As some regular readers might remember, at one point this whole recording project was known as Triptych. As I've said and written before elsewhere, the idea was to record three albums, forming the sonic version of a medieval triptych: three "panels," one story. The story would be the cycle of the seasons, literally but also metaphorically. There would be a folksy, acoustic album with a sort of spring/summer feel, a jammy, electric album with a sort of summer/fall feel, and then a darker, "winter" album to close things out. The cycle, of course, would move through birth, growth, death, and then rebirth: in nature, in individuals, in relationships, in the trajectory of human society. You know, relatively unambitious stuff.
This sort of ended up happening, but got a little muddled along the way as I wrote more songs than I'd planned and struggled with the idea of leaving songs I liked unrecorded for the sake of some loose concept-album plan. In the end, I ditched Triptych and recorded everything I wanted to record instead, ending up with four albums instead of three. Wilderness Amen stuck around as the first album of the cycle, as I wrote a bit about in the notes for that album already. But, early on, Ride was part of the triptych's middle album, a double-LP called Maps. The first half of Maps was going to be electric, with generally big-picture, abstract lyrics, while the second half was going to be more acoustic, more reflective, and more autobiographical. Both halves of the album would feature songs that were more structurally complex and had more layers (overdubs, harmonies, etc.) than my recordings had previously had. If you've listened to both, you can probably guess that the double album got split into two albums and ended up being Ride and Maps, respectively.
The writing and recording of these albums coincided with my recent fall into obsession with the Grateful Dead's songbook, and that influence, as well as the influences of bands I'd already listened to for years like Phish, Trey Anastasio Band, and Chris Robinson Brotherhood show most obviously in this album, I think. "Ride" starts the album with an opening riff and later overlapping guitars, "The Melody," one of my oldest songs, has a new, muted jam section that is one of my favorite things I've ever recorded, "Sometimes" has a pop sensibility to it right up until it takes a very Phish-y left turn at the outro, "Bright Girl" has an acoustic-vs-electric guitar duel near the end, and "Electric Dream" and "Invocation" both build up energy to a crescendo via guitar jams. I'm not as good at composing these kinds of guitar parts as I'd like to be, yet, but this whole project, and Ride in particular, helped me take the first few steps down that road.
"I Love You (Or The Mountains)" and "Ways To Fly" stick out to me as slightly weird fits for this album, but they fit here better than elsewhere and I didn't want to leave them behind. "I Love You" was a song I wrote shortly after "Running," on an afternoon when I had a hankering to write a song that had some of the lowest and highest notes I could sing in it. I ended up with something that reminds me in a weird way of Michael Stipe's vocals, and then figuring out how to record the bridge of the song with a sort of Beatlesesque vibe finally brought the whole thing together for me.
"Ways" is a much older song that has just never made it on an album, partially because depending on the day, the lyrics either hit hard for me or feel a bit trite or sophomoric. So, after singing this song a certain way for ten years or so, I rewrote about half of the lyrics during the Triptych sessions to be something I felt less ambivalent about, and it was the exact change the song needed. How you hear it now is, I think, how it was always supposed to sound. I just finally stumbled on the right words.
So, the most fun part of writing the notes for Wilderness Amen was the random trivia section. So let's do that again!
The subtitle of "Ride (Charley)" is another tribute to my dog, Charley, who passed away during these sessions. He was actually laying on the floor in the studio on the day I recorded the demo of this song, when I was still trying to decide the name of the song's protagonist. He was such a good and quiet dog that I was able to record the whole demo with him in the room. Ride, Charley, ride.
Once, while performing "The Melody" live, I mis-sung the line as "I woke from a dream to the sound of the melody / In a house full of dust, with a mouthful of cats" and it took me at least a minute to stop laughing hysterically and start the song over. I still worry every time I play it that I'll sing it backwards again.
"Sometimes" was the result of my attempt to write a catchy, "disposable" pop song. It's as hard as they say! It was intentionally based on the outro chords to Phish's "Harry Hood," because of course it is.
"Bright Girl" is a little hamfisted, maybe, but I wanted to write a song that was about wanting to fall in love outside of the usual hyper-gendered, codependent, typically toxic model of "love" that movies and music present us with. It's hard to think outside of those ideas when you've lived with them in your face your whole life, but I'll do a better job next time.
"Ways To Fly" is a song about trying to find a way out of depression without taking advantage of others emotionally, and without hating yourself for being depressed. It's hard to do; fortunately, writing a song about it is super-easy.
If you don't recognize the title of "Oread," you should read some of H.D.'s poetry. It's really good. And this pointed-pine-themed instrumental made a great segue into "Jeff Tweedy's 49th Electric Dream," which is a reference to Wilco's song "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard" and also to the fact that this song is basically the same chord progression as Wilco's "Handshake Drugs." Like "Bright Girl," this song seemed a little...unsubtle to me at first. Then, during COVID, my grandpa died and I had to watch his funeral over Facebook because I couldn't travel. It's as bad as the song makes it sound. How do we live lives with meaning when reality has become virtual?
"Emerald Downs" is the name of the apartment complex I lived in for most of my 20s.
I explained "Invocation" to a friend in an email this morning like this: "The original idea of "Mother Roads" as a sort of highway deity or demigod came about through a half-serious/half-joking conversation ["Neal" and I] had years and years ago while trying to drive from the Pacific coast to Ohio without paying to sleep anywhere (partially for the fun of it, but partially because at the time we had a combined $200 or so beyond gas money to our names). I think we were somewhere in Montana at the time, and I vaguely remember a campfire, and maybe a lake (?), but ["Neal"] had built this weird little pagan effigy and burnt it in the fire as a "sacrifice" to "Mother Roads" to guarantee our safety. It felt a little hokey, years later, to insert that character/spirit into a song in the form of a prayer, but once I sung it a few times, it felt right, so I left it that way."