Copeland Week: Revisiting You Are My Sunshine


This piece is part four 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. 

Copeland’s progression over the course of its career is impressive not only because of the sheer increase in quality over the years (from an already fantastic starting point), but also because of the band’s ability to hang on to a core sound all the while, in such a way that the band who made Beneath Medicine Tree is clearly the same band who made You Are My Sunshine—the raw materials, the musical sensibilities, the distinctly Copeland fingerprint is never obscured or smudged, but refined. With each album, the band has come closer and closer to perfecting its sound. You Are My Sunshine, Copeland’s fourth full-length album, is, as of today, 13 November 2014, the best and most definitive representation of the band that is available to the general public. Consistently breathtaking, moving, and invigorating, You Are My Sunshine is the kind of album most bands never even get close to achieving.

You Are My Sunshine is the daytime to Eat, Sleep, Repeat’s nighttime, striking the absolute perfect balance between the intricacy of that album, the groove and intensity of In Motion, and the sheer emotional weight of Beneath Medicine Tree. All of this is encapsulated spectacularly in the album’s opening number (and my personal favorite Copeland song), “Should You Return.” Aaron Marsh’s opening vocal performance sounds otherworldly, the album’s first lines simultaneously immensely affective and abnormally ambiguous:

You see the night is all I have to make me feel,

And all I want is just a love to make it hurt.

Cause all I need is something fine to make me lose.

Now it’s a funny way I find myself with you.

You Are My Sunshine, as a whole, deals with understanding why we become the people we are. In “Should You Return,” the narrator considers what exactly drives him to do the things he does, love the people he loves, feel the way he feels. He searches for stability, for safety and self-assuredness, after the rug is pulled out from under him so many times. “Should You Return” is the sonic equivalent of planting two feet on the ground in the morning, stretching your arms, getting that one last yawn out, and facing the world. It moves slowly, softly at its outset, a playful bass line and sunny mellotron hum along as the narrator considers all of the concrete pieces of his life—the songs, the lover, the time he has—and attempts to link them together. The song pauses ever so slightly, falls to a dulcet flatland of sound…a deep breath before the curtains are thrown open, and the sun shines through the window as the song becomes thicker and thicker, more orchestral and surrounding and overwhelming as the truth is accepted, the situation clear—“If you’re unhappy still/I will be hanging on your line/should you return.” The narrator will wait for the one he loves—because his safety and his happiness lie with them, with the knowledge that he is doing everything he can to make his loved one content.

In the narrative sense, You Are My Sunshine is different from Copeland’s previous three albums in that the story being told has less to do with the narrator understanding himself and more to do with the narrator understanding the one he loves. In “The Grey Man,” the narrator seems to be advising the one he loves, who seems to have given up on themselves: “Don’t worry now, it’s all erased/burned to grey and white.” He reminds the other person, over and over, that no matter how vast the number of failures, they have to keep fighting for what will make them happy: “you’ve got to run right back to the start.” This song also introduces another trend that arises many more times over the course of You Are My Sunshine—the blurred lines of who exactly the “you” in the songs is addressing. In “The Grey Man,” the narrator switches back and forth, exchanging the “to the start” in the refrain with “to her arms” to perhaps refer to his female love. This multiplicity of “you” perhaps suggests that the narrator sees himself in the person he is addressing in the song, thus advising the other person just as much as he is advising himself.

This continues throughout the course of the album—he fears the progress of the other person is stalled in the upward slithering “Good Morning Fire Eater,” perhaps reminded of a time (maybe even documented in the earlier three Copeland albums) when he himself felt stuck in recoil: “I’m afraid you’ve stopped to lick your wounds/dear, do you know;” remembers fever dreams and willful ignorance of problems as he is reminded of them in his love in “Chin Up:” “watching a strange show/play out in your head/but you were moving somehow.”

The true profession of love comes in the form of the swirling crescendo of “On The Safest Ledge,” in which the narrator actively promises the one he loves that he will be there for them, that he understands them and will do his best to make everything better: “Could you be happy to fall like a stone/if you’d land right here safe in my arms?” Its tentative in the way it’s proposed, but slowly becomes more self-assured as the chorus becomes more grandiose. The wall of sound comes down abruptly at the end of the song, and Marsh leaves us with an unaccompanied “it’s fine,” as if the conviction of the narrator in his ability to bear the weight of his loved one’s troubles is diminished in the final moment. This comes through in “Not Allowed” in which the communion is found to be uneven: “you’re not allowed to feel nothing…I’m not allowed to be sad.” The basis for the relationship falls apart in a flash.

“Strange and Unprepared” finds the narrator lonely—the song is a bare-bones combination of Marsh and a piano. In the song, the narrator comes to understand that another person’s experiences cannot simply be explained in terms of his own—“you never feel good or bad, only strange and unprepared/’cause I never see you coming or you leaving.” He comes to realize that he can never fully understand a situation that he is not in himself, can never fully know what it’s like to live through an experience that is not his own. In saying he understands the problems his loved one is encountering, he assumed that he was ahead of the game, that because he had been through something similar he knows how it all will end, knows the “answers” to everything. In “Strange and Unprepared,” he realizes that he was wrong in this. He comes to understand that he cannot magically solve another person’s problems; all he can really do is be there to support them through it. But he laments that he has realized this too late to save the relationship he had (“but now we’ll always never know…”).

The album closes with “Not So Tough Found Out,” a ten-minute epic—the mountains and valleys of the song repeated as consistently as the lyrical content, all of the same elements coming around again in a natural, patient progression resembling déjà vu. All of the lessons that the narrator learns, that we all learn, must arise from moments of wrongness. In mistake and failure, we become stronger, smarter, and more mature. It will happen again and again, continuously throughout our lives. Because of this, we can never assume that we know everything, that we have it all figured out. In hindsight, it seems simple, the lessons we learn (“not so tough, found out”), but then we hit another roadblock, stumble again (“not so strong, lost out”) and have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start over and not forget what we’ve learned (“twice as sweet, come round”). As we go through all of this, we hold onto the memories of the things that made us feel safe and happy…use all of our wisdom to get ourselves back to that feeling (“feels so warm, sun fire”). Marsh, through all of this, is calm, monotoned, understated—the narrator accepts all of this as the nature of life, of growing up. He lets the cycle take its course, becoming a little bit stronger each time he rises and falls. He waits to feel the sunshine once again.

Following up a masterpiece like You Are My Sunshine is a daunting task—it was incredibly justified for Copeland to let its story rest here for six long years. The anticipation and bar set for Ixora is astronomical, but if anyone can produce a worthy fifth chapter to an already incredible catalog of work, it’s this band. Who knows, Copeland might even best itself once again.

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

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