Fatherhood has inspired some of the most poignant songs in pop music. Whether inspired by love, hope, or tragedy, singers have turned to song to explore the relationship between fathers and their children. While many of the songs we readily remember about fathers speak to the longing and regret of fatherhood, the songs on St. Paul & The Broken Bones‘ new album are inspired by impending fatherhood. When he discovered he would be a father, lead singer Paul Janeway wrote letters to his future daughter, and these songs would eventually find their way onto the new record, Angels in Science Fiction. Like much of pop art in the last few years, the work on the album reflects Janeway’s powerful feelings of parenthood but also melancholy and angst that seems to have grown from social unease.
Building on the sound of St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ 2022 album, The Alien Coast, the music on this record is lovely and lilting, moving, and melancholic. While the sounds on the 2022 record were far more divergent and varying, there’s far more unity in the aural aesthetic of Angels in Science Fiction. As much as The Alien Coast may have looked to the world’s anxiety in 2022, mirroring that angst with a jangly psychedelic soul, the mood on this record is reflective and contemplative. Janeway speaks to his then-future child directly through song, sharing his hopes, fears, and love.
The album’s first track, “Chelsea”, speaks to Janeway’s intense swirl of feelings about being a dad. “I hope you get your mother’s eyes,” he sings in an Al Green-esque soulful croon. “I hope you get your mother’s hair.” He then exposes his vulnerability and fear by admitting that he hopes “Daddy never dies / Know it comes someday,” he muses, “hope it’s not soon.” The fear of death is universal. But fatherhood adds another layer of urgency to that fear. In Michael Schur’s sitcom, The Good Place, the fear of death is poetically summed up by this pithy line: “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” When Janeway expresses unease over death, that unease has become far more profound because being a father has given his life new meaning.
Janeway’s daughter is named Marigold, and she’s the inspiration and namesake for Angels in Science Fiction‘s closer. It’s fitting that the record’s sequencing bookends these two tributes to fatherhood. “Marigold” is a stately piano ballad in which Janeway speaks to his daughter, professing his undying love even if his work creates distance between them. Just as “Chelsea” exposes Janeway’s worry, “Marigold” does similar work in admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers. Despite his promises that “I’ll be home, so don’t you cry,” he also brings up his mortality, vowing that Marigold would be the last thing on his mind if he died. Both “Chelsea” and “Marigold” depict a father who is assured of his love for his daughter but unsure of what reality holds for them. It’s bracing and extremely exposed; the instinct for most is to depict parenthood as a series of permanence, but on this pair of tunes, we see that parenthood is fraught with uncertainty.
These songs have tender themes, reflected in the overall gentle sound of the record. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang, who worked with St. Paul & The Broken Bones on their last album, Angels in Science Fiction moves steadily, gently swaying as if propelled by a soft breeze. The members – Janeway, Jesse Phillips, Browan Lollar, Kevin Leon, Al Gamble, Allen Branstetter, Amari Ansari, Chad Fisher – all worked in various permutations on penning these tunes. In a song like “Oporto-Madrid Blvd.”, named after a street in Janeway’s native Birmingham, Alabama, Phillips, Lollar, Gamble, and Leon join Janeway to craft the sinewy, funk track. The lyrics use the metaphor of a twisted tree, representing perpetuity and endurance. The pastoral imagery returns on “Magnolia Trees”, which also harkens to their Southern roots, though the sun-dappled revelry is a marked juxtaposition to the strutting “Oporto-Madrid Blvd”.
As with any confessional pop record of the past couple of years, there will be allegorical allusions to death and destruction. So much mainstream pop art during the pandemic tried to make sense of a world forever changed by a global event. In “Easter Bunny”, St. Paul & The Broken Bones bring in apocalyptic imagery with sobering lyrics of “church bells ringing through the tornado winds” and “sirens singing shelter was where you should go”. There is a series of rhetorical questions, including “Did you hear the doctors tell us the world is gonna die?”
In “Lonely Love Song”, Janeway and Phillips write of lockdown, finding poetry and beauty in the monotony of quarantine. Janeway repeatedly sings of being bored yet somehow content with his love, professing, “I don’t care as long as I am bored with you in my arms” and wishing “we could be bored all the time.” When he confesses to being scared of dying, he’s terrified of “missing all the love that I give you.” In the lean, sleek funk of “Wolf in Rabbit Clothes”, the tight lyrics reflect the past few years’ growing paranoia and social unrest.
Angels in Science Fiction will provide some comfort, succor, and inspiration. Janeway’s complicated feelings of his looming fatherhood, paired with the uncertainty of the global context of the record’s composition and recording, make for a satisfying response to all the swirling, contradictory feelings we’ve been experiencing. The idea of being a father, bringing a child into a world as frightening as ours, is a sobering and potentially overwhelming thought. This music beautifully scores these feelings.