A fitting finale that even tries new things
There’s an Animaniacs clip in which Yakko, Wakko and Dot end up in hell, where the Devil promises to subject them to an agony worse than all others: an eternity listening to whiny protest song from the 1960s. The general relationship with old-school folk music is complicated. In one era, such instantly dated music seems unlikely to resonate in the contemporary era of ‘ok boomer’ and other forms of generational warfare. On the other hand, the best of the genre touched on themes in a timeless way that still resonates with those fighting for a better world today. Peggy Seeger, either on her own or with longtime partner Ewan MacColl, seems to fit into this upper echelon with equal parts righteous and sly songwriting. Her likely final album, First Farewell, is not a reinvention by any means, but she does branch out into a pit of piano playing alongside powerful musings about death, politics and especially a long life.
MacColl has gone for rootsier tones, such as the faster banjos on “Love Call Me Home.” None of that is present here, as the album is quite dour and dramatic. It’s one of her first albums to feature heavy use of piano in addition to the bouncy plucks on “Gotta Get Home By Midnight,” the accordion on “Tree Of Love” and the forceful strokes on “The Invisible Woman.” Though the compositions are not complicated, the bouncy waltz of “Lubrication” and especially the dramatic notes against the haunting clarinet on “One Of Those Beautiful Boys” are effective and fit the overall mood. Her son Calum MacColl shows up for two duets, and his tenderness and thoughtful delivery results in some fantastic chemistry on “All In The Mind.” It was disappointing that he wasn’t on more songs, especially since the odd, conversational cadence of “We Are Here” does not highlight his obvious talents.
In school, there were a lot of books with teenagers as main characters going through a coming-of-age. The literature that stood out in contrast centered on older figures, like The Blind Assassin, who had lived full lives and had to wrestle in the face of their temporary mortality. Similarly, the most interesting material on First Farewell highlights Seeger’s experience and age. The album opens on a fantastic note with “Dandelion and Clover,” where Seeger grapples with outliving past lovers and her husband, yet takes solace in the memories she has of them that she’ll always have. “Tree Of Love” elevates itself from a simple, accordion-filled love song into something special with a final verse, where she celebrates 30 years of love and ends the song saying, “And should our tree of love fall down/ I’d care not what came after.” The wittiest song on the record is the closing “Gotta Get Home by Midnight,” a strange remake of the Cinderella myth where Seeger tries to pretend to be younger than she is, only for her Prince Charming to accept her and want to run his hands through her curly grey hair. Hearing such frank yet optimistic depictions of love from an older person is rare and endlessly romantic.
Though the relationship-centered songs are the highlight, the more political tracks are worthwhile too. “The Invisible Women” is full of simmering bitterness that matches the truncated, punctual playing, as Seeger conjures absurd situations involving clown shoes to comment on female contributions getting ignored by men. Similarly, “Lubrication” is a bizarre juxtaposition of sex and the environment that is very different from the typical “men are raping Mother Nature” of this combination and yet works with a more jovial, playful feel. “All In The Mind” does not leave its glorious harmonies to do the heavy lifting all on their own, as it highlights how success is no guarantee for happiness and “there isn’t a way, map, or sign” to find it. The only song on First Farewell that does not work and fits firmly into “old people complaining about kids on their lawn” territory is “We Are Here.” While its observations about the difficulties of stopping disinformation are valuable, those are awkwardly crammed alongside typical fears of people looking at their phones and which is far less interesting to listen to. Furthermore, the final line in the verse, instead of highlighting the real issue of families ripped apart by fake news and polarized media climate, is “And show you an orange man strutting off the edge of the world You laugh too, then start to cry.” It’s an unfortunate and obvious misstep on an otherwise well-performed and written send off that is devastating yet ultimately inspiring.