Many of my stories seem to start in record stores. This one starts in the first half of the last decade, when I spent a month or so out of each year in London, where a must-visit was the since-closed Rough Trade record shop in Covent Garden. They always seemed to have at least one CD that changed my life, just a little bit, every time I visited: Ballboy’s “The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories” was one, and “Hey Harmony” by Saint Thomas was another.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending: Saint Thomas was mostly Thomas Hansen, who died at the age of 31 of an “unfortunate combination of prescribed drugs” in 2007, the same year the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden shut down. When he was alive, he looked like a thinner Stephin Merritt, with the same evil twinkle in his eye, the same reverence for campy Americana, and the same penchant for melancholy brilliance. Unlike Mr. Merritt, Hansen sang (sometimes warbled, sometimes yodeled) his sad songs in a tenor voice, took his country influences a few furlongs farther, and lived in Norway. He lived long enough to record four albums and several EPs between 2000 and 2005 (see a full discography here, but good luck finding much of it), the most memorable being “Hey Harmony” (2003) and “Let’s Grow Together” (2004)—both of which are easy enough to track down on i- or other-tunes.
Even before he died, and before I found out that he had died a few years later, I would dial up his songs when I felt like feeling sad, or enhancing the sadness I already felt; now there’s an extra layer. Sad songs, like all emotion-inducing songs, range from the banal (most break-up ballads fit that bill) to the profound. Saint Thomas occupied the second space, with more than a touch of irony-tinged tribute to the sadness of tragi-country classics by the likes of Webb Pierce or Gram Parsons. Like them, he knew how to make his voice crack, which voices tend to do when emotions get the better of them.
And like them, he told sad stories. On “Let’s Grow Together,” my favorite is “The Red Book,” which jangles through two verses about (a) the intersection of love and stolen vehicles and (b) an encounter with a wise ex-con on a bus trip from Atlanta to Nashville. The chorus goes: “We dig ourselves dead before the night comes,” followed by a good Norwegian yodel or two. “Silence Break Your Heart,” my second-favorite song on the strong-overall CD, ventures down a bluegrass-strewn path, with beautiful backing vocals.
“Hey Harmony” mixes in some whimsical cheer with the sadness, as on “Heroes Making Dinner,” which is a Sunday-brunch of a song replete with wine, cookies, fuzzy guitars, and aliens. The loping “A Long Long Time” is the perfect unrequited love song, which plaintively croons “Bye bye love, I miss you too” on the way out of a warm house full of friends offering solace. But even most of the sad lyrics on this album are more hopeful (“The sweet cowgirl came and asked you for a dance/ everything was up for a romance”) and punctuated with absurdisms (such as the lines “Mushroom in the garden is getting stronger legs to stand on,” as observed in the song “Sitting on the Porch”); again with the occasional yodel. The general theme seems to be that Norwegians, especially the farmers, drink more than they should: happy while it lasts, but sad when it’s over.
Speaking of absurdism… here’s the video of the week (er… month): “Long Long Time,” with furry animals, hospital corridors, and the inevitable banana peel scene: