There’s a line off Golden Smog’s Down by the Old Mainstream that encapsulates alt-country lyricism: “I’m lonely when you hate me, you hate me when I’m lonely, but mostly I’m just here to kick around.” It’s a realization, a resignation, that sometimes life just sucks, but it doesn’t have to get you down. And only a certain kind of voice — a Gary Louris, Jeff Tweedy, Gillian Welch, or a Sara Cox — can pull it off without sounding like a (gasp) country music singer.
Here on Cox’s Firewater [released back in 2000, I can’t find a place to stream this, though two other Sara Cox records are on Spotify. Here’s where you can buy the record on eBay], a sadness pervades, but it’s not the sadness of self-pity. It’s the sadness you feel when you go back and visit a house you haven’t lived in for a while: You can’t help but miss everything that went on there, even if it wasn’t always good times and smiles. Every song is about a relationship that didn’t, isn’t, or won’t work, but somehow that’s okay, because it has to be.
The opening “Waste of Time,” appearing first on the Area Code 207, Volume 1 compilation, breaks your heart right away: “Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout the way you left that day,” Cox sings plaintively, “making jokes like it was not the end. And if I thought of something smarter to say, maybe now we’d still be friends.” Does anyone not have a relationship lurking in their past that ended that way? Or maybe that’s the relationship you’re in right now.
Cox sings about making do with what you’ve got on her contribution to Area Code 207, Volume 2, “Sticking (Not Stuck).” “Although your mouth is now closed when we kiss,” she emotes. “I know your head’s still open. Despite all the details that somehow we missed, I know our hearts still need them, oh yeah.” And when she sings “oh yeah,” it doesn’t sound like filler.
“Sticking” also showcases Cox with a full backing band of talented musicians including Nate Schrock — whose brilliant slide is all over this record — and drummer Ginger Cote, quite adept at keeping Cox’s morphine-haze-like pace. That’s impressive, but so is “SUGAR,” one of two songs where Cox is all alone. “Baby, don’t let your sugar turn hard,” she advises in the chorus. “It’s too hard to taste that way.”
One gets the feeling that Cox has had plenty of reasons for letting her sugar turn hard, but she’s used her music as a salve, and we’re the luckier for it.