It's a magnificent, swooning song, with the hallmark tuned percussion and strings of composer Yann Tiersen (Amélie, Good Bye Lenin!) underscoring Francis' crushingly sincere tales of mortifying youthful awkwardness and ineptitude. At 2:41 it gives way to Tiersen's more forthright rock style and then keeps building up to almost impossibly climactic heights as SF seemingly lays bare all the embarrassments of his youth, at the same time reassuring the listener to essentially get through it, that it's much worse when you're there. i could have done with a lot more songs like that in my early teens.
And i'm not even meant to be writing about that track.
The focus today is actually album opener "Little Houdini", the story of Christopher Gay, career criminal and escape artist. Gay decided that prison would not stop him from visiting his dying parents for the last time, repeatedly breaking out and making his way home in a selection of stolen vehicles, including a Wal-Mart truck and Crystal Gayle's tourbus. (His third escape seems to have been just for the hell of it).
Francis relates that he first heard of Gay's escapology career in 2006, and decided to follow the story in the hope of writing something about him at some future point.
There wasn’t much press about this story at all. Nothing national at least, which I still find strange. I put together what details I could and used a few lines from the actual news stories. The original article said, “This is what country songs are made of.” I thought to myself, “Sure…but this is also what a rap song can be made of.”
Fittingly, "Little Houdini" (after the nickname Gay received from the media) ends up somewhere between the two genres, Francis' lyrics continuing the long storytelling traditions and outlaw focus of both ("I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"; "the cop got scared, the kid, he starts to figure,/ "I'll do years if I pull this trigger...""). The music, a collaboration with former Grandaddy man Jason Lytle, backs up the point, with lazily strummed guitar, droning violin/organ and a plaintive, distant sung vocal evoking the open road of the third verse, before it breaks into a propulsive 6/8 gallop of a rap.
The song celebrates Gay's spirit rather than excusing his crimes ("he knows what he done was wrong / but he knows his father don't got long"), but Francis mainly reserves his scorn for the armchair moralists who would condemn him: "y'all can turn up your noise / and suck on your teeth and wag your finger like 'tsk, tsk!' / but he had to take the risk".
And why not? Our mythology needs romantic anti-heroes, and personally i'd rather watch, e.g., Escape Artist: The Christopher Gay Story than Ridley Scott & Russell Crowe rehashing Robin Hood for the 35th time but with a boring new PoMo conceit.1
1 Having said which, i'd quite like to see Robin and the 7 Hoods, "a musical film set in 1930s gangster Chicago, with Frank Sinatra as "Robbo"."