Ever since Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, I have had a fascination with albums about states. In the wake of Sufjan’s failure to complete the project, this fascination grew to the point that I write imagined track lists for state albums that don’t exist. So I am not exaggerating when I say that the rare album that honors a state or region gives me great joy, such as the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas, Gifts or Creatures’ Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin), the oddball crowdsourcing of the Our Fifty States Project, and now Harrison Lemke‘s Forever Only Idaho. The concept of Lemke’s album makes the record one that I want to like, prima facie. Thankfully, Lemke’s songwriting and lyrics repay the desire, as this is an easy candidate for album of the year for me.
I am not the only one enamored with the Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas: sonically, Forever Only Idaho is an album that could slot neatly between the aggressively lo-fi All Hail West Texas and the scuzzy, brilliant Tallahassee in the Mountain Goats’ chronology. Lemke’s vocals are sweeter than John Darnielle’s nasal yawp, but the melodic structures and arrangement styles are spot-on for early ’00s tMG. Good news for me, a huge Mountain Goats fan!
The majority of the album is a chipper, mid-fi acoustic indie sound that would be a perfect fit in the early ’00s and in any revival of that sound thereupon. Brilliant opener “Only Idaho, Forever” fits a strummy, lightly jangly guitar line over a perky kit, then adorns it with Lemke’s impassioned vocals. Follow-up “Silverlake” slows the tempo into a croon of sorts and amps up the bass, but overall it’s the same vibe. There’s echoes of the casual indie-country of Clem Snide throughout, most prominently in the charming “Exonerated.” The horns in “Silverlake” are lovely and languid. The only low point in this vein is the overly-affected 2:13 of “Hayden Hello”; if the lyrics weren’t critical for the narrative of the record, the main melodic ideas probably could have been folded into one of the other 8-9 brilliant tunes here in the same sonic vein with little fuss.
Beyond the chipper indie-folk, some well-placed sonic outliers exist: the nostalgic ’80s no-wave of “The Old Band”; the ominous blues-shuffle of “Burn Down the Title Loan”; and the spartan, touching ballad “Missed Connection Blues.”
“Missed Connection Blues” is admirable not just because of its beauty, but because of the poignancy of its lyrics. Lemke is a keen observer and a direct reporter of facts, passing caring but unsparing judgment on the lives of the people who can never quite seem to leave their hometown of Couer D’Alene, Idaho. Lemke currently hails from Austin, but his sudden shift from third-person to first-person in the last line of opus “Your Hometown” strongly suggests that he is also from Kootenai County. A person from a small town can write about this feeling in “Missed Connection Blues” with ease: “This one’s for all our friends who never made it free / never bought a Thunderbird / never went to Italy / never made it free.”
I grew up in a suburb instead of a small town, but nevertheless the lyrics of Forever Only Idaho resonate deeply with me. All of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a giant suburb of nothing, but the southern part is a suburb of that suburb, before you hit the little towns that are literally suburbs: Bixby, Broken Arrow, Owasso, points farther on. To wit, I have lived this exact experience from “Local Business”:
In town for the weekend
wedding of a former friend
and everything has changed again
The stores and bars on Sherman
look just like Portland or Brooklyn;
it’s all been rearranged again.
Furthermore, I could quote you any line of “Visit Beautiful Couer D’Alene” as close to my personal experience. But it’s the epic at the end of the record, the seven-minute (!) “Your Hometown,” that sells this experience most boldly. At the high point, the main character who couldn’t escape town calls out, “”You want to be a city / and I want to be a star / but when you get down to it / that isn’t what we are.” Now that raised the hair on my arms. “Robbie moved to Arizona / Josiah tried out LA / Courtney got married to a Mormon guy / Michael ended in A.A.,” Lemke wistfully notes in “The Old Band.” I’m writing to you from Chandler, Phoenix, Arizona.
While these songs individually speak to my experience, the immaculate structure of the record further lands this record in my heart. “Only Idaho, Forever” opens the record as a perfect thesis statement of what’s going to happen: “Fools with dollar signs for eyes / have been selling you your life / one weekend at a time, saying you’ll go far / but you’re still nowhere, so far.” The 2:19 of the opener is about as tidy a 138 seconds as you can get: distinctive lyrics in the verses, clever chorus, earworm melody, and a clear sense of what the song (and the record) is trying to achieve. The rest of the album spools out various tales of small-town struggle, from a condemnation of materialism as personal meaning in “Silverlake” to a complex relationship with Christianity in “Wonderful Life” to the person still dreaming of getting out of there late in life on the devastatingly-titled “This Is Not the Year.” The songs speak to and improve each other, thematically: consider “Hayden Hello,” “Burn Down the Title Loan,” and “Exonerated,” in that order. After the bulk of the record, “Your Hometown” comes along and re-tells the album, like when Sufjan uses “Impossible Soul” to retell Age of Adz.
But instead of leaving it there, Lemke delivers the title track as the closer. He returns to the chorus structure from “Only Idaho, Forever,” but slows down the tempo so that the last line of the original chorus needs to be held out longer than Lemke can really even hold it. It sounds like his will losing a fight to the limitations of his body, which is pretty much how you end up staying in your hometown. The song becomes a rumination on the infinite loop of life in a small town: “Now Amy’s on the steps, watchful-eyed / seven months with child.” And that loop is, for some, truly inescapable: “Any fool’s gonna tell you / this is no kind of life / but they don’t know where the echoes go / forever only Idaho.”
Harrison Lemke’s Forever Only Idaho is the culmination of years of “tape-hiss symphonies to God.” The work has paid off: this record is a top-shelf, best-of-the-year sort of album. Sonically, the writing and performance is almost uniformly fully-realized. Lyrically, it’s the rare concept record where each song is better because it is part of this particular record with its sibling songs. Even the album art is perfect. If you like any type of indie music, this is a must-listen for 2021. Highly recommended.