But if you could just see the beauty,
These things I could never describe,
These pleasures a wayward distraction,
This is my one lucky prize.
Isolation, isolation, isolation…
Of all the many topics musicians have written songs about over the years, isolation is surely one of the most common. The feelings of loneliness, being stranded from civilisation and the comfort of other people, is nearly as common a theme as songs about how awful being around other people is.
Isolation can come in all forms, as a result of location, lifestyle, loss or even, like The Beatles’ eponymous character Eleanor Rigby, the troubles of ageing. Paul McCartney narrates Eleanor’s struggles, a life where she, “lives in a dream” and ultimately her death, where she was, “buried along with her name” and notes how, “nobody came”. Throughout the song, Paul questioned her loneliness, and the loneliness of a thousand other nameless character, as he attempted to answer the pressing question, “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
Morrissey’s isolation, as he explored in the excellent How Soon Is Now?, was more the making of his own gene pool, as he described himself, “the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”. The isolation discussed here is not a physical isolation but a mental one, a painful rumination on the ability to be alone in a room full of people, as recalled from a trip to a night club, “so you go, and you stand on your own and you leave on your own and you go home, and you cry and you want to die”, it’s all of course delivered with a classic dose of the morose, flamboyancy that only Morrissey can pull off.
David Bowie‘s classic, Space Oddity, portrayed the isolation of an astronaut lost and floating in space. In Solitude, Ella Fitzgerald was isolated by the loss of a loved one, noting, “in my solitude you haunt me, with reveries of days gone by.” Whilst on Solitude Is Bliss, Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker offered a different take on isolation, revelling in the freedom his new found, “space around me where my soul can breathe” gave him, he ultimately concludes, “company’s ok but solitude is bliss.”
Isolation is an incredibly powerful experience, one capable of bringing heartache and joy, and one that can be triggered by a multitude of factors, and bring on array of reactions. Arguably the best song on the subject, Joy Division‘s Isolation, seems capable of capturing all of the emotions isolation produces, the sadness, the anger of not being understood, the beauty and the pain coming together in one of the finest pieces of music ever put to tape.
Self-professed, ‘folk-craftsman’ Paul Bergmann is, of course, a solo artist. However, on his most recent EP he’s roped in the help of Nick Waterhouse and Kevin Augunas, as well as recruiting Warpaint’s Emily Kokal, who duets on Wishing Song.
The music Paul makes borrows from the great and good of Americana history, from the classic-pop sound of Roy Orbison or The Everly Brothers, to the more downbeat tones of Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash. His vocal has hints of flamboyant delivery as well as an impressive range, recalling the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Scott Walker.
Whilst he’s now based in Los Angeles, Paul grew up in the rolling uplands of Western Massachusetts. Paul credits the isolation of his childhood with the development of his sound; finding himself isolated from any sort of music scene, he was forced to retreat into his parents music collection. Western Massachusetts is known as a popular tourist destination because of its scenic topography, but is also famous for being a bit pissed off at the state Government in Boston not giving them enough thought in parliamentary matters. Paul’s not the only musician to come out of Western Massachusetts, he’s following in the footsteps of Dinosaur Jr main man, J Mascis, Smashing Pumpkins’ bassist Nicole Fiorentino and of course, Hit Parader’s 49th best Heavy Metal Vocalist, Aaron Lewis, of Staind.
Paul’s been involved in music for a long time, having been identified as an impressive vocalist at a young age, he was thrust into a series of choirs, operas and musical, none of which ignited much in the way of passion. It was only at the end of his college years he discovered the joys of the guitar and began writing folk-songs. He had a crack at writing surf-punk songs and being a rock-star, which brought about his move to Los Angeles and since then he’s carried out various projects and carved out a huge variety of projects, including garage rock two-piece Eekis. The lure of his folk-routes pulled him forward though and alongside his backing band, The Fair Moans, he released a collection of Southern-gothic folk songs, entitled 1. Earlier this year he released a 7″ single on current home Fairfax Recordings, and earlier this month he released his new EP, Romantic Thoughts.
It may only be five songs long, but Romantic Thoughts is one of the most intriguing collections of songs we’ve heard in some time. Americana is quietly having an excellent few years with the emergence of bands like Hurray For The Riff Raff, Hiss Golden Messenger and Cicada Rhythm, and Paul seems to fit neatly alongside them at the forefront of this quiet revolution.
Wishing Song, his duet with Warpaint’s Emily Kokal is probably the track that drew a lot of people to Paul’s music, but it’s noteworthy for far more than his choice of singing companion. It’s a classic, slow and mournful American-folk ballad, in the mould of Johnny Cash and June Carter. The whole thing is a gorgeous musical swoon, at one point they give up on words and simply hum the beautiful melody, as wistful and beautiful as you could imagine.
Drunk (Alone and New) falls almost into anti-folk territory, certainly there is more than a hint of Adam Green about the blend of classic pop guitars and vocals that are a tumbling, rapid waterfall of ideas, there’s even a blast of gorgeous harmonica, and classic country lyrics, where, “There is wine and whisky bleeding through the cracks of every pore”. Ocean Song, pairs a muted acoustic strum and rich echoing piano chords as it recalls Justin Townes Earl, whilst closing track Los Angeles is the middle ground of Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen, possibly the best place anyone could hope to be.
Possibly the best track though is the opener, You May Never Know. It’s an old fashioned pop song, borrowing its drums from The Ronettes, its guitar-tone from The Everly Brothers, and it’s bass-note heavy guitar line from The Shadows. Like Cass McCombs before him, Paul seems to have just hit into the veins of classic-pop and reinvented it without sounding like a pastiche or a parody; it’s just a fabulous track.
There’s unquestionably nothing wrong with these tracks, every bit as beautifully delivered as those who influenced them, so the only criticism you could really lay at Paul’s door is that he isn’t pushing the genre anywhere new. Whether that’s a problem or not is however a matter of the listeners own opinion, personally we’re not complaining.
Romantic Thoughts is out now on Fairfax Recordings.