Jack Kerouac, author of the Beat Generation bible On the Road, once said that the only truth is music. But Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (Son Volt) have found the reverse true: Kerouac’s writing, which they’ve long loved, could give their music the honesty they craved. So it was only natural that the indie rockers collaborated on the score for a Kerouac documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone, based on the author’s autobiographical novel Big Sur. Drawing 90 percent of their lyrics from the text itself, the doe-eyed, shaggy-haired duo turned the score into a full-length album. The result is a tender, nostalgic piece of folk-rock Americana that celebrates Kerouac at his best—his most insightful—while acknowledging his darker moods.
Stymied by an alcohol habit he couldn’t kick and an America he no longer understood, Kerouac wrote Big Sur while sequestered in a cabin in Big Sur, Calif.—where Gibbard also stayed while working on a Death Cab album. In an attempt to capture pure sound, Big Sur disintegrates into an ode to the sea that hints at Kerouac’s declining emotional health: “Terplash . . . Is Virgin you trying to fathom me Tiresome old sea, ain’t you sick & tired of all of this merde? . . . this incessant boom boom & sand walk?”
This is the restless mind that defined a generation. “I’m writing this book because we’re all going to die,” Kerouac said once. The song “Big Sur” is aptly melancholic, but the lyrics “Here comes the nightly moth to his nightly death / In Big Sur / The best thing to do is not be false” are not so obsessed with death as they are with honesty. The song taps into the essence of Kerouac’s philosophy—his mortality never slows his lust for life. What we admire in Kerouac is not his carelessness, but his fearlessness.
Gibbard’s sprightly tenor blends smoothly with Farrar’s bluesy voice throughout the album. In “These Roads Don’t Move”, great vocal harmonies send off each line with a little push, like a hitchhiker who thumbs each car with a little twinge of hope. Some fans of Death Cab or Son Volt may be impatient with the slow-rolling roots grooves—more swaying than indie types are used to. But this album captures Kerouac’s emotional range in a way that speaks to the musical tastes of this generation, and for that reason alone, Kerouac would dig it.
Gibbard and Farrar perform One Fast Move or I’m Gone at the Showbox at the Market on Sunday, January 24, at 8pm. $24 adv/$28 doors.
Find out what else is going on this weekend here.