During the preview interview from earlier this week, I finally got a chance to ask Jim Guthrie a question I had been sitting on for years. The question came to mind ten years ago, when I heard his previous album Now, More Than Ever. The question popped up again when I heard his new album, 2013’s Polaris Prize nominated Takes Time.
How do you end a piece of art?
Not in the sense of knowing when the artwork is complete while constructing it, though that seems to be the title concern of Takes Time, an album about the emotions involved in taking ten years to make an album. Instead, I was asking Guthrie about how he picks the songs that close his albums.
I asked about these final tracks because Guthrie has a habit of doing something almost unheard of for most records: he ends them with wild left turns. On NMTE, an album of consistently haunting drum-strings-and guitar folk songs about time and quantum physics, the closing number was You are Far (Do You Exist), a ukulele love ditty complete with island percussion. You can practically hear the leis swishing. It completely derails the flow that the album works so hard to achieve, and leaves you with the aural equivalent of whiplash, or at least as much as possible from a ukulele song.
This time around the shock comes from album closer Turn Me On. The song stands out like a sore thumb (more on that appendage later). The album is full of original faux-futuristic folk-pop songs dense with textured synthesizer backing-tracks and sounds of crowds cheering and cheerleaders chanting, but this closing cover is as clean and clear as can be. It sounds like it could have been recorded fifty years ago. It’s essentially another out of place love song. In other words, flow killer 2.0.
Guthrie, in our interview, admitted that he likes throwing these curveballs to close his albums, “I like it when things don’t end how you’d expect.”
These unexpected surprises make my job quite a challenge. Do I trust my strong initial impressions? How can I predict how I will feel about this album ten years from now?
It wasn’t until years after the release of NMTE that my ice-cold hatred of You Are Far began to thaw. Slowly, eventually, I began to enjoy the song’s silliness. And now, I look forward to the wild turn waiting for me, I anticipate its sunny breeze while I’m still stuck in the existential storm that is the rest of the disc.
The challenge of reviewing Takes Time is that… well, Guthrie’s music takes time. I can already feel that same slow transition starting with Turn Me On, from initial uncomfortable shock to gradual appreciation. It, like a lot of Guthrie’s finely crafted music, is a grower.
This long-term effect can also be felt in the second last song Wish I Were You. Guthrie has always had a way of lacing his best pop songs with a hint of cyanide, and in this song, the self-destructive ingredient is the song’s title/chorus. The first few times listening through, I felt creepy singing along to: “I wish I were you!”. And if you end the relationship there, after two or three listens, that uneasy feeling is all that sticks.
But over time the song begins to reveal its mysteries. Eventually you notice Owen Pallett’s propelling arrangements. After a number of listens you might start to hear Evan Clarke’s persistently subtle drum work. In time, you might even discover the longing slide guitar buried in the bridge. But most of all, you notice Guthrie. You feel that, for once on this album, he has some fire in his voice as he sings, “somebody screamed!” before repeating that creepy title again. It all adds up to that old Guthrie magic, the sort of song that leaves you pondering, years later, the mysteries of a lines like: “If we do nothing/ there’s nothing left to do.”
Not all the songs have grown in my estimation equally. There’s two stumbles that I don’t see myself coming around on anytime soon. Both The Sound of Wanting More and Difference a Day Makes have good-enough melodies but they’re dragged down by repetitive lyrics that leave you tired of hearing their titles over and over.
But that’s just two tracks on an eleven song LP. And once again, Guthrie knows how to open an album right. Like starting a meal with dessert, the sugary Taking My Time is how you wish all experiences would begin: with a big bang; plenty of catchy hooks; and lyrics about horses, wine-fueled nostalgia, and (of course) time.
“I’ll have to change to stay the same”, Guthrie sings on Taking My Time, and listening to the album you can understand what he means. This isn’t the Guthrie of ten years ago. Takes Time sounds far more aurally dense, while somehow feeling lighter and more accessible. While this album, for me, has yet to reach the same heights as NMTE, the potential for growth is still there.
Takes Time is different enough to stand on it’s own. Guthrie has changed but the album still carries that same sense of surprise embodied in its final song. And that surprise might be the reason why these left-turn endings work over the long-run.
The unpleasant shock of that first listen of those closers might just be the Frankenstein moment, the jolt of electricity that brings the monster to life. Guthrie’s artwork grows over time in part because of that rush of feeling, the same shock you get from stubbing your thumb. The pain forces you to notice your thumb, to feel it, this thing you normally don’t notice but that is now a pulsing Being (to borrow a term from Heidegger who was also obsessed with Being and Time).
And once a piece of art becomes a Being, when it’s alive in your mind, who knows where it’ll go and how it’ll grow? Finding the answer, like with anything worthwhile, just takes time.