I have distinct memories of autumn in Ohio. The smell of woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Desiccated cornstalks ground into the soil beneath tractor tires. Early-morning grass rimed with frost. Crows lining a telephone wire against a gunmetal sky. I haven’t lived there for years, but Lullaby for the Working Class’ second album, I Never Even Asked for Light, is the sound of that time. Even though I was 24 and living in California when it was released in 1997, my very first listen distinctly took me back to my youth, a 12-year-old kid waiting for the bus on a November morning, breath pluming from his mouth in the chill. It’s playing in the background as I write this, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.
The album also clearly induces pretentiousness in those susceptible to it.
LFTWC has a foot in a couple different camps. Band member Mike Mogis is a co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, so on the one hand they’re part of the Nebraska scene that also gave us (among others) Bright Eyes and Cursive. Musically, there are some superficial similarities with the mid-90’s alt-country movement (hey, guys! banjos!), so it’s reasonable to lump them in with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and Son Volt and early Wilco), the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also compare them to chamber pop acts like Tindersticks and Lambchop). For whatever reason, I Never Even Asked for Light hit me harder than most anything recorded by any of those other bands. Even after Wilco started cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, this album works for me on an emotional level that I can’t really explain.
It starts out with an inauspicious untitled track – just guitar, Ted Stevens’ tenor, and the sound of wind in the trees and chirping birds. As the song fades, the sound of birds suddenly gives way to the joyful mandolin of “Show Me How the Robots Dance.”
One lyric in this song stands out as a theme for the album: “I doubt there’s a body of water/Big enough to quench our thirst.” From the mourners “holding [their] drinks like wrecked statues” in the beautiful, brass-laced “Irish Wake” to the shipwrecked son in “Hypnotist” to the rafting narrator in the trilogy “The Man Vs. the Tide,” lyricist Stevens uses a recurring motif of water and thirst throughout many of the songs. It’s an album that seems to be about dissatisfaction, about wanting more than we can ever have, and as a result, it’s an album that’s decidedly mournful.
Mournful, but never bleak. The lush tapestry of instruments (banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, glockenspiel, organ, among others) makes even a song like “In Honor of My Stumbling” feel hopeful, despite its central metaphor: “Faith is a candle in direct sunlight.” And where this kind of Americana often begins to feel a little samey to me, LFTWC dodge that particular bullet by experimenting with different tempos, from the slow and stately “Bread Crumbs” to the pulsing, insistent “Hypnotist.” The centerpiece, though, is “The Man Vs. the Tide,” the three-part song that closes the album. Its sparse instrumentation – horns giving way to strings giving way to just Stevens’ voice and guitar – blends fluidly with the gentle crash of waves and the distant roar of an airplane as Stevens gently sings, “Will I ever attain/This blue sky?” The ambient sounds that bookend the album underscore its autumnal beauty and resonate even after the song ends.
Next steps: Three albums, and the band was done. I also really like their debut, Blanket Warm, but I never found their last release, Song, particularly compelling. Mogis of course went on to do all kinds of stuff with Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, and singer Ted Stevens is still a member of Cursive.