A lot of reviewers agree that "Can You Fly" is a major piece of work in popular music. I, too, say that. What irritates me is the fact that so many people make such a big deal about the record's first line - "Well I sold the dirt to feed the band". Very clever, to be sure - as everyone knows by now, the line refers to the fact that Freedy Johnston had to sell a portion of his family's farm to stay on the road as a professional musician. All right, all right, we get it, but if it was really that important, don't you think Freedy would have named the album after it? What does that line have to do with the rest of the song, let alone the rest of the album?
If you ask me, that line is a big deal not so much because it's clever or phrased well, but because it sets up an opposition between traditional values and attractive new ones that plays out through many of these songs. What's more, the sound itself adds to that conversation. Freedy's band includes acoustic and electric instruments that sometimes swap lines, and the production puts a lot of space between the players - it sounds like they're playing on a huge prairie under a grey sky, kind of like the one on the album cover and not unlike the farm Freedy sold. Not that any of this is terribly original. Lots of other bands do something similar. This one just does it exceptionally well.
On the other hand, Freedy's voice does not resemble anyone else's. You sometimes hear people talk about singers who put a lot of air into their tone; with Freedy, it's more like he puts a lot of tone into his air. He pitches his melodies pretty high for the most part, sings primarily in head tones, and gives himself a conversational style and Midwestern accent that makes you think of nothing so much as some guy hanging on the front stoop of a hand-built bungalow way out in the middle of Kansas with the nearest town a good ninety miles away. Very traditional-sounding, except when he suddenly snarls "I've got wheels!" and the band gets perilously close to heavy metal. That kind of thing happens in several numbers. Like I said, there's a sort of argument going on here.
Getting back to that first line, a lot of these songs sound a bit autobiographical, although the details can be couched in poetic language. Not too much so - a bit later in that first number, for instance, Freedy retools his central idea as "I sold the dirt for a song". Same idea, different approach, with a bit of a wink in it this time. There are songs about the worry you feel when you come home after hitting the road with a band, songs about tearing down that decrepit old house Grandpa built for Grandma, songs about how it feels when your daughter heads off to the big city. Whichever of these Freedy based on personal experience, he managed to avoid that horrible sense you get with some songwriters that they think their lives should be fascinating to you and me just because they've got a record contract and we don't.
He managed to get around that at least in part by concentrating on actual details rather than on how he feels about them. When he sings about first love in "The Mortician's Daughter", it's mostly about her, or about them, not just about him. Or when he sings about his daughter leaving for school (or something - it's not always easy to tell) in "Responsible", it's mostly about what she's likely to see in New York, not just about him. Not only does that make it unnecessary for us to ask "Why should I care about what Freedy Johnston feels?", it also adds to that tension between excitement and loss that informs the whole album, and that remarkable voice.
Then there's the title cut. Folks, I've been trying to figure out what it means for a long time now, and I'm stumped, but I can't stop listening to it. The melody is spooky but beautiful, the instrumental backing is quieter than just about anything on the record, and it could be about a nightmare or a love affair or an alien, but Freedy took the album's title from it, so it's probably a major idea to him. In any case, he filled the song with muddy, scary imagery, and then sings "We've all been looking at you...Can you fly?" Sounds like a promise of hope, or at least escape.
Or maybe not. You notice that the cover photo, where the title is, shows a woman's body ten or fifteen feet off the barren ground with her head out of frame. She is presumably flying, but when you unfold the CD booklet you notice that there's a tree close by. She may have hung herself - there may be a rope up there that we can't see. That may be what the song is about.
Such self-destruction is certainly one possible way to respond when the old and the new collide, but only one. As I said, others pop up all over this album. It leads to a lot of tension, but it doesn't end that way. Everyone concentrates so hard on the first line that they seem to have missed the last one, which is "We will shine". So that woman on the cover may be a suicide, but one way or the other the album ends with joy.
Benshlomo says, Be kind to both your roots and your branches.