There’s this part in Richard Pirsig’s philosophical pseudo-non fiction Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and this is mostly a spoiler, so if you have a copy crouching in your to-read pile then maybe skip down the page a little) in which the narrator must reconcile with his past self, a scientific-prodigy-turned-reclusive-professor type named Phaedrus. It’s kinda heady and metaphysical; but bear with me for a sec.
Phaedrus becomes obsessed with the concept of Quality, this seemingly pre-intellectual reality that exists that everyone experiences but cannot necessarily identify (he gives his freshman students a bunch of essays and they can tell which ones are shitty and which are great even though they can’t really articulate why, etc.) Phaedrus goes on this mental quest to pin down this concept of Quality and our human interaction with it and it like literally blows his mind, he has a nervous breakdown and has to undergo a shock therapy that gives him a new personality.
The book tracks him and his young son on this 17 day transcontinental motorcycle trip where he gives these philosophical lectures and has dreams about glass doors, and he is sort of an ass to his son, and he chats with some friends about the different approaches to keeping a motorcycle hummin’. The narrator is all the while coming to terms with the ghosts of his past ideas, of Phaedrus, of what it means to exist meaningfully. “Who really can face the future?” Pirisig ponders in the Afterword. “All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?”
“The past and the future are swirling around in my head...”
It’s oh so wonderfully fitting, then, that these are first lines on Don’t Hold God to a Promise He / She Can’t Keep, the new release from Corey Kilgannon, writing under the pseudonym Radiant Phaedrus. Kilgannon, the Florida-born balladeer of modern heartbreak, has been quietly and consistently accumulating a lovely and prolific discography that wrestles, rests, ruminates and hums. As Radiant Phaedrus, Kilgannon taps directly into the vein of previously released songs like “Heaven”, “Narcotics”, “Unable”: throwing politics, religion, loss, forgiveness and hope into the fire and painting pictures with the smoke. They’re comedown hymns for our modern American overexposure. Tired, angry, beautiful, super-connected.
Evoking the breathless, lo-fi confessional misty masterworks of Little Wings or The Microphones, DHGTAPH/SCK is most aesthetically related to Bruce Springsteen’s dusty and oft-overlooked Nebraska (I suppose now is as good a time as any to air my biases, Nebraska is one of my favorite records and Corey is a mentor, a friend, a cosmic brother). Sparsely recorded on a digital 8-track Tascam (Springsteen’s Portasound was an analog predecessor), Kilgannon paints with a simple pallette. Acoustic guitars, dobro, melodica, and upright piano daintily dress these tunes, walking them through the mist.
There’s always a hum, a static, bubbling beneath Kilgannon’s vignettes that bathe each song in a familiar, mostly inaudible comfort, like the news left on while cooking alone, the ceiling fan spinning while falling asleep.
Sharp, stark, and honest but never accusatory, DHGTAPH/SCK shines his flashlight on privilege and the shuddering weight of decency. Race, sexual orientation, white girls drinking lattes and taking mission trips just for the instagram, porn, masturbation, shrooms, doctors in mansions, Brock Turner: everything and everyone is packed in there, sometimes all inside a single song. It sounds exhausting, but Kilgannon’s songwriting never stands at a place of judgment, it instead walks alongside both victim and perpetrator in pure understanding, in staggering empathy. These are not protest songs. They are songs of understanding, and Kilgannon pens them with a perception and a brutal elegance and a humor that is so hard to hone and triangulate that it can really just be chalked up the fact that he’s just a fucking natural. If you’re not sold, just give even half a listen to “As above, So Below.”
These days it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and it's hard to know how to capture things. Any attempt to fold together some sort of meaning in a picture or a song can just feel half assed and asymptotic, like, as Kilgannon perfectly notes, trying to snap an iphone photo of a full moon. (“Put the phone away, kiss her on the face, because the whole world will unravel soon.” I mean COME ON PEOPLE! Go listen to this thing!) Don’t Hold God to a Promise He / She Can’t Keep provides probably the only antidote for the unravel and the beauty and the confusion of this moment, and it’s not a protest, but an understanding, that everyone got the past and the future swirling around in there head.