Iron & Wine: Sodom, South Georgia / Passing Afternoon
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
(I originally had a lot of background at the top of this article. Things about the greatness of being traumatized by art as a kid (prompted by seeing an ad for the V-chip and wondering how much poorer my life would be if I had never seen things I wasn't supposed to see), about coming to grips with mortality as a kid, about my parents. I don't think it's bad, but it's not here because on some level it was all sophistry.)
I don't cry at much. It’s not out of any sort of misplaced idea that I shouldn't, it just doesn't happen that often. Given how widely peoples’ other physical responses vary, I don't think much weight should be placed on it. I'm more ticklish than some people, and I cry less than most. But as soon as Sam Beam sings “Papa died smiling” towards the close of Our Endless Numbered Days, I well up.
It's pretty clear that “Sodom, South Georgia” is about the narrator's father's death, but it’s only my personal sense of “Passing Afternoon” and its placement just after “Sodom” that causes me to think that it’s about the death of a mother. The utter irrationality of my conviction only makes it stronger; when I hear “Sodom, South Georgia” I think of my father's inevitable death, and when I hear “Passing Afternoon” just after, I think of my mother's inevitable death.
These are not pleasant things, and if I meant the above in an unpleasant way I wouldn't be writing this and I wouldn't own any Iron & Wine. But how can songs that make me think of the way time, as they say, “leaves every child a bastard” possibly make me happy, however bittersweetly?
It is my conviction, via a thought process too long and tedious to fully unpack here, that one of the things great art (maybe all art) does, is confront us with our mortality. It simultaneously allows us to accept it and to deny it for a space of time; it comforts us with the thought both that our passing is inevitable and that something we do can survive that passing. Our Endless Numbered Days is an album about love and mortality, two things I'm a sucker for, and so I have the opposite reaction that Josh Love had. I'm not from or in the South, and I much prefer Beam when his heart is on his sleeve to when he is observing keenly an area I've never even been to. But it's the placement of these two songs together, right at the end that really gets me. It's not that “Sodom, South Georgia” is dispassionate, but to sing of your father's death with such acceptance is tough to do, and the effect is practically miraculous; what could have been maudlin becomes a quiet celebration instead. It sounds like the kind of thing you'd sing at the end of a joyous wake, a last winding down of fond memory.
“Passing Afternoon” is ostensibly about the inexorable passage of time, but I can't help thinking it's written after the “her” of the song's death or looking ahead to when it will happen. It ends with the lines “They'll kiss as if they know / A baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone,” but the song isn't scared or mournful. Just as the impact of “Sodom, South Georgia” isn't so much “he's dead” as “he lived,” so “Passing Afternoon” isn't “we are afraid of being alone,” it's “we don't have to be.” The juxtaposition of those two terms, along with the music and thoughts of my parents, makes the tear ducts open. Sonically “Passing Afternoon” is one of those perfect album-enders, one that sounds like the curtains going down. We've been in a reverie; it's time to emerge into the sunlight again.
I am, as I must, doing a shit job of describing how these songs make me feel. I can dance around identifying outliers to the impact of these two songs (and having listened to both in isolation I know it's the combination that is so powerful; if there's a literal “moment” here it is that unverifiable, alchemical one where the end of one leads me to the beginning of the next), but ultimately I'm still dancing. I put on these songs, on headphones or washing the dishes or sitting on the bus, and I think of my life and my family.
And I think about the fact that it's all going to end, and I'm at peace with that. And I think about how rich and complex and full our lives are, and how we're only a few people out of billions, trillions, more of people now living and dead, and how in the most real way possible we are insignificant, whoever we are. And I'm okay with that. And someday my family will die and I will sing these songs for them, or I will die and they will sing their songs for me. And it doesn't bother me, and these two songs are a part of why. It happens to everyone. Maybe we should stop being so scared of it. Easier said than done, you might say, and people have been saying it at least since the Stoics. But that's not a reason not to try, and the deep sense of contentment and peace in existence that the two songs together give me are tremendously helpful when you're doing so. And if that's not just about the best thing music can do for you, and reason to cry and smile and stand back up and keep on living, I really don't know what is.