After the 2016 election, the Brooklyn musician embarked on a cross-country train trip that yielded an album that inextricably links America’s abstract political reality with the human lives it has shaped.
What is an artist supposed to do with the United States in 2018? Before it was even a country, this confederation of colonies was often defined by divergent opinions and experiences. But in recent years, what might have once (often falsely) passed for a civilized divide has widened at an astounding rate, into an inhospitable canyon whose erosive effects sometimes suggest a New American Antebellum. That leaves the artist with two unattractive options: address the national tension directly and risk making predictable and laughable propaganda, or write about almost anything else and seem privileged to ponder something beyond our urgent existential crises.
The Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter, and composer Gabriel Kahane stumbled headlong into this conundrum on the morning of November 9, 2016, when Americans were either waking to the news that Donald J. Trump would be our 45th president or still struggling to get some sleep after swallowing that fact. During the last decade, Kahane has explored the United States through an orchestral concert that mined government-commissioned guides to 48 states from the Great Depression, through an album that used 10 Los Angeles locales to ponder the country’s wider promise and perils, and through an early song cycle that drew on the works of a poet whose ancestors had arrived via the Mayflower.
Busy with a set of new songs about travel written before Election Day, Kahane had already booked a set of train tickets meant to take him across the United States in a serpentine journey of 8,980 miles stretched across 13 days. He hoped the experience would not only provide personal ballast for his project, but also give him a classic sort of front-row seat from which to witness the country’s fractious mood.
Instead, after Trump’s win, the journey and the conversations it prompted with strangers during that moment of national convulsion became the entire project: an immersive stage show, 8980: Book of Travelers; and his subsequent Nonesuch Records debut, Book of Travelers. Sometimes verbatim, like an anthropologist, and sometimes with the long-distance gaze of a poet, Kahane relays the stories of the people he met and the patchwork portrait of the United States they form as if singing out his daily journal to the sounds of his piano. It is the rare piece of art that aims, for better and worse, not merely to suggest that political art is personal art but to interlock those categories inextricably, until the social systems and the discrete stories they have created become extensions of one another.
On a train, daily seating arrangements in a dining car are a dice roll, based on times and party sizes. Kahane took advantage of this randomness, engaging his mealtime companions with a simple, sincere mantra: “I just wanna talk to you.” Some complied, sharing deeply personal backstories that became, one by one, the backbone for Book of Travelers. “Crawling back toward the national pain/I’m a city boy swimming in the Laramie Plain,” he sings with élan during “8980,” the album’s deeply blue but swaggering theme song. “Looking for something: What it is?”
Like his frequent collaborator Sufjan Stevens, Kahane has the rare ability to turn arcane information into winning tunes. On the tragic “Baltimore,” he shapes facts about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Civilian Conservation Corps into a crystalline verse, where every young man is given “an ax and a seed… a pack and a tree.” “Baedeker” morphs maps and anecdotes from a ponderous early-20th-century guidebook into an anthem with internal architecture as majestic as some grand cathedral. That he’s able to do this with nothing more than a few keyboards, subtle effects, and his sensitive voice makes Kahane’s melodies and performances here all the more remarkable; there are no gilded strings or cascading choirs to sweep you along, just stories translated into exquisite little songs.
Most of these 10 tales relate quiet, common tragedies whose very quotidian nature communicates some national truth—the Christian mother whose devotion unintentionally enables her son’s fatal opioid addiction, contrasted with the couple that has found its own vision of heaven on a sliver of preserved coastline. There is a sketch of the country’s shambolic healthcare system and an indictment of the xenophobia beneath its melting pot façade, delivered with the details of actual experience.
Kahane interlaces these personal histories with his own. The album’s prelude, “November,” pulls the audience from the end of his last record, the Los Angeles-centric The Ambassador, to the train station. While everyone gawks at post-election news, he daydreams of a surrealistic trip where he might see the continent through the ages in an instant. Later, in the stunning two-song suite “October 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg,” he sings about his grandmother’s flight from Nazi Germany to the U.S., whispering and crooning fragments from her diary over jarring prepared piano. Then, he turns the infamous practice of banning refugee ships from docking in American ports, which began just after her arrival, into a startling allegory for current headlines.
Perhaps this seems precious, the reporter embedding himself so deeply within his reports. But these moments constitute Kahane’s most ingenious trick: By inserting himself and his family into the songs he’s distilled from the train, he suggests that any of us could have been onboard—and that all of us have been, at some point, uplifted or injured by our national ideals and forever-new deals. There’s strength in recognizing and integrating the multiplicity of a country’s voices, he asserts, in understanding the everyday and everlasting impacts of political choices.
Kahane’s family history with America’s tradition of imbalanced justice can make his quest to find homegrown goodness on the rails frustrating. The heartbreaking “What If I Told You” shares the lunch-car testimonial of a wealthy black woman named Monica. Her family has risen from the bowels of Southern slavery to the upper class and the Ivy League, but she’s taking the train to a funeral in Mississippi because her sons fear racial violence along “a stretch of farm-stand highway”—in the United States, in 2016. Elsewhere, Kahane points out that we still refuse plenty of religious refugees and neglect our most vulnerable people.
In a rare feel-good moment, however, Kahane reflects on singing with strangers aboard the train and the communion it offers. “Is difference only distance from the people I don’t know?” he asks. This is as close to a thesis statement as Book of Travelers ever gets. But the question scans like some vapid Super Bowl commercial that insists we have too much in common to argue (or take a knee), softening in an instant the hard truths Kahane has demanded we hear. His songs can sound polite to a fault: In his slight croon, each vague query feels like a forced smile—an attempt to avoid drawing the correct conclusion because it may offend someone. In its search for an anchoring idea, the album only finds well wishes.
Kahane’s struggle to locate the common thread, or at least pull it taut, rings true for me. A few months after he finished his journey, I began one of my own, traveling across the continent in part to search for something to cherish within a United States that seemed so disunited. Kahane moved 8,980 miles over 13 days on a train that stopped only at predetermined destinations; I went 66,350 miles in 15 months inside an RV that stopped anywhere that looked interesting. Still, despite the scope of my journey, I too have fought to communicate what I found out there in the United States. Some days, I am convinced it is a land worth saving, an expanse of endless possibility; other days, I think it is already gone, a wonderland stripped of so much it once offered. Both pronouncements seem too reductive.
Intentionally or not, what Book of Travelers articulates best is that there are no easy answers, no surefire predictions regarding national doom or deliverance. Kahane expresses the confusion of looking for the best in your fellow citizens but often reckoning with their worst—pervasive racism and uncaring capitalism, our failure to learn from history and our obsession with gratification in the moment. You keep looking anyway. Like the United States itself, Book of Travelers seems stuck in limbo about what it values most, about what it should accept or abhor. Both album and country teeter on a precipice above that inhospitable canyon, even as they keep chugging like trains along its edge.
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