By Farewell Friend
Reviewed by M.C. Armstrong
July 11th, 2021
A Welcome Howl
Some music fans, when they imagine Samson, might see a Biblical strongman with long hair who, in both the Bible and a legendary blues song by the Reverend Gary Davis, was bedeviled by a temptress named Delilah. But in their gorgeous new album, Samson, Farewell Friend invites listeners into a new vision of this myth. Rather than lean on the misogynistic tropes that have so often translated Samson’s story into popular culture, singer-songwriter Tom Troyer reimagines the tale of the boy who became the man that defeated “the Philistines,” a derogatory term people often deploy to describe the anti-intellectual or those without taste. Troyer is himself an anti-Philistine insofar as he pushes his audience to tear down the walls of contemporary music, poetry, and storytelling. His Samson, far from some bodybuilding demi-god with a harlequin hairdo and a treacherous jezebel for a girlfriend, is a good deal like the character one encounters in the words of the Old Testament. The Samson one finds in the original source material is tactile, humble, and complex. Yes, he kills a lion and combs honey from the head of the beast, but he doesn’t brag about the feat and never reveals the leonine source when he shares the nectar with his family in the lands between Zorah and Eshtaol. Like the biblical Samson, Troyer’s protagonist is torn and liminal, caught between the geographies of the present and the past. This is a guy who’s not so great at communicating and part of his secrecy comes from a humble place, but what about that other part? Farewell Friend’s Samson does indeed lose his power and the woman he loves, but in between a miraculous birth and a rebel death is a symphonic story full of doubt and wonder.
“Birds in Flight,” the first song on the album, introduces us to a protean poetic voice that plays with these themes of doubt and wonder. If we are to take the album at its word, this is young Samson watching Delilah from afar, but also a young man not sure of his powers. The speaker in “Birds in Flight,” as the title suggests, is both of nature and ungrounded, agrarian and abstract, a “shaky voice” that slips self-consciously from “tiller” to “earth” to “magazine,” a contemporary or timeless figure determined not to trap the spirit in one place. There are many mansions in the house of Samson, and cracks in all the walls. Like so much of this lush and elusive album, the song practices what it preaches, the instruments constantly swarming and separating, flocking and unlocking, doubting and wondering and evading expectations, the drums, upright, and guitars flitting in and out like birdsong while Troyer’s voice, like a southern cross of Ryan Adams and Chris Martin, frames the fragments with the delicate craftsmanship of one who has learned what Leonard Cohen tried to teach all the poets who would be songwriters: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. It’s where the light gets in.”
Like Cohen reimagining David in “Hallelujah,” Troyer’s seven-part symphony of Samson plays with Christianity without veering into Christian rock. Just as artists like M. Ward and The Grateful Dead so often deconstruct and reinvigorate these ancient tales, Troyer’s vision approaches the faith with fresh paint. In “Chasing the Glow,” one can easily forget the titular thrust of the album and simply get lost in images and gorgeous guitar tones, a playful and exquisite composition with lyrics that, far from preaching, instead confess to a struggle with self-consciousness: “Despite my love of falling, I’m not falling in love.” If this is Samson, with a prophet’s intuition, here is a voice laden with dramatic irony. We know Samson will disobey himself. He will fall in love and it will be his undoing. He will break his own heart. But this self-annihilation will also be bound to the heroic moment when, without his ostensibly magical locks, he tears down the old pillars of the Philistines.
That moment is this album.
One column that falls might be called “the blues.” In “Side Attraction—Samson,” I felt like I was listening to one of those roadhouse bands that so often brought the episodes of the final season of Twin Peaks to a close. The genre here is indeed the blues, but like David Lynch’s subversive selections for the reboot, Farewell Friend is not just another blues band. They test and tease the boundaries of form. “Side Attraction” tantalizes the audience with seductive licks and the image of a woman dancing close to the fire, a second person point of view that “lets you unzip her dress.” And yet. This is no mere striptease atop the twelve-bar blocks. “Side Attraction” is a sly meditation on the blurry line between the fool and the fooled, the dance between deceit and conceit. This is the band reclaiming Samson from Hollywood protagonism and reminding us of Samson as failure and everyman, the one who both was and wasn’t the one. In the Bible, of course, Jesus Christ is the main attraction. The keystone. The front man. The superstar. Choose your rock and roll analogy. Samson, banished to a few pages in the Old Testament, is really, in the end, just like a blues band at a club on the outskirts of Anytown, USA. “Get yourself in line,” Troyer spits at the man who thought he was the hero. “Take a number. You were lamb for a slaughter.”
While Delilah dances on, leaving Samson spinning with doubt.
Troyer and the band further develop the theme of doubt in “Did and Didn’t.” With Aaron Cummings providing a supple and sure-footed kit, this song refuses, like the rest of the album, to settle into a linear rhythmic spell. This is not just some foolish chant. Here, on the fourth song, Troyer takes us back to the start of Samson’s childhood on a “quiet country block.” This is a song and an album that challenges fundamental assumptions. The beginning is not always the beginning. Sometimes you don’t see your beginning until the middle or that thunderous end when everything becomes illuminated by nostalgia. “Did and Didn’t” strikes some comforting wistful notes, evoking a midwestern thunderstorm and “a pile of dirty magazines” discovered on the fourth of July. However, Troyer is more than just awash in memory. He struggles. He tests. This furtive tune wrestles with “the walls I’ve constructed,” in contrast to not just the material walls of biblical Israel but, without saying so, the dominant literal and metaphorical walls of twenty-first century America. Where did all of this talk about walls come from? Did these demons and walls just appear overnight?
“They did and they didn’t,” the singer calmly reminds us at first.
But then the band uncorks and Troyer lapses into a welcome howl.
If you want to scream at America, this is your album. If you want to remember the basement whispers of your childhood or the awkward thrills of first love, this is the ticket. Samson has something for everyone. Whether you’ve come for the poetry or musicianship, Farewell Friend delivers an exquisite experience. And more than this, the album also testifies to Troyer’s work as a sound engineer who tirelessly serves the singer-songwriter community of Greensboro, North Carolina. The care one discerns on this album is an ambient artifact of a subculture. In spite of the lowering costs of home studios, musicians travel from all over the Piedmont to work with Troyer. The reason is apparent in Samson. Troyer’s sensibility is uncanny, generous, and subversive. Whether it’s with the band he leads or the numerous bands he serves, Troyer creates space for others.
In “Paper Airplanes,” the fifth track on Samson, Farewell Friend’s spare and unpredictable dynamics are on full display. The song begins in an ethereal wash of strings, acoustic and electric. The drums drop in and out. The voice speaks, whispers and cries. Evan Campfield’s bass groans its foghorn warning. “When it all comes down,” Troyer sings, “It’s probably going the other way.” This is a song and an album that questions everything and, although torn by the sirens of nostalgia, the spirit leans in the defiant direction of an uncertain future. Like Samson turning away from Delilah and bringing down the pillars of the Philistines on the night he was supposed to perform for them, “Paper Airplanes” documents a relationship falling apart and a man and a country along with it, Troyer’s lyrics always playing in that gray space between the personal and the political.
And then comes the operatic death, the dénouement, in “Dying at the Hands of Love.” Samson is a beautiful and elegantly structured piece of art. This is a concept album for those who still take the time for things like concepts. “Dying at the Hands of Love” feels like Samson’s life flashing before his eyes, the narrator revealing the simple Sunday story to actually be a windswept scatter of glowing and complicated fragments that still throb and swell like fireflies in the American night. Here, we feel the play coming to an end, the strings as sweet as a harp, ominous foghorn notes bellowing from the upright, Troyer’s howling anguish echoing the young Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes insofar as his studied pain is admirably at war with itself while, only too late, discovering that self-consciousness was itself a blinder, a part of both the problem and that final, artistic solution.
“She met you at the crossroads,” Troyer sings. “Empty as a belly. In your grocery of choices, your liturgy of options, she was just a number.”
If this is Delilah, located at the archetypal “crossroads” intersection of blues music, then this woman’s original sin was simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Is it possible that Delilah didn’t want to weaken Samson but, instead, just wanted to see if he could see what was right in front of him? Is it possible that nobody, after all this time, ever bothered to ask Delilah what she wanted and that her deceit might just have something to do with being deceived or, worse, ignored? The epic loneliness of this album and this particular song begs the listener to return to the cross, the crossroads, the woman, the walls, “the stoplight Christmas trees,” and all the devilish hollows of contemporary Christianity and America. Troyer here quietly urges the listener to go back in their own mind to those luminous moments and those first naked encounters and somehow summon the wisdom to see past the virginal symbols and divisive tropes and ask about the actual suffering of actual others. Samson, in the end, is a master class on empathy, creating space for those we erase.
“Who knew what was bleeding in you?” Troyer writes, the question surfacing at the end of the song.
After the fact.
But not before one final recursive slip. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of the concept and the back and forth between the Bible and contemporary rural America, Troyer troubles the landscape with “Ode to Geology,” a song with “her lines in the sand,” the anchor of biblical archetypes cast in relief against the history of rocks. Committing the now common heresy of imposing rock instrumentation atop folk poetry, “Ode to Geology,” more than anything (forget genre), is just beautiful music. But let us pause on that word “just.” For what is an “ode?” It is a poem that is meant to be sung. Twenty-first century America is a place where poetry, so often, is divided from singing and songwriting. We have rock, country, and hip-hop in the coliseums and bars and we have poetry in the classrooms and coffee shops. Singer-songwriters in one cultural silo, poets in another. Music here. Literature there. But Samson documents the divorce while at the same time healing the divide. “Ode to Geology” asks the listener, in the final movement of the symphony, to undertake the fundamental first step toward empathy: listen. And try to listen to that impossible thing: the swelling, seething, crumbling, and shifting of the stuff that forms the statues and beaches where so much musing takes place. Just stop. And listen. Try as one might to gain purchase on this album, the Bible, and the fixed Samsonite meaning of so many poetically turned phrases in this masterpiece, perhaps the best advice this reviewer can give the new listener is to just listen to the rock. The folk. The blues. The dancing sand of the cymbals. Listen to the poetry return to music. And support your local poets.
Pre-Order Samson and watch the "Birds in Flight" music video below.