Bob Sumner wears his heart on his sleeve for a collection of weepers
You can’t get through life without a little bit of pain. Americana godsend Bob Sumner wears his as an emblem on his tattered, blue-jean jacket.
Wasted Love Songs, his first solo album apart from his work as one-half of The Sumner Brothers, who’ve released six records to-date, collects trinkets of pain together in a raw, breathtaking displaying. Dust collects on each figurine, and through his often wistful, tragically-broken vocals, he picks his bones clean of the past.
“No one gets through this life unscathed. That’s why those sad songs can strike such a deep chord,” he broods about the album’s foundation, cracks splintering off throughout each of the nine songs. Every syllable bares the weight of devastation upon its back, worming its way through the cavernous ruins of the human existence, from throbbing desire to crippling disasters and back. “What’s a poor boy to do? / My tears are dry and my pockets are, too / It’s a shame, it’s a damned pity,” he waxes lonesome on a long-distance relationship with “New York City,” tripping over his tears.
From the sublimely venomous “All Your Dead Things” to the barroom whimper “Worn Down Boy” and the icy but empathetic “Ticket to Ride,” Sumner engages with the most sorrowful passages of life and time in wide, vibrant brushstrokes. He takes great care to frame his characters and their tragedies and pain and regrets as they are, unfiltered and poetically cheerless. His portraits are lined with warm, often enveloping, production, as if a dream from which we can never wake. The smorgasbord of musicians, which includes Etienne Tremblay (guitars), Leon Power (drums), Paul Rigby (guitars), Chris Gestrin (piano, synths), Jesse Zubot (strings), Matthew Kelly (pedal steel, organ, piano) and Brain Sumner (electric guitar), loosen the emotional screws and allow Sumner to embody the full-bodied potential in his craft.
“I guess these songs are kind of a smattering of new and old. Funny though, they kind of all still feel new to me,” he says. I’ve always wanted to make a record that carries a pretty consistent vibe. It’s mostly how I listen to music. Something about my chemicals, It’s what I want to hear; it’s what makes me feel good. These songs are my heroine.”
Wasted Love Songs, produced by long-time collaborator Erik Nielsen, who also plays bass, is the kind of timeless statement piece that transcends peoples, cultures, beliefs. Sumner strikes a nerve on his expansive concept record, uncovering emotions the listener may never have really understood or confronted before. He rends the very heart from your chest in one quick slice, and you never saw it coming.
Over email, he explores the album’s heartbreaking themes and discusses the necessity of universal pain.
In revisiting these songs, did their stories and messages hit you in a more profound way than before?
I’ve never had a problem singing old songs I’ve written. If the song survives, it’s because the story still has the ability to affect me. If I can’t tap into that original emotion, then it’s done. Sometimes I’ll displace the sentiment, give it a new face, but the heart of the thing is still there.
Did you hold any reservations with an album of ballads as your first solo effort?
Naw, it’s just where I’m at. It’s what I want to hear, so it’s what I want to put out. Funny, I have a vivid memory of driving through Arizona listening to Doug Sahm. Joyous music. I remember thinking, “If I was ever to write this kind of thing, I’d have to get the fuck out of Vancouver for a while. Live somewhere the sun shines more than a couple months of the year.” Vancouver is a grey place most of the time.
“All Your Dead Things” is an especially potent moment. I can’t get this lyric out of my head: “Your heart ain’t fit for a shelf.” What led you to write this?
That is a pretty scathing song. I was pretty torn up when I wrote it. The girl that had broken my heart had this collection of heart shaped rocks from previous boyfriends she kept on her shelf. That image burned on my mind.
Ballads really allow you to examine your own heartache and misery in a way other kinds of songs don’t. Do you feel sad songs expose more depth to humanity and our existence?
Pain is universal. There are those who it is heaped upon, unjustly, and I can barely stand to fathom their suffering. And then there is the everyday stuff. I see it everywhere I go. I see it in the couple in a cafe who have nothing left to say to each other. I see it in the lady at the dead end job whose hopes and dreams lay dead. Everyone experiences death, of course. There is cheating, betrayal, failure…and it’s all around us all the time. I guess calling it out, giving it a name and sharing the load is what it is all about. I want to write songs that are universal, that we can all understand and that might be cathartic.
How has pain in your own life propelled you forward?
I’ve got an incredible amount of good fortune. I live like a king. I eat what I want, when I want to. My family is second to none; we love and care for each other to the end. I can say the same of my girlfriend and my friends. I’ve jumped out of a plane, rode horses across fields, sailed boats on the ocean, sang songs to thousands of people, read endless books, listened to endless music, drank excessively, been paid good money for good work, been loved deeply. The constant injections of pain reminds me of what I’ve got.
“Rosalee” is another standout and a remarkably soothing performance, almost a sigh of emotion. What is this one about?
Romantic Love. It’s beauty, and it’s impossible reality. It’s so hard. I had just been given Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet.’ There is a reason that book has been translated into over 110 languages. Incredibly profound, universal stuff. Those lyrics, “His wings shall enfold / His sword shall pierce,” are pretty well stolen from his poem “On Love”:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.”
Our culture is obsessed with the fairytale of romantic love, and it’s bullshit. It seeps into real life relationships, and people spook at the first sight of hardship. It’s insane. Relationships are as ugly as they are beautiful. They always are. Kahlil understood this.
With “Worn Down Boy,” you take a look at fleeting youth and growing old, especially through the lens of being a songwriter. How have you wrestled with that?
There is mortality there, for sure. But “Worn Down Boy” is really about a lifestyle. I choose my friends carefully. Most of them live pretty hard. Some of my closest friends have lost control and lost themselves. Others walk that line. At some point, all that stuff doesn’t look the way it used to when you were young. There is a critical difference between a room full of booze, song, laughter, and an empty room with a man or woman drinking alone.
“Ticket to Ride” is one helluva way to end the record. It seems to really capture the tragic poeticism of living and dying. I know the story behind the song (the time you witnessed a homeless couple buying a lottery ticket in your hometown), but how have you come to find yourself within this story?
I can’t relate to suicidal tendencies, but I can empathize. I feel pretty fortunate to have a good chemical balance. I possess a voracious love for life and as a result, a pretty terrible fear of death. I’ve had many friends throughout the years struggle with depression and contemplate suicide. Their struggle is devastatingly real. I can understand the giving up, though I despise its existence. I don’t suppose there can be any greater tragedy.