The setting right now is Blackbird Baking Co. in Lakewood, Ohio, bustling with the late-morning crumbs of children stuck at parents’ side and the laughter of a large group at the broad community table in the middle of the room. The coffee is decent. The album is The Both’s self-titled debut, and the song is “You Can’t Help Me Now.” I’ve been hooked on this tune for the past few days, obsessed in that temporary window of musical honeymoon that crosses my path at undefined intervals.
I picked up The Both’s album in 2014. It was OK. Aimee Mann and Ted Leo are talented songwriters, and the pairing was enticing. I didn’t love it then, and it is by no stretch of the imagination a great album. But, sure, I thought it was pretty good stuff. This post isn’t about back then, though; it’s about right now.
“You Can’t Help Me Now” is a great tune about the isolation that surrounds the sometimes-fleeting nature of love. It’s a simple alt-country chord progression criss-crossed with Mann’s reserved (almost reverent) vocals and a rare glimpse of tempered introspection from Leo (which is the clear product of writing and recording with Mann and which is what made this duo enticing in the first).
The lyrics are almost esoteric, and the story behind each line seems only to emerge in the moments after it’s passed. It’s haunting. “Like the uncertain memory of stranger’s mistaken kiss.”
But the reason I bring it up now — here, at Blackbird Baking Co., surrounded by the crumbs and the laughs — is that this song didn’t crash across my life in the same way back in 2014 as it is now. It couldn’t have, you see? I perhaps hadn’t yet experienced the sort of ontological drift that Mann and Leo are singing about, this very particular cosmic shrug that accompanies a specific loss. (Or if I had, it hadn’t metastasized in a way to intersect with this piece of art.)
There’s a calming effect here, a happiness that nestles in the sweet cavity of nostalgia and the past. It’s a thing that gnaws, and it’s a precursor to joy and the relish of listening to music on a beautiful Saturday morning in a fine city. It’s worth embracing everything that happens in life; I don’t mean that in an “everything happens for a reason” New Age fashion, but rather that your memories of those things evolve alongside you. The past changes, and we’d all do well to let it.
I wrote about this idea two years ago too. There’s so much good music from my past that has taken on new meanings as I trip forward on this ride. It’s an absolute thrill.
(I didn’t return to the Both on my own, by the way. It was one of those great Youtube rabbit holes that brought me there. I landed on a Tiny Desk concert, and they just happened to open their brief set with “You Can’t Help Me Now.”)