Greg Ashley tells stories about being human.
“I’d forgotten all about that. My, wasn’t life awful –With a sigh. – and wonderful.” This is a quote from the 1938 play Our Town, written by playwright Thornton Wilder. The quote perfectly captures the essence of Greg Ashley’s album Pictures of Saint Paul Street. In the play, Mrs. Soames, who died, looked back from the afterlife to reflect about this very intricate and complex phenomenon that we call life. Indeed, life is full of wonderful moments that make us feel giddy and comforted. Yet at the same time, there are times when we feel lost, confused, isolated, and incomplete. We reflect and ponder over and over again about what is wrong in our lives and how we can find the magic solution to ease our agonies, which we suffer quietly on a daily basis. Relationships, commitments, status, money, ego, vanity are quotidian worries that intrude our minds, and sometimes to ease the pain, we resort to age-old remedies including alcohol, sex, drugs, and violence. The cycle repeats and is fundamental to the human condition. In his songs, Greg Ashley tells these human stories that sound very familiar. These are stories that many of us live through, and we are all quite familiar with the emotions that are evoked from these tales. Through playful and gentle guitar playing, Greg Ashley tells the stories that we’ve all heard before but captures our attention nevertheless by his honesty and ability to connect.
Quotidian troubles make up our life stories, and we become heroes in our tales as we battle these intangible monsters. In “A Sea of Suckers,” Ashley sings of these hurdles, like paying taxes, relationships, and mental breakdowns. First he sings about “a blue-eyed groom,” which evokes a sense of innocence that is further affirmed by the line, “Just sign a piece of paper and the country does the favor,” revealing how people have been beguiled by the supposedly sanctimonious institution of marriage. Then the line, “The pills they make me crazy…crazy for more,” elicits images of orange pill bottles. Marriage, infidelity, divorce, mental disorders – such is life. In the album’s tracks, Ashley showcases calm, evenly paced guitar strumming. The laid-back nature of the sounds suggests that Ashley has accepted the fates of life. He isn’t resigned, in fact, he seems to have achieved inner peace with what’s been thrown at him. He is composed and self-possessed, no longer overwhelmed by all the doubts and uncertainties clouding life. Now he can sit back and watch with amusement and humor all of life’s diversities. In a few tracks, breezy Hawaiian-tinged music serenades the listeners’ consciousness. Sunset skylines with orange bursts of life protruding from behind palm trees as calm, warm nights descend should be the welcoming visuals that we treat life.
Many of the subjects Ashley sings about are society’s so-called low-life. These are individuals who have received the worst life has to offer. Yet through playful, light-hearted guitar playing, Ashley reveals these subjects as more than society’s disdain but as human beings with interior complexities, who, like anyone else, are simply trying their best with their given luck. Ashley manages to portray these subjects as heroes of their own stories, who too have a journey to complete and must fight evils.
Despite their adversities, these heroes go through life with jovial attitudes, accepting whatever fates are given to them and doing the best they can under the circumstances. They still manage to laugh, love, make friends, have fun, and get high. Although many of the lyrics depict pessimistic situations, “…became an alcoholic for the pain…” from “Six a.m. at the Black and White.” Yet, then there are beautiful lines that reveal why we seek for love, “The lure of your body is an endless fascination,” from “Jailbirds and Vagabonds.” Ashley reminds the listeners that life is like this. There are moments when we are drowning from the weights of life, when there are no breaks to even take a breath of air. Yet, there are also those moments that we hope last forever, when we realize why we keep on living and loving, because there are simply too many wonderful possibilities to be discovered and reveled.