Several years ago, I had a conversation with Robert Loss, Blind Engineers singer and principal songwriter, about the Bruce Springsteen song “The River.” If you don't know it, the gist of that song is the angst of a young man who gets his girlfriend pregnant just out of high school, gets married and is having difficulty finding work. What’s with this guy, I said – he’s just 20 years ago and just because his marriage is on the rocks he’s acting like his whole life is over. Sure, said Robert, but what you are missing is that at this point in the character’s life he thinks it is.
Loss’ songwriting reflects this attitude. As someone who uses his music to tell stories, he takes characters at face value and presents them without judgment. It is left for the listener to decide whether a character is a principled hero, an unreasonable dreamer or just a miserable son of a bitch.
This is apparent on Blind Engineer’s new release, a six-song EP entitled “The Big Restless.” The EP is a concept recording of six songs told through the eyes of a character called the Blind Engineer, who can best be described as a returner – perhaps she is the hero of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thirty or so years later. The Engineer has come back from her travels hardened and angry, with bitter stories and eyes which – if not actually blind – are certainly jaded. She keeps up a bravado of wisdom, growling that she is no longer a child and won’t die on your terms. But she also presents another side, full of crippling self doubt, asking questions without answers.
“Gone Too Long,” introduces the Blind Engineer as reveling in her own self-image, shouting out to Mad Dog Wine and the early blues singers (“I’m a backlit man, I’m Charlie Patton’s boy”). This continues in the second track, where she breaks into confident accusations (“[a]nd all you easy preachers trying to make the good book firm, the mystery of the absentee ought to make you squirm”). In the chorus, however, she questions (“[i]f I don’t know how deep the water is, how can I know where to wade?”).
Two other characters, the jaded Aunt Maureen and the painfully young Anna Lee, are introduced in “The Persuader.” Lee describes her hopes to rock and roll in such a way that you cringe at her naiveté. The Engineer’s bravado returns, insisting that she “walks by a different code.” Yet she says that somewhere, something is crashing down – it’s hard to tell if this is a warning or just something she thinks sounds tough and frightening.
“Hard Times Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” provides an interlude. Alcohol has dissolved the Engineer’s bitterness into sublime pathos as she joins a singalong of acceptance (“[h]ard times ain’t goin’ nowhere, you just gather and cook ‘em and serve ‘em with beer, year after year.” The Engineer and her newfound friends then move on to a song about the girl who left home and “got as far as Toledo before the money ran out,” sung in a jovial and friendly voice. What was it that Hemingway said – a wise man gets drunk to spend his time with fools?
The fifth track is the hangover. “Same Old Town” is a return to the small town of youth in an attempt to achieve some sort of resolution or closure. You have a drink with the people who never got out, and you re-discover the reasons you left. The pilgrimage – doomed from the start – is being made by the Engineer and perhaps also by the returning Anna Lee, who arrives awash in self-pity over high school and yearbooks. She still believes in rock and roll in a transcendent/unhealthy sense, wanting to go out on stage like Ziggy Stardust. Again, her misfiring innocence is discomfiting.
The last song, “New Skin for Old Bones,” reveals the Engineer triumphant, believing that she has fought through the past and emerged stronger. Her words are concrete and decay, but she is swept up in the exuberance of a 12 bar blues, giving us “oh yeahs,” and an upbeat chant of a chorus. In her mind she has made the jump to myth.
The listener, however, may not be convinced. The Engineer must know – has admitted – that what she has learned is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. What she has really gained from her journey remains to be seen.
The CD release party was held on Friday, July 29th at Ace of Cups along with Betsy Ross and the Sin Shouters.