Folk singer Tom Paxton has always come across as a sentimentalist, even when singing protest songs, and that’s his overriding persona on the love-song collection Comedians & Angels. Over the decades he’s also written his fair share of love songs, so an album entirely made up of love songs, old and new, is not much of a stretch. Still, on Comedians & Angels he attempts to keep the definition of love inclusive, more open than closed. Though there are no protest songs per se, he begins the album with a love song, “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain”, where love is expressed through a good old-fashioned peace march. Older than that is his source material for the chorus, a Bible verse. It’s the one song on the album that implicitly suggests that the entirety of Paxton’s work over the years has, in some basic sense, been love songs.
“How Beautiful Upon the Mountain” also contains a trace of dewy-eyed nostalgia for the political activism of the past, with its reference to the civil-rights movement: “‘Cross the bridge at Selma you came marching side by side / in your eyes, a new world on the way”. It isn’t clear what has happened to that promise of a new world, though the last verse suggests it’s still a promise, that the generations to come have continued the same march for change. Still, a romantic sense of the past lingers, as it does in the tribute to friends that gives the album its title, and in other small corners of the album.
In many of the album’s songs, the “new world” is one of domestic bliss, of love solidified and changed through the passing of time. “Bad Old Days” and “Reason to Be” each start with an observation of a lover asleep, used as inspiration. In the first it leads to pondering of the way life got better over time, and how those years have blurred together because of it. Devotion over time is the core, too, of “Reason to Be”, a proclamation of love as a reason to exist. The past is part of the fabric here. On “The First Song Is for You”, he declares that every song he has written has started with her. On “Bad Old Days” he wonders, “Was it 16 years ago / Or was it yesterday / That you came and chased my bad old days away?”
But a present-tense scene of domestic life is just as prevalent. “Dance in the Kitchen” is a playful snapshot; “Jennifer and Kate” a Hallmark Card to Paxton’s daughters. The CD booklet includes photos of his daughters, his wife, his grandchildren. “You Are Love” takes that same story of domestic tranquility and puts a spiritual spin on it. “What a Friend You Are”—with its preschool lyric “If I had a golden star / I’d pin it on you”, a reminder of the children’s albums Paxton has released—is a song of devotion that maybe could have a similar spiritual bent, though just as easily could be another song for his wife, or a song for his musician friends, who are also present in the booklet’s photo album.
For all of the odes to the blissfulness of everyday life, Comedians & Angels also contains a longing for escape, for adventure, though always within a certain framework of safety. In “Out on the Ocean”, Paxton imagines sailing away by himself for a while, though with the knowledge that he has a secure home of love to return to. As another song puts it, “Home to me is anywhere you are”. “And if It’s Not True”, which has a European flair to it, is all about imagining your way into other places and times. Again, it’s easy to do from a place of comfort: “And if it’s not true / What harm can it do? / I know what I know / I go where I go”. To an extent, this imagining is tied in with the past as well. It connects with the title track, where he remembers his friends and the times they shared together. Ultimately, the album looks to the past as often as it dreams, and the two are really one and the same. Musically, its heart also lies with the folk singers of the past, with the friends he started out with in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, and those he has played and sung with since. Constrained by songwriting structures and habits picked up decades ago, it’s a love letter to those fellow folk-singers as much as to his family.
// Notes from the Road
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