Everyone has an album that has stayed with them for years, even decades, a constant musical companion that grows with you as your life and perspective changes. With that in mind, Deadshirt presents Perfect Records, an ongoing series of personal essays about the albums that stuck with us and how they’ve shaped our lives.
By Jay Ackley
My primary interest in music has always been in lyricism, and throughout my life I’ve fallen down plenty of singer-songwriter rabbit holes for months at a time. The most recent (and current) obsession started a couple years back when a new friend suggested I check out an artist tantalizingly named Owen Ashworth, a.k.a. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (or more recently, Advance Base). There are a bunch of really great collections of songs under these handles and they’re all worth a close listen, but the album Vs. Children stands out. It’s an LP that examines the apprehensions of potential parenthood through an extended analogy to bank robbing and life on the lam. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a perfect record.
Although I would argue to the ends of the earth that ‘perfect’ is a totally objective assessment of its quality, there are a couple of things that give Casiotone’s songs a bullet train track to my heart. First off, a substantial number of his songs explicitly take place in various rural towns in the upper Midwest. As a native of the region, I recognize and have had friends or relatives living in almost every bumblefuck municipality mentioned. Simply seeing the phrase “Northfield, MN” (the seventh track on this album) viscerally brings me back to my fifteen-year-old self in the basement of an old farmhouse, stumbling through my first ever recording session with a bunch of similarly tow-headed idiot youths. In short, it’s easy for me to put the faces of lost friends and loves onto every character described.
The other thing that cuts to the bone (and I suspect this may resonate more with some of the other music-folks here at Deadshirt) is that as implied by his erstwhile moniker, the vast majority of Ashworth’s songs use various Casio keyboards and drum patterns to undergird subdued live instruments and sparing lyrics. Like lots of kids growing up, I had access to what were essentially toy versions of various more powerful Yamaha and Casio synthesizers and would spend hours and hours scrolling through the various pre-programmed demos and beats (with absolutely nothing productive coming out of it). The fact that Ashworth uses the exact same ‘Rock Shuffle’ preset that I listened to a thousand times before I hit puberty to accompany impossibly sad little vignettes about life and love is a real sneaky gimmick to wriggle past all the emotional defenses I’ve accumulated since.
Turning to the substance of the album itself, while most of Casiotone’s albums maudlinly dissect a scattershot bounty of characters, relationships, situations, and small towns, Vs. Children’s unique strength is that in eleven tracks and just over thirty minutes, it features two main themes to jackhammer into your emotional psyche:
- The exhilaration of robbing banks; and
- The fear of impending parenthood.
With the money in the backseat, baby, we can buy a house,
and raise a little family on Schlitz and Mickey Mouse.
– Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm
‘Til you’re dead,
that’s how long you’re a parent,
’til you’re dead.
Although it’s ambiguous whether any of the songs share a protagonist, the album’s lyrical strength comes from describing similar situations from various perspectives. Bank-robbing escapades include the true story of Tom Justice, a high-schooler who has been fleeing from robberies on his bicycle and is eventually arrested and sentenced to twenty-six years in prison, and two songs about a couple who successfully rob a series of banks only to die in a getaway collision with a deer (“Optimist vs. the Silent Alarm;” “Northfield, MN”). Songs about fractured or deficient homes – such as “Man o’ War” where a young father dies via jellyfish and the daughter spirals into sexual relationships with older, married men, and the self-explanatory “Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone on Christmas in Montpelier, VT” – delve into risks and apprehensions related to starting a family.
The remaining songs deal directly with the prospect of parenthood: the protagonist gently coaxing his partner into taking a morning-after pill (“Killers”), the protagonist looking at a picture of an old lover and imagining their hypothetical fifteen-year-old child (“Natural Light”), and the protagonist being urged by his dying mother to start a family (“White Jetta”). The indeterminate identity of these narratives’ protagonist(s) lends a rich emotional subtlety to the entire album. Vs. Children could contain the chapters in a single character’s history or an anthology of many lives and many stories, vignettes on a theme.
After listening to this album a few hundred times over the last year, I think the central thesis of Owen Ashworth’s fifth studio album is that the prospects of parenthood and bank robbing are essentially equivalent in their exhilarating and terrifying nature. As somebody who has been married for five-plus years and is within chronological spitting distance of having to make some VERY BIG LIFE DECISIONS, this seemingly disproportionate equivalence resonates a lot. Frankly, the idea of going on a months-long bender-driven crime spree seems a lot less terrifying to me than the idea of trying to find decent schools for a child in NYC, or at least more straightforward.
Based on the similar mind’s-eye perspectives on bank robbing and child rearing provided throughout the album, the only substantial difference between emptying out vaults and becoming responsible for the development of a small human is that an infinitesimally small proportion of us will ever perform the former, and that the vast majority of people throughout history have pursued the latter. It’s a really powerful, and ultimately subtle, message to convey, and there’s a real beauty in calling attention to and magnifying the fear and uncertainty implicit in such a fundamentally human, and common, experience.
I’ll be the first to admit that this album contains a deeply depressing and melancholy selection of songs, but an ultimately optimistic closure comes at the end of “Harsh the Herald Angels Sing.” in which a young couple has become unexpectedly pregnant. Throughout the song the protagonist grapples with his (and, slightly more distantly, my own) impending responsibilities, but closes triumphantly with:
Well talk your shit, man, I don’t care,
It’s blank for a boy, but for a girl it’s Claire.
Ultimately the protagonist(s) of Vs. Children embrace their precarious situations and charge forward into one of the riskiest, scariest, but potentially most rewarding, experiences available to humans,
robbing a bank parenthood.
Jay Ackley is a Minnesotan in Brooklyn by way of London. He plays music around town with friends and can be found at JayAckley.com!