One of the reasons I favored Forgetting to Wake Up over Learning By Musical Montage for so long is that whereas on the latter the band aims to showcase their abilities in all sorts of genres and musical styles, the second record feels more consistent in its mood and its arch. This is not at all a boring record, but the band does slow things down significantly, I believe to their benefit.
The mid-tempo first track is actually one of the more upbeat tracks on the record. “When I’m Famous, I Will Crush You All” is a mix of lead singer boasting, SNL quotes (“I put my pants on one leg at a time/But once they’re on I make gold records”) and paranoid Bush era witticisms (“The president called! He said ‘War actually is the answer’… Machine guns can speak any language/so tanks for all the memories”).
“Perspective,” which contains the line that the album title is derived from (“I forgot to wake up this morning”) sounds like that hazy time of the morning where you try to make sense of and decipher the blurred lines between reality and the thoughts your mind has entertained while running around untamed for a few hours. That free and hazy mind makes people intensely rethink their decisions and relationships during those few minutes between sleep and wakefulness: “People say I’m a fool for choosing you/I guess I could have been more objective/…There’s plenty of fish in the sea/ But none of them are hungry.”
When I went to my first Morningbell shows downtown, they would sometimes play “The Ballad of Basooney and La Cucaracha” and the audience would react with a notable level of heartfelt gratitude that was palpably different than their reactions to other songs. I always assumed it had to do with memories of past shows, because the song was not that special to me at the time. Now it’s one of my favorites on the album. The song ponders the resilience of people in the face of difficult and heartbreaking situations. “I’ve thought long and hard about how long and hard you said life could be.” Morningbell usually cloaks sadness and desperation in shiny and upbeat melodies, but “Ballad” doesn’t try to cover anything up. While there is a cyclical nature to the joy and disappointment (“Maybe the reason that souls come back is because the afterlife is such a drag/Reincarnation is like spiritual condensation/Souls collect in clouds and then they drip back down/…We will meet again and we will go back around/In summer we will fall in love again”), the existential crisis in the song is never resolved. The world will end one day, and even as you visualize how awe-inspiring the sight will be, your heart will sink every time when Atria sings “Summer will not come around again.”
“Ballad” is great example that – judging from his songwriting over the span of all five albums – anxiously pondering the Big Picture frequently keeps Travis Atria up at night
He addresses this restlessness of the mind in “Greasing the Palms of God,” singing, “Someone take my mind away/Cause it only brings me down/Don’t let me catch myself thinking for myself/Don’t let me disappear without a sound.” With its airy feel, delicate harmonies, and the instrumental breakdown in which Atria’s guitar solo is gracefully complimented by Stacie Atria’s keyboard playing, “Greasing the Palms of God” is personally my favorite song of the pre-Sincerely, Severely era. And yet, after more Morningbell shows than I can count (I really should have counted!) over the past four-and-a-half years, I’ve heard the band play the song precisely two times. Both were at my request at their annual summer show at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza, a gesture for which I am very grateful.
“2023” is one of the best early examples of Morningbell psychedelia (both musically and lyrically), albeit subtlety so. The song unravels its messages in ripples before you over time. The chorus lyrics “It’s too low for most to hear/If they ever listen it will become clear” is reminiscent of Wilco’s “This is important, but I know you’re not listening” (but Morningbell’s came first). The song also contains one of the band’s most resplendent instrumental breakdowns, including tape loops, guitar, and even sitar.
The penultimate track on the record, “Everything Will Matter,” is a sweetly earnest meditation on the desire to know that one’s existence made a difference in this world, expanding on some of the themes explored in Learning By Musical Montage. The melody might be the most beautiful of any Morningbell song. “Oh I fear it’s futile to fight being forgotten forever” Atria sings as he comforts himself with the mantra “Everything that you have ever done will matter,” and later, “Everything that you have ever done has mattered.”
There’s no question the song means something much more intimate to Atria and those who listen to it, but I’ve always listened to this song from the perspective of a fan who believes that Morningbell makes music great enough to be shared with the whole world. The song reminds me that though we feel lucky to have this band in our little town, their songs will live on for a long time with the chance of being discovered by someone new at a later time after already being etched in our own memories, and in this sense the band has fought the futile fight and already won.
Listen: The Ballad of Basooney and La Cucaracha, 2023, Everything Will Matter
The record is billed as “A Choose Your Own Adventure Album,” modeled after the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s.
In the age of iTunes and mp3’s, the CD booklet for this record is a reminder of that medium’s potential for expanding our experience of an album. Each song is accompanied by a setup of the situation in which you, “The Intrepid Explorer,” find yourself during each song.
The adventure begins with “The Speed of God,” where the Explorer waves goodbye to his loved ones to head to “the only land that’s truly of the free” – the world at the bottom of the ocean. The “bitchin'” guitar solo on the song is credited in the booklet to bassist Eric Atria, lest we forget.
The Intrepid Explorer sinks down to the bottom of ocean to video game-like musical interludes during which the listener can read on about their adventure and choose their next step. For example, when attacked by a Sea Monster with 40,000 eyes at the end of the “Journey to the Bottom” Interlude, the Explorer has the choice to fight or flee, resulting in the song “Faster than Eagles, Stronger than Lions” for the former choice and “Lost Again!” for the latter.
I’m really short, so I’m naturally inclined to flee. In this case my adventures lead me to the jerky, walking on eggshells while looking over your shoulder feeling of “Lost Again!,” but Atria assures “I left on the light to be sure you’d be alright.”
My choices lead me to the sublime “The Octopus Walks Across the Coral.” This song is frozen in time for me because it always and without fail reminds me of listening to the song on repeat on Morningbell’s MySpace page before I set out to buy all the albums. The song’s gorgeous melody evokes the peacefulness of finally leaving home to set out on your own, but hints at the homesickness that can follow as Atria laments, “Ain’t got no records, can’t play my rock n’ roll” and the moon that “turns the tides that took me away from you” while trying to convince himself that he’s fine on his own, “Now that I got here, why would I go home?”
The outlook gets murkier during songs like “Waiting On a Sleep” and “In a Wreck” as our Explorer comes to terms with the fact that heading out on your own means just that: you’re on your own. “Here comes that old despair, that moves me and soothes me like the memory of sea salted air,” he sings as he worries that not even God can help him. He stops ignoring his fears and admits, “I was in a wreck, I was just a wreck” before deciding “Looks like I’m going home.”
“The Desert On the Sea Floor” has become a live staple for Morningbell during their longer and special sets. The song includes a three-to-four minute guitar solo by Travis when played live that always leaves everyone wondering how and why we are so lucky as to have guitar heroes humbly walk among us in our little town.
In the song the Explorer accepts that he had to leave his home and comfort only to find that part of that comfort is owed to being surrounded by the care of loved ones. The setup for this song in the booklet reads, “You wonder why you left your family and friends to make such a dangerous journey.” The Explorer sings, “Believing I could walk on water/I jumped in the sea” but now “Everything’s as clear as sunlight through the leaves” and he knows what he must do.
Before going back home, though, the Explorer takes a detour to a “Utopian Fantasy at the Center of the Earth.” The setting is a breezy and bright one where the passing of time is not a cause for anxiety and “the birds sing the words to our songs,” but once again the Explorer remembers that no matter how beautiful a place is, it isn’t home without his loved ones. “I’d love to stay but I must go if you’re not there.”
One might be tricked by the adventure narrative that propels the record into thinking that this is a less personal album than the others. But in truth, the album is a fantastical epic about the journey we all take to venture out on our own at a certain age. The journey can be a disappointing one if we set out believing that we are expected to and that we can do it all on our own. Eventually, no matter the level of independence that we seek, we are comforted to find that our friends and family, if they are truly caring and invested in our happiness, will be there as a support system when we finally admit to ourselves that we need them.
Through the Belly of the Sea might have been a creative apex for another band, but the fact that it isn’t for Morningbell speaks less to a lack of quality of that record and more to the superior creative quality of the band. With their next record they went on another adventure by exploring musical avenues where they had not yet ventured.
Listen: The Octopus Walks Across the Coral, Utopian Fantasy At The Center of the Earth, The Desert on the Sea Floor
Celia Almeida is a proud Gainesville music supporter and regular at local shows. A graduate of the University of Florida in English, she is a contributor to The Rock Blog on Rock104.com and is the clichéd music writer in that she herself says she has no musical talent. She has decided to focus her obsessive personality productively by writing about music and those who create it. She once briefly sang with Lady Gaga. Her “Morningbell’s #1 Fan” T-Shirt is one of her most prized possessions. She is “Just a Fan.” Check out her music blog at http://radioroadmusic.tumblr.com/.