On “Non-Stop,” one of the seven simultaneous Billboard Top 10 singles from his “Scorpion” album, Drake raps about not stopping. Specifically, he raps about how he doesn’t stop touring, recording or branding, and because of his unwillingness to stop in those regards, he’s also unable to stop making money.
“I get two million a pop and that’s standard for me,
Like I went blind dog, you gotta hand it to me.”
That’s an unambiguously great lyric. It features an internal rhyme, a four-syllable rhyme to end the couplet and the blindness analogy provides a nice double meaning for the word “dog,” which could be used as slang for a person, but in this context also functions as a joke about the manner in which a blind person would rely on a service animal’s assistance. The beat doesn’t stop either, and for all these reasons, Drake’s ‘Non-Stop’ is a great song for the gym.
Tommy Santee Klaws, on the other hand, makes terrible music for the gym. Tommy’s lyrics are vague and mysterious and don’t make me lol. The beat stops frequently, and sometimes doesn’t even start at all. Tommy is in many ways, the opposite of Drake. But Tommy is also the opposite of himself, because the qualities that define a good Tommy Santee Klaws song often appear to be at odds with themselves.
Like a panda playing a steel drum on a frozen tundra, Tommy Santee Klaws is a study in contrasts. Songs can feel sad, hopeful, creepy and whimsical at the same time. His voice is high and low, quiet and powerful. The arrangements are sparse but deep. And somewhat frustratingly, despite the overwhelmingly emotive nature of his music, his words can be pretty impenetrable. Unlike my encounters with Drake at the gym, I usually have no clue what Tommy’s talking about.
Are the references to giraffes and salt water waves washing thighs and absences blamed on a love of horses all literary allusions that I’m just too dumb to get? Or are these biographical details so personal that only Tommy and his wife and his cats could fully appreciate them? By not knowing, does it allow me to find meaning of my own? And if I can’t find some specific meaning, does that even fucking matter? Can’t the search for meaning itself be meaningful? Is there value in wondering -- about music, or anything, goddamn it?
I dunno. But some things are clear. “Beholder” is a pretty lonely album. There are only a few instruments on the whole thing, and Tommy plays all of them himself. Even though there’s a full choir singing, it’s just his one voice. At a certain point, I’m pretty sure I heard an old rusty swing blowing in the winter wind on an empty playground. That’s not like a stupid metaphor either. I think there’s literally a rusty old playground swing in the mix of the first track.
But there in the middle of that dreary soundscape, you’ll also find the happiest instrument in the history of the world. Yes, apparently Tommy recently bought himself a steel drum, and each time it shows up on this very sad, very lonely album, it reminds me of why I got into Tommy’s music in the first place. It’s a study in contrasts.
Despite the ambiguous nature of most his lyrics, there are some songs I think I get. “Artifacts” is about finding solace with your cats and your cookies and all the cool stuff in your home. In “Never Gunna,” Tommy fires off some cynical verses about how he doesn’t want to get along with the local jerks who have kids and wear gym clothes all day. As a dad who listens to Drake at the gym and sometimes wears gym shorts and sneakers while chasing my kid around the rest of the day, I found the song’s outro particularly satisfying, as Tommy calls himself out for being unfriendly, unhappy, judgmental, condescending and patronizing. I get it. We’re all assholes, and those Iowa winters are cold and lonely, even for a panda with a steel drum.
But for the most part, the lyrics are broad in meaning but specific in detail. They’re like a black and white photo defined by its negative space. The same goes for instrumentation. There’s a powerful moment in “Talk Anymore Deemun” when Tommy’s persistent guitar suddenly vanishes, and its absence defines the rest of the song even more profoundly than its presence had just a moment ago.
“Check out all the bodies in the yard, the boulevard is clean,
Did you wake up to the sound of death or birdies whistling?
Do you love your neighbors like you love your peace and quiet?
Must be nice to think that all you need is a sticker, shirt, or sign.”
I could write a few different compelling arguments for what those lyrics might mean or who the “you” might be. But does it matter? Drake’s ‘Non-Stop’ is about not stopping. But Tommy Santee Klaws’ “Beholder” is about a rusty swing on a cold and empty playground.