Friday, February 15, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Hero In Me

I confess I really don’t know too much about Jeffrey Gaines. Aside from the fact that he can sing well and is pretty darn handsome.

Moving on.

I heard him first in the early 90s when pals Steve and Tim were suggesting that I give a listen to his self-titled debut album, which he released in 1992. It was relatively gentle rock-n-roll, in that it was heavy on heartfelt lyrics and populated by songs that if they weren’t ballads, they were mid-tempo at best. And his subject matter was deeply personal—eschewing fatherhood, losing love, missing out on big chances in life for fear of failing. Heavy (and somewhat heady) stuff.

By and large it worked. The album isn’t perfect, but at its best resembles the kind of confessional writing that artists like Seal and Tori Amos specialize in. His songs are largely based around him and his acoustic guitar, and while some production pervades the recordings, his lyrics and his messages of longing and loss tend to take centerstage.

His cover of Peter Gabriel’s glorious “In Your Eyes” may be his best-known song—somewhat odd for a singer-songwriter—but it’s that first track on his first album that wins the slot on today’s Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday – Jeffrey Gaines – “Hero In Me”

The song is three verses built around a simple chord progression, using the same narrative pattern for all, and it grows in volume into a splendid chorus each time before retreating quietly at the start of the next verse. Lyrically the song is fascinating; it’s about being afraid to take the chances you feel you should be taking, being afraid to fail and/or afraid to move on, and instead choosing to stay put and simply think about what might have been.

Each verse of the song examines a different person going through this personal state of abeyance—an old man filled with regrets who has “lived as long as he possibly can” (an amazing little piece of writing, BTW), a young woman who is too concerned about what others may think to make a decision, and a couple that has been crushed by the inertia of a doomed relationship (“She’s lost her sparkle, he’s lost his fire”). No one in this song is anywhere close to being happy.

But as each verse winds into the pre-chorus, Gaines makes an unusual writer’s choice by turning the focus back to himself, and conveying to the listener that these people’s problems are, in fact, his problems. The sudden transition is a gutsy move, but he is consistent and clear enough for it to work.

And as I grow older
And there’s so much that I do not know
I’m drawn to those who are bolder
And go where no one dares to go

And then comes the chorus, where “Hero In Me” really gets its amazing shine. It builds on the same lovely basic chord progression with a lush but tasteful amount of orchestration behind it, and the narrator leaves no doubt he is painfully aware of his inability to move. Yet still can’t do anything about it, so he simply chooses to embrace his denial. And the result is sad, lonesome poetry.

And I sleep
And I dream of the person I might have been
And I’m free again
And I speak
Like someone who’s been to the highest peaks
And back again
And I swear
That my grass is greener than anyone’s
Until I believe again
And I wake
And this dream fades away and I face the day
And I realize
That there’s got to be some hero in me

“Hero in Me” is a song that could have drifted into wishy-washy naval-gazing and nothing more had it not been for the deft restraint Gaines shows in his storytelling. The song ends unresolved—by the time he sings “There’s got to be some hero in me” for the last time nothing has changed about the narrator or any of the characters he sings about. But there isn’t a hint of “woe is me” in the writing. It’s more a tale of “these are the things we do to ourselves.”

Beauty in music doesn’t always translate into happiness; indeed, some of the most beautiful songs that we have fallen in love with are terribly, desperately sad. (Examples are everywhere: “Yesterday,” “As Tears Go By,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “For the Good Times” and a personal favorite look at despondency, “Memphis.") 

In “Hero in Me” Jeffrey Gaines has expertly crafted a sad song and a beautiful song, a tale of people wrapped in their own loneliness—distant, hopeless, crushing loneliness—and with no chance of ever emerging. But the beauty is in how he tells it, and how he allows us in as we listen, hoping he’s not talking about us.

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