Listen to this track by Kelowna, British Columbia folk-and-psych-pop purveyors The Grapes of Wrath. It’s “All The Things I Wasn’t”, the lead single from their 1989 album Now and Again, their third and most commercially successful album to date. At barely two minutes and not exactly fitting in with the over-the-top production style which was rampant at the time, this tune was an unlikely top twenty hit in Canada. Even the band weren’t convinced that it would do the business for them after their label insisted it be a single. I guess sometimes “the money” is right. Stopped clocks and all that.
This was a big tune, seeming to channel a late-sixties folk rock vibe and full of images of isolation and loss. The warmth of the production which is marked by restraint and space that anticipated the very same that would be very common in the following decade of the 1990s, and reflecting what I consider to be a golden age in Canadian pop music from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties, with many bands putting out unique records that also garnered serious radio play. This tune certainly appealed to my post-teen sensibilities. There’s something about the onset of early adulthood that brings out the melancholy in a lot of people, I suppose. And this song has melancholy to spare.
I think if you’d asked me at the time what this song was literally about, I might have been hard-pressed to tell you. That would have been missing the point anyway. The fact is, this tune and the rest of this album represented something very personal, and at a crucial time in my own life.
When this record came out, I was on the verge of leaving my hometown, off for post-secondary education in Toronto. That was more than a purely vocational move on my part. It was the beginning of my essential journey to self-discovery. “All The Things I Wasn’t” was part of my soundtrack to that journey, sounding sombre in places, and reflecting the bittersweetness that often follows when you leave a chapter of your life behind in pursuit of the next one. Importantly, this song and the rest of the album accompanied me in my little yellow walkman on a trip across the country by the next year. It served as a part of my film score to the rolling and changing landscapes that characterize the huge and sometimes overwhelming scale of this place called Canada. Even today, I conflate the literal and spiritual journeys I took then just because they happened around the same time. This of course gives way to whole new layers of meaning. “All The Things I Wasn’t” seems to speak to both.
The song itself is wrapped in a kind of insular warmth, contrasted to the lyrics which evoke a kind of emotional exposure. Contrast like that is pretty hard to resist! This is thanks to writer Kevin Kane’s stark guitar figure and hushed vocal style against the richness of cellist Jane Scarpantoni‘s aural backdrop that makes this song sound orchestral and minimalist all at the same time. It’s wonderfully full of the white sky starkness of late-sixties and early seventies folk rock and chamber pop that seemed to hint at the earliest memories of childhood, and therefore making it easy for a twenty-year old me to pick up the thread of my own personal narrative. One of the great things about this song is that it’s open enough to interpretation to lend space for the listener to superimpose their own story onto it. That’s certainly how I reacted to it. Looking back, those perceived themes of isolation and loss were not lost on me, even though as a twenty and twenty one year old, I would have been hard-pressed to explain in what way they were true for me. Yet, they certainly were.
Many of the lines in this song reflected my state of mind at the time, although once again if you’d asked me about it directly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on exactly why. At the time, I was shaking off the shackles of a life at home under a certain set of rules, and trying to establish a framework for myself outside of them as an independent person. There was a sense of disconnection for me at the time, trying to examine certain social and philosophical structures to which I had previous clung. There came a point when I needed to see whether those constraints stood up to scrutiny when tested out in the world beyond the boundaries of my safe hometown. By the end of the 1980s and into the next decade, those foundations were beginning to show serious signs of wear. When that happens, it’s like drinking a potent cocktail of excitement and terror as the world is revealed to be much more complex and mysterious than previously considered.
Maybe this is just a variation of a lot of people’s journeys into adulthood. But “All the Things I Wasn’t” and lines like : “Hours of hiding spent apart/The Wall was all we shared”, and “Unlike you there’s no way I could spend forever there …” seemed very fitting to my restlessness of spirit as a young man who leaned on the side of being very earnest, and carrying a lot of biases and preconceptions that I would have to lay by the wayside in the ensuing years. Meanwhile, this song certainly proves that it is very often the sombre and the blue that reveals the most meaning for me, especially in periods of transition. Even now, it’s these kinds of themes that fascinate and attract me the most in art, and especially in pop music. Sometimes it’s these images and suggestions of themes that remind many of us not that the world is a dark and lonely place (although at times it certainly is …) but rather the opposite; that we’re not alone in struggling to find meaning in a morally ambiguous world, even as we cast off the accouterments of our past that no longer serve us.
After a period apart after their late-eighties-early-nineties heyday, The Grapes of Wrath reunited with all three original members in 2010 and are an active band today. Learn more about them at grapesofwrath.ca.
For more on “All The Things I Wasn’t”, how it was written and arranged and how the music video came to be, check out this video.