Beaujolais, Love at Thirty
review by dave heaton
Love at Thirty has a horror-movie cover photo, with Beaujolais, aka Joe Ziemba (of Wolfie, Busytoby and the Like Young), looking at his hands only to find that they’re wrinkled and old, zombie hands. The album opens up with classic horror-film atmosphere: bells tolling amidst fog. And the first line Ziemba sings references Friday the 13th. But he’s setting up the plot not as an exercise in genre-fiction but as a personal test of wills: “Friday the 13th / I found my greatest strength.”
More specifically, this album is about love falling apart when our main character hits age 30. Or more specifically than that (and the album does get specific), it’s about a man discovering that his wife has been cheating on him with another man. It’s a horror show, but a personal one, which Ziemba takes us through step by step, as it happened.
This album hit me right in the gut on first listen, and still does many listens later. Certainly a part of it is that’s it impossible for a fan of Ziemba’s other bands not to realize the degree to which his personal life has always been right there in the music, especially with The Like Young (and its predecessor Busytoby), when the two band members were Ziemba and his wife, the couple in question. In that way, Love at Thirty is the darker flipside of Busytoby’s It’s Good to Be Alive, which was an album-length expression of love. That album, unfairly rejected by many on its release for its sentimentality, is still one of my absolute favorite pop/rock albums of the last decade. This album is easily its equal, probably its better.
The gut-punch of Love at Thirty goes way beyond the biographical details of Ziemba’s life and career. It’s about the music, the songs, the album itself. Love at Thirty is dark, stark, atmospheric music, accentuated with pure pop melodies ranking with Ziemba’s best. Scary music is supposed to sound “scary”, but some of the sweetest moments here, musically, are the scariest. The music changes with the dramatic emotional ups and downs of the story, but there’s also continuity. Melodies and themes reappear throughout, making us feel at times like we’re listening to a film score. Those recurring musical themes are a reminder also that time moves on. It takes guts to make an album as bracingly personal and brutally specific about fears and pains as this one is. But it’s perhaps even rarer to find a break-up/adultery album than it is framing music acknowledges that this is one small human story within the greater scheme of the world, that other people throughout time have experienced the same horrible things.
Ziemba weaves the songs together like intersecting chapters in a novel, using gentle piano as a commentary on the narrative, heightening the emotional effect while furthering the sense of time passing on. That piano, and other instrumental sections, also serve to introduce characters or plot points; the whole thing is almost set up like a play, a musical drama. But this drama is as personal as can be, and that is never forgotten. These songs are extremely raw, powerful expressions of anger, pain, and sadness that are sung and played with such immediacy that you feel like you’re experiencing his reactions as they occur. Yet he has arranged these songs with the gifted hand of a pop/rock classicist. That gives the album a dramatic heft that makes it more universal, keeping this from ever seeming like just another tossed-off angry missive, just another stereotypical “break-up album”. Anyone who dismisses this album as “just another” anything isn’t listening closely enough.
There are big themes here, beyond just the personal circumstances. And they’re tied to the general Halloween theme that lies in the music and song titles. So much horror fiction is about the trappings of the human body, of aging and mortality, and this album is too. It’s about isolation, aging and absolute rejection taken all together, and what that does to one man’s self-regard, to how he looks at himself in the mirror, how he thinks about his past, present and future. “I’m staring straight at my hands / they’ve turned to skeletons,” he sings. There are screams, but they’re self-directed (“I scream in the mirror”). There are haunting, dark thoughts to chase away.
Ziemba’s past bands had periods where he was interested in multi-part songs, ‘rock opera’ songs that changed mid-song. That happens here, but it’s handled even more thoughtfully than on any Wolfie or Busytoby album. Improving on similar song structures in a way connects these albums back to those earlier albums, making this part of the same story. We get the same feeling of connection to the past through backing vocals that sound like those of the past bands, though now it’s Ziemba’s own voice, or even through some of the lyrics (in particular: the line “my love can’t be saved” inevitably brings to mind The Like Young’s cover of “Our Love Can Still Be Saved”, a bittersweet memory now).
That touching-back seems significant within an album that’s all about struggling to make peace with what’s happened and move on. “I Do Go in the Woods Alone”, one song towards the end is called – that’s Ziemba rewriting a standard horror-film cliché (don’t go into the woods alone) as a statement of purpose. I will face the horrible side of life with my eyes open. I will deal with this and keep going. Near the album’s end he takes its opening section and rephrases it as a release. “It’s time to let them die gently”, he sings of the horrible things he discovered.
Life moves on, the album acknowledges, even while it never shies away from how tough life is on individual people. Love at Thirty is a Halloween tale, but one with catharsis and learning. It’s a horror movie, but not one where the sequel will be a carbon-copy of the original. Or at least not with the same characters. Actually, the last track on the album is Ziemba himself writing the sequel – it’s sweeter , more hopeful.