In one of the more unlikely pairings of the year, Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard has teamed up with Jay Farrar, currently of Son Volt, famously of Uncle Tupelo, to release One Fast Move or I'm Gone, a soundtrack to the film of the same name, consisting of 12 songs with lyrics taken directly from the pages of Jack Kerouac's 1962 novel, Big Sur.
Written three years after On the Road was published, Big Sur is about Kerouac's attempt to escape his newfound fame. He'd been drinking more than ever and found himself unable to get any writing done. In an attempt to clean himself up and get back to work, he holed up in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur. The isolation made him drink even more, though, and he grew massively depressed. Consensus seems to be that he never quite recovered: He would die of cirrhosis nine years later, at the age of 47.
It's a narrative that Ben Gibbard in particular has taken quite a shine to of late. He stayed in the same cabin as Kerouac for two weeks when he was putting the finishing touches on a few songs for Death Cab's Narrow Stairs album, and he wrote an essay about his experience for Paste Magazine. "Because of my age and what I do for a living and the amount of time that I've spent away from my family and loved ones,"he wrote, "I'm starting to relate more to the late-period Kerouac stuff in the way that I once related to the fun and excitement of the early material."
There's a little bit of self-mythologizing going on here, of course, and the idea of romanticizing a book like Big Sur and the type of life (and death) it led to is perhaps a little childish, but it's not difficult to understand the urge to set Kerouac's rhythmic, flowing words to music. It just turns out it doesn't work very well when the music is bland alt-country. There is, after all, a reason the Beat movement was always so closely associated with jazz. If you've ever heard the recordings of Kerouac reading with the accompaniment of a jazz band, you know how well it works, how his words were able to shine because they weren't restrained by the strict formats of popular music.
This is the main reason One Fast Move is a disappointment. The transition of the words from page to song was bumpy, to say the least, leading to some painfully awkward phrasing and ultimately robbing the prose of the one thing it had going for it in the first place.
Occasionally, though, the awkwardness does work. Album-opener "California Zephyr"is a perfect example of the rushed delivery that wreaks havoc all over the record. But here, thanks to Gibbard's generally pleasant and excitable demeanor, there's a sense that he's trying to fit in as many words as possible, and while it can sound sort of silly, it's at least in keeping with the spirit of Kerouac's writing. Most of the record's high points ("All In One,""These Roads Don't Move") come courtesy of Gibbard, whose voice is pristine enough that it's easy to focus on the lyrics. (It's also pristine enough that you wish he would quit Death Cab and make simple, pretty folk records for the rest of his life, but that's a topic for another day.)
Jay Farrar doesn't fair nearly as well. His vocals are infuriatingly mumbly, which I guess has always been his thing. It's particularly irksome here, though, where the entire idea of the project is to call attention to the lyrical content. He's never been the most energetic performer, at least not in a very long time, but by sounding so consistently bored, he does a substantial disservice to the source material. It's true, of course, that Big Sur is about someone growing increasingly defeated and depressed, so the dreary tone almost works. But it's important to remember that even when things were at their darkest for Kerouac, his words maintained a beautiful, youthful liveliness. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for much of One Fast Move.