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Rock Bottoms and Starlight Specials: Esther Rose's "Chet Baker" / Colin Brightwell




My friends and I that stuck around town after high school, slowly going insane at the local commuter college, had a bar that we crawled to every Friday night. Sometimes Saturdays, if conditions were right. We had those dead-end, purgatorial jobs that early twenty-somethings worked with the catatonic eyes of a ghost: retail, restaurants, daycares. We were entering our mid-twenties, seasoned Millennials already figuring out that the road to adulthood was fucking lame and tragic, constantly beating you down. We wanted to go down swinging every weekend. The Keg was our sanctuary. We crammed ourselves into the bar no bigger than a rail car and watched life go by on a wobbly stool. We laughed, cried over spilled beer, fed the jukebox with songs that said what we really couldn't, and learned to appreciate the finer tastes of light beer and middle-shelf liquor. We learned so much about ourselves.


Esther Rose's lead single off her fourth album, 2023's Safe to Run, "Chet Baker," transported me back to this time of my life for four minutes when I stumbled on it, and has become my personal favorite song released this year. It plays like a countrified and bleaker "1979" - Rose channels intense and dark emotional honesty in a coming-of-age song about connection and existentialism, juxtaposing yet complementing the warmer nostalgic desire and heavy stakes of late adolescence in"1979." The characters in the songs feel alive; they move, they have feelings and desires. They crash and burn. In "Chet Baker," they are us, at some point in our lives. Underneath the twangy cries of country guitars, we are buried.


"Chet Baker" kicks off with an upbeat and bouncy acoustic riff, with backing licks and twangs and one hell of a slide guitar. It's what I want to call "Indie Twang" - sad girl indie music infused with country overtones. It makes for a compelling combination on Rose's single, blending a contemporary Millennial mentality with a folksy, warm, inviting Americana sound. It feels recognizable enough.


Esther Rose welcomes the listener to "the middle of the road," establishing the crossroads of your early twenties: uncertain, with endless possibilities. Yet here you are, so many roads but you ain't going anywhere. Rose throws in pills, Chet Baker, and upset girlfriends in the first verse, leading to a chorus refrain so goddamn poignant: "You're pretty good, you wanted to crash/Pretty good, you needed to crash/Twenty-three, save me." The song's motif of crashing, of wanting and needing it to happen, encapsulates the wild recklessness of your mid-twenties that leads to some sort of bitter self-reckoning. Look around at your life while you're two pitchers deep and take stock.


But Rose saves the best lyrics for the second verse, saying that rock bottom shouldn't feel as good as it does, bullying jukes at the local watering hole, and ordering the cheapest weekend special. It's a scene out of my own life with my friends at the Keg - hijacking the jukebox, six-bottle bucket special, cigarette butts on the floor. It's all fun and games until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror behind the bar. Sometimes you'd think, this is it?


The song climaxes with Rose delivering the chorus with such a triumphant yet defeated voice, the music swelling behind her. It's that lyric, "twenty-three, save me," that really carries the weight of the song. We are allowed to be this reckless at 23. We are allowed breathing room to fuck up and swallow down our pride with a few Miller Lites. But that's where the song gets to me: when do the fuck ups stop?


A kid at my landscaping job over the summer asked me what your twenties are like, and any words of wisdom I could lay down. I'm in my last year of them now, twenty-three seems like a lifetime ago. I should have it all figured out by now, at least that's what we were told. I didn't give him much advice, because I couldn't. I told him something easy, a cheap shot. "Have fun and enjoy yourself," or some shit. What do I know? In some ways, I'm still at the Keg on those Friday nights. It's just a different bar now. I'm watching the same life go by on a different wobbly stool. At my worst moments, I feel like I'm fucking up at every turn.


I'm drawn to "Chet Baker" for this reason. It reminds me of my past and my present. It does what any great song should aspire to do: make you take a good, hard look at where you're at, where you've been, and where you're going. I'm talking about growing up. I'm talking about the times in your life that shape you or break you in some way. I'm talking about memory that keeps manifesting in the here and now. Whenever I visit home, I grab drinks with at least one of my Keg friends. It's the same, but it's different. It's those moments when clarity hits and I realize I'm not entirely fucking up everything. We order Miller Lite on tap and talk about what we're up to and that stupid thing called the future. We've already done our crashing. We can start living now.


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COLIN BRIGHTWELL is a Kansas City, Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Mississippi's MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared in Reckon Review, BULL, Flyover Country Literary Magazine, Guilty Crime Story Magazine, PastTen Years, and Cowboy Jamboree. He currently resides in Oxford, MS.

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