Last but not least, I'll write a bit here about the creation of Fire and Rain. This is the final album in the cycle, the "winter" one. I wanted to end with an album that felt like winter, like a loss of hope and a sacrifice of the sunlight of summer to darkness...but that also acknowledged that, in the end, the wheel will come back around. It's a cycle, remember? Not a line.
So, that was part of the inspiration behind this album. The other part was Ryan Adams' album 29. I've sort of personally "cancelled" Ryan Adams from my musical cosmology, for reasons that I've written about on this site before, but that you can also read about in the New York Times. But, way back when, at the height of my Ryan Adams fandom in 2005, he released three albums in one year, and that trilogy ended with 29, a massive tonal and sonic departure from the other albums he'd released that year (and, arguably, anything else he'd ever released). Even by Ryan Adams' standards, 29 is dark, like, really dark, stylistically inconsistent, and badly in need of some trimming. But that's why I love(d) it. Ever since, I've wanted to make an album like it, and for better and worse, with Fire and Rain, that's what I did. I consciously kept from editing myself on this album, unlike on the others, to the point that I'd planned a twelve-minute album closer which, upon recording, ballooned to twenty-nine minutes, and I just left it that way. That's not to say there wasn't quality control or thought put into the album, but just that I wanted to make sure the usual, sensible limitations I put on a song or album wouldn't hold me back from seeing how dark I could go.
If that makes you want to hear the album, you'll probably love it. If it makes you want to never listen to the album, you'll probably hate it.
Stylistically, I'd say it shares the most DNA with Ride, actually: there are a lot of jammy, instrumental passages, weird sonic experiments, and the like. I struggled sometimes recording Ride while trying to keep track of all of the separate tracks bouncing around in my Audacity projects, but the size of the project files on a few of the Fire and Rain tracks were absolutely enormous compared to the Ride songs. There's a lot going on sonically here, at least by my standards.
And did I mention lots of the songs are weird? Like, pretty weird? There are only three songs here that sound to me like anything else I've written, and two of those ("Please Don't Let Me Go" and "Blackbird Girl") are the saddest breakup songs I've come up with, ever, while the third one ("Fire and Rain") is nineteen minutes long. I'm lucky if I can play a third of the songs off of this album without having to look up the chords and lyrics as a reminder first. That said, while I feel like I've grown immensely as a songwriter, guitarist, and producer through the process of making all of the albums I've put out this year, Fire and Rain is the one that has had the most impact on me, and makes me the most excited for what I'll write next. Coming through the darkness and finding yourself on the other side definitely allows you to see the world in a new way, though that's about all I can say to recommend the experience.
Anyway, to the song notes!
I got it into my head at some point that I wanted to write a story song about a haunted ghost train and a battle between good and evil where evil wins. I mentioned a mariachi band in the lyrics, and then thought "What if I actually played the mariachi band's song within the other song?" Suddenly, "Badlands" was nine minutes long and felt like the perfect way to open this ridiculously long and convoluted album.
In my head, "Ghosts Of The Highway" and "Fear" have some sort of strange, symbiotic relationship. This existed before the fuzzed-out static that punctuates both songs was added; in fact, it's why it was added. "Ghosts" is a new song, written during the Triptych sessions. "Fear" is a song I adapted from a poem that I found in an old notebook during the sessions. A decent amount of the Triptych songs were initially written over snippets of music and chord progressions I'd written and/or recorded without lyrics randomly over the last fifteen years, but "Fear" is the odd song where the lyrics existed first and about fifteen years after I'd written them, I sat down and wrote music to go with them. I really like the way it worked out, and should probably try writing more songs this way in the future...
"Neal's Jam" used to be called "Crazy Stairs," and was renamed as a tribute to guitarist Neal Casal, who is a huge influence of mine and who passed away while I was recording the album. The main riff in the jam is actually paraphrased from a riff he played during a version of The Cardinals' "Off Broadway" performed live in 2009. So, it's "Neal's Jam" in more ways than one, I suppose. The jam has always been paired with "Enemy," which is a song about how bad things can get when you don't get out of your own way.
"Blackbird Girl" was a phrase and an image that came to me while out on a run (where a lot of song ideas come to me, strangely enough). I wrote this song from the perspective of someone who might have cause to address it to their own "blackbird girl," who had flown away and never returned. It was called "Haunted Heart" at one point and "Blackbird Song" at another.
"Ice On The Mountain" came from a dumb idea I had to inspire a new song: I wanted to try to write a song called "Ice On The Mountain" because it was the opposite of "Fire On The Mountain." This is the song that resulted, inspired in part by an accident I'd recently experienced while out mountaineering.
"Amie" was, weirdly, the first song I wrote after writing "The Light" in 2016. It didn't make it onto to Asphalt Ghosts, though, because it didn't fit with the rest of the material and because the picking pattern was really hard for me to play reliably at first. So it got shelved until this album came along, when I resurrected it, rewrote some of the lyrics, got the picking pattern down, and changed the title from "Salmon" to "Amie," a reference to the nigh-unattainable woman in Chretien de Troyes' medieval romance "Lanval." This story has some parallels to that one.
"Kurzweil Transmissions" is named for the scientist who first conceptualized the AI singularity, but this is basically just a brief instrumental written in A that randomly finds its way into the middle of songs like "Caroline" and "Palace," as well as covers like Bob Dylan's "Isis" from time to time.
The "Not The One" > "Fire and Rain" > "(Rise)" sequence certainly has enough lyrics and music to speak for itself, but if you're interested in my thought process behind putting it together the way I did, here's an excerpt of an email I wrote to a friend a few weeks ago attempting to explain it: "I feel like I've been in an apocalyptic mood since March of 2020, and only now, as I'm hitting summer break in 2021, with COVID not quite the looming specter it once was, and a little time to do something other than work in my office, am I able to look back on the last sixteen or so months with anything approaching objectivity. I feel like it was/is the most dystopian time I've ever lived through: massive systemic failures of our corroded institutions, collapsing of personal relationships, deaths of friends and family...you know, all the hits, but all at once and with the overwhelming sense that all of this is in all likelihood just the beginning of something even bigger, rather than an isolated string of "bad luck." I think we'll be forced to de-industrialize, de-technocratize, and de-globalize whether we choose to or not, after much longer. One of the more indulgent portions of the huge pile of new music I dumped onto my website the other day is actually about this...sort of? You might enjoy it, you might find it a bit too meandering, but it's the only real sonic monument to the last sixteen months that I've recorded so far, so maybe that will serve as a better response than my hammering away at these keys for five or six more paragraphs..."
And that's the best I can do to sum up Fire and Rain.