029 :: FREE

Listen to "029 :: FREE" on Spreaker.


"Free From the Guillotine" by Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band, from Dancing on the Edge, released by Sophomore Lounge in 2023. Listen / Buy direct


I want to do something that's not easy for me to do on this show: I want to talk about an artist who's first and foremost a lyricist. Which means I will be talking over the very lyrics I want to highlight. It ain't gonna be pretty – but hey, life isn't always a walk in the park now, is it?

What a perfect opening couplet. Someone in the singer's life just "got a new tattoo of an old tattoo". A friend, or an acquaintance, or maybe a stranger – but at any rate, someone wanting more of the same, or perhaps nostalgic for the past. The singer, meanwhile, and in contrast, has been restless, as they've "hunted and hunted for the dreams [they] thought [they] wanted". It may seem like no more than an offhand observation, but it sets the stage for the rest of the song, which finds the singer again and again sitting on the edge of their community and wondering if now might be the time to jump off.

The song is filled with these gem-like, off-kilter aphorisms – wry turns of phrase that always get at something deeper, in the way that only metaphor can, like "we are busted stitches in the patchwork of the flag" or "I'm doing 25-to-life just waiting on a friend to get back from a piss". How better to encapsulate those twin feelings of unbelonging and captivity, of alienation and familiarity? You can almost see the singer leaning over a bar, looking out at the crowd and contemplating that next round, wishing for something different, while for the moment having nowhere else to be.

But I don't want to be too reductive here. I don't want to suggest that these lyrics mean any one thing. The language is figurative, not literal, and that means it's less about what the lyrics are saying and more about all the things they bring to mind. It's about that free play of the imagination that such imagery stirs up inside us. And that's why, I suppose, the song feels to me at its best when it's at its most enigmatic and gnomic. Like what does that mean – "a negligible fraction of the holy trinity"? I love it, but not because I can decipher it. I love it for all the associations it conjures up – of cosmic insignificance, of a fall from grace, but also of the divinity still within us. In a word, it's poetry.

And that brings us to the song's leading image: "to be free from the guillotine" – another resonant metaphor, suggestive of so much: the sharp bite of social ostracism, the spectre of retribution, and the shining promise of liberation on the other side.

But the singer is always quick to undercut their own triumphalism. They're breaking free, sure, but they're not quite there yet. As they put it:

I'm here halfway through at best
With no clear pathway through the rest
Playing contract tambourine in a shipyard plumber's band

The singer doesn't know where they're headed; they just know that they've gotta go, and that they're gonna ruffle some feathers along the way, becoming "a willingly endangered bird of prey".

It all feels so relatable, even if I'd never think to put it in precisely these words. It's that feeling you get when you recognize that you need to get out, to turn your back on the world you've known and make a better life for yourself, even though you have no idea what that life will be.

And it's here that the song's persistent specificity starts to dilate and expand. The singer isn't just singing about themselves; they're singing about all of us – about the fixes we've all been in, the doubts that've held us there, and the dreams we're all hunting of finally being free.

Liner Notes

I was turned on to Ryan Davis by MJ Lenderman, whom I featured on this show back in 2022.