"Beginners" — The Genius in Simplicity from Christian Lee Hutson
*photo from Amazon.com
It took Mark Twain years of writing to realize a simple and overlooked fact.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
The long-form gives the writer time to make mistakes, time to redeem them, time to introduce a slew of new ideas that might or might not work, and allows them to let everything rip. But to write small means tuning each word to the perfect pitch, refining the flow and meaning with far less at your disposal.
So it’s always exceptional to hear music that does something similar: it takes big ideas and narratives and packs them into two lines, poetry in staccato but rarely crescendo, an essay’s worth of meaning in ten words and endless inference.
Beginners, the debut album from indie-folk singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson, is learned mastery on dense and short-form storytelling. It’s what we’ve been trying to say our entire lives, but what we could never find the words for.
The album was recorded four different times over a half-decade until Hutson finally found the right sound. Helming production was Phoebe Bridgers, another indie-folk giant whose June album Punisher deserves as much praise as Beginners does. But Hutson’s uniqueness and genius in simplicity stem from how Beginners evolved, and how much time Hutson seems to take on refining each track.
Hutson described in an interview how his songs begin with melodies, the lines and narrative taking him the longest, just about “forever.” Artists who can pack such concentrated meaning and food for thought ought to take their time on it, after all.
In lots of audible and visual art, endless examples of human interaction are so obviously fabricated that it takes the consumer out of the medium completely -- whether it’s computer-generated images in a movie or corny lines, the audience is removed from their immersion with a scratch to the head and a confused look.
But Hutson’s storytelling is seamless. You’re in the world of Beginners from the first line, in “Atheist,” one of the gentlest songs on the album, and it’s a compilation of situations and details you never thought to think about.
“On our initial descent into Chicago,
Katie leans over my lap, looking out the window
For a glimpse at the house we were kids in
She says ‘I hated it then, but now I kind of miss it,’
Shirts in the microwave, trash in the sink
Quarters in a mason jar for every time she smokes
She says ‘If we keep this up girls, in no time we’ll be broke”
The song continues its story in the same way much of the album does -- jumping between long-form stories to let small details linger, then resumes its varied painting: in this verse, a mundane, but nostalgic and vivid scene between Hutson and a girl.
“The 20th of October
Hair of the dog, a blanket on your shoulder
Reading the menu in an accent
Trying to get you laughing
She said some kids from the Christian school
Came to sing her a song
It went like, ‘Angels watching over us, all our little lives’
I don’t know if I buy it
But it does sound kind of nice...”
With every passing line, you start to pick up on what Hutson’s secret to success is. It’s easy to look around and see simple concepts at work around you -- hummingbirds hovering, cicadas buzzing, wood panels creaking -- but it’s infinitely more difficult to capture them, and capture the audience with how relatable these details can be. It happens around you, but you’d never think to think about them.
Beyond the simplistic elements, Hutson also touts a stripped-back mode of storytelling that only comes around every few years, decades, maybe. In interviews, he cites Elliott Smith and Bridgers as main inspirations, but a number of songs off Beginners fly higher than a substantial portion of even their work.
“Northsiders” is the crown jewel of the album, a sprawling story of Hutson’s youth, focused on him and another character -- who seems amalgamated from the many vividly normal people that must surround Hutson’s life -- and how they grow apart, together.
Elements of youth in storytelling often include naivety, but almost never in such plain fashion.
“We were so pretentious then
Didn’t trust the government
Said that we were communists
And thought that we invented it...”
And after that, one of the most flawless quatrains heard in this century, a perfect window into the finding-yourself phase of adult youth:
We went to different colleges...”
The two grew out of their own immaturity together, to an extent that makes the listener beg and wish for more on that part of the story. But Hutson’s selective in what he tells, leaving all-too-familiar dynamics between a duo in straightforward language, and leaving the rest up to us.
“But you said that we would always be
Branches on the same old tree
Reaching away from each other for eternity
And you know I can’t argue with that…”
The ending won’t be spoiled here, but it’s a slow turn of the knife, told in the same fashion as the rest of the album and leaving you with the knowledge that all things must go -- and that can be okay.
Beginners takes the life you have or have had before and presents it to you, on a clean porcelain plate with a lox bagel, over a picnic blanket, on top of a prairie hill in Rockwellian technicolor. As you listen, you’re reminded that the little things are the big things and you’ve got a lifetime to catch them. But, like most things, we’ll all probably forget to.