The year 2010 was filled with more hardships than my little, still-technically-teenage heart could bear: I had an unrequited crush on a girl that lingered far longer than something like that ideally would; my anxious ticks, occasional bad days, and bouts of irritability erupted into perpetual panic and interminable frustration and sadness; I had just turned 18 and graduated from high school, despite concerns that I wouldn’t, and was suddenly obliged to shoulder unfamiliar responsibilities; and my mom was diagnosed with a tumor in her lung that she subsequently had to undergo rather risky surgery in order to to get removed.
I first became aware of Jason Clackley in the midst of all this, firsthand, and take pride in knowing I was charmingly early to the party — it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this record was one of the things that helped me get through all of my new-to-adulthood angst (which was being compounded by some pretty legitimate trauma). I saw him and his backing band, the Exquisites, perform at a fairly inglorious all-ages venue, on a weekday, to a largely inattentive audience (although the people who were there and paying attention, myself included, were fixated). But the uncompromising nature of the performance, despite all these facts, only served to make it that much more transcendent. “Playing to the room?” Cutting the set short? Breaking down in a huff? Any sort of concession like that will only serve to null the otherworldliness of your performance (considering you’re great) that those three or four people who were paying attention were picking up on, a reality Clackley is obviously aware of.
After that show, I bought To the Few and Far Between, and it became frequent, often exclusive, listening from spring until fall. It helped illuminate the gloomy, grey summer after high school and preceding, well, the rest of my life. I would project sentiments expressed in the song’s lyrics, as one tends to do with any great song, onto miserable events occurring in my own life. And I wondered: How come so few people know who this pop/punk/emo/singer-songwriter savant is? How come he isn’t playing on Letterman? How can Steven Tyler be recognized by Rolling Stone as one of the best singers of all time while Jason Clackley’s voice has truthfully given me goosebumps and is wriggling in fucking obscurity? These questions could all probably be answered by Clackley’s adherence to an unambitious, DIY ethos, yet it almost seems irresponsible (think: Spiderman) that somebody with his talent wouldn’t strive skyward. But regardless of how many people are or are not listening: To the Few and Far Between is a seriously great record.
Opening track “I Can See” is about as good as an album-opener gets, and it seems like the sort of song that was written specifically for the purpose of “kicking things off”. Infinitely more virile than anything the Foo Fighters have released in ages, it could also be a great rock single, if such a thing even existed anymore (or more specifically, if the “rock single” hadn’t already become tarnished/monopolized by bands like Seether and Nickelback). It’s one of those “hit” things — one of those songs where every element, lyric, and melodic thought coalesce perfectly. Even the self-conscious faux-grind in the beginning of the song and the semi-awkward break toward the middle serve their purpose, and lines like “I just don’t measure up / to anything, nothing at all” prove once and for all that people who really hate themselves probably don’t have the energy to hide it behind ostentatious metaphor (I’m tempted to say “Eat your heart out, Conor Oberst,” but I don’t want to give him another idea for a song); and the self-evidently nostalgic “Remember when we were young?” is even more moving pinned right up against that discordant, pressure-drop of a chord change. The song stops on a dime, and the dust settles.
The second track, “Windows Open Wide”, is a quiet (in comparison) mostly-acoustic number beginning with a vocal pickup (“Te window’s open wide”) demonstrating Clackley’s range as a vocalist (from dirt-nasty to saccharine-sweet, all within the same song), before the gently-strummed acoustic guitar enters. Eventually strings and electric guitars creep in one after another, all playing gentle, independent melodies which supplement Clackley’s voice and guitar immaculately, before the cathartic, choreutic final line — and then, frustratingly, like an incomplete sneeze, the energy subtly discharges, every individual instrument fizzling into a distance irresolutely.
“Oh Josie” is another knockout, and another rollicking full-band affair — also beginning with just Clackley and a guitar, the song suddenly transforms into a formidable pop-punk song (with undeniable Bacharach/girl group overtones — not a device your average Tom Gabel is likely to employ). The lyrics perfectly capture the feeling of attempting to bottle and preserve a decaying, irrevocably-doomed relationship (“And we pushed along / what couldn’t mend”). The song is addressed to “Josie”, and although the precise thing that tore the two foregone lovers apart is unclear in the song’s lyrics, specificity isn’t necessary in getting the message across: The narrator knows it’s over, that Josie is inconsolable, that nothing will change, but is apologizing once more anyway, perhaps for his own sake and spiritual restoration. Maybe it’s a letter that was never even sent.
The next few tracks are all pleasant, if a little unexciting and dragging at periods, acoustic tunes. Too languid to be characterized as “folk-punk” yet lyrically not grief-stricken to the point where an Elliot Smith comparison could be justified, these songs almost sound like an ode to classic singer-songwriters (I can close my eyes and imagine “Waking Up To Nothing” and “Dearest One” as Loudon Wainwright III numbers). Yet the real standout among the songs that are apart of this acoustic “breather” section is the vinyl-exclusive track, the pensive “Till I’m Dead”, and the fact that it isn’t included on the CD version of the album is nearly-criminal (I’m guessing Clackley knows how good it is and is using it as vinyl-bait, but people without record players deserve to hear it, too). It’s simultaneously dismal and uplifting, the sort of song that only somebody who has experienced intense sadness and beauty — who is capable of identifying the occasional beauty in sadness — can produce. Stylistically, it could fit right in on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
The next full-band tack, “Deafening Sound”, is very similar to I “Can See” and almost feels like its continuation — still a quality track, though lacking the anthemic “oomph” and succinctness of “I Can See”. And while closer “Wave Of Emotion” may be lyrically insubstantial, the sheer volume of the thing is terrific, and I don’t think the album could end any better way. It’s Clackley’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Only In Dreams,” and fittingly, it ends with the same diffident “rawk”-grind that starts the album off with track one.
In a way, To The Few and Far Between is a concept album. Yeah, yeah, there’s a possibility all the songs are about the fantastic Josie, but that’s not all — there’s at least one line in most all of the tracks that allude to the ephemeral beauty and joy in life. Anything I’ve described in these songs that might sound cliche isn’t because these tropes are timeless and Clackley’s passion is genuine. It’s a great rock and roll record, one that deserves to be listened to at deafening volume. Jason Clackley’s leanings as a singer and songwriter are equal part Blake Schwarzenbach, Bob Mould, and Ronnie Spector, and that’s probably the only time I’ll say that about anyone, ever. His vision is few and far between.