When I first heard this song, “Ash And Ember,” on the radio a few days ago, it was a pleasant song that seemed somewhat familiar but in a good way. In listening to the song again, I remembered why it sounded familiar to me, and given its lyrics, I thought it would be a worthwhile song for my own life, given that it resonated strongly with me. Before I cover the lyrics of the song in detail, I would like to comment a bit about the song’s greater context and connections. Augustana is not a very well known band, best known for their hit “Boston” in the mid 2000’s. Their songs have straddled the boundary between mellow piano ballads and guitar-driven heartland rock, both of which happen to be genres I greatly enjoy. This particular song is more on the piano ballad side, and its resemblance to The Police’s “King Of Pain” both in its piano hook and in its reference to the trap of a spider’s web.
The song begins as follows: “Is it too late? / Am I seeing double am I withdrawn, / Depositing lyrics into a love song, / A spider weaving webs for a catch that won’t come. / Am I peeling roses from a dead bush? / A soldier running late for the ambush, / Readying the deck for a storm that’s long gone? / (Is it too late?) ” This particular verse has a rather straightforward point, with the use of both open honesty (in terms of writing one’s feelings in a love song but not being able to express them with a partner) as well as the use of metaphors dealing with traps and ambushes and struggling with particularly poor timing and missed opportunities. The combination of themes of love and war are particularly poignant for me, given that I am a romantic sort of soul but also someone who has spent much of my life wrestling with the theoretical and practical implications of unwanted and unpleasant conflict, besides being a person of spectacularly bad timing as well.
The prechorus and chorus of this song read as follows. The first of them goes like this: “Is it too late? / It’s never ending but nevertheless, / I’m the first one to second my guess, / And the fire in my heart came from ash and ember. / And every step I take, got the devil to repay. / We’ll never make it out alive, but I won’t surrender. / And to take it day by day, had to learn the hard way, / Like a phoenix rising up, from ash and ember, / Ash and ember.” Here we see the sensitive singer-songwriter contrasted with a somewhat cynical view of the fact that none of us make it out of life alive. There is a sort of defiance in this chorus that contrasts with his sense of self-doubt that creates a great deal of tension, with the gloomy certainty of death, the knowledge of evil in this world combined with the hope of rebirth from the ashes. The other choruses have slightly different wording, but make the same point, one of them referring to “And to take it day by day, / Had to feel the heartbreak. / Like a phoenix I was born, from ash and ember,/ Ash and ember, / Ash and ember! / Woahoh,woahoh!”
The second verse reads as follows: “Am I reaching out for something that I can’t grab, / Something infinitely splitting into two halves?
Is there something I forgot that I can’t remember? / Am I swimming in a river that was man-made? / Demolishing a road that was just paved?
It’s like trying to catch a June-bug in late December.” I can relate all too well to some of these concerns, wondering about behavior that is counterproductive or futile or paradoxical. Whether one is reminded of the Los Angeles River and its sad state in its concrete prison, or my own stories as a child tearing up a recently paved road for slongshot ammo, this verse returns to the original concerns about missed opportunities and bad timing, something that many of us are concerned about, to be sure.
The bridge and coda of “Ash And Ember” read as follows. First, the bridge: “Have I climbed the ladder to the next rung/ Am I simply gonna finish where I started from? / Is the future just the past that I’ll never outrun?, YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH!” This bridge expresses what would probably be my worst nightmare, my life ending as it began, and never being able to outrun or overcome my past. I cannot imagine a more unpleasant (or unmerited fate) for the life I have sought to live than that sort of gloomy ending. Perhaps the songwriter’s life has not been that sort of horror, but given the themes of futility present in the song, one imagines that he does not want to end where he started either, but wants to progress further beyond that level. (Here the song connects with other like piano ballads, like “Square One,” by Coldplay). The coda of the song ends very abruptly as follows: “Am I stealing something I could borrow? / Is yesterday just waiting for tomorrow?” A song about bad timing and concerns about futility ends with some self-examination, wondering if all of the secretive plotting of the singer-songwriter is futile because it may not require that sort of plotting anyway, where openness might serve his interests better.
Before closing, I would like to comment about the contextual reasons of the theme of rebirth given the career track of the band Augustana. After the lack of success of the band’s third major label album, the self-titled “Augustana,” the band broke up and left its lead singer, Dan Layus, as a one-man show, continuing to perform under the band’s name with session musicians . After a hiatus of about three years, he surely sees this song, the lead track and first single off of his recently released album “Life Imitating Life” to be a signal of renewed vigor and purpose (and hopefully success). As someone who has sought my own new beginnings and fresh starts often enough in life, I certainly can relate to the feeling and wish him the best of luck in his efforts, especially if they are as beautiful as this song.