It was only appropriate to find Ian Fitzgerald tucked into the back room of a Ludlow, KY coffee shop on a stormy Thursday evening. Walking in after the set had already begun felt surreal, like stepping into another realm where time was moving at a different speed than it had been outside on the rainy streets. You could say that time was moving slower, though it felt more like it had been suspended altogether. The music was emanating from the back wall where Fitzgerald stood with his guitar in hands, closed in behind glass doors, and looking as though he was unsure of what to do next. Which is what made it so appropriate to find him back in that little room; looking austere and on display, and talking about wax museums.
He was telling an anecdote to segue into “Walks Like Tussaud”; a song about longing that takes place inside of a wax museum from his fourth full-length No Time to Be Tender (2013). Though it may be easy to dismiss wax museums as gaudy, touristy, perhaps even macabre; Fitzgerald manages to breathe romance into the empty, lifeless characters with a poetically detailed love story: “I want the rings on your hands to leave corresponding marks in the valleys of my fingers from holding on too long and hard…” The setting of a wax museum provides a wide assortment of historical figures allowing for the yearning of President James Buchanan (1791-1868) for film-starlet Mary Pickford (1892-1979). Never needing any dramatic vocal flourishes, in his usual calm, minstrel manner his fingers carefully and nimbly picked out a gentle tune, and his voice steadily and resolutely engulfed the museum in flames and left the lovers in a puddle of wax on the floor: “The back room was a massacre though it went untouched by flames, they couldn’t I.D. anybody by their empty frames. There wasn’t any crime scene just an overloaded fuse…”
When the time came he nodded over to the graceful redhead, dressed in black lace, whom had been delicately perched next to the merch. She stood, instantly softening the dynamic of a room made tense by the silence and alleviating some of the pressure of being the being the only one facing the back of the room. He was accompanied by Riley Pinkerton, a willowy assistant there to pluck out the discerning steel notes and lend soft, innocent vocals to the weary tales of tragedy. The two engaged in some gentle yet witty ribbing arousing suspicions that they might have natural harmony and after a few moments conformation came with “The One on the Black Horse”. Her presence brought not only the more delicate touches to the song, but her classic looks lent an illustrative quality to the flamenco-tinged ballad: “The conquistador tossed his hat on the floor by the mantle where Angela stood, behind it he entered and offered to cleanse her as only the pure at heart could…”
No Time to Be Tender proved a motley collection of songs with a certain intangible mis-en-scene cohesiveness provided a model of Fitzgerald’s methodical, melodical, and sometimes maniacal songwriting. The album is characteristic of his personal brand of lyrically-driven rhythms; where melody is in the enunciation and tension is wrought from the length of time between the breaths he draws. The limitations in his songwriting are founded in the weight of the word, the language, and the phrasing rather than keeping a catchy beat or creating an irresistible hook. Understanding the weight of words from a young age, he spent his early years reading dictionaries and grammar books and developing a taste for an exactness of vocabulary and an inclination for syntax. This honed his ability to craft vivid stories with his lyrically graceful tongue-twisters and his casual, breathless manner of cramming too many syllables into one line. He meticulously selects each word to befit the specifically desired implications; building the song to suit the lyrics and remaining uncompromising in his word choice. His work is without an ounce of pretentiousness, and despite his penchant for multi-syllabic words, he knows just when to let the emphasis come from vernacular. He perfected his phrasing in the light harmonies and solemn melodrama of “Let’s Go Down to Memphis”, against the lighthearted tune and casual ease of the slide in “Melinda Down the Line”, and to the languishing balladry of “When Nellie Fell”. In “A Place for You to Sleep” the light, feathery drumming creates a sense of etherealness, lulling you in a dream-like state where you are conscious of the beat of your own pulse (plodding) along with the track; yet despite the fact that it is awash with heartache and betrayal, the prevailing sentiment is resignation.
It is almost irrelevant to focus on where he comes from (Massachusetts), as it is obvious in his songwriting that his mind has been places his body has not. He attended Providence College for American Studies Fitzgerald is constantly weaving historical references into his lyrics. The inconspicuous multiple-innuendos and layers of cerebral meaning in his songs leave it to the listener to decide how deep to delve. And the imagery-laden songs, seemingly ripped from the middle of a story, are so detailed they will leave nothing to the imagination and everything at the same time; such as the story’s beginning and its end. In many tracks Fitzgerald provides you with a complete snapshot of just a moment in time, though you’ll never hear of those characters again. This storyscape-style is most common on No Time to Be Tender. Seemingly the most free-wheeling of his works, it is a satiating mosaic of tracks all of which could stand alone due to the painstaking perfectionism that was poured into them, yet each story fits neatly into the milieu of the album.
Though No Time to Be Tender may seem like a cornerstone of his work, it is sure to be only another chapter in the library that lurks inside his mind. Fitzgerald’s first three albums: Torn Up Routes, Former Glory, and Empty Like the Lion Den are courageously melancholy and more than many songwriters could hope for in a lifetime. His upcoming recording You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone, is likely to be an exploration of the creative nuances in his ability. With ideas already surfacing in his head, recording began unexpectedly when he was sparked to ask RI rootsy-rockers Smith&Weeden to back him on some of the new album. He finished recording in December, and expects the album out sometime in the fall. Fitzgerald is certain that You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone will attract some different listeners than No Time to Be Tender, saying that he went in a different direction this time. While it may leave some feeling deflated that he didn’t make a similar album, his fans will surely be delighted that he isn’t limiting his ability in order to maintain success.