Tim’s Book Club 6 19 March 2010

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

I read this quite a while ago, when I was writing songs for the second album. It’s a very heavy family epic that follows a guy called the Swede. He runs a successful business in New York City and has a lovely family, and it basically charts the disintegration of his family and his values. I’m sure there have been lots and lots of books written about that kind of thing, but this particular one stands out because it’s so psychologically complex and you never know what is going to happen next.

The character does everything that you think would be the right thing to do. You don’t have that sense you often get with a film or maybe a less dense book, where you can see the mistakes being made and you think "Oh God, that’s going to go wrong." He has as much intelligence as you could ask him to have. He attempts to do everything sensitively and tries to be a good parent and husband. But the twists and turns of the way that it all works out are really complex. It’s essentially just a totally unglamourous story that could be happening to any of us really. But from a human and psychological point of view, it’s incredibly interesting. It’s also really quite depressing.

The book definitely shares some of that darkness that runs through Under The Iron Sea. Songs like Atlantic are probably closely related. And, actually, at one point Crystal Ball was called American Pastoral, after the book. The lyrics of that song were actually based around the phrase "American Pastoral" and some of the story, for quite a while. I can’t remember why I changed it in the end.

I think my influences as a songwriter come from far and wide, but especially from books. I’m quite a slow reader, and I think I really engage with a book emotionally. Often a book will really be a big part of my life for however long it takes me to read it. Sometimes I’ll be dipping into it for weeks and months, reading a few pages at a time, because I have a terribly short attention span. And when I’m not reading it, I’ll find myself thinking about it, and talking to other people about it. I think all that does definitely come out in my songwriting.


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