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“‘Had to Go’ by Heartless Bastards Just Might Be the Dystopic, Reality-Singed Anthem of Middle America”

The deck just seemed to be stacked against Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards from the start. First of all, their hometown, often dubbed “Nasty Natty,” [1] is hardly the worldwide hub of flagship musical manifestations [2]. For release of their albums, they ended up looking to Fat Possum, an independent label way down in the Deep South in Oxford, Mississippi.

And I mean, he**, this is the American Midwest. This is where Chrissie Hynde was gang-raped by a group of cro-magnon “heartless bastard” bikers, hence spawning the inspiration for the song “Tattooed Love Boys” [3]. And apropos of this, Erika Wennerstrom “had to go” and seek “the mountain” [4] and move to Austin, Texas, eventually, where she still resides to this day, where she recorded her groundbreaking, expansive solo album Sweet Unknown and where she would separate herself from her prior Midwestern partners, of course. 

“Had to Go” and the rest of The Mountain, much of which features a similar sense of urgency and ominous tone with titles like “Witchypoo” and lines like “I’m goin’ out in the sweet unknown”, sort of seems like a trick you can only do once. It’s like how you only get one officially licensed Billy Squier “lonely night.” For how distinct “Had to Go” is in its off-kilter folk-rock eclecticism, the album at large still spans an impressive wealth of styles, from acoustic rock balladry (“Could Be So Happy”) to power pop (“Hold Your Head High”) to deliberate grunge rock (“Witchypoo”). No other album from this band would be so purposefully schizophrenic in its approach or musically rich in its diversity of palette. 

Lots of elements, though, point to “Had to Go” as the defining statement on this album, and, as such, the pivotal moment for this band and for Erika Wennerstrom as a singer and songwriter. One would be the tune’s bulbous length — at 7:29 it stands the tallest on the album and, really, belies the knack the song has for staying fresh and never repeating itself. Also, there’s certainly the show-stealer Zy Orange Lyn on violin. Her three-minute solo that comprises the second half of the song comes as an addendum to her contributions to the first half, which entail a spooky, simple but infectious riff that informs the song’s groove persistently and stalwartly, the way the signature saxophone in Morphine’s rock numbers tends to, burping and interjecting in at opportune times with some hypnotic, rhythmic flair.

Musically, “Had to Go” holds up on its own, as does the band’s following album Arrow (which mind you was more straight-ahead rock and less folky, so in a way not quite as exciting) [5], but much of what I meant to focus on here were the lyrics themselves. To me, it’s a song about being emotionally trapped into a corner, and being forced from your home, literally, on a mission for finding peace, solace and happiness. 

What’s especially intriguing to me, though, even within Wennerstrom’s ostensible cries for help, is how relentlessly metaphoric her lyricism remains. Juxtaposed against the direct, objective chorus which features references to how she was “feeling so alone” and she “packed up (her) things”, the rhetoric in the verses deals consistently with imagery unchained to a single apparent event or happenstance. She divulges a narrative of “lighting struck and it started a fire”, with no appeal to specificity, hence leaving us to treat it as symbolic of rampant that touched her. At one point she relates what happens “When you strip the bark off of the tree / And it’s standing stark”. Most haunting of all, I think, is sort of a precipicial moment in her singing and her life when she “Come(s) to you with open / Orchids on my sleeve”. Genius, actually, had this line as “Come to you open, organs on my sleeve” but I beg to differ. Either way, no matter your tabulation of the exact lyrics, they once again retain their power of saying something without really saying it: painting a picture of devastation and desperation, of humanity’s mass without humanity’s humanness, more or less. “The Mountain” seems to be contrasted, then, with the extreme geological flatness of the Midwest, as some distant beacon she was keeping in her mind, worshipping, and associating with an approaching solace, or denouement, she would reach in life. Whether or not this actually happened, and I vouch, personally, that it did, Wennerstrom is a very strong, purposeful and fun songwriter to monitor, for this sort of exciting way she has of inviting us into her personal life and into her feelings with stylish divergences and imagistic ornaments, and just enough direct earnestness to pepper things into realness.  

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[1] I’m kind of permitted to make fun of Cincannati since I’m from South Bend, Indiana, a bona fide Midwestern sh**hole if there ever was one. 

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[2] With this being said, much love goes out to alt-rockers Moth, whose whole album Provisions, Fiction and Gear from 2002 is quite a banger. 

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[3] And hence also probably spawning her decision to look to Europe for all of her bandmates, who, like Erika Wennerstrom’s in the Bastards, happened to be all male, incidentally. 

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[4] The Mountain is the 2008 album from Heartless Bastards, featuring their cornerstone statement “Had to Go” and probably the one classic album they ever compiled, I’d say. 

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[5] Indeed, on The Mountain, Lyn’s mandolin conjunctively helps provide a special, singular sort of vibe to the music that’s also quite rustic and refreshing. 

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