Big Sur was Jack Kerouac's anti-fame book. After years of carefree youth and unwanted fame, Kerouac spent some time alone in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Big Sur Cabin and used the down time to confront some of his most troubling emotional issues: a burgeoning problem with alcoholism, addiction, fear, and insecurity. He "dutifully records his ever-changing states of consciousness, which culminate in a powerful religious experience." Written after the fame of On The Road had worn off, Big Sur chronicles Kerouac's travels to San Francisco and his isolation at Big Sur.
Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard's new album, One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur, takes the ideas and text from Big Sur (Kerouac is listed as a co-writer on every song) and puts them to music "Mermaid Avenue" style. The result is a haunting mix of alt-country tunes that takes the manic energy out of Kerouac's prose and presents them as a road weary ode to life on the road and the lost promise of California.
Gibbard and Farrar switch off singing each of 12 songs on the album and the Gibbard songs are the much stronger of the bunch, at least the most catchy. Jay Farrar approaches the songs in the low-energy style of some of his lesser Son Volt recordings (Wide Swing Tremelo) while Gibbard, while also low-key, brings an emotional resonance not found on the Farrar songs.
The album opens with probably my favorite, California Zephyr, and if you've ever traveled cross country by bus or train (or the back seat of a car), this song will resonate:
Now I'm transcontinental
3000 miles from my home
I'm on the California Zephyr
Watching America roll by
As mentioned above, Kerouac confronted his raging alcoholism at Big Sur and this comes through in the song Final Horrors (sung by Farrar):
Frisco Skid Row - Hotel Room
I feel I've been betrayed my very birth
My guilt so deep I must be with the devil
Breathing without believing
My helpless hands are on fire
I look at the world with dead eyes
I'm like a city street drunk
In the Boweries of the world
I want to bury my face in my hands and moan for mercy
The world is looking at me
With hollow big red eyes
I'm at the point of disaster of the soul
Even worse than dawn is morning
The bright sun glaring in on my pain
You feel death for a good reason
I took the deep iodine death breath
I'm afraid to close my eyes
I throw a cancerous look on the world
I know the album sounds like a big bummer, but it's not. It's a solid, if slow, country album sung by two great singers and many of the songs sound like they could be outtakes from a Son Volt or Death Cab For Cutie recording session. If you're into alt-country and slow, lugubrious songs with a Jack Kerouac pedigree, then I would hardily encourage you to check out One Fast Move Or I'm Gone.