Long term relationships form the bedrock of our society and for most people it will be the state in which they spend the majority of our lives. Songwriters usually focus on the beginning and end of relationships, the red hot infatuation and the heartbreak and anger. Bo Armstrong’s “If your tired heart is aching…” spends most of its runtime aiming somewhere in the middle, exploring the highs and lows of love that (hopefully) lasts.
While many one-subject albums tell a more coherent story, Armstrong chooses here to come at the same subject from a few sharply different angles. One song uses autobiographical details to believably declare “somehow I love you more now than I did then,” while an older character in another song describes marriage as “forty years of getting by/and life and death and restless nights/and every now and then you come up winning.” Two songs are clear about a relationship ending while others hint that one is on the rocks. I asked Armstrong why he chose to view the subject through such a varied lens.
“I think that was the most honest way for me to do it, Armstrong said. “It would be totally disingenuous to try to present everything as perfect even though I think I have a wonderful relationship with my wife and with my family, but I think it’s easier for folks to relate to some of the nitty gritty. There would be a whole lot of eye rolling going on if there were 10 tracks like “More Than I Did Then.”
Much as listening is a key part of communication in a long term relationship, sharing the perspective of a woman, particularly a strong, reasonable, and realistic one is vital to Armstrong’s credibility on his chosen topic. Rather than trying to imagine himself in a woman’s place, Armstrong covers Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” Naturally, he’s a huge fan of the track.
“It may not take anything in particular to end a relationship so much as love just runs out, and I think that’s one of the special things about that song,” Armstrong explained. “There’s so many heartbreak songs about these massive turning points in a relationship that cause something to end, but I think “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” is such a beautiful song because you don’t have that moment. It’s just a bunch of little things over time where two people fall out of love.”
Rarely does inserting a cover actually improve my opinion of a singer/songwriter’s judgment and skill. In this case it does. It also pairs fantastically with “Stranger In My Bed,” an original that starts off deflecting responsibility for failing to maintain a relationship and ends by shifting to the first person and vowing to correct those mistakes. It’s a psychologically complex song that hints at exhaustion, anxiety, and anger threatening the relationship but never even hints that the partner any hand in those emotions developing. “Collecting Dust” further explores the themes of repair, uncertainty, and hope to close the album’s story. Such inconclusiveness may be frustrating to some listeners, but I suspect it will hit just right for those dealing with struggles in their own long term relationships. As for Armstrong, his own experiences mirror some on the album.
“I’ve been in a relationship with my wife now for 15 years and I was starting to realize that there are moments when you’re not doing all the little things that you used to,” Armstrong admitted. “That’s not necessarily this awful thing, life is taxing, it doesn’t mean you love that person any less. You just have to find new ways of showing it over time.”
Despite some of the challenges he presents on the album, Armstrong claims he’s optimistic about long term relationships.
“That’s all rooted in the decision to engage in the relationship to begin with,” Armstrong said. “The second I met the girl who was going to become my wife I was 100% confident that she was who I was supposed to marry and who I was supposed to live the rest of my life with. So whenever there are moments that particularly difficult or challenging, it’s just reminding yourself of why you’re there in the first place.”
Two songs don’t quite fit with the rest of the album. “Why, Dallas?” is a well-written break up song but fails to fit into the narrative arc established between the two musical interludes. “Which Way’s Home” is the only song to occur outside those interludes and is more clearly meant to be taken in separately. Armstrong uses it to trace his interesting life that started in Texas, moved to boarding school in the Northeast to play hockey, and as of now ended up in Nashville making music. While he admires the independent spirit of the Texas music scene, he sees good in Nashville as well, even if he concedes there’s no place for the kinds of songs he writes on a mainstream radio station.
“People in Nashville are after the song as much as they are about the glitz and glam that surround it,” he said. “I actually think in the last few years there’s been a resurgence in the emphasis on songwriting even on commercial radio. It’s getting there.”
Speaking commercial radio, I’ll include Bo singing Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa in the playlist below.
Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Bo Armstrong and the songs we discussed, starting with “He Think’s He’ll Keep Her,” a rare cover song I’m spotlighting in one of my discussions. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.boarmstrongmusic.com for more.