I recently started re-reading The Grapes of Wrath, something I haven’t done since high school, so I think enough time has passed that I can go back to it. (Let’s not talk about how long it’s been…) Good thing too – I certainly didn’t appreciate it properly when I first encountered it, and this reintroduction is, in my opinion, a necessary one. It’s a representation of The Great American Novel, and we can all find something in it that we can latch on to and understand.
I mention this because we can draw some tragic parallels between Steinbeck’s Okies and Andrew Spencer Goldman’s – Fulton Lights’ only full-time member – main character in the riveting The Way We Ride, itself a musical representation of violence and tragedy in an America growing into the powerful entity it’s become. Let me paraphrase Steinbeck: Men on the tractors, sent by the banks, come to plow under tenants’ homesteads, because the banks could make more profit without the sharecroppers’ presence. One tenant, reasonably PO’d, threatens to shoot a tractor driver. The tractor driver tells the tenant he’s simply making a living, and the banks are to blame. But you can’t shoot anyone at the banks, because the banks are just big machines (“monsters” in Steinbeck), and men simply work for them. The tenant laments: Who do I kill, then?
The Way We Ride opens similarly, with the cacophonous and fittingly titled short noise piece “Fulton Lights to the Edge of Panic” setting the mood, then opening into the panoramic title track that begins a narrative wherein a character, cursed by luck or fate, takes matters into his own hands: “Oh Holly I’m a bad, bad man / Killed six lawmen out in Cheyenne / They were coming to take my land / Six bullets says I don’t give a good goddamn.” Does it matter who’s behind the repo? No sir – Goldman’s philosophy ends with a smoking revolver and six dead lawmen, no questions asked. It might be a different outcome than that of the unfortunate Okies, but it spurs a life on the move and a consistent glance over the shoulder nonetheless.
Fulton Lights function here somewhat like a grittier 16 Horsepower, with more noise and less preaching. Goldman’s voice is more often than not shrouded in one effect or another, sometimes rendering him incomprehensible, but serving somewhat of a purpose as the signifier of his character’s state of mind, whether its lucidity or full-on maniacal rage. The Way We Ride plays out cinematically like a Sergio Leone western, or, perhaps more accurately, like Nick Cave’s and John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian gunslinger drama The Proposition. Rumbling bass and galloping drums (couldn’t resist the horsey adjective) are the bedrock over which taut guitar spills its guts and synth, sax, and strings add viscera to tales of paranoia and deceit.
Goldman uses a variety of pallettes to carefully paint scenes, such as the echo effects on the drums and singsong chorus of “Sideways Glances and Coded Speech,” dialing the bloodshed back to a more suspenseful game of hiding out in frontier towns and hoping the law doesn’t catch up to you. “Everybody’s Running from Something” universalizes the pursuit, so that no matter where you run to, you’re at least among people as equally guilty of something as you, and that’s when it starts to eat into who you really are as a person, and forces you to question your motives and actions. The guilt that wasn’t there when you shot those lawmen? It’s surfacing.
(Brief aside: “Everybody’s Running from Something” stands out like a sore thumb to me, in that the band takes a more 1960s or 1970s blues club approach to the tune, accentuated by the use of horns and a more funky, cantina band–like rhythm. It’s not necessarily a bad song, it just doesn’t work among the rest of the dusty, wild-frontier atmosphere of the rest of the album.)
But all-out bloodbaths erupt at points. (And how could they not?) “The Sin Makes the Man,” while not only conceding in its title how that whole guilt vs. stubborn grit battle’s going to play out, is the noisiest thing on the record, and a glorious, guns firing in the air display of masculine bad-assitude. Sheets of feedback bombard the ears, and Goldman is indecipherable as he lays waste to whoever challenges him in this showdown. Imagine Leone instructing Ennio Morricone in the sound editing room to borrow Sonic Youth’s amp setup (if you’ll pardon the obvious necessity to rend space and time), face them all toward each other in a circle, and turn them on. This is the chaos that is heaped upon the rhythm section here, and it works like a charm. Similarly, “We Hit First” is a distorted, overdriven mess, soundtracking the shoot-first-ask-questions-later reality of the song cycle.
No matter how violent or how tense The Way We Ride can get, there are moments of respite where introspection becomes the focus rather than strict survival, and Goldman allows a glimpse into the softer, more humane side of his grizzled fugitive. “Pen and Paper” ends the halfway point of the album on a plaintive acoustic note, but it’s album closer “Rest,” with its sparse slide guitar straight out of Gustavo Santaolalla’s Brokeback Mountain score, that resonates most. After the album has run its course, its character is still running, and sinking into exhaustion, both from his battle-hardened life on the lam, and from the personal toll his actions are taking. At the beginning of the album, he defiantly states, “If there’s a God, he’s turned his back on me” (“The Way We Ride”), but he’s changed his tune a little on “Rest,” possibly turning back to God in the face of insurmountable hardship: “Bless me with just one restful night.” Whether his character is truly repentant or merely desperate – or both – Goldman’s character has turned to a higher power when he has failed himself.
Fulton Lights is overlooked. The Way We Ride was released to very little fanfare in 2008, and with its experimental country-noise pedigree – western mood meets layered electric instrumentation – it deserves another listen. Track it down, make it happen. The trail is dusty, the road is hard, but the outcome is satisfying.
RIYL: 16 Horsepower, Gun Club, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“SIDEWAYS GLANCES AND CODED SPEECH”
[As you can see, the music can be interpreted in a lot of ways … this video takes a completely modern approach, contrasting how I’m reading it.]