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A Rugged Ode to Checking Out

"Signed myself out today / Sent a letter far away," Willy Mason sings on "We Can Be Strong." It's never entirely clear where he was, but a later reference to "a sterile room" provides a clue that it wasn't a luxury hotel. Later in the song, he's back on his mother's couch, wondering what happened to all those friends who chose to go to college and were so disillusioned that they dropped out and vanished.

An earlier generation subscribed to the idea of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, but the voice of "We Can Be Strong" is so numb and confused by life on earth in 2007 that finding the right knob to tune out is too taxing.

The wonder of "We Can Be Strong" is that it isn't nearly as depressing as its lyric. It helps that the New Englander is far from a typical young alt-folkie — he's recorded for Bright Eyes' label and toured with Beth Orton and Death Cab for Cutie — and his stripped-wood voice implies resilience more than defeat. The song's arrangement feels craggier and more rugged than that of the average singer-songwriter ballad. (Having Rosanne Cash pitch in on harmony doesn't hurt; her voice conveys nothing but strength.) Anti-anthems rarely sound this anthemic.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Browne
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets.