A Review of Harrison Lemke's Forever Only Idaho
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is a place of profound beauty and melancholy. Formerly a logging and mining outpost built around Fort (William Tecumseh) Sherman, it’s now a growing city with an economy fueled primarily by entertainment, tourism, and emigration from more expensive states on the West Coast.
Harrison Lemke is interested in the locals, however. His new album, Forever Only Idaho, tells the stories of the Coeur d’Alene High School graduating class of 2006, in part because the aimless and angsty teenagers are representative of the “self-absorbed, self-hating small American town” and the stickiness of its “anxieties and failures.” Lemke himself is a nomad, a Texan distanced from his northwest roots. One senses the last line of the notes—“It’s about reconciling with dead dreams, about carving out a place amid a commodified American existence and learning to call it home”—are deeply autobiographical, and his vocals sometimes strain with the taut emotional force of familiarity. These infinitely variegated people are Lemke’s friends and acquaintances, the personalities woven in the social fabric he used to call home. They possess a quiet dignity, even in the midst of their unromantic struggles.
The arrangements are wonderful. Lemke draws on his acoustic background to craft a cozy, comfortable sound that even at its most vigorous (“Burn Down the Title Loan,” “Local Business,” “The Old Band”) never loses the connection with the listener usually only possible in a quiet bar or garage jam. It matches up favorably with Lemke’s previous acoustic work and is easily the most advanced production he’s attempted yet.
One of my favorite aspects of the album is Lemke’s fluidity among genres. His “tape-hiss symphonies to God” are played in several modes: country, blues, folk, alt, relaxed grunge, and even a bit of ‘80s synth rock and rockabilly. I hear (first and foremost) The Mountain Goats, The Cars, Johnny Cash, Colter Wall, Bob Dylan, and R.E.M. Lemke’s easy-going, slightly nasal, soft-spoken vocals in particular reminded me of Michael Stipe. The variety and versatility demonstrated on “Forever Only Idaho” gives a sense of Lemke’s own diverse musical upbringing and of the competing musical characteristics of his slice of the Pacific Northwest. As the country slips into soft grunge or to rock into folk, he never loses touch of the particularities of the place he once called home.
English art critic John Berger once described autobiography as an “orphan form.” Lemke communicates both aloneness and togetherness as he sketches out portraits, gazing at the members of his community with an intimate closeness and a simultaneous detachment. Hayden, a song character, is now a ghost, an office drone circles a buzzing fluorescent light mothlike, a debtor contemplates arson, an expecting mother watches her husband and son shoot. Lemke’s watchful eye flits around Coeur d’Alene, cohering poignant impressions for the listener. Like Augustine delighting in his memory, Lemke enters “the fields and roomy chambers of memory, where are the treasures of countless images. . .”
Detachment shows up in several places in the album, perhaps most poignantly in “This is not the Year”: “Is love just standing by/watching a million useless things die?” A disinterested observer, he isn’t afraid to tell us “no three chords are ever gonna save your life.” He has scrubbed away his illusions: “You want to be a city / and I want to be a star/but when you get down to it / that isn’t what we are.” Lemke doesn’t wish to romanticize small-town, rural life. Idaho is not a prosperous state; its material and emotional conditions alienate many. But tough life is not bare life, and Lemke’s unsparing eye captures the hard beauty of the land: “you’d drive up from the mountain / clear into the red sun / the red sun / that’s dying / on / the mountain,” and the hillside “mansions gleam like topaz” in a “humming” black sky. Dignity requires honesty.
Lemke’s Christianity makes several cameos—the “bells of St. Thomas” ring, God blesses the oblivious tourists (increasingly the pillar of Coeur d’Alene’s economy), one dreams of blood flowing from Christ’s side, and the title loan places a “lien on your soul.” It pairs well with the lack of sentimentality and the honest accounting of Lemke’s friends, the drunkards and the convicted, the travelers and the vagabonds, the lonely and the melancholic. But unlike the cruel realities of small-town life, Christ does “love you back” and, as such, provides a partial antidote to the ennui of Lemke’s subjects.
Leaving one’s hometown is an increasingly common rite of passage for young ambitious strivers. While many will still attend one of their state institutions, the smartest, wealthiest, and best-connected are lured into the tony halls of Ivy League schools and other selective colleges. No matter one’s SAT and household income, all leave something behind. What is it? For many, it’s a McMansion in a ritzy suburb. But some are like Lemke, pondering: “What kind of son / would just take off / no thought for anyone?” There is no easy answer, and return is by no means guaranteed (or even desirable). Leaving home for something better contains both tragedy and hope, and Lemke asks us simply to reflect on the ambiguity and avoid giving easy answers to impossible questions. His clear-eyed songwriting, appealing arrangements, and narrative cohesiveness (see: the bookending songs) are a bright spot in American folk-rock today, and folks from all different backgrounds and hometowns will find something resonant in Lemke’s latest effort.
Featured image: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho from the air postcard (c. 1930–1945) by Tichnor Brothers via Wikimedia Commons.
Max Bodach is an Associate Editor. He is a senior at Ave Maria University, an AEI Initiative on Faith and Public Life Young Scholar and Röpke-Wojtyła Fellow at Catholic University of America. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.