Single Review: "On and On" by Brett Ryan Stewart & Angel Snow
August 3, 2022
What is it to strike the impossible balance between an innate desire to accomplish great things with the paralyzing recognition of one's futility in the inexorable erosiveness of time? How does one find peace in constructing those elaborate sand castles they feel their very nature demands of them all while knowing fully that, beneath the surface, the material being used is slipping, grain by grain, into the anonymity of eternity? To me, these are the ancient questions with which new single “On and On” by Brett Ryan Stewart and Angel Snow seek to grapple.
Perhaps a testament to the timelessness of its subject matter is the fact that it’s been twelve years since this song was penned by Stewart, Snow, Chris Tench, and Tami Hinesh. In an abstract sense, however, it could be said that this tetrad of songwriters is, in fact, using the very same paint which gilded the caves of our earliest ancestors and which has been subtly present in every machination of man since.
Set against an Alt-Folk sonic landscape that would not feel out of place on Beck’s Sea Change album, Stewart and Snow spend just over 4 minutes daring—and succeeding—to express one of the more complex and basal elements of Man’s search for meaning in the face of inevitable dissolution. The pair exchange verses, each of which seems to focus on a specific philosophical refraction being cast from this central prism of existentialism and which ultimately represents a transformation from crippling angst into a perspective which properly accommodates: uncertainty, mortality, and personality.
In the first verse, Stewart—who also produced the track through Wirebird Records—poses the question: “Is it enough to be a simple man? Will that bring peace of mind?” while subsequently revealing himself to be beset by restlessness. Stewart’s narrator is, in a word, embattled. He betrays a nature which seems in direct conflict with the type of contentment a more mindful perspective might bring—if only he weren’t burdened with a mind that paints such a perspective as impossibly naive. Further, this conflict seems to also extend to his relationship with the outside world. “Everybody’s always wanted to get inside my head, when all I’ve wanted is to get out.” This statement leads directly into a chorus which simply repeats, “Cuz it goes on and on and on...” which, in its first appearance, conjures the feeling that it is this wearying internal conflict that is the only true, unyielding constancy in life.
Meanwhile, the second verse, sung by Angel Snow, seems to represent a subtle transformation in the worldview of the lyricists. Here, the narrator critiques the philosophy of her father who approaches life as a race to the finish, in a sense. He clearly thinks of life in mere linear terms and spends it “just counting down his days.” Whereas this seems to be a philosophy that might fall in line with Stewart’s initial verse, Snow’s narrator longs for a different perspective and ultimately finds hope in contemplating the sea which “becomes the clouds and back to rain.” This sentiment leads us back into the chorus which now suggests that it is the endless cycling of nature which is the true constancy, and it can offer a sort of peace when one begins to see their own existence—albeit a temporal one—in the context of this larger narrative.
The bridge which follows this chorus features both singers and represents yet another remarkable attempt at putting this internal conflict—and fledgling transformation—to words. It is as if the writers have placed the listener just at the edge of the abyss and now plead with nature—in its multitudes—to bear them up as they step from the ledge and surrender themselves to an understanding far larger than themselves.
"Wind carry me/ I’m breaking through this mystery/ One simple truth/ Stay here with me/ I’ll follow you through madness/ Light this darkness."
This lyrical climax is, wisely, followed by a tasteful instrumental break featuring slide guitar, allowing the listener a chance to digest the prior profundity. Admittedly, I’ve listened to the track dozens of times now and still haven’t fully taken it in. However, I appreciate this respite each time.
Finally, the pair returns with one last half verse that confirms our narrators have, indeed, taken the step into a new perspective. One can postulate on whether the transformation is now complete or whether the lyricists intend to imply that this new step has conjured even more questions. Due to the song’s cyclical mantra, I tend towards the latter, but it really doesn’t matter, for the statement is larger than that; it is a daring acknowledgement of the mysteries which transcend Man's limited scope. One thing is certain, however, and that is this verse demonstrates a newfound mindfulness and contentment in wherever it is upon that path they might find themselves. It is not a renunciation of the tendency towards asking questions with no answers, nor an indication that this philosophical journey has wholly freed them from those innate desires to build upon the sands of time. Rather, it is a recognition of the fact that one can choose to be content in uncertainty and realize that the true constancy out of which all lives blossom—whether a person realizes it or not—is love. Further, it is, in fact, love which goes on and on and which supersedes all else. “Is it enough to have a simple plan? Will that bring me peace of mind? Don’t want to wait for someday to finally understand: Love’s the only answer that you’ll find.”
What blows me away about this tune—and what, ultimately, inspired me to take the time to write this review—is the sheer philosophical depth of a song which is, again, only just over four minutes and is, on the surface, a fairly amiable and lighthearted sonic statement. As I’ve said before, great art must succeed at varying depths. "On and On" does this in remarkable fashion. The production and musicianship allow the casual listener to take a sort of shortcut to the peaceableness the lyric fights hard for. For those craving depth and to feel seen in their own existential maelstroms, the team of songwriters expertly narrate every step along a path which has been trod since the dawn of Man, on and on and on. However, it is not a fruitless search. It dares to answer the ultimate question which echoes through eternity. How does one rise fully into their potential while burdened with the truth of life’s inherent temporality? Simple: by unabashedly trying to live and to love just a little bit more with every passing day, choosing to see themselves as a minuscule, yet beautifully integral part, in the endless, miraculous cycle of existence.
Check out "On and On" by Brett Ryan Stewart and Angel Snow and keep up with both of them at Brettryanstewart.com and AngelSnow.net. Also check out WireBirdprod.com for more on Brett's studio work and production!
Live drums and drum programming by Chris Benelli
Bass guitar and electric guitars, synthesizers by Greg Carillo
Harmonica, omnichord by Jason Goforth
Acoustic / Electric guitars, vocoder, synthesizer, Lead and Harmony Vocals by Brett Ryan Stewart
Lead and Harmony vocals by Angel Snow
Writers Brett Ryan Stewart, Tami Hinesh, Angel Snow, Chris Tench
Mix: Joe Costa
Cover artwork by Kristen Englenz
Album Review: The Harder Stuff by Nick Nace
July 30, 2022
Upon listening through the new LP The Harder Stuff by Nashville-based Americana troubadour, Nick Nace, I was left questioning whether or not the record was aptly named. On the one hand, an album which, on the surface, immediately conjures the carefree, riverboat sensibilities of Steve Goodman makes the listening (and the reviewing) experience unequivocally easy and peaceable. However, the true genius of this record comes in the realization that, though Nace is being expertly guided down these gentle sonic waters by seasoned captain turned producer, Steven Cooper, he has chosen to spend the journey casting his cane pole into the murky depths and serving up the weighty and revelatory truths he reels in.
In an age in which the term Americana seems to blanket anything which is even Roots adjacent, The Harder Stuff serves as a refreshing and dedicated reminder of the specific tonality by which the genre used to be defined and one which, somewhat ironically, is being released by a Canadian. Certainly, I’m by no means making a statement about the philosophical nuances of what “ought to be” considered Americana—or Folk music for that matter—nor am I a stickler for the rigid boundaries of genre placed on works of art primarily by those marketability minded; the point is, what Nace and his collaborators have achieved here is a beautiful work clear in its reverence for tradition but one which is far from a mere derivative of that which has come before it. It is a distinctly personal record which manages to achieve universality in the ancient internal conflict it seeks to convey— a weathered heart grasping for possibility and optimism.
Take, for example, the record’s opening track “Figure 8’s”. This tune is as good an epitomization of any on the record of the fascinating “spoon full of sugar” approach Nace and Cooper nail again and again over the course of the LP. Sonically, the tune is a lilting, down the middle toe-tapper gilded in buttery B3, and the lyrics, on their surface, tell the seemingly lighthearted account of someone saving up to buy roller skates after the rent has been paid. What makes the song far more than that is the weary reality and grizzled facts of life from which the character hopes to skate away. With just three verses (two and a half, really), Nace manages to color a chorus which tags with the line “the good times ain’t gone for good” with an aching, Prine-ian irony. Though the chorus is undoubtedly hopeful in its unyielding trudge towards “summer days” and “that carefree place,” it is imbued with depth upon following one verse which describes the narrator’s narrow financial straits and another which describes two young siblings also born into harrowing circumstances and fighting by throwing toy train tracks—a metaphor for the means by which some escape, perhaps?—at each other. “Mary looks just like her daddy when she hits her little brother.” Still, the narrator chooses optimism and perseverance in dreaming up a pair of skates to whittle away the time in the driveway when better days inevitably arrive. “A little taste of freedom is as close as I will get. The good times, I can see ‘em. They just haven’t got here yet.”
Variations on this theme of a character seeking redemption for the purgatory they find themselves in through the attainment of some external object or rekindling of some bygone identity pervades the subsequent tracks. In “There’s No Music in Music City”— a poignant description of the desolate silence that fell upon Nashville (and the world) during the Covid pandemic and the album’s first single—that redeeming force is a return to the musical identity that Nace has spent years building. In “Little Kid,” a character recognizes the distance they feel from the experiences of their life and the potentiality of their childhood, all while utilizing classic playground clichés to express and amplify this longing. In “The Rio Grande on Christmas Eve,” Nace takes a topographical approach which sets the wistfulness of Christmas against its seeming antithesis: the deserts of the American southwest.
At last, on “The Piece that Fits” Nace takes on two of perhaps the most obvious archetypal objects of longing: religion and romantic connection. It opens with sheer lyrical mastery in introducing one of its protagonists: “Jenny joined a cult. It wasn’t all her fault. A heavenly father was better than none.” After leaving the cult, she finds herself penniless and with every bridge burned in a snowed in diner where the song’s narrator sits down next to her. The pair begin “comparing scars.” Ultimately, the couple forges a transformative, if temporary, bond lit up by the neon lights of Broadway (I presume) and cloaked in the shadow of the cross—each teaching the other a valuable lesson about choosing a hopeful perspective and daring to reach out and seize that which your heart truly longs for. Finally, the couple are forced apart while being pursued by law enforcement following a verse which finds them “so close, yet so far from heaven” on the roof of a church with pockets full of “the day’s collection.” Still, the constancy of the healing the characters find in each other are forever preserved in memory and in the reminder the chorus gives us: “When you’re scattered, completely shattered, gotta find the piece that fits.”
The second half of the record brings with it an important shift in tone in Nace’s exposé on interminable hope and, in a sense, a critique of its presence in the previous songs. Rather, the songwriter chooses to convey the irony in a heart which chooses to solely chase contentment that may or may not be waiting just over the next hill instead of recognizing it in the his present circumstance. This notion is expressed in the angst of unrequited love in “Someday is Too Far Away” (which was a brilliant choice to follow up “The Piece that Fits”). In “All the Love That You Need”, it takes the form of someone calling out a character’s failure to recognize that there is, presently, plenty of love to fulfill him if only he’d choose to see it. On the album’s titular track, Nace affirms his honky tonk authenticity by singing about the most classic of all coping mechanisms for angst: alcohol— importantly doing so in a way that remains fresh, substantial, and well above the level of cliché.
Finally, on the last two tracks, “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Last Call,” Nace seems to make some peace—albeit a restless one—with the reality that the hardships of one’s life may never fully abate, but within those hardships contentment, meaning, and possibility can always be derived by one willing to take that perspective. The former tells the story of a couple who are expecting a baby—which is to say it leans on the perfect symbol of potential beyond one’s individual scope as well as the sacrifice of what might objectively be an “easier” (or less expensive, at least) life by parents bringing a child into their care. The latter track—and the finale of the record—brings the listener into the mundane environment of a bar one has stayed in with their spouse until close because they long to hear the words “last call.” One can form their own interpretation of what Nace is intending with this statement—aside from the obvious play on the honky tonk aesthetic of “The Harder Stuff”— but, to me, it feels like a character striking a better—though still imperfect— balance between gratitude for what currently surrounds him and the feat of missing out on the possibility he believes exists just before him. Therefore, he feels compelled to see every evening to its confirmed conclusion.
Ultimately, The Harder Stuff is an album for dreamers from a masterful songwriter who is no stranger to the constant, wearying vacillations between the euphoria of hope and the oft crushing reality of waiting for that hope’s fruition. As any great work of art must, Nick Nace, Steven Cooper, and the exceptional cast of musicians craft a sonic and lyrical journey that succeeds at various depths. For some, they can whistle along on the decks of a carefree journey down the river through a Wendell Berry-esque America. For others, they will find that the smoldering hope that where this riverboat docks might, indeed, be the land of milk and honey they’d long been searching for is not just shared by Nace but adeptly put into words by him. In retrospect, the title is apt. On The Harder Stuff, Nick Nace dares to confront one of Man’s most basal and distressing tendencies, but he does so in a way that is characteristically gentle and kind, and is undeniably easy going down.
Check out The Harder Stuff and keep up with Nick at nicknace.com.
Personnel on The Harder Stuff:
All Songs Written by Nick Nace
Last Call & Little Kid Written by Nick Nace & Steven Cooper
Produced by Steven Cooper
Recorded at Smoakstack Studios, Nashville TN
Engineered by Zack Zinck
Additional Production by Jon Latham
Additional Recording & Engineering by Owen Beverly, Nashville TN
Additional Recording by Steven Cooper, Nashville TN
Mixed by Justin Nace
Last Call & All The Love You Need Mixed by Owen Beverly
Mastered by Justin Perkins
Nick Nace - Vocals & Guitar
Steven Cooper - Acoustic, Electric, Slide & Baritone Guitar, Bass, BGV’s
Jon Latham - 12 String Acoustic & Acoustic Guitar, BGV’s
Todd Bolden - Bass
Erin Nelson - Drums, Percussion
John Henry Trinko - Piano, Organ, Accordion
Owen Beverly - Big Dumb Organ, BGV’s
Megan Palmer - Fiddle
John Calvin Abney - Accordion, Bell