Some songwriters have a gift for stringing together a coherent album, a solid group of a dozen or so songs of comparable quality that work well as a whole. Other songwriters seem to concentrate their powers in just a few songs, or even moments: they’re the ones who’ll make you perk up and listen whenever that certain perfect song comes along and demands your attention.
Nina Nastasia strikes me as a songwriter in the latter mode. It’s not that her albums aren’t solid and coherent—her recent records On Leaving and You Follow Me (with Jim White) are both excellent throughout. But then then there are those songs that just soar above the rest—like “Settling Song,” with its classic-ballad melody and palpable sadness, spiked with a barely-perceptible dash of wistful sweetness; or “Late Night,” in which Nastasia’s voice soars and she plays her acoustic guitar louder and louder and tells a story of horror, pain, and bitter disappointment.
Nastasia also seems to have a gift for writing tunes that aren’t as immediately obvious in their appeal, but which sneak their way inside you all the same, and perhaps end up having even greater power because of it. One example would be “Our Day Trip,” a deceptively quiet little tune from On Leaving. The arrangement is simple: an acoustic guitar strumming the chords, restrained, shuffling drums, Nastasia’s plain (if lovely) voice, and a piano offering punctuation here and there. The song sets a melancholy and plaintive mood from the start—but this feeling comes almost entirely in the music at first, in the quiet tension of the arrangement and in Nastasia’s delivery. The song’s speaker is addressing a lover, asking him not to go to work that day, offering an easily-realizable fantasy of escaping briefly to the country: “We’ve got just enough money / Let’s see how far we can amble / One day can make all the difference.” It’s only in that last bit that the lyric hints that something might be wrong here—that the two of them might be discontent, with their lives or with each other. But the speaker continues to maintain the fantasy for a while after that: “Two souls alone out on a lake / It will be a perfect afternoon / We can lose our clothes and have a swim.” As a listener, you’ve been welcomed into the dream by this point: you can feel the speaker’s longing for an escape, and the idea of it sounds great: peaceful, relaxing, sexy. But then comes the final verse (which ends the song, without a return to the chorus melody), and it dashes all hope, and breaks your heart. “Your free hand waving from the gate,” Nastasia sings, “The metal shining at your waist / You had so much more ambition.” And now we understand why the speaker wants to escape—she’s disappointed in how her lover’s dreams seem to be growing out of reach, and how he seems to have accepted this fact, which disappoints her that much more. She longs for a day of freedom with him, a way to recapture the dreams that they no doubt once shared with each other—a momentary return, at least, to a time when they not only loved each other, but also loved to imagine the great lives they might lead together. But now it seems to be too late for this—his dreams have passed him by, and a part of her love for him is gone, too.