The themes in On the Road have been picked up and re-envisioned countless times since its 1957 release, but recently two captivating storytellers one an indie-rock veteran, the other a relative newcomer have expressed a notably exquisite melancholy riffing off Kerouac's motifs of movement and isolation.
Narratively speaking, both David Dondero's South of the South and Adam Gnade's Run Hide Retreat Surrender are travelogues set almost entirely in America; the former's runs from east to west, the latter's from west to east, then back again. Both artists are avowed fans of Kerouac's writings, and each emphasizes that his album is, like On the Road, essentially autobiographical. Dondero's journey is the by-product of the life of a perpetually touring musician, and Gnade's borne from a desperate, deep-seated need to flee.
Dondero, 36, has known little else besides a nomadic way of life. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, his parents divorced when he was a child, and his mother and stepfather raised him in a dozen towns in Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana before his 18th birthday. After a stint at Clemson University, he joined the band Sunbrain and began touring in the early '90s around 1994, while playing in Nebraska, he befriended and creatively inspired a young Conor Oberst (South of the South was released on Oberst's Team Love label). After Sunbrain broke up, the singer spent years driving around the country in a Nissan pickup while performing, recording solo albums, and working countless odd jobs. Last year, he got himself an apartment and a steady bartending gig in San Francisco, but that situation didn't last long. Now, Dondero says over the phone from Austin, Texas where he's been staying with a friend for the past month he's reduced his possessions to a single suitcase full of clothes, a guitar, and an amplifier.
"When I'm stuck in some place for a while I gotta get outta there," he explains. "It ruins certain things and confuses certain things, and in other ways it brings clarity, thrusting yourself out there and taking a gamble. I think it's fine to be aimless and not have it figured out. I've always thought that as soon as you have it figured out, you're dead, you know?"
South of the South begins in Florida coincidentally, the state where Jack Kerouac died in 1969. Over the folky acoustic picking, the eventual arrival of summer-lazy cymbal splashes, and the Latin-flavored trumpet on the title track, Dondero's gorgeously quavering tenor details a trek through Jupiter, Miami, Ybor City, Pensacola, and other Sunshine State cities. Letdowns occur; he meets "some mannequins who smelled of coconuts and Coppertone" and discovers a Cuban district once "a center for the arts/it's now a mall-like atmosphere, homogenous and insincere."
Small epiphanies occur in the spry "Journal Burning Party" and the Delta blues-infused "Let Go the Past," the lyrics in both echoing the incipient desire to leave old troubles behind. But the pensively picked "Brownsville Revival" swims in religious pessimism, as Dondero sings about a man who transports his dead daughter to a Florida church futilely hoping for her resurrection.
From there, Dondero heads through Texas and Arizona. He sings wryly of the bad choices he's made and the relationships he can't maintain in the coarse country-rockers "The One That Fell From the Vine" and "You Shouldn't Leave a Lover Alone Too Long." Soon he arrives at the spare "Laying Low in Ely, Nevada," which captures the bittersweet notion that the dream of paradise is elusive. "I've always been just a scratch-off ticket away/Always win another ticket to play/Then I come up empty and I throw that thing away," Dondero sings, "but at the Hotel Nevada, everything changed." That's because after slipping a fiver into the slot machine, he hits the jackpot. But as the tale slowly plays out, the gambler gets blind drunk and beds a fetching grifter who makes off with most of his winnings. In that hotel room hungover, conned, and thousands of miles from the beginning of his journey he finds himself right back where he started.
Adam Gnade's Run Hide Retreat Surrender odyssey starts in San Diego, California the 30-year-old's now-abandoned hometown. His debut album is based on a four-month cross-country trip he embarked upon in August of 2004 with his girlfriend Jessie and good friend Rob. A music journalist, poet, and occasional home-recorder, Gnade's decision to hit the highway came from a desperate need to escape his horrible job, his damaged, drug-addled circle of friends, and his own debilitating depression, anxiety, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. "I was rotting physically, mentally, just decaying and destroying myself," he writes in an e-mail exchange. "If I would've stayed, I would've killed myself."
On the disc's harrowing second track, "So Long Darling/It's No Use," Gnade delivers a disturbingly vivid fantasy of how a shotgun might have accomplished the deadly deed, leaving the back of his head "hanging open like a surprised mouth." "But, God, you have options," he mutters, before rattling off a laundry list of avenues for committing suicide: "Overdose, hang yourself, eat muffler smoke ... drive your car off the cliff ... starve yourself, eat pills ..." As on all of Surrender's tracks, Gnade speaks the narrative instead of singing it what he calls "talking songs." The music underneath his stunningly descriptive, emotive prose is at times distant and haunting, other times lugubriously post-rockish, or involving forceful symphonies of guitars, organs, percussion, and sampled radio snippets.
Once the narrator repeatedly implored to leave San Diego or "your apartment will be your grave" finally splits town, the album winds through the south and up the East Coast. But wherever he goes, Gnade cannot escape himself: "Baton Rouge, you think, is a place to get old and have kids and get happy, but instead you hide out in a Comfort Inn drinking canned beer"; traveling past the slimy Southern marshes, he can only imagine "rotting faces ... lost teenagers gray and belly down in the swamp, leeches on swollen, death-fattened thigh." When he bitterly separates from his lover in Virginia and heads to New York City, he discovers his friends there are mired in the same drunken self-absorption as the friends he left in San Diego. And when Gnade finds himself alone and depressed in a motel in Wilmington, Delaware, the scene is a nightmare of "eyes like caves" and "faces like evil jack o'lanterns"; the accompanying music is a cacophony of clanging bottles and panicky guitars.
So how do these stories end? South of the South concludes with a deceptively pretty, nostalgic acoustic track, "Summertime Suicide #2," in which Dondero sings, "Good times we've had but there's too many good times to come" which feels like irony or wishful thinking. Run Hide Retreat Surrender also finishes with a brief, pastoral track that finds the lovers reconciled and driving back to San Diego. But no inner peace or great understanding has been achieved. "Nothing is resolved," Gnade intones, "but you are together again and heading home."
As for their authors, Dondero admits he's still struggling with a life that remains affixed to America's back roads. "Maybe I don't wanna be alone all the time," he admits. "It's like a battle of being in love with the lifestyle of traveling around, and being in love with the idea of being in love, and realizing that it's not possible to have both. I'd like to have a relationship, to settle down and have a family someday. I can see it and it looks like a nice vision, but it's probably not realistic."
Gnade, meanwhile, is currently living in Portland, Oregon, but he feels that his life is still in flux. Also struggling with the desire for stability and "the vice grips of being contained," he hardly romanticizes his time spent on the road. "I think [my album] is a testament to freedom, but also a cautionary tale that questions what freedom really is and why we go looking for it," he says. "While I was off looking for freedom, I wasn't so deluded to believe my running away was healthy. You can't solve problems by Ôfreeing yourself,' but you can make the pain go away for a while, and that's good enough for me."