What On Earth's Coming Next? Hard to Guess but Count on Thomas Anderson’s Next Track Being Evocative
Rocker, singer-songwriter, musician, Thomas Anderson, composes accessible, thoughtful songs that range from wistful and haunting to get-up-and-dance animating and his reservoir of inspiration seems bottomless. Indeed, Thomas has thirteen albums to his credit and just released a single for another new album The Debris Field. The single, “Council Bluff,” presents an angle of one man’s musings on the times of Sarah Vaughan. This song stirs up a whole past reality, full of sad romance and nostalgia. I listened to it a few times last night, then did a deep dive into Sarah Vaughan’s music, followed by songs featuring boxcars, then back to Thomas Anderson’s catalog. Good time spent. That’s one of the valuable things Thomas brings to listeners — a want to explore other worlds, bits of American experience, thought, and music. He makes history relevant and personal. Thomas Anderson albums were foundational in my life-soundtrack from about ‘95 to 2008. After that with moves and disorganized cassettes and CDs, failed equipment, and the emergence of the prevalence of streamed music, I became discombobulated with my collection and how to access it. Back in mastery of a wide and diverse soundtrack now, I’m spending luxurious time with Thomas’s new music as well as my old favorites and here I am to celebrate that.
I’ve been reluctant to write about music or musicians. Many people already do that so well and although I write both poetry and songs, I see them as mostly discrete endeavors and have more experience writing about poetry. But check this out from “Cinderella Without Cinderella” off of Ladies and Germs (2021):
All the glass slippers became Jack the Rippers and you are yesterday’s news. And the phone doesn’t ring and the mail doesn’t bring / anything but bills that are due. The past is remote / it flies like a ghost / reach out and you reach right through…
I could approach Thomas’s lyrics as poetry, straight up. But that would miss the vibrant energy that exudes from their marriage to the music and his frank, vulnerable voice. So I embark on sharing an exploration of Thomas Anderson’s Music, both as a poet and a fan.
I met Thomas in 1995 when I was living in Tucson, AZ, working at Zia Records. A friend told me about a great musician coming in from Austin to perform. In those days, I was always up to check out a show, so I took the opportunity to hit the small, dark club downtown and was immediately glad I did. Thomas delivered his songs with energy that held and surprised me from first to last note — thoughtful, at times philosophical but not at all high brow, delightful and engaged my curiosity. We got to talking, then letter writing, and became friends. I got his first album, Alright, It Was Frank – And He’s Risen from the Dead and Gone off with His Truck (1993, Dutch East India).
On Alright It Was Frank, the songs jump from the initial track, “Wish You Were Here,” a full-bodied song filled with references to space, bemoaning the absence of Martians and our lonesome human plight, to “Sweet Sweet Rock’n’Roll,” a fast paced twirling beat that begs for dancing while somehow also throwing shavings of Lou Reed-levels of grit. How could I have resisted becoming a fan? I can’t estimate how many hundreds of hours I listened to that album over years and miles. Listening again, I can’t remember if I had a favorite song and can’t pick one out now. The third song, “Lucy Daylight” begins:
Bright lights on the eastern horizon
Shine like a beacon on me,
Half hour til the morning is risin’
With a wind from the south
And a rain blowin’ in from the sea.
Sad songs from San Antonio
Crackle in the lightning above,
You just know there are angels all through the air
And you roll half-awake through the rain to the one that you love.
With the instrumentation dancing around the words and the main rhythm line, it’s a fantastic driving song.
“Vaudeville” might be my favorite, if favorite means the one that most often comes to mind.
And they said, “Here’s to you, Tyrant Lizard King,
You could knock the shit out of any livin’ thing.
When I was a boy you were a hero to me,
Wreaking havoc upon the dawn of history.
Now they found the bones layin’ the phone line down.”
This haunting tribute to many children’s favorite of dinosaurs rolls out in over six minutes. Thomas’s music never seems rushed, nor to drag. Most of his songs fall into a typical radio length of time but generally, they just seem to take as much space as they need to fill.
I love how Thomas doesn’t seem to be following any formula or rules, other than his own heart and sensibilities that work so well in his rock’n’roll, and to my ears. There’s an interesting review from 1998 from the Village Voice on Thomas’s website calling him the “greatest unknown songwriter on the planet.” (Here’s the link.) The author sets up the dichotomy between singer-songwriters, which on average don’t well-match Thomas’s spirit or themes, and rockers, that Thomas isn’t readily identified as, given that he usually performs with just himself and his guitar.
I always get muddled in categories — genres, intended audience, elevator speeches. So it’s little surprise that I find the difficulty in characterizing Thomas’s music endearing. And I can’t imagine that I’m alone in that. I mean super cool, surprising, beautiful music must be considered worth listening to and supporting just for that, because it’s cool, surprising, and beautiful, regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to explain, I think. If you agree, you’ll want to check him out and offer support by buying albums if you can. (Link to listen and purchase albums.)
So many albums — Blues for the Flying Dutchman (Blue Million Miles, 1993), Moon Going Down (Marilyn, 1995), Bolide (Red River, 1998), Norman, Oklahoma (Red River, 2003), The Moon in Transit (Out There compilation, 2012), On Becoming Human (Out There compilation, 2013), Heaven (Out There, 2016), My Songs Are the House I Live In (Out There, 2017), Beyond That Point (2018), Analog Summer (2020), and Ladies And Germs — with unexpected images, characters, and themes connected in weird, great ways. Thomas’s wide-ranging references span bits from Anne Frank posting pictures of cowboys on walls, to reliance on petroleum, to Edgar Allen Poe stories, to JFK, Walt Whitman, Rickie Lee Jones, Memphis, the artificial heart Javrik-7, the Donner Party, Deadheads, folk icons, rock icons, and gorgeous descriptions of desert and sky. His depth and breadth astonish me.
Like much good poetry, many of Thomas’s songs can be understood on several different levels. For example, here’s a quote from a lovely nine-minute song, “Alias McDaniel,” off On Becoming Human:
Half Jesse James and Half Aristotle
with a Calvin Klein jacket and a song by Madonna
Each skyline window in the music is shaking
In the new dispensation the morning is breaking
Sounds great on the surface, but also invites depth of analysis, should a listener be inclined. Or, one may merely listen to his instrument-like singing, without any particular thoughts — a song whose repeated musical phrases lends itself well to meditation.
Sometimes I’ll seek out performers from my youth. Once in a while, they inspire me with their vitality and risk-taking with new original music. More often, the re-performance of their old tunes feels a little sad. But Thomas continues to innovate and create compelling, likable music, as he’s been doing for over thirty years. So to me Thomas Anderson is not only a friend and a favorite musician, but an inspiration.