8. Song Nos. 64-66: “Adulthood,” Jukebox the Ghost
Safe Travels, 2012; Thump Sessions, 2016; Long Way Home: Live, 2016
This is, according to Last.fm, my most-listened-to song at 421 scrobbles (or listens) with its “Safe Travels” version alone.
I mentioned elsewhere that Jukebox the Ghost took some time for me to warm up to. I had first heard of them when they played at the sorely missed yearly tradition that was the Appel Farm Music Fest, a day-long festival tucked away in the wild farmlands and lush greenery of South Jersey’s more rural stretches and hosted on a local farm that doubles as an arts enclave. The festival introduced me to the likes of Delta Spirit, Good Old War and Nicole Atkins, as well as allowed me to see Gogol Bordello rock the hell out of an outdoor venue like Shakespeare was meant to be played; Jukebox, though, seemed like a dud, another victim of lyrics that landed in my ears with a grating mediocrity.
A few years later, hubs was on a work trip and I was filling our otherwise empty house with all the unrestrained iPod-on-shuffle tunes at a volume reserved exclusively for solitude and no worries about bothering anyone else. A song from “Everything Under the Sun,” the album I’d downloaded to sample their most recent sound and listened to exactly once, came on and I. was. hooked. The entire album when from being relegated to gathering digital dust in the unlistened-to annals of my iPod to quickly being joined by the rest of the Jukebox discography and put on repeat for days.
My introduction to their catalogue was their second studio album, though I tend to prefer discovering bands as chronologically as possible: It always feels a little more organic and a little easier to tell how a band has evolved when I can experience their music in the order it happened—plus I run less of a risk of imprinting on a later sound, the expectations of which tend to make older stuff just a little less accessible. So I backtracked and got to know JTG’s debut album “Live and Let Ghosts” first.
The happy, upbeat piano-driven pop vibe I got from my first encounter with Jukebox (before I regarded their lyrics as anything other than being released two or three editing rounds too early) was effectively obliterated through a lot of tongue-in-cheek imagery and moody, atmospheric instrumentals. The things I love about debut albums—the comparative rawness of sound, the sense of being a well-executed but still charmingly DIY labor of love, the evident learning curve—were on full display there and really worked with the overall sense of an album that benefited from the scrappy homemade feel that so many of my favorite first albums possess.
And then came “Safe Travels,” a devastatingly mature departure from casting a carefree eye toward life and the looming apocalypse to looking inward and examining what lies within. Loneliness and longing, love and loss, nostalgia for the past and optimism for the future all balanced the album’s emotional terrain on the dead-middle track “Adulthood,” which has always seemed like the central thesis from which the rest of the album radiated outward.
I have a hard time accepting my own adulthood, even though marriage, property taxes, jobs, jury duty, commutes, making my own appointments, credit card payments, food shopping, and homeownership have all been significant parts of my life for years now. I’ve been an adult just as long as I was a minor, but I think some part of me will always feel like the least reliable, most childlike adult in the room. Is it because I’m childfree? Is it because I chose a nontraditional career? Is it because tiny adults grow up to be big kids? Is is a terminal dearth of confidence? Who knows, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that I’ve grown older but not necessarily up.
This song hit me hard in all of those tangled feelings when I first heard it, and listening to three distinctly different versions of it right in a row was almost as intense. The crux of it is summed up, I think, in its refrain of “And I dare you to survive / Being grown for the rest of your life / From adulthood, no one survives,” which is exactly what you’d expect from a band who just spent two albums singing about the end of the world, but it’s also the exact kind of fatalistic optimism that I’ve learned to find comfort in: The finish line is death and nothing really matters when it’s all just part of the temporary trappings along each person’s long slog to ultimate impermanence. Pair that with the early lyric “In my lungs I still feel young / But my body won’t play along,” and you’ve got yourself the rallying cry for people who feel like their 30s are some weird purgatory trapping a still-curious and free-roaming spirit in a body that hurts itself while it sleeps, anchored by responsibilities that moor it to the mundane necessities of existence.
But rather than being dismissively, permissively nihilistic, “Adulthood” is a celebration of making the good times last and individualizing the moments that make shuffling around the mortal coil worth the effort and heartache, even if things don’t go as planned or present one more challenge to soldier through. Just as important as the song’s main assertion is its heart: “Ten million feet / Pound into the ground each week / Every secret, every burden they keep / Each one’s waiting on the chance / To be lifted off the ground, but then / To discover / That we’ll all be dust again” is one mighty apt summation of the waiting, reward, and end each life, while unique, is destined for.
And each version—the studio album’s empowering call to live, the acoustic version’s funereal unfolding that always reminds of reading about how frontman Ben Thornhill couldn’t play this song when the sting of his grandfather’s death was still a fresh wound, the live recording that exemplifies the way JTG concerts are incredible oases of energy and non-stop songs I can sing word-for-word at the top of my lungs—serves as a beautiful reminder that life is all of those things and so much more. The good would mean nothing without the bad, the rewards wouldn’t be as satisfying without the struggle, the anonymity of being another face in the crowd can be a welcome assurance of your—and therefore your problems’—cosmic insignificance just as easily as it can inspire you to love so hard that you make a difference to those specks of stardust that long outlasts the blink of an eye in which your respective journeys intertwined for a little while.