Still Life by Carson McHone


The new Anne Tyler book arrived through the post three days ago. Along with Tom Wolfe and Nick Hornby, her books are so good that I’m happy to read them three or four times. “French Braid” is her 23rd novel and I can’t wait to start it. Her books are easy to read, there’s never any violence and not much ever really happens. The beauty of her novels is the way in which she injects careful detail into everyday objects, conversations and activities. However, I haven’t started it because a week ago, I went to the library and borrowed a John Grisham novel called “The Chamber”. Like the other writers, I’ve mentioned, his books are very readable. The issue with this book is that it’s very long – over 600 pages. I’m now on page 450 and enjoying it very much. Normally, with a book that I’m enjoying, I don’t want it to end but part of me is impatient to start the Anne Tyler book. I have huge concerns. Never mind the imminent nuclear war that is going to destroy the planet – should I pause my reading of the John Grisham novel to start the Anne Tyler book or should I persevere through to the end? These are big issues.

“The Chamber” concerns the defence of a man who is sentenced to death by means of lethal gas because of his bombing of a synagogue which killed two young boys. The book was made into a film in 1996, starring Gene Hackman and Chris O’Donnell. As well as being a good story, well told, the book raises issues of whether evil people deserve a lawyer to defend them (yes they do) and whether capital punishment can ever be justified (no, of course not).

Tomorrow, the new album by Molly Tuttle, “Crooked Tree”, should be dropping through the letterbox. Her last album, “…But I’d Rather be With You” was excellent and contained covers of some very obscure songs, including a wonderful version of Karen Dalton’s “Something On Your Mind” (from “In My Own Time“). When she was three years old, Molly Tuttle was diagnosed with “alopecia universalis”, a condition which causes total loss of body hair. This is a full blown version of “alopecia areata”, which causes partial hair loss, a condition that the actress Jada Pinkett Smith has. At the Oscar ceremony, earlier this week, her husband, Will Smith, walked up on stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock, who had made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s condition.

I have never actually hit anyone (not since Michael Mobbs and I had a fight in 1964 outside Winchmore Hill Railway Station and we only rolled around on the floor – I don’t think we traded punches). I have got angry though, and while I wouldn’t, in any way, condone violence as an answer to resolving feelings of anger, I can understand why some people do resort to a physical resolution. If I extrapolate to an extreme, I can understand why violence might lead to murder. Not that I’m condoning murder but I can see that uncontrolled anger might lead to extreme violence. I can also understand why someone might steal something. I’m lucky enough not to have to steal to eat or maintain a drug habit and while I’m not suggesting that taking things that don’t belong to you is a good thing, I can understand the emotional standpoint from which such immoral behaviour might ensue.

I spoke to three women yesterday who had suffered sexual abuse as children. Now, try as I might to understand why someone might want to sexually abuse a child, there’s not a single part of me that can get anywhere near understanding such action. I wrote “no, of course not” earlier, in relation to capital punishment but I have to say that listening to some of the disgusting actions that these women were forced to endure when they were children, I question the anti-capital punishment views that I’ve held all my life.

Now, the best songs are open to interpretation in many different ways so I’m not pretending that what I’m about to write is the “proper” meaning of the title track from “Still Life” by Carson McHone. On the other hand, this is what it means to me, especially having listened to the horrifying tales on the phone yesterday. I interpret the song as being about someone who has suffered abuse in the past which has been so horrific that it has caused permanent emotional damage. The singer wakes up, thinking that today is going to be the day that she forgets about what has happened but it soon dawns on her that today is just the same as yesterday. (“When I got up, I thought today’s the day. Oh, but then it weren’t. Now, it’s just yesterday”) She has to eat something, but she doesn’t want to. She has to go to bed at the end of the day but she knows she won’t sleep. She has cried and cried so nothing is left of her – is that what her attacker wanted? (“I cried all the color from my eyes. Can’t you see into me now?”) She can’t bear to see his face but she wants him to know how she has suffered. Her life is meaningless and she will never recover. She wants to forget and to forgive him, but she can’t. (“I want to let it go. I want to set you free. I wish to be whole as only the past can be”). Her life is fixed in the moment of the attack – it’s a still life. On the other hand, she is still alive so maybe there is hope. (“A still life but I’m still alive. A still life but I’m still alive. A still life but I’m still alive. A still life but I’m still alive. A still life but I’m still alive. A still life but I’m still alive.”). Whatever one’s individual interpretation of the lyrics, it’s very powerful and affecting.

“Still Life” is Carson McHone’s third album, following “Goodluck Man” in 2015 and “Carousel” in 2018, by which time she had gained a reputation as a “country artist to watch”. However, “Still Life” transcends the country genre. This has been achieved by recording the album in Ontario with Daniel Romano, a prolific Canadian musician who released eight albums in 2020 and a further three albums in 2021. He plays drums, percussion, bass and guitars on the album, David Nordi plays saxophone and Mark Lalama plays piano, organ and accordion. The greatest compliment I can pay this album is that it reminded me of Jason Isbell’s two fantastic albums, “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free”, which are clearly rooted in the story telling tradition associated with country music but, instrumentally they are closer to “The Beatles” than “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo“. Carson McHone was asked what albums that inspired her when she was making this album. Her replies are revealing: Randy Newman’s eponymous debut album, “Scott3” by Scott Walker, “Blonde On Blonde” by Bob Dylan, The Stooges eponymous debut and “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison. One of the most interesting songs, sonically, is “Folk Song”, on which a psychedelic guitar, sounding like a sitar, provides a mournful backdrop to a song about the vulnerability that comes from reckless desire. “But let it be known I was not broken. I let myself become undone”.

The album is a wondrous mixture of styles. Carson McHone said “I felt like the people around me, who were embodying honky tonk music, would hear me play and say it’s not country, but then, I would be on a bill with an indie band and people would come up to me after the show and say they didn’t even know they liked country music.”

Now back to “The Chamber”. No, I think I’ll start “French Braid”. Wait! No! I’m going to listen to “Still Life” again.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

One thought on “Still Life by Carson McHone

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