It’s been a rough year, a tough year, a year filled with fear, tears and outrage, and the end is nowhere in sight. Different people deal with tumult in different ways, from losing themselves in TV or the page to distracting themselves with social media to drowning themselves in suds (and, where it’s legal, buds). In the first few months of the stay-at-home life, I surfed the sonic waves of spacetime to points long past – “started hummin’ a song from 1962,” to borrow a phrase from a Midwestern bard.
I’m still doing it, to an extent.
That’s all to say: In normal times, the odds are good that I’d have stumbled upon Zach Phillips’ The Wine of Youth not long after its April 2020 release. Instead, I’m four months late to the game. The press material calls it “a hybrid of experimental roots- and folk-rock, chamber pop and indie country,” and while that’s all accurate, I just call it good. Quite frankly, leaving the lyrics aside for a moment, the textures and tones that accent the 13 tracks conjure the netherworld that lies between consciousness and dreams. They’re akin to gusts of wind lifting us higher and higher, and deeper and deeper, into another realm. The brief instrumental that opens the album is a great example:
Lyrically, the songs often invoke and grapple with the existential and metaphysical matters that make up this thing called life. “Ladybird, would you come around again?/Winter’s done, the cycle’s just begun…”
An Illinois native, Phillips relocated to Southern California in the early ‘10s, bringing with him an outsider’s zest for his new environs…and its earthquakes, wildfires and heat. As he sings in “Doesn’t Feel Like California,” “Why must the earth burn so blue/This land we love’s a holy tomb/Down and out in the wayward desert today/I can see a burning light/It’s far away, but it’s within my sight/In the hills of the wayward desert today.”
Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. “It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,” Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg. (Although I’m partial to his 1985 bluegrass album High Country Snows, his 1981 double-LP set The Innocent Age is well worth many listens.)
Anyway, in that era, “Caroline” would be turning ears…
…and would be featured on the playlists of adult-oriented radio stations, like the WIOQ of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (or, now that I think about it, the WXPN of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s). The title track is a work of art unto itself, confronting the aging process (and, in some respects, condensing Fogelberg’s Innocent Age into three minutes and change): “And the wine of youth, it’s sweeter in the spring/And winter’s coming near.”
By and large, Phillips’ lyrics belie the “sensitive” and “navel-gazing” labels applied as pejoratives to some singer-songwriters. These are songs about grown-up concerns from a lived perspective, albeit one where the romanticism of youth lingers in the shadows like a ghost in a graveyard. The Wine of Youth is a collection of songs I’ve turned to many times this past week and will again, in the months and years to come. Check it out on Apple Music or Spotify; you’ll be glad you did.
The track list: