Strand Of Oaks: Shot of Joy

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Timothy Showalter doesn’t know exactly what “Moon Landing” is all about, but that didn’t stop him from making it the gravitational center of Eraserland, his sixth album as Strand of Oaks. The song opens with a brash, swaggering groove, a tight rhythm section pounding out a steady beat as his friend Jason Isbell shreds furiously, scribbling in the margins of the music. Showalter eulogizes Malcolm Young from AC/DC and Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, barks about old bands and older friends, drops a few references to his previous albums, and generally sounds like a fire-and-brimstone preacher pounding his guitar like a bible … or maybe a psychedelic guru explaining his narcotic theology between mouthfuls of pills. It’s a wild, wicked performance, as heavy and as unhinged as anything Strand of Oaks has ever recorded.

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“Moon Landing” lands just shy of ridiculous — and that may be why Showalter loves the song so much. “It was written so intensely fast,” he says from his home in Philadelphia. “How I write songs sometimes is, I’ll start revving myself up, then I move around the room a lot. I was probably blasting some AC/DC, and then nine verses just came out of me. There were 17 more verses on a demo, which I showed to somebody and they said I needed to write a chorus. No fucking way! I don’t want the train to stop.”

This is the song he’s most looking forward to playing when he starts touring behind Eraserland, and he predicts he and his band will stretch “Moon Landing” out to self-indulgent lengths. “I hope we turn it into a twenty-minute jam. People should be asking, ‘Are they ever going to stop this song?’” He’ll have some fun with it, in other words. He’ll lose himself in the groove and the momentum, will surrender himself to the frantic performance, but he’ll also be trying to figure out just what the hell he’s talking about. Why do all these disparate details belong together? What does the first verse about Malcolm Young have to do with the last verse about Buzz Aldrin? Why is it significant that he and the late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell have the same birthday? “It’s one of those songs that in five years I’ll finally piece it all together and figure out what it means. But right now it feels like a puzzle. All of these things are connected, but I’m not sure how.”

In the meantime, it’s worth hazarding a guess that the song is all about Showalter’s rock-and-roll dreams. That has been the Indiana-born, Pennsylvania-based singer-songwriter’s most enduring subject for the last 15 years, even if it’s only come into sharp focus in the last five years. Sounding like the final installment of a trilogy that began with 2014’s cathartic HEAL and 2016’s hedonistic Hard Love, Eraserland confronts the contradiction of being an adult who plays music that has historically prized youth. Can you age gracefully in a medium defined by arrested development? What do you lose and what can you gain? And in the end, is it even worth it?

This is a record, he says, about “the inevitability of life piling up. I’m closing in on 40, and life hits a little bit harder with each passing year.” He chuckles in an attempt to dispel the heaviness of the mood, but he continues, “I don’t want to be ageist and say things don’t matter when you’re 20, but I enjoyed tragedy when I was young. I thrived off chaos. I just wanted to put on Cure records and go, ‘God, I feel so fucking bad! It’s amazing!’”

But pain and confusion long ago lost the romance they had in his youth, and the end of his thirties and the beginning of his forties looms ominously for Showalter. On one hand, he’s reaching an age when his rock heroes had become legacy acts or — in the case of Jason Molina, whom Showalter eulogized on 2014’s haunting “JM” — had burned out completely. On the other hand, he feels like he’s always just starting, always releasing albums that feel like debuts, always making statements that sound like introductions. When he says Eraserland feels like his first real record, he immediately and apologetically qualifies the statement: “I’m always going to say that with each new record. This is the statement.”

That approach began to cripple him creatively. It began to erode his identity. Writing these songs wasn’t hard; when they finally came, they came fast, almost too fast for Showalter to keep up. What stumped him was “finding any reason to write the record. I felt things slipping away from me. I felt like the life was going out of me. I felt like I was fading away. I didn’t want to be Strand of Oaks anymore. Is this all I am? Fucking ten songs every two years?

Salvation came in the form of Carl Broemel, guitarist for My Morning Jacket. He was a fan of Strand of Oaks and wanted to work with Showalter, even inviting him to record with the rest of the band at La La Land studio in Louisville. “The Jackets aren’t merely incredible, they’re like four older brothers,” says Showalter, who adds that their confidence in him helped restore his rock-and-roll dream. He remembers one night when the band went out for dinner and he stayed behind to work on his guitar tone: “I walked around the studio and saw that all four of them had notebooks at their stations. They had been taking meticulous notes. I realized how much detail and thought and care they were putting into my songs. It moved me to tears.”

That care and attention comes through on Eraserland, Showalter’s best album yet, a soaring, searing collection of songs that balance the fears and disappointments of simply living life with the outsize thrill of making and hearing music. “All my friends they think I’m crazy,” he sings on “Final Fires,” which is actually one of the album’s more upbeat songs. “Does it still move me?” That’s the question he keeps posing to himself in his lyrics, and it’s a question he keeps answering in his music: in the watery New Order riff that opens “Final Fires,” in the Oasis sing-along that ends “Weird Ways,” in consoling organ drone of “Forever Chords.” If these songs are about dread, they’re also about joy. If they’re about the doubts that rattle everybody, they’re also about the small pleasures that keep us going from one day to the next.

That means his music can be dark, but it’s never bleak. In its big moments — those towering synth swells, those gigantic power chords, those singing-into-the-abyss choruses — Eraserland offers catharsis for Showalter as well as for his listeners, revealing an artist who has managed to grow up but not grow old, who has found a way to make maturity sound as bracing as the youthful abandon that has historically motored rock and roll. And with that comes a better appreciation of those joys and pleasures that music offers, even if they lead him away from the Cure toward harder-to-defend obsessions. “I have this newfound love of Phish,” Showalter says. “I love Phish simply because it makes me so happy. I go to Phish concerts and it gives me this shot of joy.”

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