When Indiana editor John Soule uttered the phrase “Go West, Young Man,” later made famous through the words of Horace Greeley, the United States was still largely a rugged, undeveloped country. A man could pack his worldly belongings in a small trunk and head west to create a homestead and make his own fortune. The work was hard, the days and nights long and often cold, but the spirit of starting fresh, beholden to no one, is one that has come to rest in the collective memory of all Americans.
More than a hundred years later, the West of Greeley’s time has given way to megalopolises such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas and Denver. But though these cities might have all the amenities of modern technology, people are still seeking the promise of a new beginning, a chance to heal and be reborn through wide, open spaces and hard work.
First chronicled in the cowboy poetry of ranchers and trailhands, these themes have marked some of the best songwriters ever to pen a lyric. Musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have “gone West” on albums such as Nebraska and Harvest, respectively, while songwriters like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris further defined the “West as metaphor” school of songwriting. Now, born out of the ashes of slowcore and emo comes Canyon, the latest group to tackle the larger themes behind Soule’s directive.
Canyon began in 1999 in Washington, D.C., when five musicians, dissatisfied with their current projects, decided to make a complete philosophical break with the emo/hardcore ethos of D.C.
“Like any town in the United States, there’s a life that outsiders never see (and) never breaks to other cities,” says Canyon bassist Evan Berodt. “Signature D.C. punk and emo is just a fiction for other towns.”
Released late in 2002 on New York-based Gern Blandsten Records, Canyon’s Empty Rooms is a mammoth statement of isolation and heartbreak, delivered through the haunting sounds of steel guitar, harmonica, Fender Rhodes and the yearning, wistful vocal delivery of John Wall. Firmly rooted in the tradition of American folk-rock, Canyon’s tunes are slow-tempo ballads peppered by fierce sonic assaults.
Canyon delivers on the promise of what emo could — and should — have been. Call it emo for grown-ups. The lyrics are arcane and obtuse enough to be literate, the music sparse and overwhelming at the same time. In the place where your head swirls, Canyon exists.
Wall, the founder of Slowdime Records (on which the group’s self-titled debut was released in 2001), was living in the world of D.C. emo but remained ultimately untouched by the crushing weight of the limits imposed by the genre. Instead, with Canyon, he took to the road on a grueling touring schedule that found the band crisscrossing the States with fellow travelers Califone, Golden and Higher Burning Fire. As Greeley and Soule would say, the young band went West.
“To see our United States together from a van and on stages and floors is more hard living and freedom than you can know in your one lonely town,” Berodt says. “(It’s like) the tornado in the Wizard of Oz.”
Live, Canyon is like a Gypsy dance, creating situational vignettes that depend on the audience’s connection to the music. A listener’s mind moves along on the sea of the lyrics, absorbing the feel of what Wall is saying, wedding it to their own thoughts. It’s hard to tell when dreams stop and reality begins in these moments, as Berodt would agree, yet nothing stops the forward momentum created by inertia – the insatiable desire to get away from it all while still remaining physically present.
“Listen (to the music) and you’ll hear stories,” Berodt says. “Our audience is actively absorbing and changing our stories.”
But with all artistic freedom, there comes a price.
“Like any piece of art, we have to work together,” Berodt acknowledges. “So it’s a struggle for harmony and not to … bite or erase each other.”
Coming to terms with history, exploring the rich texture of ballads — these are the things songs such as “Radio Driver” and “Sleepwalker” accomplish. As Young and Springsteen found out, it’s the wide, open spaces — the promise of the West — that make a man, or in this case, a band, whole again.