At the bottom of this post are two love songs.
They are both by the same dude. His name is Mason Jennings. I am not really sure if I like Mr. Jennings as a complete artist, but I do know that I really dig these two. I can’t really say the same for the rest of his catalog, though I probably haven’t listened to enough of it to really make a fair assessment.
I really enjoy the contrast in terms of the types of love presented in these two songs. “Duluth” is a pure and almost naive love. It is the young ideal of love, the saccharine essence in all of us when we were younger and less cynical (or is that just me?) that told us, “This is what love should be.” Even with its sappy theme of prevailing love and a settled and happy life, there is still an undercurrent of danger, or fear, at the very least, that runs through the song. Lines like “Girl you better watch your self/ ’cause a railroad man is an absent man,” add a bit of worry to how the love might one day leave and never return. At the very least, this line implies that there is danger in love, especially when a railroad man is involved.
Then there is this, “Soon his burdens will be mine,” also showcasing the fact that love is work and is full of dangers and burdens. And the final thing, for me, that comprises this undercurrent of fear or uncertainty concerning love is the musical accompaniment of a single beating drum and either a tambourine or a snare (I can’t tell the difference) to his vocals, which are haunting in their simplicity and the feeling of utter devotion they convey. They character using his voice to sing is obviously deeply in love with her railroad man.
I want to be clear that ultimately I think the song is about the ideal of love, especially first loves, or loves that happen to make you feel like you have found the one. My point in the preceding paragraphs was simply that there is an undercurrent of gray that runs through the song, and that is what saves the song for me. Without this nod to the maturation process that loves goes through as it grows from young puppy love to something more stable but no less emotional or fulfilling the song would be nothing more than chocolate pancakes covered in whip cream and chocolate sauce. Or maybe this is a better example of how sickeningly cute it would be, and I probably wouldn’t like it nearly as much.
“Bullet,” on the other hand, is a bitingly bitter and hilarious love song. It tells the tale of a jilted lover, or at least some stuck in a poisonous relationship, who is angry about the situation. It is obvious that he is dealing with betrayal in love and relationships. The line, “All the alleyways in Amsterdam could not compete against the Wall Street speed with which you leave your feet,” tells us everything we need to know about this relationship and how love is treated. Of course the very opening line of the song, “This is a bullet from a gun called what the fuck,” lets us know that we are entering a bad situation, but one that we will not be able to help but laugh at, and that initial impression is rewarded with laughter and vindicated by the chorus: “This song is a joke, funny like my fingers in your bicycle spokes. “In “Bullet” we see the downside of love, albeit through an upbeat musical score, a jocular tone in the singer’s voice, and some witty and humorous lyrics. But here we have the pain that comes when love betrays and how this pain causes us to feel. Fortunately, the humor in the song makes it easier to swallow the bitter pill of “Bullet” because otherwise it might be too depressing, or heavy handed.
Just like “Duluth” needs the gray undercurrent to tone down its message of pure and idealistic love, “Bullet” needs the optimistic upbeat music and the near-joking tone in the vocals (I don’t know about you, but I can almost hear him smiling as he sings the song) to make the sourness and pain of this poisonous relationship that is described easier to handle. If either song leaned too far toward its basic thematic elements, neither one would be listenable and the world would be without two songs about love by the same artist that are refreshingly different from one another.
And now without further ado:
The full version of “Duluth” has been deleted from Youtube, so here is a shortened live version, but I still think my argument holds true.