I’ve liked the Jason Isbell song “24 Frames” since his latest album came out last year, but initially I just dug on its considerable hooks and didn’t think too hard about it. If you’re going to go deep on songs on “Something More Than Free” there are some more easily accessible numbers there. “24 Frames” is more oblique and has some symbolism and things and I simply wasn’t in a mental place to deal with a lot of symbolism late last year. A good jam I made a mental note to think harder about later.
Today, however, while driving down to Hocking Hills, “24 Frames” came on. For the first time, I really listened to it. Like, 10 times between the trip down and back. I wish I had paid closer attention to it before, because, somehow, the song was describing where my head was for a good part of last year and into the beginning of this year. It’s, in a lot of ways, a three-minute, fourteen-second therapy session.
There are a lot of ways to read any song, of course, and “24 Frames” is no exception. You could take “24 Frames” in a pretty pessimistic light if you want to. I read something a little bit ago describing it as a “more pessimistic” version of Springsteen’s “The River,” which, Jesus Christ, that’s quite a statement. I get what that person was getting at – there is a huge undercurrent of regret, lost opportunities and troubled relationships in the lyrics – but it’s certainly not what I’m drawing from it.
Unlike “The River,” the narrator of “24 Frames” is not necessarily the main character. He’s either an omniscient voice, someone who has been through what the main character has been through or else he is actually part of the main character’s psyche, talking to another part of his own head. He’s telling him “OK, you/we just did that; you/we made some mistakes and hit some bumps, but you’re/we’re learning from them.” There is a distinct sense that the main character is in the middle of his journey, not the end. “Things didn’t always go right, but it’s never too late to get it right. Here’s how you do it,” someone or something is telling him.
There’s specific advice in there – how to connect with people you took for granted, how to be there for a person you love in ways that you maybe didn’t consider before – but I’m most taken with the lesson from the chorus:
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames
I don’t believe in God, but I realize now that I have always had a strong sense that things would just … work out. That there are structures and systems in place and that if you just go with them, it’ll all be OK. Those things we build that “are all for show.”
Practically speaking it may as well have been faith, right? It takes away one’s agency and responsibility to make life work properly based on an optimistic assumption. Maybe I didn’t think God was the architect of my life, and maybe I didn’t consciously take the people and privileges of my life for granted, but I realize now that I tacitly assumed someone or something was gonna make it all turn out OK. That my upbringing and my demographic profile and my general sensibility was two-thirds of the battle and that other structures – my marriage, my kids, my job – would get me the rest of the way through. The architect has designed things. Now you just live in the structure. Structure that’s “all for show.”
As the narrator reveals to us, however, God is not an architect. He is – or, if you prefer not to think of it as God, life left unattended is – a bomb, sowing disruption. In the last chorus God changes from a pipe bomb to someone “sitting in a black car ready to go.” God has someplace else to be; He doesn’t care what’s going on with you. You thought this was all planned? You let things just roll on without intervening yourself? You watched it all unfold, like a movie, at 24 frames per second? That was a mistake, buddy. Watch it all blow up and burn.
All of this is exactly what I’ve been working on for the past few months. First trying to shake the depression I had and then trying to figure out the roots of it. I’ve come to grips with the fact that my tendency to let inertia do its work and my assumptions about how life is supposed to go is what kept me from calling my mother. From being closer to my brother. From making myself worthy of the love that she gave back when I didn’t own a beautiful thing. It’s about taking an active role in my life and not expecting that things will just work out because I have a basically decent foundation upon which to build.
Last night a friend sent me an email, the latest of her many attempts to help me get through some hard stuff I’m dealing with right now. She said “If you’re not good with yourself, you can’t be good for anyone else.” I take that as advice from her to reject the notion that God is an architect. To remember what happened to the part of me that noticed every changing wind. To not watch my life go by in 24 frames. To make my life and my circumstances good in an active way because no one else will do that for me and because I can’t just assume it will all turn out OK.
Maybe some people feel differently, but I think “24 Frames” is a hopeful song. It’s a song that reminds us that even if we fuck up royal, we can learn from it and try not to fuck up again. Nothing is set in stone and God isn’t dictating our fate. That may worry some people, but it’s a great comfort to me.