Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Nobody wants to hear about Jason’s dreams

Jason Isbell is hanging in there with his attempts to get us to hear about his dreams. 

On his new album, Reunions, the gifted songwriter includes a cool callback that his most attentive fans will appreciate. I take it as a funny reference to a moment in “Chaos and Clothes” (from 2017’s The Nashville Sound), where Isbell sings: 

In my sleep, I build machines
Nobody ever wants to hear about my dreams, 
Last night I saw a burning Ferris wheel,
The meaning’s anybody’s guess ...

I like the brief passage a lot. It’s funny to me because the very first thing Jason does after telling us that nobody wants to hear about his dreams is to immediately describe an image he saw in a dream. It captures a thing a lot of us may have experienced on both sides: you have a (to you) striking dream but can’t get anybody to listen, or you get stuck hearing about somebody’s rambling-ass weird dream. Because there’s not much narrative sense in dream logic, listening is often frustrating and boring. 

But having set up that dynamic in “Chaos and Clothes” — “I’m telling you about my dreams whether you want to hear it or not!”— it’s even funnier for him to revisit it in the new album. The callback comes in the song “It Gets Easier,” which begins:

Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking
Same dream I have 'bout twice a week
I had one glass of wine
I woke up feeling fine
And that's how I knew it was a dream

Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking
Cold burn of whiskey down my throat
My hand turned into a rattlesnake
And I laughed myself awake
And that's how I knew it was a joke

As far as these lines or that song, anybody might appreciate them, on their own or in the context of the new album. You don’t need to have already been a fan to like it. 

But ongoing fans can appreciate it at a different level: those lines don’t live only in the context of a song or an album, but a body of work. His work and your (my) ongoing fandom becomes a years-long relationship. The work sinks in for the people who like it enough to, you know, LISTEN-listen, to let the songs become part of our lives, and to pay deep and repeated attention. When you listen like that, noticing things like the callback I’m describing can become tribal membership stuff. There’s a running gag, and you’re in on it.

I don’t even care how intentional it is (though I think Jason’s a noticer and likely knows what he did). Cool with me either way. 

I mention it here partly just to share my enjoyment of a smart, funny, cool thing that struck me in a song lyric. But I also want to use it as a representative example of the pleasures of context. 

There’s a joy to be had in having some artists that you follow. You listen to all their work for years. You have favorite songs, sure, but there’s more to it. They have a vibe, a way of being in the world, and it resonates for you. Their voice in your head becomes like a friend on your life’s path. You pull for them to do great work. Your share your fandom with people in your life. Maybe the songs become an important part of your relational culture with people you love. And when you get to go see one of your short-list very-favorites play live, maybe quite a few times over different chapters of your life, man, it is a burst of pure oxygen. 

I’ve got artists that crossed my path at a certain moment when my ears were really ready to hear them. Some fall away. But with some —and Jason Isbell has become one of them — they come along for the rest of the ride and you come to understand the work in a deeper and more satisfying way. 

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