Brian Lindsay has known for a long time how to write a song that goes straight to the heart.
There was “East Side of the River,” from his 2004 album “The Crossing.” A lament of unrequited love -- her family thinks he’s not good enough for her -- wrapped in Springsteen-like wailing harmonica, drama-drenched guitar and the two banks of the Genesee River as metaphor: “You and I worlds apart, with a river in between.”
And “King of the Mountain,” from his 2009 album “Esperanza,” a coming-of-age yowl with echoes of Steve Earle.
And “King of Broken Hearts,” from his 2014 album “The Monkey, the Tango and the Boogaloo,” as he wails, “You’ve got secrets you hide beneath your bed,” and “find another man to be your fool.”
But many things have changed as Lindsay takes a step back and looks at his new album. “New” being a subjective term. Because this new, as-yet-unnamed album, was ready to go by the end of last February. Nearly a year ago.
“The whole record I wrote was based on living in the last four years,” Lindsay says. “Titles like ‘Love Lives Here,’ ‘Reckoning Day,’ ‘The American Night,’ ‘Gaslight Lounge,’ all these titles just flew out and I wrote ’em. And it was ready to go, man, I was really looking forward to dropping them in the spring, or at least in the summer, and then play.
“But then, you know, change of plans.”
When will we hear it? This new collection of songs from one of Rochester’s most accomplished rockers?
“It didn’t make sense for me to put out a record, you know,” Lindsay says. “I can’t really promote it per se, you know, like clubs or gigs. I think I played, I don’t know, six gigs the whole summer? It didn’t make sense to put a record out.”
That’s the conundrum musicians face these days. They have new music, but the clubs are quiet, or even closed. Does new music get heard in a vacuum?
And what few opportunities there are to play live, after those half-dozen gigs last summer with the band, is a risk beyond going unheard.
“I just got too scared, man, it just didn’t feel right to me,” he says. “I talked it over with the boys. I said, ‘This is kind of the way it is.’ ”
Some agreed. Some didn’t. But the decision was made to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps by June, it’ll be OK to come out and play. But even that, Lindsay admits, may be optimistic.
Yet, he’s created something he longs to share. The new songs were not born to be muted.
He’s decided, “I gotta release the record, I’ve had all of these people put their time in on that, and all that, and I’ve put a hell of a lot of time in.
“I think there’s some good songs on there, and I want to get them out to the public, where they need to be.”
Lindsay’s not even sure this is the right idea. But …
“The new strategy is to release them as singles, I guess, and try to keep semi-relevant. And on the scene, until we can get together and shake hands and give hugs, you know?”
At first glance, “Love Lives Here,” released Oct. 30 as a downloadable single, might be interpreted as being fraught with the kind of anguished love that is one of Lindsay’s specialties. Then the true meaning becomes clear.
Now some men build bridges and some build walls
Tell me Mister, on which side do you fall?
If your neighbor seeks refuge, would you offer your hand?
Heaven help those on the border land.
The love here is for refugees turned back by a wall at the southern border of the United States.
And now it’s “Reckoning Day.” The new single he’s just released. One verse in, and the listener is thinking it’s a Lindsay breakup song. But in the second verse, the songwriter makes it clear. The breakup is with Trump.
“I changed the first verse, to make it a breakup song, just because I didn’t really want to harp too much on the, you know, this present scene and all that,” Lindsay says. “Because it was definitely all that. And I ended up changing it to three verses, three different verses. The first one was a breakup song, yeah. The second one was about the president, and the third verse is more like, you know, the racial reckoning we’re dealing with.”
So “Love Lives Here” and “Reckoning Day” emerge from this moment. And when we finally hear “Gaslight Lounge,” that’s likely not going to be about a romantic night on the town, but a reference to the term “gaslighting.” Generally defined as emotional manipulation at the hands of someone that leads you to question your own sanity. There’s been a lot of that going around the last four years as well.
With the times came urgency in songwriting.
“The ones that came fastest were all the ones about, I just started thinking about what does it feel like for me to be living in these last four years?” Lindsay says. “And I built the whole record, like, in a couple of weeks. Which was great, it never happens, usually for me it’s a grind. I’m lucky if I get a good title and a decent chorus. I’ll take it from there and grind it out.”
Now the album has gone from 100 mph to full stop. Maybe not a bad thing. The pandemic, and its silencing of live music, allows Lindsay the luxury of re-examining his words. And make adjustments. He’s rewritten maybe a half-dozen of the songs. “Bend them,” as he says, maybe not be so obvious with his message. And more songs are appearing. It’s these times, he figures, “Maybe I just gotta go with this.”
So he’s like someone going out every day to check on the garden, to see what new growth has emerged. Or maybe he’s like a man creeping down to the basement, to check on that new mail-order, mushroom-growing kit, see the new fungus. Pick your metaphor, 2020 was that kind of year.
Yet Lindsay saw a glimmer of hope last week, with the inauguration of a new president. Maybe that will once again change the arc of the album.
“I usually don’t get teary-eyed too much for stuff like that, but I did today,” he said after he and his wife, Michelle, watched the inauguration of Joe Biden. “Michelle and I were sitting here going, ‘Oh my God, this guy is on it, on it, on it.’ And it was beautiful, man, I loved the whole thing.”
Beautiful and overdue, he says, “a monumental relief.” Lindsay will even forgive Garth Brooks for showing up at the inauguration wearing blue jeans. It’s time to stop beating up each other. Which makes Lindsay think about snagging a phrase from “Love Lives Here” to name the new album: “Black and Blue Heart.” Because our love is bruised.
Or maybe, steal a line from Trump’s inauguration speech for an album title: “American Carnage.”
Then, he waves off that idea.
“Yeah, I’ve had enough of the freakin’ Trump thing.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.