The breakup album is one of the most well-trodden and, more often than not, successful types of albums that a musician can release. After all, heartbreak is a universal emotion, and, when combined with the inspiration that often comes from a traumatic experience, that mix can provide creative types with hard-to-manufacture songwriting gold. From Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours to Adele’s 21, enough evidence exists to suggest that there is no greater muse than the soul-crushing dissolution of a romantic relationship.
The problem, however, comes with the tropes of the breakup album. The truth is, breakup albums are just so freaking sad. Sure, when the heart is crushed, feelings of guilt and self-loathing will find their way out through the lyrics and the music. That is to be expected. And maybe that is why I was so pleasantly surprised, even taken aback, when I listened to Dead Man Winter’s Furnace. This is a decidedly different, even refreshing, breakup album.
Dead Man Winter is the moniker adopted by Dave Simonett. Some may be familiar with Simonett’s more full-time band, Trampled by Turtles, a breakneck bluegrass outfit, hailing from Minnesota. If not, no worries. I was only quasi-acquainted with their work, mostly from living in North Carolina for six years, where people love their bluegrass and, as such, it is seemingly omnipresent. Regardless, Dead Man Winter is not bluegrass.
Furnace is an album made in and of the American Midwest. More specifically, winter (as in Dead Man Winter) in the American Midwest. Not unlike Bon Iver with For Emma, Forever Ago, Simonett holed up in an isolated cabin in the woods to write and record. At Pacyderm Studios in northern ice-cold Minnesota (where Nirvana’s In Utero was also recorded), Simonett was sequestered with little else but his feelings. If that, coupled with the idea of a breakup album, sounds way too fucking depressing, you’re in for a treat. Somehow, this album does what we midwesterners do best: Find hope and maybe even a ray of sunshine in the midst of dark times.
Simonett wrote Furnace after the dissolution of his 10 year marriage. That is what this album is about, and he never lets you forget that. His lyrics are not shrouded in metaphors, and he doesn’t skirt the issue. The difference between this album and others like it, though, lies in two key factors: One is Simonett’s unwillingness to drag himself down into a space where he can marinate in vitriol towards his ex-wife. Any blame comes from a self-awareness of his own failings. The second factor is what keeps this album from devolving into a factory of sadness: The music. This is not sad, slow music. It is, for lack of a better word, buoyant. This contrast between the heartfelt and, in some places, crushing lyrics and the upbeat music creates an entirely new experience for the listener.
Album opener “This House is on Fire” sets the tone, thematically, if not musically. It’s clear from the opening lines of “This house is on fire and I can’t escape it / I’m lonely and tired, no will left to fake it” what this album is about. This track is one of the more downbeat songs on the album, which only adds to the fake-out with the more upbeat tracks to follow. At first blush, this seems like the same sad sack divorce rhetoric we’ve heard before. However, the lyrics here are what show Simonett to be operating on another, more self-aware level. The finger is pointed squarely and only at himself, and he knows that there’s no coming back from this. Things will never ever be the same, for he is going down with the wreckage, ending the song with an almost moaned utterance of “This house is on fire, and I’m not getting out.” In many ways, this opener gets the pity out of the way, allowing for a more full assessment of the cause and fallout of his divorce.
Coming out of that weeper of an opener, Simonett transitions into the first single from Furnace, the almost rollicking “Destroyer.” The title here says it all, as Simonett is the literal manifestation of The Destroyer, the man who destroys the things most precious to him. And he doesn’t let himself off easy:
“Yeah it’s over and it hurts like hell to say it
But I’m churning under water, what a peaceful way to go
And all of the boxes, that are filled with my possessions
On the truck that I have hired, it’s outside beneath the snow
I thought I’d get up and go, before anyone would know.”
The imagery here, of a man boxing up his meager belongings and trying to get out of his former home before he has to say his tear-filled goodbyes, is gut-wrenching in its vividness and believability. Yet, there’s no hatred here (at least of anyone else), no blame, and the joyful melody shares swirls in a lively way that is in direct contrast to the story of the song. In some ways, it’s downright beautiful.
The next song, “Red Wing Blue Wing,” has become one of my favorite songs by any artist. This is the first song I listened to by Dead Man Winter, and it’s almost impossible for me to not tap my foot to this breezy tale of destruction. It also happens to contain my favorite lyrical couplet ever: “I’m full of charm, and I’m full of whiskey / And I’m full of shit, most of the time.” On point with that one, Mr. Simonett. It’s near the end of the song that the listener is gutted once again, though, when, putting divorce in the simplest of terms, Simonett says simply, “I didn’t think of me, I didn’t think of you.” Again, no vitriol, just acceptance of responsibility.
A couple of tracks later, we’re treated to another high point of Furnace, with the burning “The Same Town.” To paraphrase John Mellencamp, I was raised in a (really) small town, so perhaps that enables me to relate to this song in a way that others may not. I do think, though, that regardless of the physical size of the town that you grew up in, there’s often a sense of suffocation that comes with being in a place for a long time. Simonett touches on that here, noting,
“And it’s the same, it’s the same town
From the sky down to the ground
It will never ever, ever change at all
Down at the bar, it’s the same old faces
We walk around to the same old places
I need something else or something new.”
I’d argue that anyone who hasn’t felt this way probably hasn’t lived. Later in the song, Simonett references the “100 songs I wrote for you,” and you can practically hear his need to retreat to the cabin the woods to make this very record. It’s heavy stuff rendered light through the enjoyable work of an expert melody craftsman.
The next couple of songs ping-pong between melancholy and upbeat, all the while maintaining the rawness that marks the early tracks. On “Am I Breaking Down,” Simonett even name-checks his real-life kids as he tries to figure out if he’s losing his mind amidst the sadness of his divorce:
“The glowing tops of clouds, I think I’m upside down
Can you come and flip me over, one more time?
Jack and Lucy know what it takes to grow
What it takes to love each other, can I go
Am I breaking down?”
On the penultimate track, “Weight of the World,” Simonett shows off some serious songwriting chops, as well as a voice that sounds beautiful and vulnerable in a way that the rest of the album doesn’t really allow for. It’s not the type of song to blast through open car windows, but it is one to listen to while sitting on your back porch, sipping whiskey and taking stock of your station in life.
Album closer “You Are Out of Control” is unlike anything else here, starting as a slow folk song and evolving into something resembling a space-rock freak-out over the course of seven and a half minutes. It’s also only five lines long:
“Hey man, take it slow, you are out of control
Come on in and shut the door, we don’t live here anymore
I am not okay, what else can I say
There’s a light that’s in your eyes, it makes everything alright
Always remember, to get back home.”
It’s a fitting end to the record, in many ways, as Simonett seems to be preparing himself to release this record and giving himself permission to accept who and what he is: A man who wrecked his marriage, but not an inherently bad person. Just one that’s fucked up like the rest of us, one that needs to find home, wherever that may be.
This is a strange record, but an extremely rewarding one. It’s rare to listen to such an autobiographically vulnerable record, where the songwriter is laid bare in such a literal way. This, coupled with the strange dichotomy between really devastating lyrics and the sunny, enjoyable music, make Furnace an album worth listening to. It’s uniqueness makes it worthwhile throughout, even as you can visualize a man’s life falling apart.
If a breakup album can be considered fun and hopeful, Dead Man Winter has done that here, bringing out the sun on even the coldest of Midwestern winter days, reminding everyone that sometimes surviving is the same as thriving.