The Soft Ache and the Moon

Richard Edwards is operating on borrowed time.


By all rights, he should be coasting down the other side of the hill by now.


Most artists follow a long-established creative path – a short, early creative burst of self-discovery followed by a blissful (and usually brief) period of brilliance – which usually tapers into an autumn of sorts…brought on by complacency or a drought of ideas or inspiration.


Even for some of the best and brightest, this cycle can run its course in the span of a decade…for a lucky few, maybe an extra year or two. Longetivity is usually a side-effect, a result of the trappings of greatness – if you do something that shifts the ground beneath your feet, you get the bonus benefit of riding on your own coattails in the aftermath. Let’s not kid ourselves, though – no one who goes to see what’s left of Fleetwood Mac or the Rolling Stones is going to the show to hear any of the songs recorded in a year that didn’t start with the number nineteen.


Luck and talent will extend a window, and if you’re ready – something beautiful and unique will flow through you and into the world, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Richard Edwards’ window appears to have been open for an abnormally long time.

Richard found his voice while fronting the late, lamented Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s – the band made half a dozen albums (including two versions of the same record) between 2005 and their final album, Slingshot to Heaven, in 2014.


Slingshot was a harbinger of both triumph and disaster. The album itself was easily the crown jewel of the Margot years, tilting its hand at Edwards’ maturity as an artist, but he fell ill unexpectedly, and was sidelined in the middle of touring the record. He was diagnosed with C. Diff – a rare intestinal disease that nearly killed him. In the aftermath, his marriage crumbled and he found himself homeless, couch-surfing while trying to heal himself both physically and emotionally.


The record that ultimately became his solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, started to take shape amidst the chaos of his life in those days.


He’d later say, “Some records you make because it’s been a couple of years and you have some songs that you think are pretty good. Others burn a hole inside of you so hot that you’ll do anything to get them out. It’s these records over which you obsess — they make you crazy and you develop ulcers. They kill some people. Getting them right is more important than food or air. No sacrifice is too great when it comes to their completion.”


To say that they kill some people may sound melodramatic, but even a cursory look at Richard’s life during the time leading up to the moment that LCSS saw the light of day strips away any layers of pretension from such a statement. Emaciated from the aftermath of medical treatments and accompanying weight loss, devastated from the collapse of his marriage – “I spent hours repeating my daughter’s name until I fell asleep,” he said. “Finishing the record was this flashing light that kept me just far enough away from some waters I was getting too close to.”


It’s hard for most people to imagine that any artistic pursuit could possibly be worth what Edwards went through, in terms of extreme levels of every kind of pain known to man, to see this record through to fruition…but it’s not for those of us on the outside to decide such things.

Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset is a record for the ages. It’s loose in places and dreamy in others, and it’s as personal and vulnerable a record as you’ll ever hear – all the more so if you know even a skeletal version of the story of its creator.


In the midst of the turmoil leading up to the record, Edwards posted a long, detailed open letter of sorts on the Margot Facebook page that accompanied a demo recording of a song called Moonwrapped – the post later disappeared but the song lingered in the periphery, and ended up closing the album (later with an accompanying video). It’s one of those songs that leaves you suspended in a state of ache and tension that can only be followed by a moment of silence and contemplation – the perfect mile marker for the end of such a record.


There’s a lot of “Goodbye” in LCSS – there’s a lot of California in LCSS, too, as being on the West Coast became a safe harbor of sorts for Edwards during the completion of the record. Certainly, the pain is palpable, but Richard is somewhat philosophical about it. He later said that “it dawned on me that my purpose might be, if only in this moment, to be a faithful steward of this pain. To turn it into something worthy of its awful power and, in the process, take back some of what had been taken from me.”

It’s a record where you can hear the pain even in the fleshed-out, uptempo songs – but it rewards return visits unlike any record I can point to that’s been made in the past twenty years. I won’t bore you with a recitation of adjectives…I’ll simply tell you that this record will make you feel things you’d forgotten how to feel.

It’s that good.


And he made it years down the road from where he started.


His proverbial window was already open, and – in 2017, after over a dozen years of writing and recording, he’d made the best record he’d ever made.

Until now.

I had made myself a promise in early 2020, after it became apparent that this year was going to become the clusterfuck shitshow that it’s become, that I was going to try to honor a self-imposed moratorium on new music for a while. I’d just lean on stuff that I already had attached to other periods of my life while I rode out whatever would become of the Year of COVID. I didn’t want to unjustly attach any of the events of this Garbage Year to anything that I hadn’t heard before, because – it just didn’t seem fair to the art.


I think of my daughter whenever I hear Bright as Yellow by Innocence Mission. I think of my oldest son when I hear Watching the Wheels by Lennon, I think of standing on the roof of a parking garage in Philadelphia when I hear Long December by Counting Crows – I have an exhaustive list of this kind of thing, and music attaches itself to signposts in my life like barnacles on the hull of a ship, and I didn’t see anything about this period of my life that I wanted to sync to anything that I might like.


So that new Phoebe Bridgers record? It can wait. The new Isbell record? It can wait. The Father John Misty EP? Later.

The new Richard Edwards record – The Soft Ache and the Moon – not ready yet.


And I held out for a long time, I swear I did.


Until I didn’t.

I don’t recall specifically what broke my will – I suppose it was no different than an alcoholic breaking loose from the thin thread that tethered them to sobriety, in a way…at some point, I just clicked on the BandCamp link and listened without a thought to the consequences of what I was about to do.


And then I couldn’t get out of bed.

For a couple of days. Seriously. I got up to go to the bathroom, or to wander through the house and touch base with my wife and my son (who’s almost the same age as Richard’s daughter), but I just needed to be in a room with the door closed…no interruptions, no banter in the background…and I drifted back and forth between sleep and listening to this record for most of the weekend.

I mean – on a creative level, I don’t get it. This shouldn’t be happening.


Richard Edwards is fifteen years in. He should be getting bored by now.

He should be rehashing themes and ideas from prior records, taking the safe or the easy path from point A to point B…he should be at least leaning towards the notion of phoning it in.


That’s how it’s usually done, after all.


I’ve been chewing on this for a minute, and – other than the stories we all know already (Aretha Franklin’s CBS recordings prior to signing with Atlantic and finding her voice being the most well-known of them), I can’t think of anybody…ANYBODY…who’s made a record this compelling this far down their personal artistic path.

We get older. We become preoccupied…complacent, even.


If we become notorious, we become more focused on remaining notorious than remaining true to our art.


The Soft Ache and the Moon is a record borne from a wellspring of courage and vulnerability, and it dares you to try to listen to it casually.


It’ll sneak up on you – you can put it on in the car, sure…but you might miss your exit getting swallowed up in Better World a’ Coming or January and have to double back. You might find your head bobbing to Monkey or Cruel and Uncomplicated and getting lost in the cracks and textures between the layers of guitars and the space between the notes.


Sonically, it resides in the same neighborhood as Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset – thanks in part to ace musicians like Mike Bloom and Pete Thomas, but it’s hard to imagine these songs existing in alternate forms. The production is lush and colorful, the songs are masterfully crafted, and delivered with Edwards’ trademark plaintive, distinctive tenor.


I don’t think this record is for everybody. In fact, I’m glad it’s not for everybody.


This record is a treasure, to be shared among people who are capable of appreciating it for what it is, what is represents, what it will make you feel…whether you planned on feeling or not. These records represent a modern day parallel to the Big Star albums – they’re a common denominator between people who experience music in a specific way.


Don’t believe me? Just skip straight to the final two songs on the record.

Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed), followed by Velvet Ocean, Super Moon – continues Edwards’ penchant for closing his records with songs that dare you to add them to playlists, songs that refuse to be followed by anything but silence for a few minutes afterward.


For this record, closing with one emotional gut-punch was apparently deemed insufficient, so he settled on a one-two combination…to devastating effect.


I think that, in the case of some records, knowing an artists’ backstory adds a layer to our ability to appreciate those works on a musical level. Whether it’s Blue or Rumours or I’m Alive or Blood on the Tracks or any number of other records borne out of turmoil, knowing the lay of the land upon which those records were created adds a degree of impact.

In this case, there’s a layer of poignance to these songs that comes with knowing Richard’s story and even casually observing his journey over these past few years (we’re acquaintances – I would hesitate to call myself a friend, because I haven’t known him that long). Even if you’re a casual Instagram follower, I don’t know how you listen to Velvet Ocean, Super Moon without shedding a tear – knowing what he’s been through over the past half decade, “shedding a tear” would be getting off easy. (I think the kids these days call it “ugly crying”.)


In this record, I can hear his love for his daughter, his deep connection to Southern California, his nerdy obsession with classic movies (easter eggs ranging from name-dropping TCM in Better World a’Coming to the piano fills in the bridge on Monkey) – not knowing about these things doesn’t inhibit ones’ ability to appreciate the record, but they create a sense of familiarity between the artist and the listener when we see the bigger picture.


The universal gift of great art is that it’s created by someone who feels something intensely enough to use their skill to transform it into something that can be experienced by someone else who can feel it on a similar level. It’s the sharing of joy and sorrow in a transformational way on a level that allows us to connect through those shared experiences.


In this case, all those caveats apply – but it can also be said that it’s just a Fucking Great Record.


I’ve recovered sufficiently that I can listen to it while actually being productive…so I think I’m gonna be ok. I’ll definitely be better for having listened to it.


And…as it turns out, my fears were unfounded.


The songs on this record found and chose their own moments in my life to bind themselves to, completely independent of my own will.


Velvet Ocean, Super Moon lifts me out of the present and deposits me into an old, battleship grey chair in my apartment over Fifth Street in Reading after my first marriage crumbled, sitting alone in front of a drafting table next to the window over the street, working on a sketch of my daughter from a photograph.


Better World and January remind me of Philadelphia in wintertime, in another lost year in a prior millenium.


It’s almost as if the songs are somehow COVID-proof, and have decided instead to seek out their own niche in my head…as if I’d known them all my life.


There are a handful of records that I’ve tripped over in my life that I knew – the first time I heard them, even – that they were going to be with me for a long, long time. They’re a rag-tag, dissimilar bunch – from Son Volt’s Trace to Janis Ian’s Between the Lines to August and Everything After by Counting Crows…but none of those records have the continuity this album has, nor do they feel as timeless as Soft Ache does…this record is an instant companion, for me.


I can’t promise it will affect you as deeply as it affected me – in fact, I wouldn’t expect it to. But you’ll find something to love somewhere among the intimate, instantly familiar soundscape of this masterful record.

If nothing else, take heart in the fact that someone who’s almost two decades into this game is still willing to dig this deep, to reveal this much, and to give a shit about the actual art of making a great record while the rest of the fucking world is on fire.

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