Track one of The Deep Enders, “Sarah and Sullivan,” starts simple then swells with a weight that gives the song significance even if you know nothing about Sarah, Sullivan, or their story. Chords that accumulate depth each time they repeat. A piano. A cello. A violin. A guitar. A waltz that culminates in a single line of lyrics, repeated three times:
I’ll try to be ready,
I will be waiting for you.
Matt Jones wrote the song in response to an un-mailed love letter written by a Civil War soldier named Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Written on July 14, 1861, Sullivan’s letter contains lines like, “If I do not [return home], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.” It ends with a promise to wait for her, to meet again, in death if not in life.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2783332221 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=3488013590]
Matt Jones writes haunting songs. February songs. Songs that get under my skin and seep into my short stories. Songs that remind me of the rust belt and the south, of ice chunks floating in Great Lakes and men in jeans haloed by cigarette smoke, and silhouettes leaning against brick walls at night. He has a voice like Elliott Smith. He plays ragtime piano, and he writes lyrics that make me wonder why he isn’t more famous.
The second track of The Deep Enders, “The friends I’m thinking of,” shifts away from the Civil War. It’s an eddy of strings and finger-picking punctuated by lines like: broke and scared ten years/broke because I’m lazy/and scared I’ll disappear and Oh I observed my spine go slack/Oh I’ve done time for what I lack/Always addicted to looking back—lyrics which stare smack at everything that is at stake in the dance of addiction and music-making, nostalgia and fear—lyrics which don’t fetishize the darkness but walk straight through it with a grace only art can tender.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2783332221 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=999692834]
I know Matt Jones. Not from high school or college but from the bars and house shows where so much Michigan music happens. It’s still a small enough scene that when I told Matt Jones I loved his album during a music festival at the Elbow Room in Ypsilanti he took the time to talk to me, to ask me about my life and my writing. Over the past seven years we’ve had a dozen or so conversations. We’ve talked about poetry, swimming in the Detroit River, and the implications of not having dental insurance.
So when I heard Matt Jones say on Michigan Public Radio that the Deep Enders began with a song called “The Darkest Things,” a song he feels he couldn’t have begun the album without, a song he’d started writing when he thought he was done with songwriting. I thought of a conversation I’d had with him three summers ago sitting on a picnic table outside The Corner Brewery.
“Some days,” he told me, “I wonder what it would be like to just walk away and quit.” I wanted to tell him that he writes songs like someone who doesn’t have the option of quitting, like someone who needs to write every word he sings, but I didn’t know him well enough to know if those were the right words, so I stayed silent as the sky turned from dusk blue to black.
The Deep Enders unravels slowly, one song unfurls into another with a carefulness that rewards the listener who takes time to play the album from start to finish. There’s a confidence in the deliberateness of its crescendos. Most of Matt’s tracks inhabit Civil War stories. But The Deep Enders feel less like a troop of history buffs doing a reenactment and more like a former soldier standing in an empty battlefield at night remembering the sounds of war and the faces of friends that have past, not with nostalgia or grief, but with a sensory awareness of moments spent and the meaning saturated in each done day.
The song that started the album, the song Matt Jones wrote while he contemplated quitting music, “The Darkest Things” falls near the end of The Deep Enders.
Matt Jones never overtly states in the lyrics that he’s wondering if he’s done; instead he gives us images of brokenness: dragging dreams through a sea of rye and gasoline, a screaming mother, a boy wasted on a magazine. He lays his dreams and pendulum swings on the table with lyrics and the melody which becomes fuller and fuller until “The Darkest Things” blooms into an anthem about the choice to continue doing the work you’re made to do.
We can’t help but love the art that takes us from one place to another, that provides a context for our own transitions, that makes us see the things that haunt us and the trails we’ve taken to get us where we are now.
So here is something else I have to say:
Three summers ago, I sat on a picnic table with Matt Jones, a man whose music I love and listened to him tell me he didn’t know if he could continue making it.
A conversation I remember because that week, I found out through Facebook that my then boyfriend was sleeping with an eighteen-year-old who worked in the kitchen at the environmental education center where we taught.
A conversation I remember because that week, I drank so much whiskey and beer that I collapsed in front of my friend’s parent’s vacation cottage in Petoskey, and vomited on my side in the grass until my stomach emptied of all the raspberries, strawberries, and wedding buffet salad I had eaten that evening.
A conversation I remember because that week, my brother Keith and my friends Erin and Dave scooped me from the lawn, propped me in the back of Keith’s car and drove me to a campground in the Upper Peninsula beside the Two-Hearted River.
A conversation I remember because that week, I woke up in the backseat of Keith’s Honda Civic covered in a sweatshirt. I set off the car alarm when I opened the door and stumbled out into a fir forest that smelled like Lake Superior.
A conversation I remember because that week, I bushwhacked through the woods with a compass and a topographic map until I found a stretch of sandy beach where I could strip down and swim into the clear cold water.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2783332221 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=1874335643] 6.
But this isn’t just about me, or Matt Jones, or the Civil War.
It’s about the way half a dozen people can bring breath back to a one-hundred and fifty-year-old unsent love letter.
It’s about the way a thirty-seven-year-old man from Ypsilanti, Michigan can write his way back into music by playing through his darkness.
It’s about the way we inhabit stories of the past through poems and songs, snapshots of ice-chunked rivers and battles above the clouds.
It’s about the way the pulse beneath an album can evoke the lap of Lake Superior waves and the way you felt the day you realized that you could reassemble the cadence of your breath and swim strong back to shore.
It’s about the way we need beauty to infuse our suffering, anthems for the wars we’ve fought, and ballads for the ways we’ve changed.
It’s a love letter to those brave enough to slog through their darkness, sent with a hope that when they revisit the blackest moments of their memory someone is there to meet them with lyrics lit by the sound of the cello, the violin, the piano, and the guitar.
I’ll try to be ready,
I will be waiting for you.