California – John Murry

I swear it ain’t you

It’s California I can’t stand.

The Graceless Age (2014) by John Murry is one of my favorite albums I’ve stumbled upon only recently. It offers different stories from across the American landscape but has roots in southern gothic. Steep in melancholy it provides a cathartic experience for the listener. It’s the kind of album that you want to play without your phone, computer, book or anything else near. There’s a lot to be said from the album, but I want to talk a bit about why I love California, one of the singles off the album, so much (Southern Sky is also phenomenal). Take a listen (lyrics here):

Murry offers a vivid description of how he sees California, often in contrast to ow others do. Off a steady deliberate guitar rift Murry laments “I drove the fire roads at night in a busted-up car/ I searched the skyline in vain for one goddamn star “

Most of the song offers these small portraits of what he sees around him, and each one offers a lot to talk about, but I don’t believe the heart of the song can be found here. Murry is excellent at layering his songs with different meanings and motives of different densities and purposes. The song is less about the stars, vanity, emptiness or even heartbreak, at least directly, its, to me, about the end of a relationship in an extremely damaging, painful way.

I quoted it at the beginning, but let’s really look at those lyrics again, “I swear it ain’t you / It’s California I can’t stand.” While most of the song is about California and what it means to him and how it affects him, it’s not a song written to strictly offer insight into California, it’s about explaining it to someone, likely someone he loves, as way of, I assume, asking for understanding, if not forgiveness.

California, particularly Los Angles, is not a new topic for songwriters to describe. Really, it’s not a particularly novel or terribly interesting topic. But its use in the song, rather, is.

Painfully, Murry asks “If my heart is breaking, is yours breaking, too?” after confessing to feeling separate from what surrounds him (“This city’s a dream / But I’m wide awake /Caught up in their lights / With nothing to say”) he seeks for companionship in what he is experiencing. The fear isn’t the dread of the landscape, the pride, or the dreariness of the city, it’s seeing it alone, seeing it without the one you love seeing and feeling it too. And because they can’t see or feel it, they begin to break with you.

Murry tries to explain that California is the problem, not “you”, and that may be true at the root cause, but in the wake of what is left, the “you” may have more in common with what Murry describes in “California” than not.

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