"Lost Tracks" is my attempt to re-boot this blog by reckoning with songs (mostly old ones but I'm not ruling out the new) that slipped through the cracks of popular culture and attempting to listen to and understand pop hits and classics with fresh ears and a personal perspective.
"We Want Everything" opens with a tense, arpeggiated guitar line that creeps around like a stranger in your bedroom, before the drums kick in and the arpeggios turn into a muted, pulsating heartbeat. The song starts at the end—the end of a friend's life by his own hand—and builds in tension as the singer tries to make some sense of the suicide.
I don't know why you done this thing
To me it makes no sense
But sometimes our dreams just won't let us live
And we die in self defense
The singer professes not to understand, but in almost the same breath admits that he knows exactly what happened, that the weight of his friend's dreams and despair—two sides of the same coin, really—simply became too much for him to bear. He acknowledges as much in the song's beautiful chorus, singing "we want everything / Some of us try for it / We want everything / Some of us die for it."
The second verse begins with a combination of scorn and understanding, with the singer asking if his departed friend is in a better place: "Do the angels have respect for you? / Does lady luck treat you fair?," knowing damned well what the answers are. The bitterness grows in the song's bridge, with singer Rodney Crowell—who, after two decades in the music biz and his own struggles with addiction, had surely seen his fair share of people lose their way—spitting out phrases like "Where do we go from here, man, no one really knows, but we deserve better than this from you." But then he and the band come crashing back into the chorus, sonically exemplifying just how quickly we can turn from optimism to abject despair and back again, revealing understanding—if not acceptance—inside the anger and the sadness.
"We Want Everything" ends by returning to that arpeggiated guitar line, this time accompanied by the full band, including a slashing, sympathetic electric guitar and haunting, wordless falsetto vocals. For a full two minutes the familiar stranger creeps around your bedroom again before stealing away into the darkness.
For almost twenty years, the song has been a lifeline in my own times of despair. I've never been truly suicidal, but like anybody with a pulse and a conscience, I've had plenty of dark nights of the soul. And what hits me hardest about "We Want Everything" is its insistence on empathy, even for someone by whom we might feel deeply betrayed.
"There but for the grace of God...," as the cliche goes. I'm not talking only about mental illness, chemical imbalance, and addiction, and I don't think Crowell is, either. I'm talking about making your way through a world that's all too often harsh and unforgiving, and how easy it is to understimate the battles everyone around is is fighting even as we're fighting our own (and even—maybe especially—when we feel like we're winning). We live in a society that's constantly telling us we're not good enough, that we need to be more and do more and have more, that too often rewards the wrong kinds of success instead of rewarding the victories of the heart and spirit. In the end, "We Want Everything" is a song about what happens when we succumb to those forces rather than following our own hearts.
The Cicadas performing "We Want Everything" on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1997.
After almost twenty years of mainstream country success as both a performer and a songwriter, Rodney Crowell took a detour in 1997 with The Cicadas, a group in which he was joined by his longtime guitarist Steuart Smith, bassist Michael Rhodes, and drummer/singer Vince Santoro. Sitting in a sweet spot at the intersection of rock, pop, and country, the group's sole, self-titled album set the stage for the great records Crowell would go on to put out since, most notably his crowning achievement, 2001's semi-autobiographical (and damned near perfect) The Houston Kid.
The Cicadas (available for purchase on Amazon and streaming on Spotify) isn't nearly so monumental; aside from "When Losers Rule the World," "Our Little Town"—both of which are exemplars of Crowell's ability to imbue straight, simple tunes with an emotional heft that belies their breeziness—and a killer cover of "Tobacco Road," most of it failed to live up the the standards Crowell had set for himself over the prior two decades. But "We Want Everything" stands out as a stone classic.