I don’t know about you, but I’ve been rather stressed lately. It’s manageable, but the combination of existential dread from COVID-19, the fear that my birthday present will be a contested presidential election that destroys democracy in the United States, and general college stuff has me a little tense.
To unwind, I’ve been listening to my comfort album. The album that helps me relax and forget about all the bullshit in the world right now. For me, that’s “In Between Dreams” by Jack Johnson.
The entire album carries an intentional simplicity. The instrumentals are pretty much a single acoustic guitar, drum set, and bass. A simple duet between Johnson’s soothing voice and his gentle guitar makes up most of the sound on the album, and makes the tracks feel personal in a way that heavy club beats simply can’t replicate. Two of the songs are under two minutes long, and only the UK bonus track exceeds four minutes. The short songs are more relatable than layers of synths and big bands would, and easy to sing along to.
Love, loss, heartbreak, human nature are Johnson’s topics — the same sorts of things as any other artist. But Johnson accepts these things rather than railing or ranting. He accepts the world as it is, and tries to make the best of it. His music speaks to me not only because of its gentle sound, but because of its gentle ideas. People can be good, love is about more than fire, and life would be better if we all talked things out a little more.
The third track, “Banana Pancakes,” is a cottage-core anthem. The song is more or less about the singer wanting his love to stay in, because it’s raining outside and it’s so much more pleasant to spend the day cuddling in bed than anything else. The whole song is a plea to his lover to take a moment, relax under the covers, and forget about the world. Have a late morning and a special breakfast. It’s gentle, and intimate, and tooth-achingly sweet. And it gives me hope that we could all one day find happiness in each other instead of at each others’ expense. It follows in the footsteps of the Beatles’ “Something,” by focusing on the gentle, affectionate part of love rather than the fiery passion that’s so popular today. As much as “WAP” is a song about women’s sexual empowerment, and that’s a good thing, “Banana Pancakes” is a song about how love and sex don’t have to be about power at all.
In “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” Johnson moves on from the sweet parts of love to the more difficult. This one is about unrequited love, but instead of pain, or anger at the fact that his love isn’t returned, he simply accepts it. “The Lord knows that this world is cruel / And I ain’t the Lord, no I’m just a fool / Learning loving somebody don’t make them love you.”
There’s pain in his voice as he sings, but he doesn’t place the blame on anyone but himself, and even then he accepts that it’s just the way of the world, and life will go on. Johnson isn’t happy about the situation, but he recognizes that he doesn’t have a right to anyone else’s love. That’s an idea that a lot of people could use in their lives.
“If I Could” is another song that takes a topic normally full of angst, and works through it calmly. The song opens with a newborn baby and a friend’s terminal diagnosis. Most songs about loss are full of angst and sorrow, but this one is about accepting loss as an inevitability, and continuing despite it. Johnson sings about how he wishes he could prevent the baby from suffering in this hard world, and how he wishes he could have more time with his friend. But in the end he accepts that he can’t do those things. He has to shield the child where he can, remember his friend fondly, and accept his best as enough.
I could go into even more detail about any of the songs on the album, but their message is the same: Life has its ups and downs, but we should/can learn to live with them, and find happiness rather than focusing on pain. Happiness doesn’t have to come from the fineries and extravagances in life. It can come from the routine, mundane, and comfortable.
Johnson pleads that we learn from pain, rather than suffering endlessly from it. And no — it’s not always an easy thing to pull off, but his music helps me.