It's all about life and death, or related matters, on These United States' 2010 album, What Lasts. Their ambling, loose-limbed Americana/rock is driven by frontman Jesse Elliott's gruff, warbling adenoidal croon, which sounds like a blend of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and John Fogerty. Elliott winds through ruminating songs about the value of things, and what makes us happy, all of it suffused with water imagery inspired by his near-drowning on Lake Michigan.
As the story goes, Elliott was attending a family gathering when he decided to take his uncle's new kayak out on the lake. Only it wasn't the type of kayak that seals you in tight, an issue that became critical when waves from a giant freighter a couple miles out filled Elliott's boat with water. On a gorgeous, cloudless summer day Elliott found himself alone — not a boat or person in sight — swimming for more than an hour toward a shore that at first he couldn't even see.
"I knew what direction it was in, which was helpful, and I just started swimming. It was cold. I started hyperventilating and hypotherm-iating, but I kept going and eventually made it back," Elliott says from the Kentucky backwoods, where his band is recording its next album.
"We've had other experiences as a band where something awful happens, like on the road, and there's this immediate adrenaline-filled moment when you're like, 'Holy shit, I think this truck is going to hit us,' and it's over in a moment," he says. "The thing that was so different about this thing, and that stuck with me, was that I was out there for so long. Your life is kind of flashing before your eyes at a slow speed. It's a lot of time to think. After awhile you're like, 'Really? Is this documentary not over yet?'"
"I was searching for the story I know nobody can tell," sings Elliott on the album's opening track "Nobody Can Tell," which turns his ordeal into an essay on existence and resilience. "I shivered and I swam and I sunk and I swam and I laughed and I swam, and I still swim."
That backdrop and mood infiltrate What Lasts, the band's fourth album to date. Fueled by Elliott's rich wordplay and metaphor, they head upstream on the '70s-inflected folk rocker "The Great Rivers," ponder a lover's intentions amidst creeping, organ-driven melancholia on "What Do You Want With My Heart" and gently drift through the shimmery pedal-steel-colored soundscapes of the title track.
Elliott started These United States five years ago with the help of David Strackany (aka Paleo), who encouraged him and helped produce TUS' 2008 debut, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden, with the help of at least a half-dozen guests. He assembled a live backing band that supported him on his follow-up, Crimes, which was released six months later. Both it and his 2009 follow-up, Everything Touches Everything, feature political themes influenced by years spent living in Washington, D.C. and moving in its policy circles.
No fixed address
Prior to starting the band, music had been little more than a hobby for Elliott. He'd actually gotten a dream job as writer/right-hand man/boy Friday to Richard Florida, author of the bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. But he threw it all away in pursuit of poverty and whatever else life as a traveling musician offers.
"I loved this job and everything about it was great, I met interesting people, made money, traveled the globe, saw cool places, and had benefits and stuff like that, but I was still not happy with it. I thought 'Oh shit, it's rough because it's not going to get any better than this,'" he says. "Even though it was for a person I loved and I loved the ideas, ultimately I still felt it was someone else's dream and it felt like I needed to do my own thing."
To that end he's hit the road with such a vengeance that he hasn't had a stable address in more than a year. When he's not out on tour, he's making music with musicians around the country and setting up camp on their couches. It's not always easy, but Elliott still feels blessed to be involved with music and the possibility it offers to reach out to and impact other people.
"That's what I love about songs. They're one of the only things you can put out in a big sense that connects with people in a very personal, intimate way," says Elliot. "That's kind of the whole point."