Copeland Week: Revisiting Beneath Medicine Tree


This piece is part one of what I’m calling “Copeland Week,” a look back at Copeland’s discography in preparation for the release of Ixora on November 24. Currently, I’m researching the narrativity of popular music, so I’m letting a lot of that line of thinking bleed into these blogs. 

It is undeniable that the Florida-native Copeland has come incredibly far in its four (soon to be five)-album career span. From straightforward but delicate pop-rock anthems to lush, nuanced musical palates, hospital beds and fields of white flowers to safe ledges and airplanes—Copeland’s story has flourished patiently and surely…each chapter distinctly more interesting and impressive than the last; each chapter representing another step in the trek towards adulthood, towards a kind of self-actualization slowly coming to fruition in musical evolution and refinement.

This story begins with tragedy. Beneath Medicine Tree, released in 2003, runs the gamut of formative devastation—from death in the family to loss of love, and all of the regret and prevailing vitality that shines through it all, Beneath Medicine Tree is the sound of approaching adolescence.

Although Medicine Tree is Copeland’s least accomplished work, it still radiates beauty, and sets the scene perfectly for what was to come over the next ten years of the band’s career. Opener “Brightest” is the ideal introduction to Aaron Marsh’s soft, effortlessly evocative vocal style, taking charge over a lonely piano line. Isolated and melancholy in its naiveté and nostalgia, Marsh pines in regret: “I just know that she warms my heart/ and knows what all my imperfections are.” Marsh’s smooth glide into falsetto on the “she” is equally spectral and devastating, indicating along with the present tense a lasting romantic connection in contrast to the past tensed following lines: “she said that I was the brightest little firefly in her jar.” Was. And this is how Beneath Medicine Tree operates as a whole—regretting moments and feelings and loved ones passed in a struggle to come to terms with the inevitable fleetingness of certain aspects of life in general.

In our younger years (which I’ve yet to escape, I know), overcoming our personal tragedies seems impossible—it’s impossible for us to just let go of some of these lost feelings, whether they pass away across time, distance, or worlds. One of the best parts of Beneath Medicine Tree is its illustration of the final, last cathartic moment we all must finally meet in order for us to move on to new, probably better portions of our lives. The album’s centerpieces, “When Paula Sparks” and “California,” are climactic in this way—both play off of each other and mutually build up to an energetic and musically moving moment in which acceptance of these feelings of desperation in the wake of loss is reached in the form of a melodic pronouncement of “ever since you went away…I miss you more every day” in “Paula,” and a wordless release in “California’s” extended, cleansing outro.

The remainder of the album stays true to this release in its final songs. “Coffee” (a personal favorite of mine) and “Walking Downtown” (a personal favorite of nobody’s except for my sister) convey a sort of in-the-moment attitude not apparent in the album’s preceding tracks. “Coffee” is a rolling, meandering song in which Marsh’s vocal performance is as wistful as the lyrics and music, a sort of smirking, content attitude of “let’s-see-where-the-night-takes-us” present in the rolling, coffee shop-ready (ahem) drum line and delivery of “if it’s not too late for coffee, I’ll be at your place in ten/ we’ll hit that all-night diner, and then we’ll see…” That we’ll see is explained in the following “Walking Downtown,” the most upbeat and immediate song on Medicine Tree, in which the night becomes memorable for the narrator and company. After all of the caffeine consumed in “Coffee,” “Walking Downtown” sounds all hopped up, excited to be in the moment, as crashing, relatively loud guitars accompany a whooping yell of “we were walking downtown!” An excitement akin to spending a night out with close friends or family—of being in that moment and knowing you’re happier than you’ve been in a long time, and knowing that you won’t forget this instance of soft epiphany.

The album’s closing “When Finally Set Free” is the resonant aftermath of that evening, an understanding that the good feeling is here for now—but the hardship and the difficulty that comes with being alive will return in greater numbers. A quieter, resonant moment on Copeland’s first album, “When Finally Set Free” seems to rise and rise as the repeated line burns into remembrance—a lesson all adults will learn in time: “Feel the pain, teaching us how much more we can take…we have time to start all over again.” And just as the song seems to be inching toward the kind of climactic moment heard in “When Paula Sparks” and “California,” all of the orchestral elements die away and we are left with an acoustic guitar line just as lonely as the piano at the beginning of “Brightest.” The sound of a smile on the narrator’s face, looking back at all they’ve been through, and a sigh of momentary accomplishment in their ability to overcome it all, and how small it all seems in hindsight. The atmosphere and restraint exhibited on “When Finally Set Free” give insight to the band’s future output—a fitting conclusion for an album that yearns to escape the past and look forward to what may come next.

Copeland’s first album since 2008, Ixora, comes out November 24. iTunes pre-order.

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