John Vanderslice songs often resemble dark, elusive short stories; something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. We’re typically in the middle of something very specific, but with the large-scale details omitted in favor of tiny observations that simultaneously add atmosphere and blur the narrative.
Even when JV gives us the premise with an explanatory note ahead of the lyrics this time (“A father so domineering and imperious, he’s even intimidating on the embalming slab”), we get history only hinted at, emotional short-cuts that bypass the details of what this father wanted and why the son didn’t or couldn’t do what was expected of him. “If they would believe me/I would tell them all the truth about you,” the son sings. What truth? Who are “they”?
The lyrics are, as usual, supported by music as concise as possible; check out, right away, that eight-second intro, and how even there, the instrumental line is a melody, not a vamp. “I’ll Never Live Up to You” offers, generally, a brisk, minor-key setting but also an ongoing font of specific moments that contribute to the whole—it’s almost as if you could take a slice of any point along the way, an aural biopsy if you will, and discern the song’s larger intent and meaning. And how on earth did he decide to use saxophones here? Anchored at the bottom of the mix, they emerge only as the song unfolds, grounding it in an organic foundation, despite the synthesized ambiance, representing the almost-buried nature of the narrator’s referenced but unspoken truth. And it was surely a conscious choice for Vanderslice to sing the song mostly in vocal layers with himself, with the melody led by an almost whispery upper register voice. We only hear his regular singing voice at one specific time in the chorus, when he repeats the words “about you” (first heard at 0:56)—a subtle but telling way to illustrate how this unfortunate son remains bound and tied to his long-dead father.
“I’ll Never Live Up to You” is one of six songs on a new, free digital EP, released last week. You can download the whole thing at his web site, complete with artwork, lyrics, and credits, or you can download individual songs.