Mirror, Mirror on the Wall What's the Meaning of it All - Shakey Graves' Can't Wake Up Review by Tim
“Maybe I should give up the good fight and change my image overnight.” Those lyrics come from the second verse of the second song off of Shakey Graves’ 2018 album Can’t Wake Up and to say that they hold some existential relevance to the record at large would be an understatement. Gaining a following as a solo performer in a one-man-band format armed with a suitcase kick drum and a floor tambourine, Alejandro Rose Garcia breathed new life into the Americana genre. Combining the staple bass-note heavy fingerpicked acoustic guitar with varied percussive rhythms and a raspy voice emitting strained growl screams like a higher-pitched Eddie Vedder, Garcia carved out a comfortable niche for himself as a performer under the name Shakey Graves. However, listening to his early discography, it appears that his signature solo style was born sheerly out of necessity as though simultaneously orchestrating and rising to a challenge of his own creation. All of his studio material sounds strikingly different from his live recordings, most notably his early hit “Roll the Bones”. Whereas rapid fingerpicking, varied tempos, and that strained vocal sound mark the song’s most well-known performances, the studio version is far more tame, keeping a slower beat throughout and using layered vocal tracks that lack Garcia’s guttural grit. Alas, a one-man-band lacking a loop or harmonizer pedal cannot create those harmonies live so an adaptation was necessary. But it would seem that the inclination toward accent sounds and larger arrangements was never far from Garcia’s mind, for Can’t Wake Up is easily his most complete full-band effort to date and sees a marked change in overall sound. Exchanging Americana for psychedelic alternative rock with some folk elements, Garcia has changed his image to expand the set but he is still most definitely fighting the good fight.
Starting with the bleary-eyed delirium of “Counting Sheep”, Can’t Wake Up begins its run-time in ironic fashion by capturing the scattered thoughts of an insomniac. Featuring doubled vocals during the verses and scratchy falsetto harmonies that sing, “I am the very specimen of a sleep walking gentleman”, they soon cede to Graves’ signature strained growl during the chorus where the reason for the insomnia is illuminated “...because tonight I’ve got nothing on my mind but you | Somewhere, somehow you feel it too.” After the entrancing, bubbly electric guitar riff fades out, “Kids These Days” carries on with the alternative rock momentum, playing equally as a rebellious and introspective examination of a younger generation via imagined association. Placing himself somewhere in that crowd, Graves points the finger at peaked-in-high-school authority figures that absolve themselves by forgetting their youth, criticizing, “You were the young, dumb chosen one, now you shake your head and say | Kids these days.” Riding a high-range descending note progression through a power chord-heavy bridge to a self-realizing resolution that builds to a strong outro, Graves then seems to call out the attention-whoring immaturity of his peers with the line, “Everybody tries to be somebody | To be somebody’s wet dream, prom king, golden boy, new toy | Mirror, mirror on the wall what’s the meaning of it all.”
The self-reflection in “Kids These Days” takes on another, less-satirical form on “Climb on the Cross” which forces the punky energy of the previous track to fit a more methodical mold with a restrained beat. However, the organized feeling of this track is a mere facade as the lyrics are just as biting. Following a steadily picked guitar bend that concludes the instrumental introduction, Graves’ first target is Evangelical religion: “Tell the televangelist he’s out of a job | Cuz I look good on a cross and I can sure sing along.” Moments of clarity then emerge through the cynicism in the lyrically-changing choruses, the most impactful being, “If nothing dies tomorrow why remember yesterday?” Thought-provoking, it plays as a compelling parallel to the narrator’s clearly conflicted and confrontational headspace as he later sings, “Fight your family and friends and let ‘em know you’re the best | Tattoo ‘radical’ right across your chest.” It is as if the character in the song succumbs to their ego while some of the more well-reasoned glimpses show the listener just how easy it is to buy into oneself and get lost in your own head. “Dining Alone” dives deeper into the psyche of an introvert, increasing the divide between the individual and society. A lazily bouncing finger-picked progression in the verses self-deprecatingly depicts the monotonous life of the song’s “protagonist”. A sad, not-so-lovable-loser-type character, the twin acoustic guitars and plodding bassline follow his routine like a tuba playing as the soundtrack of a bumbling idiot. After recounting his morning ritual, the chorus finds the character (referred to as “Garth Nazarth” in Graves’ live performances) lost in wistful reverie as he tries to go inside his mind to separate himself from this depressing reality. The tempo and volume change as Garth experiences an emotion foreign to himself in his everyday life - happiness - in daydreaming about “things that [he’ll] never do” like fly a plane, have a one-night stand, and walk on the moon. However, reality rips him out of his concocted alternate universe as he pitifully concedes, “nothing’s gonna change for the same old me | Eat, sleep, do it again.”
“My Neighbor” sees Graves more darkly explore the negative impacts of social isolation coupled with having an overactive, introspective mind. Spoken from the perspective of someone suffering from severe paranoia, the song’s concluding lyrics capture that mentality as the character doubles down on their hermit-like lifestyle, singing, “live forever more with a lock upon your door | Close the windows, draw the shade | Never learn your neighbors name.” Musically, the song plays as the perfect soundtrack to someone losing their mind with eery layered vocals consisting of a demented high harmony and an equally scary low line. The chorus contrasts organization on the outside using a drum machine with inner turmoil embodied by a striking downward guitar bend and maniacal “la-la-la”’s sung by a cacophony of voices as though rattling around in the character’s head. “Excuses” finds that same character a bit more composed but even more downtrodden, possibly on the come down of a bad psychedelic trip. Mirroring the haze of a lost mind regaining the ability to reason, high fuzzed harmonies float above a more monotonous main vocal line as they mirror the melody picked on an acoustic guitar. Giving way to the chorus in which successive groupings of four downward strums dominate, the music matches the lyrical epiphany in self-realization: “Excuses, excuses, excuses | I’ve got plenty of...excuses, excuses, excuses”. Illuminating the source of the protagonist’s misery as they may, the epiphanies of these excuses shine that light directly at their feet, merely showing where they stand while the path forward remains shrouded in darkness.
Although “Dining Alone”, “My Neighbor”, and “Excuses” seem to tell a linear story, they don’t quite explain Garth’s transition from pathetic loser to paranoid schizophrenic. The reason for such a transformation is simple: crime. “Cops and Robbers” captures that downward spiral into insanity. The uptempo acoustic guitar rhythm quickly cedes to driving drums and bass as the song builds to a heavier, gravelly chorus with the help of a strummed electric guitar and accent lead part. Anecdotally raising experiences in the life of the character as motives, their juxtaposition is no clearer than the lines: “The bully got the girl next door | I had it all but wanted more | So give me everything in the register.” Showing that the character’s actions run deeper than desperation or a lapse in judgement, the choral lyrics, “Half the fun is never knowing if and why we’ve lost our way”, offer insight into their twisted psyche. However, the lyrics: “Why would you sink so low just to get high,'' serve as a segue into the next song, “Mansion Door” where a portal to a trippy alternate dimension is opened. Starting with simulated string pulses, the cyclic electric guitar riff is soon joined by easy-going percussion and a steadily strummed acoustic guitar. The lead guitar gains a harmonic accompaniment as the verses commence with an ensemble of voices, among them being Rayland Baxter. A spacey guitar then lends ambient sounds to the arrangement before pounding strums usher in the chorus with a youthful energy akin to “Kids These Days” and angst derived from the preceding track. “Mansion Door” was the first song that I initially heard off of this album and I had no idea that it was Shakey Graves. To say that it is a change of pace from the rest of his discography is putting it lightly, but I welcomed this foray into psychedelic alternative rock with the song’s whirling volume swells. It was, and remains, a good introduction to Shakey’s new sound.
“Aibophobia” returns to that dark headspace with a Disney-esque musical arrangement that thinly veils the depth of the character’s anxiety behind a creepy happy-go-lucky vibe. Lyrically rife with palindromes like, “racecar, kayak, nurses run”, the track brings the irony in force as its title is literally defined as the irrational fear of palindromes. Maybe the music is supposed to poke fun at how ridiculous a fear of words is, but it plays as a strange soundtrack to an old Steamboat Mickey cartoon and is frightening purely due to how upbeat and out of place and time it sounds. The facade ultimately falters, though, as a hard grungy break blasts through with the ominous lyrics: “Sounds coming from the woods.” No palindrome there, just terror. However, the song is brought to a soft close with the palindrome, “are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era” which brings the creepy factor back into play especially considering the “everything-is-fine” facade has cracked. The ruse is torn down completely in “Big Bad Wolf” as the character directly confronts the voices in their head against a backdrop created by sinister harmonic vocals, synthesizer bass and steady percussive rhythms. As the title entails, the song likens bouts of depression and existential questioning to the figure from the three little pigs as well as a werewolf that always exists within the lyrical phrases: “Oh, but I feel something happening again | Are you a danger to yourself | I’m hungry let me in.” Combining such heavy topical subject matter with a classic children’s tale adds gravity and depth to the darkness on this one for sure.
Following “Big Bad Wolf” is a trio of songs that fights to keep the darkness at bay and bring the record to a comforting close, but whether or not they succeed is debatable. Starting with reverb-soaked guitar and ambient slide, the subdued percussion of “Backseat Driver” lends itself to an aimless coastal drive with no destination in mind. A sweet song at first, it is baited back into depression by nostalgia over “what’s lost and gone forever” in the context of a past relationship with a bass-driven outro jam while a shimmeringly plucked and delayed melody line show how fleeting that happiness was. “Foot of Your Bed” is particularly strange, featuring a slow orchestral arrangement of harp strums, synthesizer swells, light acoustic guitar, and a thickly plopping bassline. Along the same lines as “Aibophobia”, the dreaminess of this track gives it a creepy quality both because of how out of place it sounds and due to its order on the record. Coming after “Backseat Driver” it can easily be imagined as a stalker-like infatuation with a long-lost flame however earnest the lyrics, “There isn’t a minute that passes, nowhere I’d rather be instead | Than watching you sleep while I sit at the foot of your bed,” may seem. Closing the album with a cautionary criticism over a frolicky rhythm, “Tin Man” repeatedly references the Wizard of Oz while weighing the pros and cons of getting what you wished for against making the best of a current situation. Acoustic slide and guiro percussion add to the feel-good vibe of this song while the chorus warns against the entrapments of monotony that plagued Garth back in “Dining Alone” with the lyrics: “You ain’t dead yet, 27 came and went | Now you live to fight another day as the hero of the carpool lane | Day by day, if the posted limit you obey | Then the biggest shot in your life will be dressed with salt and lime.”
The pros of breaking from the herd and abandoning the grind, even amidst uncertainty and fear of the unknown, far outweigh the misery of watching time slip away from behind the wheel of a car stuck in traffic or similarly motionless in front of a computer behind a desk. Maybe I’m projecting, but the song seems to urge that everyone has their shot and should take it. Shakey certainly has and, as he sings in the outro to “Climb on the Cross”, “I’d do it all again, oh, if I could.”