Adam Levy’s New Group Turn Turn Turn Hits With Debut Record, Can’t Go Back

June 28, 2020

I don't know what’s in your CD player right now; It’s a weird time for music like it’s a weird time for everything. But if you’re like me, you’ve been finding solace in music. If you’ve been primarily streaming (and who isn’t?) I’d highly recommend popping in an actual CD, or better yet, some newly pressed 180-gram vinyl. That’s where Adam Levy’s newly minted album Can’t Go Back in a new band configuration comes in. Turn Turn Turn is a collaboration between Adam and singer-songwriters Savannah Smith, who adds guitar to the record, and Barb Brynstad, who handles the bass throughout, and quite ably. These women have played all over the place—many projects, careers of their own—but this new relationship is exciting, to say the least.

The last time I listened to an Adam Levy record this intently was Naubinway about his son Daniel’s death by suicide, which Adam had put into my hand before the official release date, and I put into the player as I got on 35W heading north to Ely, Minnesota where I listened to it on repeat in a tent in the woods in two days of nearly continuous rain. I started crying at the words, “Gonna head back to Askov-Finlayson and start all over again” as I was literally passing the exit sign, and I pretty much never stopped.

Can’t Go Back is a soul searching by a clearly flawed protagonist, set against a backdrop of societal collapse and inevitable change. Lately, if you’ve felt the impulse to hide under the covers while the world burns down, you’re in good company. Levy invites his love to “embrace while empires fall here under / These Jackson Pollack sheets.” Change is the album’s main theme. Even the bedsheets reflect the possibility of revolution—not too restful lying on expressionist linens. Levy calls out, “We can’t go back to the way we were before / Annihilation seems near, but their monuments will fall.” It’s eerily prophetic. And catchy as hell. Adam has a knack for writing dystopian scenarios but with hooky groves that make you want to move. He’s a craftsman through and through; every aspect of this project reflects it from the luxe gatefold cover, complete with printed lyrics, to his solid songwriting. One particularly cool design element is the look of “ring wear” on the cover. Did you ever have an LP you used so much the cover had a wear mark shaped like the record? This album has it built-in. Distressed.

Most of the eleven-song opus is devoted to working out what went wrong in his relationship. In my first listen I thought, this is a break-up record. But it’s more complex than that. “Hearts to Heal” tells about a “raven-haired beauty” who spends her life helping people, but she’s grown weary of being a “crane” in her relationship, the only one putting in the effort. So she gives you your walking papers. She’s got better things to do. “Monarchs & Tigers” continues the heart theme. It’s an ode to her: open-hearted, a teacher, a goddess, a queen; she is seemingly unaware of her own powers. (But how could that be true? Since she knows enough to wash her hands of you. But still.) “Delaware Water Gap” taps into the great story-song tradition. The feel reminds me of a little of a Simon and Garfunkel tune like “The Boxer” and Dylan—“I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde and “Jack of Hearts” from Blood on the Tracks, but there are many others in this genre, “Devil Went Down To Georgia” et al. In this story, let’s just say picking up that girl, the one who tells you “you can call her ‘May,’” although it’s doubtful that’s her real name, at a bar (Lol, Volstads)
—did not go as you were hoping. By a long-shot.

This record is Levy at his most introspective and he takes full responsibility for his failings. In “Papercut,” my favorite track on the record (although it’s really hard to choose), he says, “I own the fact I misled you / Everything I bet you / Was lost, now lies infect you.” And later, in perhaps his most vulnerable place, he admits that although “I was on your mind as much as you were on mine / If you never would have left / I never would have changed.” In “Cold Hard Truth,” more admissions: “I want it both ways, not willing to commit / Think I’m speaking truth but really I’m full of it / Doing the least I can, fooling myself again.“ It’s sad. No two ways about it. “Delaware Gap” opens “It’s my informed opinion that we spend too much time / Looking for another person to be a perfect rhyme / In this song and dance we dream alone and wait with bated breath / For a literary love and a cinematic death.”

It’s not entirely bleak though. Levy seems certain these lovers are destined to be together, maybe...somehow. He muses, “Just remember our stars are the same / Swimming blindly in space / Just remember, arrive with your hope and your / Heart / Is a wide-open place.“ The record closes with Levy on metaphorical knees, “Can we get back to the garden? / I‘m pleading baby / Can we get back to the garden?“

The production on this record is great. Adam’s orchestrations are right on the money: percussion, organ, six-string banjo, slide guitar, twelve-string electric guitar, and above all, wonderful close harmonies with Savannah Smith and Barb Brynstad. These songs have solid bones and are just well-built. Levy’s collaborators each contribute a song, as well, which gives the album a balance of voices in the relationship narrative. It’s especially cool when Adam’s voice enters on the chorus, back-up singer style. There’s a certain familiarity in these songs, yet they definitely stand up to multiple listens with new things revealing themselves all the time. I’ve played more than a little air tambourine.

Pick up this recording. And, since the artists have been some of the hardest hit during these Covid times, please log on to their website and send some dollars in. You won’t regret it. I’m declaring this the record of the summer.

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