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Fred Eaglesmith - Things is Changin'

Fred Eaglesmith
Things is Changin' | 1993 Sweetwater
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Did you ever try to farm a farm with a pick and a shovel?

Try to put a field into corn just wouldn't grow nothing?

Staring down across the town, you wonder why you even bother

When up the road there's a vacant room with climate control and color

And you can stay there by the month for a hundred dollars

- Fred Eaglesmith, from “Harold Wilson”

 

Up until relatively recently, the ultimate fortunes of most individual humans were intimately tied to the land, tied to the whims of weather systems and natural occurrences of all kinds.  To say such a life necessitated certain inconveniences would be an understatement.  An early frost could mean bankruptcy or starvation.  Prolonged droughts could spell certain and immediate disaster for entire communities.  A balky crop could end a farm.  The land, the weather, these were tangible matters of life and death.  There are still societies that remain dependent on the elements, but here in North America such immediate dependence has become the exception rather than the rule.  Is it possible that maintaining an appreciation of that way of life would put into perspective a weather-induced travel delay or a lack of skiable snow on the mountain?

Things is Changin’ grapples with the evolution from a rural agricultural society to something altogether different.  As I write this on my laptop while listening to my iPod between incoming calls on my cell phone, that world can seem a long, long way away.  But as Fred Eaglesmith will tell you, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that agriculture went from the #2 industry in his native Canada to #7, “as all the farms in our row went dark.”  The stories told on this album aren’t conjectural narratives or part of a lesson in ancient history.  They are cobbled together out of autobiographical memories and first-hand experience.

 

I had me a place on the Thunder Ridge in a doomsday shack

My wife had left and took the kids a couple of years back

And I spent most of my mornings thinking about that

And my afternoons trying to figure out what to plant

I spent my afternoons trying to figure out what to plant

- from “Harold Wilson”

 

The songs on Things Is Changin’ are concerned with more than crops and livestock.  They are mostly about the relationships that take place amidst the particular struggles of rural life.  And the pressure points of these relationships are both familiar and not.  Take for instance the case of Rodeo Rose and young Kelly James: “She wanted him crazy, but not that crazy, wild but not that wild/They were gonna settle down and get married someday, maybe have themselves a child/But breaking horses and dealing cattle, and livin' way over the edge/With a possibility he might always stay free, and she couldn't take the chance.”

The story is timeless, but the pressure points are different; “breaking horses and dealing cattle” aren’t the typical sources of stress in a relationship these days.  Similarly, the timeless heartbreak of “Brand New Boy” is framed by the difficulties created by trying to adapt from the agricultural way of life to a life in the emerging service industry: “Six dollars an hour ain’t enough to live on even in just a shack.  And the tips in a small town are so small you may as well just give ‘em back.  And the rain on the roof made such a racket you couldn’t hear yourself think.”  Even though these opening lines are the only context given, they are wholly sufficient, especially considering the context of the album as a whole, to set the necessary tone of desperation before moving on to the narrative, “Still I wish I was back there in that old shack with her, dancing to any old thing...”

 

There wasn't money in corn and there wasn't money in beans

They took my telephone, shut off my electricity

Then a letter came in the mail saying there was taxes owed by me

If I was ever going to pay, well I had three weeks.

If I was ever going to pay, well I had three weeks.

- from "Harold Wilson"

 

The rest of “Brand New Boy” highlights Fred Eaglesmith’s particular insight into pain and heartbreak.  The real killer here is not that the narrator’s woman has left him for another man; that’s a story that’s been told a million times.  It’s that he knows she’s better off with the other guy.  “She’s got a brand new boy and he takes all her pain away.  And they fly like angels and stars and rainbows and the night turns back into day.  She tells me she loves me, but she never loved me that way.  And what can she say.  But she’s sorry.”  It’s truly heartbreaking stuff, especially when you realize that the narrator’s particular pain is the direct result of his ability to recognize the truth of the situation.  It’s because he doesn’t fly into a rage or put her down or paint a damning picture of the new guy that he is forced to confront his own inadequacies.  The painful truth is his reward for being level-headed.

It is this type of nuanced perspective that sets great songwriting apart from good or average songwriting, and it’s all over this album, in the way the narratives seamlessly weave the struggles with the land, elements, and personal economies together with the pain of failed relationships.  Either, on its own, would be heartbreaking enough, but together they are truly devastating.  There is the haunting title track, which simultaneously describes the end of a relationship and the end of a way of life.  There is the beautiful “Summerlea,” which paints a picture of a relationship whose attractions are barely recognizable today, yet oddly appropriate and satisfying.

 

They sold that farm to some fool for ten cents on the dollar

I saw him out there last week, I was on the way to visit my daughter

And that son of a gun was out there trying to hook a windmill up to water

When he heard me laugh, he turned and I swear he hollered.

When he heard me laugh, he turned and I swear he hollered.

- from “Harold Wilson”

 

The effect of the otherness of Things is Changin’ – the farms, the cattle, humanity stripped to its bare essentials – is complex.  On the one hand, one feels a certain amount of gratitude that most of us are no longer subject to the whims of nature, that we’ve managed to develop the technology necessary to tame the elements and minimize the damage they are capable of inflicting.  There is the sense that there has been progress.  On the other hand, one feels that a screen has been placed between the world we live in and the old, real world where a crisis was a crisis and appropriate depths of feeling were called for, were necessary for survival.  In this context many of the things we tend to care about seem like proxies rather than primary experiences.  One feels that something meaningful, perhaps meaning itself, has been lost.  And somehow an evening spent watching reality television feels trivially inadequate to the capacity of human emotion.

 

Rodeo Rose now she lives in the suburbs in a house with a two-car garage

She's got a steady husband and a couple of children and nothing hardly ever goes wrong

Except Rodeo Rose she drinks too much too, and when she does she gets wild

She gets crying about horses and underfed cattle and always a month behind

- from “Rodeo Rose”

 

(All photos by Walker Evans)

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