Tuesday, March 6, 2018


“I don’t know if everything’s been said,” Eric Andersen sings on the heart-rending opening track of this deeply rich, career-spanning retrospective. It’s a characteristic declaration. Andersen is a seeker, and words are his method of conjuring the meaning of all that he encounters on his journey. In this song, Andersen is struggling to understand a relationship that has disintegrated, as so many do, for no discernible reason. He’s not asking for love, though he’s aching from its loss. What he desires is some kind of mutual understanding, a comprehensible answer to that haunting question: What happened to us? No such answer emerges, but, as Bob Dylan once sang, “a question in your nerves is lit,” and it simmers long after “Everything Ain’t Been Said” comes to a close.               
Andersen recorded that song when he was twenty-one, and it appears on his debut album, Today is the Highway, which came out in 1965. In the more than fifty years since that time, Andersen has continued his search for meaning, drawing on folk, blues, country, rock, and jazz to provide the musical backdrop to what is something like a compelling musical autobiography. So many of the songs on this set summon images and themes of movement and travel, lyrical expressions of Andersen’s artistic restlessness. He has always loved to travel, and varying places and climes act as spurs to his imagination, as if all journeys are ultimately internal, all destinations a place inside your mind. Once they have been seen, they can become songs or, as Andersen memorably puts it, “interior documentaries.” “It was always the journey that mattered, never the destination,” he says. “Songs can be likened to diary entries, musical memories that can evolve and sharpen with time. I always believed writing was a way of ‘living life twice.’ It’s true. The meaning of songs can deepen like wine.”
While Andersen first made his mark as a central figure in the folk revival that took place in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, he has always found the “folk singer” box constricting. One of the goals of this collection is to demonstrate how wide his musical interests have ranged. “I think some people may be surprised when listening to this album,” he says, “because some of it is unexpected musically and it shows that my work was never strictly coming out of a folk music milieu. I wanted to be a poetical and musical artist, and I never liked being labeled a folk singer. I got into this business because I wanted to be a writer and create something new, to mix it up a bit.” He also notes that he was never an overtly political songwriter, a so-called “protest singer,” as were so many of his peers back in his Greenwich Village days. “I preferred Village artists like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin,” Andersen says, citing two songwriters who shared his lyricism and his inclination to look inward for inspiration, rather than to current events. He adds, “I wanted to experiment lyrically and musically. I listened to the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Son House, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus when I was starting out. Those were my real musical roots.” Still, he notes that for any artist who cares about the world around him, “protest songs find you when you’re not looking.” A certain song performed in a certain context can take on political import. For example, Andersen performed his beautifully uplifting ballad “Waves of Freedom” in Mississippi churches when he accompanied progressive journalist Jack Newfield on a voter registration drive in 1965. And his chilling “Rain Falls Down in Amsterdam” documents the revival of Nazism in Europe in the Nineties, a development that, horrifyingly, continues in our own country and into our new century.
To realize his songs, Andersen always called on the best and most empathetic players he could find. His collaborators on this set include the likes of Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, Rick Danko, David Bromberg, Joan Baez, and Leon Russell. But whether Andersen is performing with a stellar group of players or simply accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, what comes through is the extraordinary depth, the endless suggestiveness, of his songs. His voice, too, is their perfect conduit. It has deepened and roughened over the years, but what has remained is its undeniable warmth and intimacy, the sense that Andersen is speaking directly to you, heart to heart, soul to soul.
And that’s why these thirty-three songs, recorded over more than five decades and drawn from more than a dozen different albums, as well as live recordings, unfurl like one long song, shifting movements in an ongoing, lifelong composition. The energy of a rough-hewn early track like “Dusty Box Car Wall,” from 1964, animates a later art song like the dreamily evocative “Hills of Tuscany,” from his 1998 album Memory of the Future. “(We Were) Foolish like the Flowers” nestles comfortably next to “Dream to Rimbaud”—both are visionary transports in which the singer’s mind is “sailing without a sail.” Early classics like “Thirsty Boots” and the exquisite “Violets of Dawn” are presented here in later versions performed on stage, and Andersen revisits “Close the Door Lightly When You Go,” which was originally released in the mid-Sixties, more than a decade later.
Andersen remains active as a writer and performer, and never enjoys indulging in the backwards glance. “You Can’t Relive the Past” one of his songs bluntly declares, and it’s a future-forward pronouncement that he sees as essential to living a creative life. Nostalgia is a kind of death. So combing through his life’s work to pull together this collection was not at all an effort that came naturally to him. “I wanted to run the other way,” he says when the prospect of an Essentials collection first came up. He initially didn’t want to be involved in it. “I thought others might have a better overview of my work than I did,” he says. Happily, “it dawned on me that that was not the case,” and good sense prevailed.
Then Andersen got to work. He describes the process of selecting the songs for this collection as a “search,” an effort “to peer beyond the obvious and see the magic of overlooked material, songs that many fans had never heard before or even imagined I had written.” The emotional coherence, the sense of this collection expressing its own musical integrity, is no accident. Andersen set out with that goal in mind. “I didn’t want this set to be scatter-shot,” he says. “I wanted it to be a sincere listening experience that builds over a long span of time. I wanted it to be something people could enjoy musically in its own right. I confess I made some new discoveries—and I sometimes even surprised myself.” As one example, he cites the powerfully emotional “Keep This Love Alive,” which he wrote and recorded with Rick Danko, formerly of the Band. The performance is lled with conviction. “I found a lot of humanity and heart in that duet,” he says. That’s fitting, because it was when Andersen first visited the Band in upstate New York that he found the inspiration for what is perhaps his best-known song. While standing on a bridge gazing down at the owing Hudson, the spark for the gorgeous “Blue River” took fire in his mind.
Ultimately, a mystery lies at the heart of so much of Andersen’s work, and perhaps in the core of all great art. Looking back provided many discoveries, but no final answers. And that’s all to the good. “It’s always been my belief that the artist or creator is only a medium,” Andersen says. “Truth be told, with some songs I don’t have a clue where they came from, or why or how I wrote them. Songs come as visitations and the writer becomes a mere stenographer, grabbing them out of the air. It’s almost an unconscious effort.
“I’ve never been a craftsman hovering and sweating over a drafting table,” he concludes, “though I’ve always worked diligently to make my visions concrete. I’ve always held high standards and tried to build songs that could stand the test of time. After all, isn’t the goal of any true artist to attain a state of always becoming, to make the invisible visible? I wanted to write songs that I could listen to fty years down the line. And in most instances, I believe that to be true.”

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