I could talk forever about what went into this weird, sharp, angry piece of music, and hope I’ll get to put it all in writing soon enough. If you’re curious, though, here’s the near-full text of the email I sent Ally about “Dead Man.” She asked me to clarify I crack I’d made about finally sounding like a DC band; that’s where it begins.
What I really was trying to do with that comment was just highlight the fact that, if you know me, this song is different. When I first started performing it, a couple of friends and even my own drummer asked for backstory, their voices and faces carrying a hint of “Are you OK?”
It’s a lot less focused and intentional than most of my songs. The lyrics are pretty oblique; there aren’t many punchlines. And it’s a rough thing, made to be shouted. In rehearsals we could only play it once per session; the drum part Josh came up with was so physically shredding that his hands and arms would swell and ache for minutes afterwards.When we recorded the vocal, our engineer, Thomas Orgren, turned off all the lights in the live room, which I think helped coax the throat-scraping finale out of me.
When I arrived in DC, my impression was that a lot of the local guitar-based music was like this. I went to a lot of shows where the songs were exciting but also loud and abrasive; I could never make out the lyrics, which drove me crazy. I’ve since learned that I was experiencing a newcomer’s myopia, that the scene contains multitudes if you look hard enough — though I will say, solo singer-songwriters are in short enough supply that booking feels like a logic puzzle every time. Becoming friends with David Combs, a.k.a. Spoonboy, has helped: He performs nearly all of his shows seated and unamplified, and you can hear the words because people are singing along.
Without getting too deep into it, I can say this song definitely comes out of the anxiety and doubt by which many young people feel assailed when their role models let them down — especially when said role model is one’s own father. I probably got a bump in this direction from listening to Spoonboy’s “Stab Yer Dad”; that song is very blunt and is all about self-actualization and the rejection of self-doubt, asserting one’s identity independent of and/or in reaction to those who have let them down. I’d touched on the topic myself in an older song, “My Father" (from the album Slow Dance), this flowery indie-pop concoction that was my way to shrug off the awkwardness of having grown up in a single-parent household, and thus having to explain myself to each new friend and lover who asked a well-meaning question about my childhood.
"Dead Man" is more gestural than anything I’ve ever written. The first time Josh and I performed it I was freestyling half the time. Some of the lyrics that made it to tape — the chorus and the refrain for certain — were written with my usual sense of purpose. The others I will probably spend years deciphering, but I trust them because of where they came from. To me they evoke something vulnerable, at once defiant and terrified. And at their center lies a crisis of identity: What if, with each passing moment and breath, we are turning into our elders, even as we strive to avoid their mistakes?