Rebirth in the Embers: The Evolution of Chris McCaughan on Sundowner’s Neon Fiction
It’s a pretty well-worn adage at this point to acknowledge that “growing up” is difficult and confusing and a little scary; however, while popular art and culture seem to place a lot of emphasis on helping to ease teenagers and, at least recently, 20-somethings into the next major phases of their lives, there doesn’t seem to be as much work out there that documents the continued evolution of the adult, one that appears to be based largely around the altered perception of time not so much as an endless void full of possibility, but rather as a force that appears to be propelling a person toward some sort of destiny. The struggle here, it seems, comes from someone’s willingness to either accept the direction in which he or she is moving, or to make a last-ditch effort to take the reins and direct his or her life moving forward.
On his third album under the moniker of Sundowner, Chris McCaughan (who gained notoriety as the guitarist and vocalist for popular Chicago punk bands The Broadways and The Lawrence Arms), documents his own struggle to reevaluate and redefine his life on his own terms. Many fans of McCaughan’s (particularly those living right here in Chicago) are aware that this journey started or ended somewhere around his decision to uproot his life and leave his lifelong home city and move to Portland, Oregon.
It’s no surprise, then, that his latest album, Neon Fiction, is littered with references to movement and progress and travel; but primarily, it’s about McCaughan trying to figure out what this vague and undefinable idea of “home” means to him. And in order to do this, he starts at the beginning.
The first song, “Cemetery West,” is an ode to the singer-songwriter’s childhood neighborhood, and while it would appear that McCaughan has many fond memories of what may very well be the most important place in his entire life, he juxtaposes those positive feelings of warmth and nostalgia by forcing himself to remember the reasons why he left, and wanted to leave, in the first place. The song’s chorus sees McCaughan making a simple promise, seemingly to himself more than anyone, that he “won’t let the darkness catch me this time.” This is where the theme of travelling and leaving begins on the album. In doing so, he offers up a wise piece of advice to the listener that in many ways serves as the guiding motivation behind the entire album. “Don’t let nostalgia rule your world,” he pleas, while convincing himself to “let the grass grow over all those graves,” because “whatever I have left to do has just begun.”
At its core, “Cemetery West” is one of the tracks on the album that is most easily recognizable as being a Sundowner song, as it utilizes familiar chord changes and melodic structures that have become McCaughan’s bread-and-butter over the years. However, although the song isn’t a huge departure, it does very overtly signal a new direction for the Sundowner project, one that places a more drastic emphasis on full-band arrangements (i.e. adding some bass and drums) and fleshing out McCaughan’s mellow acoustic songs. Though it begins quietly with a single unaccompanied guitar, it quickly comes together when McCaughan’s vocals begin, adding in a backing drum kit, bass, and electric guitar. It happens almost without warning, and it makes a very direct statement about the evolution of Sundowner as a more fully realized concept and vehicle for McCaughan’s art. Just as the lyrical content of “Cemetery West” conjures images and ideas of progress and breaking invisible shackles and starting something new, it seems fitting that this would be the song that introduces this new version of Sundowner to the world. Not that these additions really make a huge difference in the way that McCaughan writes, but they do give this album a distinctly different vibe than his previous releases, and they add a certain pop element to his music that I didn’t even know was missing before.
On Neon Fiction, McCaughan seems to specifically create a correlation between movement or progress (both actual physical movement and just figurative progress) and a sort of liberation of the soul. In “Concrete Shoes,” he plays with this metaphor of wearing – you guessed it – concrete shoes that keep him trapped in a literal physical location. One assumes that as a member of arguably Chicago’s most famous punk band, McCaughan probably felt that he had some sort of duty to remain in the city despite what this album seems to suggest is a pretty strong desire to get away and do something new for a change (making it quite obvious why he decided to try some new techniques and create more layered songs on this album, as that must be another consequence of the same urge to grow and evolve). “I was walking slowly in my concrete shoes,” he sings, in order to try to capture the essence of what it felt like to be headed in one direction through time, while trying to get somewhere else at a snail’s pace. This is emphasized later with the line, “I ran in place on a sidewalk of my own lost days.”
In the chorus of “Concrete Shoes,” McCaughan makes one of the first, but certainly not last, references to history that appear throughout the record. “Maybe history will see us through,” he suggests, essentially hoping that he’ll be able to learn from the experiences of himself, other people, or some combination of the two in order to ensure that he makes the right decisions. Should he stay or should he bust the soles of his concrete shoes and forge a new path? On the radio-ready “Life in the Embers,” he sings about his own personal history, saying that he’s “tired of the people I have been,” and in the fourth track (which immediately follows “Concrete Shoes”), “We Drift Eternal,” he ruminates on this idea of big universal history and the tendency of different bodies and entities to “grow apart” and “drift like continents,” which is an ongoing process that has been happening for all of eternity. The song is held down by a tight rhythm and great melody from McCaughan, and serves as a key turning point for the album. While the first three songs see the singer agonizing over this decision to leave his home, this track pushes away a lot of the clutter, allowing him to see that he is “the maker of [his] destiny.” By the next song, “Grey on Grey,” he’s made a decision and is narrating one of his final walks around the city and preparing to leave, as he sings:
At times, it felt like my chances were slipping away
The window is open if you can just climb on through
The truth isn’t always spoken, just something you do
During “We Drift Eternal,” McCaughan sings about being “so much closer to my origins,” an idea that really propels the second half of Neon Fiction. It foreshadows the album’s seventh track, “Origins,” a short, all-acoustic song in which the singer recounts a dream about a revised version of his origins, he which was “found on the wind and rain” as a small boy with no name or memories. “I didn’t belong to anything at all,” he sings, and by the end of the song, he’s singing that he “was found on that day,” explaining that he realized the importance of cutting the arbitrary invisible ties that were keeping him trapped and without any control over his destiny.
Likewise, the whole second half of the album revolves around this metaphor of burning his past as a means of freeing up his future (see: song titles like “Life in the Embers” or “Wildfires”). In “Life in the Embers,” he says that, “I have always been singing this song,” pointing out that his restlessness shouldn’t come as a surprise to friends, family, or even just fans of his work, and in the folky closing track, “Wildfires,” he says he doesn’t want his life pass him by “on the wings of what might have been,” and recognizes that he will have to let some old dreams die to change his circumstances and figure out how to move forward. His conclusion that “we’re living in the shadows of ourselves” is a beautiful and haunting declaration that reveals a poignant truth about the internal struggle inside of people when they’re feeling stuck and unsure about the direction of their lives.
As usual, McCaughan’s is able to utilize his penchant for words and language to ignite specific feelings of nostalgia and emptiness and hope in his listener, and sometimes all of them within a single song. It’s clear that he has something of an infatuation with the power of words, and that he sees writing as a way to escape from his own thoughts and move into the hearts and minds of his audience. Thus, a lot of Neon Fiction also deals with the power and general importance of words and language, as has a lot of McCaughan’s previous work (see: “Steal Your Words” or the Lawrence Arms song “100 Resolutions”). In “Concrete Shoes,” he sings about “words like old friends” as being a guiding force in helping him make decisions and come to terms with them. And on “Poet of Trash,” he writes about his “broken pen” and “recycled lines,” while he’s actually talking about his lack of formal training as a writer (“I was a hack in the class”); instead, he tells the listener that he simply writes from the heart as a way to clear his own head.
However, this explanation is unnecessary, as Neon Fiction contains what is probably McCaughan’s best lyricism to date. The album sees him intricately switching back and forth between unfiltered realism that is seemingly pulled directly from his journal and carefully crafted metaphors that provide the imagery and emotion to go along with his story. Of course, one cannot talk about his lyrics without also mentioning his many clever turns of phrase, my favorite of which is probably, “I was so out of touch,” from “Paper Rose City,” which may literally reference his actual physical distance, but also figuratively explains the detachment he was feeling toward the end of his time in Chicago.
That being said, McCaughan still clearly considers the Second City his home, at least in his heart. The album’s second track, “My Beautiful Ruins,” is sort of his breakup song with the city, but it also reads like a love letter to his old hometown (plus, the image of “ruins” also calls to mind the metaphorical burning of his past that he left behind when he moved). The song opens with the lyrics, “Dear city of ghosts and great fires/Of brick and mortar and steel/Of wind and telephone wires/Just thought I’d write to you and tell you/How much I’ll miss my feet traversing your geography,” and from there he continues to recall memories of the city that are vague enough to remain universal, but also vivid and deeply personal. However, it’s really hard to shake the feeling that although this song heavily references leaving the specific physical location of Chicago, Illinois, it’s maybe just as much about the family he’s leaving behind. In particular, the song’s chorus of, “All my songs are yours/All your songs are mine,” makes one think he may be writing about the Chicago punk scene (of which he’s a revered and well-respected veteran member) and his brothers in The Lawrence Arms. Take the song’s final section, for instance:
The way you made me feel that night
It’s like you loved me all your life
And no time will have passed at all
When I return to recant the stories of our lives
And even though we’ve grown apart
Without you I could’ve never gone so far
Alas, my oldest friend
We’ve been together through it all
Alas, my oldest friend
I’ll be thinking of you in the end
The problem with leaving a place and the people that really mean something to you is that you have to acknowledge that although they’re impact on your life is undeniable and absolutely crucial to shaping who you are, you’ve ended up outgrowing them, or you at least need something else to keep you moving forward. That doesn’t mean that your love for those people and places is gone, but in many ways it’s just not enough anymore. This is the most important part of the process of growing up and taking control of one’s life, and McCaughan is able to beautifully articulate this difficult decision on Neon Fiction. But despite his innate desire to erase his origins and start fresh, he knows that without the family and foundation that his “old life” provided him with, he simply wouldn’t be the person he is today, even if that is just “a collage of success and defeat.”
It’s just that he’s decided it’s time to let go and add some fresh new layers to that person.