In May of 1992, I drove my red Nissan Sentra from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to Telluride, Colorado.
I was a twenty-year-old child philosopher, whiling away the summer between my junior and senior year on highways and mountain tops of The Great American West in search of answers for love and life and everything else.
The Sentra’s trunk was sparsely packed; a tent, sleeping bag, primitive Apple laptop, and two guitars: my brand-new Takamine, and my slightly-worn Ibanez.
My final stop was at my Aunt and Uncle’s home in Englewood, Colorado, where I left the Ibanez with my fifteen-year-old cousin, Andy. By the end of the summer, Andy was playing circles around me. By the following spring, his obsessive practicing had loosed the neck from the body. Later that year, he’d joined his first band, Seconds, which released its first CD shortly thereafter. In 2003, he begins two years of touring with Warner Bros. alternative rockers, World Leader Pretend.
Two beautiful solo albums (“Horse Dreams” and “Departures”) later, Andy has just released a third: “Those Who Forgive.”
The record (which you can download for free at Rock Proper Dot Com) is a dusty, rusty and ragged EP of haunted ballads and midtempo rockers. It’s lyrically dense, sonically cohesive, and sparsely textured. Imagine The Band crossed with Neil Young and Wilco but sadder-sounding and, somehow, you’re in the ballpark. Or, as Andy himself (writing in the third person) suggests so evocatively on his website:
Like a field reporter at a hurricane site, Wagner makes poetic the particulars of being lashed by the elements. Angry lovers and desperate loners populate this Midwestern weather map, sharing a flashlight in the cellar with Wilco, Calexico and Gram Parsons. There is a timelessness to Wagner’s music, it sounds current and somehow half-remembered.
Andy’s always sung as if he’s been up all night, leaning over a battered bar stacking empty shot glasses and smoking Camel Lights. And he probably has. Still, he’s never sounded stronger. His delivery is breathy. Vowels scrape past the back of his parched throat. Consonants linger on his chapped lips. He sounds exasperated, but waxing, not waning.
With former World Leader Pretend guitarist, Matt Martin, lending beats, and bassist Ben Clarke providing groove, this fine singer/songwriter — my cousin — has never sounded better.
Narratively, Andy’s “Those Who Forgive” is a life on the road, a year in the world, and a night on the town all in one, moving through contemplative lows and raucous highs in six, sweet, substantive three-minute songs.
The record builds to a reckless, rockin’ crescendo with “Sending My Love.” A serpentine, chunky electric-guitar hook and thumping back beat pushes and propels the album into late-night, beer-soaked foot-stomper territory.
Just as suddenly, though, the album turns. Before you know it, you’re alone on a Windy City curbside.
A few years ago, in the late-night firelight of my bachelor party, Chris Abad, Andy and I traded a few songs. Andy’s “So Long” brought the house down. Here, he performs over a maudlin tack piano and delivers late-night, neon-lit chills.
Surprise, I’m alive
Even though you shot me down
It’s a sad thing
When you can’t sing
And you lose yourself
Along the way
Andy picks himself up, dusts himself off, and begins his long walk home. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he sings on “My Blue Sea. “A few more years and I’ll be fine.”
Andy is wrestling something here: meaning, love, home. He’s seeking. Traveling. Finding his way. The record is a dark one. But it’s bright in the corners. Better still, it’s bright on the horizon.
“Two more hours ’til the sun will rise,” he sings on “What I’ve Been Looking For.”
With the future on my mind
And the city in the dark
About a hundred miles to go
I have to leave it all behind
Just to know what’s left behind
As with the long tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Andy’s “Those Who Forgive” is ultimately a journey. And like Tom Joad, Maggie and Wendy’s, the trip is a long one, though the destination is right around the corner.
“I think I see what I’ve been looking for for all these years,” Andy concludes. “My road leads back to you.”
I’ve been looking with him all these years too. We’ve spent hours walking and driving and drinking and singing and talking about life and truth and beauty and art and capitalism and family and friends and what it all means. I love him dearly, and feel a huge and deep kinship with his vision, ambition, and struggles. It’s impossible for me to listen to “Those Who Forgive” without filtering it through those dark waters and fine catacombs.
And in the end, as the lights flicker, the smoke clears, the last note fades and the hangover begins to ache, it’s impossible for me the believe that, for Andy, the road leads to anywhere other than precisely where he is right now.