Listen to this track by musical pilgrim and singer-songwriter Jim White, along with his guest in fellow pop scribe Aimee Mann. It’s “Static On The Radio”, a cut as taken from White’s 2004 record, Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See.
Before he became a professional songwriter, Jim White was known by his birth name: Michael Davis Pratt. He had had a storied career in non-musical fields such as film school student, pro-surfer, preacher (he’d been in the Pentecostal church as a teen), and cabbie. He learned his instrument and his craft while laid up with a broken leg, watching game shows, and learning chord shapes. All the while, his gift for narrative was waiting to blossom, which eventually it certainly did in his songs, and in his prose fiction, too.
I think that mixture of writing disciplines on White’s part is what primarily feeds this song, which a series of vignettes that are decidedly nocturnal in nature and in execution. It’s almost a literal dark night of the soul kind of song. From where does it spring, and what does it say about White’s own experience, and maybe ours, too?
The thematic strands of this song connect with themes of loss, and with regret of things unsaid and undone. Perhaps this song is pulling from White’s own life. But, the most compelling thing about it is how easy it is to imprint one’s own experiences onto it, especially if one has lived a bit. In this song, the certainty of youth has given way to the humility of middle-age. It’s at this time of one’s life when the role of doubt seems to move up stage a bit more than it used to. The paradox that one often finds after living a while is that with more experience and knowledge comes less certainty that what you’ve come to believe really applies in the way you thought it did, if at all. Maybe this idea found in this song springs from White’s time in the church, and in a segment of faith where doubt is looked upon as a moral shortcoming. Maybe this is why the tune seems to be dressed in noirish soundscapes, a veritable soundtrack for troubled thoughts upon waking in the wee hours of the morning, or late at night.
Across it’s running time, Aimee Mann’s duel lead voice is like the voice of conscience telling the narrator that what he’s held as gospel is merely an incomplete and even inadequate attempt to understand the mysterious workings of existence; just static on his particular radio, and maybe on all of our radios. With that in mind, this song is about about a quiet, undramatic, yet persistent crisis of faith that one becomes aware of only in increments. But, it’s also about wisdom in a sense, too; that certainty about anything is for those who haven’t acknowledged the complexity and the profundity of what it means to be alive. To recognize one’s place in the world is to be confronted by contradiction, moral ambiguity, and the incomplete pictures we get when we draw on our limited resources to try to define existence in any universal way.
These kinds of realizations push people in all kinds of directions, sometimes toward faith, or sometimes away from it. But, in this song, it’s the experience of being humbled by life, of having one’s certainty removed that is the measure of any sort of wisdom we gain, whichever direction we choose to take afterwards. In many ways, and certainly in many faith traditions, this is the beginning of a path, and not an end to one.
For more about Jim White, have gander at this interview in which he talks about his origins as a songwriter, his work with other artists, and his approach to making records.