with “Moon Landing.” I wanted to mention its frenzied and furious monologue that finds Showalter in breakdown mode, venting about his failings as a husband and bandmate and friend, expelling all his anger at himself over things that affected his relationships both personal and professional. In this particular quote, he specifically shouts out Chris Ward (who drummed in the duo configuration of Strand of Oaks after Pope Killdragon) and Deven Craige (who played bass from Dark Shores through Hard Love; Japanese Breakfast is his band “that makes a lot more sense”), among other collaborators past, and essentially offers them a public apology on permanent record.
We, we can choose to make love or to lose.
If you’re not done dreaming, than dream with me.
A breath of fresh air, a feeling of pure joy. “Ruby,” with its staccato keyboards and timeless rock refrain, finds Showalter oddly relieved in the wake of “Moon Landing,” and touched by a certain feeling of love and possibility that he’d been missing. This beautiful pop gem wholly embraces the light and joy we heard traces of on “Final Fires,” and hopes for growth in a positive direction.
8. “Wild and Willing”
Admit he was right, if you age every night
nobody returns your calls.
But. And there’s always a but. You still feel down, you land in these moments of dejection. You hear other people talk about your favorite band, and how they didn’t feel like going to their gig, because they saw them last time they toured and they just played too long. You get momentarily down on yourself, and feel your age. “Wild and Willing” is a short, tender snapshot of that moment, constructed in a moving and minimal simplicity. This is what Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch must have been singing about when he sang about writing the saddest song.
Mary, have you read the news? He’s putting his hands all over you.
The foolish kid thinks that he can’t lose. Oh Mary, don’t read the news.
It’s coming up on a decade since Strand of Oaks released Pope Killdragon, and for the title track of Eraserland, Showalter pays a visit to Mary, the goddess archetype of that album. He catches her up on everything that’s transpired since 2010, how the world has changed, how that change hasn’t always been better, whether you’re talking about an industry that’s “forgot about songs” or whether you’re talking about sexual predators in positions of great power.
10. “Forever Chords”
If you believe you can be loved, you’ll outlive your past.
The final homage of Eraserland is immediately recognizable from the opening chords and brushstroke ride cymbal beat; you don’t even necessarily need to know that MMJ’s Bo Koster spent time as Roger Water’s touring keyboardist to appreciate this beautiful send-up of “Us and Them.” But what better way to build a song that’s about the strange serenity of death, and wondering what kind of legacy you’ll leave behind?
“Foerver Chords” is a beautiful and existential nine-minute expanse — Showalter calls it the best song he’s ever written, and I’m not going to disagree — and as it swirls and swells, we come to conclusion that some things are more important than songs, or albums, or rock and roll. Some things will make you truly eternal, and the love you give and receive might just be the greatest. As Tim wrote today in a Facebook post about the album’s release, “Eraserland means whatever you want it to, but for me its a place where you can be anyone you want to be, and hopefully find some peace.”
Eraserland is out today via Dead Oceans Records; order the album here, and see Strand of Oaks headline Union Transfer on Friday, May 10th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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