December 15, 2009

Song of the decade - Josh Ritter's Thin Blue Flame

There are a zillion posts and articles out there expounding on the best this and that of the decade, and personally I don't give two wits about most of them. But I do feel it's necessary to offer my two cents on Song of the Decade. At first I was leaning toward Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" because of its connection to Sept. 11, 2001, which I believe set the tone for the entire decade. The words, which start off decrying a ravaged city, ends up imploring people to rise up. The Boss sang it on national TV during the telethon to help the victims of 9/11 and its meaning struck a nerve even though the song, actually written in 2000, wasn't penned with the terrorist attacks in mind.
But a second song, by Josh Ritter, called "Thin Blue Flame" – from his album "The Animal Years" released in 2006 – takes those same sentiments and unleashes emotions so deep it even surpasses Springsteen's song. Ritter alternately spits out horrific evil in the world and also its beauty, as if he can't figure out which is more powerful.
In my review of the album in Modern Acoustic (Issue No. 8, Jan. 2006), I wrote this about "Thin Blue Flame": "It's a massive collection of lyrical images, each one you hear for a split second before the next one comes along. The song seems to see-saw between political darkness – Borders soft with refugees/Streets a'swimming with amputees/It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart – and dreamy hopefulness – The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts/They were coming together they pulling apart/And/angels everywhere were in my midst/In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed. All the while the music builds to a dirge-like crescendo and then dissipates to quiet gentleness – solo electric guitar then squalling guitar, bass, piano – and back again. The song clocks in at an unheard of singer-songwriter 9 minutes and 38 seconds, ending in one last crescendo, then to feedback fading to oblivion. It leaves the listener breathless, trying to figure out just what hit them."
And that was just after a few listens. Hundreds of listens and years later, the words – all 372 of them – are still chilling. Questions about religion, politics, God, beauty, heaven and hell. Who are we as human beings, and what can we believe in? All thrown up in the air after 9/11, and with a president who seeked revenge over understanding.
All the while the music is peaceful then chaotic, then peaceful and chaotic again – it's a rollercoaster ride of emotion. And in the end, Josh singing "Only a full house gonna have a prayer," telling us family and togetherness makes us whole. In the end, he's shouting it over the full-on instrumental dirge of guitar, piano, bass and drums.
I can't think of another song that hits you in the gut and makes you think at the same time.
Listen and download the song HERE.

The complete lyrics to Josh Ritter's "Thin Blue Flame"
I became a thin blue flame
Polished on a mountain range
And over hills and fields I flew
Wrapped up in a royal blue
I flew over Royal City last night
A bullfighter on the horns of a new moon's light
Caesar's ghost I saw the war-time tides
The prince of Denmark's father's still and quiet
And the whole world was looking to get drowned
Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds
I looked over curtains and it was then that I knew
Only a full house gonna make it through

I became a thin blue wire
That held the world above the fire
And so it was I saw behind
Heaven's just a thin blue line
If God's up there he's in a cold dark room
The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since he's been a'walking away
Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes
Where neither seraphim or raindrops go
I see an old man wandering the halls alone
Only a full house gonna make a home

I became a thin blue stream
The smoke between asleep and dreams
And in that clear blue undertow
I saw Royal City far below
Borders soft with refugees
Streets a'swimming with amputees
It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart
It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart
Days are nights and the nights are long
Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs
And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign
Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine
Now the wolves are howling at our door
Singing bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord
Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round
They're guilty when killed and they're killed where they're found
If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high
It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die
Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please
The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees
Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage
Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage
Lead pellets peppering aluminum
Halcyon, laudanum and Opium
Sings kiss thee hardy this poisoned cup
His winding sheet is busy winding up
In darkness he looks for the light that has died
But you need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find
And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck
And like good tragedy that's what we expect
At night I make plans for a city laid down
Like the hips of a girl on the spring covered ground
Spirals and capitals like the twist of a script
Streets named for heroes that could almost exist
The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem
To float like the smoke from a lithium dream
Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares
The young women walking in the portals of prayer
And the future glass buildings and the past an address
And the weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless
And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right
The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night
The future descending like a bright chandelier
And the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer
In Royal City I fell into a trance
Oh it's hell to believe there ain't a hell of a chance

I woke beneath a clear blue sky
The sun a shout the breeze a sigh
My old hometown and the streets I knew
Were wrapped up in a royal blue
I heard my friends laughing out across the fields
The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel
The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay
Cicadas electric in the heat of the day
A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land
And the lake was a diamond in the valley's hand
The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts
They were coming together they pulling apart
And angels everywhere were in my midst
In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed
I wondered what it was I'd been looking for up above
Heaven is so big there ain't no need to look up
So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air
Only a full house gonna have a prayer


J. Neas said...

Really great review of a really masterful song. I've found a new appreciation for it recently and as much as Ritter has created Dylan comparisons for me (starting with "You Don't Make It Easy, Babe" and its Freewheelin'.. vibe), they aren't because he is aping the style, but crafting it in his own image. "Thin Blue Flame" is its own "It's Alright Ma, I'm only Bleeding" or maybe more accurately "Desolation Row." Regardless, I love the review and wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on the song.

Abner11 said...

Just stumbled upon your blog (which is great, by the way), and I must say, I agree with you 100%.