Welcome to Jukebox Breakdown, a new column where we write about songs we love. Less about overarching themes or through-lines, Jukebox Breakdown is simply a space for our thoughts on perfect tracks.
Jukebox Breakdown: Piebald – “King of the Road”
by Chad Jewett
Before reforming around the pop adventurousness of 2002’s We Are The Only Friends We Have, Piebald were mainly taken with deeply cerebral, byzantine emo — crafting five minute songs that resolutely begin one place and ended in another. The band’s finest album (at least up to that point), If It Weren’t for Venetian Blinds It Would Be Curtains for Us All (a title reflective of the Andover, Massachusetts band’s Dadaist sense of humor) played like a dizzying collage of east coast post-hardcore, intro-to-philosophy textbooks, pop culture arcana, and second-string Nabokov novels. As deeply affecting as Piebald’s stream-of-consciousness modernism and keen melodies could be, there was nevertheless a fascinating distancing effect to songs like “Grace Kelly With Wings,” wherein lyrics like “That’s more than a dress, it’s a Grace Kelly movie / You can see my benefit / Leave it on my doorstep or on my windowsill / I’ve got to water it, I’ve got to take care of it” were somehow both richly evocative and compellingly opaque.
So it came as a friendly surprise when the band returned with the less tangled, more extroverted melodicism of We Are The Only Friends We Have. Even more surprising was the album’s opening track, “King of the Road.” Where Piebald had previously seemed almost studiously suspicious of first-person narratives and introspection, instead muddying the water with oblique references and imagist litanies, “King of the Road” offered a poignant, warm glimpse into the band as people. The song begins with a curling 5/4 riff that nevertheless manages to be electrifyingly catchy (even if you’ve never heard Piebald, I guarantee you’ve heard a guitarist warm up with this melody), a good synecdoche for the ways in which We Are The Only Friends We Have would manage to balance pop id with the band’s math-y super-ego. The whirling pop-emo intro eventually eases into a plush, Fender Rhodes-led interlude as Travis Shettel offers us our first real narrative of who Piebald are: “Andy went back to school, he got sick of Newbury Comics / Aaron still rides a lot, except now, now he’s just fatter / Alex took over for Alex Van Halen after his major surgery / John, well, he got married to Laura and I teach their kid in first grade.”
Then the song tilts back into that bright, fizzy guitar-pop, becoming an ode to the band’s one-time tour van. The narrative is oddly affecting as Shettel dwells on various scenarios for the bus (“Maybe see you at a junkyard soon, oh man, I really hope not”, “Maybe you’re in auto heaven, oh man, I really hope so”), finding a way to balance the esoteric quality of past lyrics with a bittersweet emotional undercurrent. If Piebald songs previously dwelled on odd-ball specifics, now they were finding ways to turn those proper nouns into metaphors for real feelings as opposed to insider totems. Indeed, Shettel offers perhaps his most economically perfect sentence in combining his love of detail with a heartbreaking appreciation for the ways in which objects accrue meaning: “We keep your door like it’s a postcard from you from camp.”
Yet the song’s deepest resonance lies in the fact that Piebald find a third layer of meaning in what their departed tour bus means for them as people. Indeed, following the song’s gently wistful introduction – essentially a triptych of fading youth and scary adulthood – one can’t help but think of the band waving goodbye to their van and waving goodbye to their younger days all at once as Shettel sings “Now it’s all the same.” Like the best in emo’s second wave, of which Piebald was one of the greatest innovators and philosophers, “King of the Road” paints a moving, difficult emotional palette across the surface of everyday things.