Title Bout: Tin Man

Tin Man: The Avett Brothers vs. Future Islands

The Everyman is tried and true for writers past, present, or future, and its endless iterations make for fresh takes on a classic conceit. A few months ago I took a look at what Modern Man might mean when spread across a couple decades. Now let’s take another (hollow) figure from our cultural mythology and see how he gets interpreted. These next songs were released not decades from each other, but merely one year apart.

The Avett Brothers’ accessible arrangements have helped them ride the renewal of popular folk music, and it was their 2009 disc I And Love And You which widened their reach considerably. The album is less something with directional intent and more just a collection of solid songs, so it doesn’t matter where exactly any of the individual tunes land. “Tin Man” comes in during the last third, after a ponderous piano ballad, picking up the mood with a few happy acoustic chords and wasting no time in getting to the root of the song: “You can’t be like me/ But be happy that you can’t/ I see pain but I don’t feel it/ I am like the old Tin Man.” It’s nice to hear The Avett Brothers go a bit more introspective here without focusing on romantic love exclusively, as they do on almost all the album’s tracks. The song bounces along to its chorus “I miss that feelin’ of feelin’,” signaling that the man was whole in the past but is now firmly in his heartless present. He even reminisces about the negative–“I felt loneliness and shame”–as he realizes that even that was better than feeling nothing. The straightforward guitars are punctuated by rueful trombone notes that add a bit of pathetic amusement to this poppy piece. It’s always fun to hear the Bros. cut loose a little bit on the vocals: a well-placed “whoa” or “yeah” flavors their otherwise too-perfect compositions. All in all, the song is a competent attempt at studying the heart’s absence, but also a bright and safe one.

Future Islands lands somewhere near the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum, but this is a good song for starters. Coming in at number three of nine songs, it’s the centerpiece to their album In Evening Air. The band is big on drum backbones, and the steady bass drum opens this track before it is quickly joined by a descending electronic melody that itself could have some steel drum DNA. More intricate drumwork is put on top of that, before everything bows at the entrance of Samuel T. Herring’s words: “You couldn’t possibly know how much you meant to me/ You couldn’t honestly look inside my tarot/ You couldn’t possibly find it in your heart to forgive me/ You are the savage sun and Scarecrow.” I love the clever use of one of the Tin Man’s companions, but we have to stop a moment to acknowledge the singer’s voice. It’s rough and low and theatrical, and definitely takes some getting used to. But as the song unfolds, you realize the story couldn’t be delivered any other way. Especially as the chorus comes in at a tangible shift: the bass buzzes and the melody takes on a seriousness. Everything moodily drops for the lines: “And time goes by/ And you’ve got a lot to learn in your life/ And the heart’s not inside/ And I’ve got to find the one that’s just right.” So as in the Avett Bros. song, our Tin Man is the central narrator looking for a piece that fits. I have to give credit to a song that takes lyrics which could come off as blandly direct–“Time goes by…You’ve got a lot to learn in your life”–and turns them into the most serious, important words you’ve heard in a while. The song lifts for another verse, then drops again into a double chorus where the singer can barely restrain his urgency. There is a quick breather where we finally get our protagonist by name, a simple “I am the Tin Man.” Then another swell built over an excellently buzzing bass guitar lets loose, and a few more proclamations of “I am the Tin Man” make that statement heartfelt and decisive. For a song about something missing, there’s so much here to be filled with.

Winner: This one was over before it began. The Future Islands song tore through my 2011 summer like a bright golden beam. I remember the thrill of discovery the first time I heard it, which gave me one of those boosts (needed every few years or so) to keep seeking out new music. And the song still unlocks itself: only now did I realize that the opening drum conjures a quickly beating heart.

The Avett Brothers – Tin Man (2009) – (audio)

Future Islands – Tin Man (2010) – (video)

I dug up an old sketch this time, which I think was the progenitor of the sketch ideas for all these Title Bouts. I present…the Tin Man!

Tin Man

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