Gabriel Kahane, a Brooklynite singer-composer who sways between pop and classical worlds, has taken the concept of the concept album to rarefied heights. For his record “The Ambassador,” released in 2014, he created a suite of songs inspired by various buildings in Los Angeles, the title track paying tribute to the venerable hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was shot. In “Book of Travelers,” which Nonesuch issued last year, Kahane recounts an adventure he undertook in November, 2016: the day after the Presidential election, he boarded the Lake Shore Limited out of New York and racked up almost nine thousand miles riding trains across the country, talking to fellow-passengers and making songs from the stories that he heard.
Heady as Kahane’s work can be, it is, first and foremost, an exercise in lyric beauty. He sings in a warm, resonant, melancholic baritone, which coasts upward into a plaintive falsetto. He plays the piano with a poetic touch—his father is the distinguished pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane—and his music is suffused with idiosyncratic, enriched tonal harmony. You can hear various influences that inform his style, from Schumann and Debussy to Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. For the most part, though, he is in possession of his own musical language. At the age of thirty-seven, he is one of the finest, most searching songwriters of the day.
Kahane has a knack for creating musically fluid lines from clusters of words that look unpromising on paper. A song called “Model Trains” starts this way:
The man who played with model trains
In the furnished basement painted black—
How it pleased him every day,
The pattern of the rail,
The pattern of the tiny track.
This may seem a better beginning for a short story than for a song. Yet Kahane has already beguiled the ears with a sadly purring arpeggiated pattern that could resolve to one of several keys—in this case, D major, although the music seldom settles there. (“Book of Travelers” is also available as a published score.) Then comes a vocal line that gestures upward and saunters down, speeding up a little on the words “painted black.” With “the pattern of the rail,” the voice falls in synch with the clickety-clack of sixteenth notes in the piano. The word-setting is so effortless that you can no longer imagine the text without music.
Kahane’s ability to wrest a song from almost any sample of verbiage has produced some delightful confections over the years. In 2007, he won notice for a suite of “Craigslistlieder,” based on ads and messages that he had found on the Internet. None other than Audra McDonald has sung them in concert. Last year, he made a minute-long ditty out of an inane monologue by Mitt Romney: “My favorite meat is hot dog, by the way. That is my favorite meat. My second favorite meat is hamburger.” The result, “Fleischlied für Mitt Romney,” is far better than it needs to be. Schumann could hardly have done better.
In another age, Kahane might have had a career as a sophisticated musical satirist, in the vein of Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer. His live show, which I recently saw at the Bootleg Theatre, in Los Angeles, doubles as a self-interrogating standup routine. Yet “Book of Travelers” is a song cycle of unwavering seriousness, delivering snapshots of a broken and desperate nation. “Model Trains” turns out to be a wrenching sketch of a man who has an accident while playing with his toy railroad, and goes into permanent mental decline:
One night he slips and hits his head
As he reaches for a sleeper car,
And the lights kept blinking red,
Now level with his eye,
His miniature Place de la Gare.
That these words unfurl to the same lulling melody that propels the first verse somehow captures the fateful randomness of a life changed in an instant.
A similar strategy governs “Friends of Friends of Bill.” A ballad-like tune over threadbare piano threads its way through a tale of burgeoning familial disaster: a house burns, a single mother takes her kids to live at her sister’s, one of the sons becomes addicted to pills. This song also attests to Kahane’s ability to conjure lives with a few words. “Friends of Bill” are members of Alcoholics Anonymous; the mother belongs to an Al-Anon group for family members of alcoholics. The line “I show him the pictures drawn by his kid” lets us know that the mother is also a grandmother. All this misfortune seems to go back to the fire, about which we are only told, “Those neighbor kids, they meant no harm.”
Sometimes Kahane withholds the background, leaving just a few enigmatic clues. Only when I heard his explanatory patter at the live show did I understand that “Singing with a Stranger,” the last track on the album, is about a group of Old Order German Baptist Brethren, whom Kahane found singing from their hymnals in an observation car. He asked if he could join them, resulting in an awkward but earnest round of music-making: “Singing with a stranger / From the false world.” The song is just as strong without that knowledge, though. You sense that Kahane is with members of a deeply traditional community, and can imagine the rest.
The quest to empathize with people of different backgrounds could have devolved into a gimmick—the musical equivalent of those by-the-numbers news stories in which big-city reporters visit small towns in search of the “real America.” Kahane is too canny and self-aware to fall into that trap. Indeed, “What If I Told You” explicitly undercuts white-men-in-a-diner narratives. An African-American woman tells of how she went to an Ivy League college but still feels vulnerable to racism—“ ’cause they don’t need a hood or a cross or a tree.” Her grown sons refuse to let her drive through Mississippi alone. Impatience rises in her tone:
And if I told you all of that,
Maybe you would understand
Why I have limited sympathy
For your desire to know the suffering
Of the working white man.”
In the dining car
As we hurtled South
In the growing dark.
The song harks back to “Empire Liquor Mart,” the centerpiece of “The Ambassador,” in which Kahane gives voice to Latasha Harlins, the African-American teen-ager who was shot a year before the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The singer’s delivery doesn’t markedly change as he crosses boundaries of gender and ethnicity, but the musical texture of “What If I Told You” hints at the mechanics of double consciousness: a Schumannesque flavor in the piano writing, a tinge of blues for “they don’t need a hood or a cross or a tree.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the next song, “October 1, 1939 / Port of Hamburg,” finds Kahane reading a diary that his grandmother wrote while travelling across America in 1939, having fled Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht. Bittersweet chords disappear; Kahane reaches inside the piano to touch the strings, altering and muffling the sound. The images are idyllic Americana—“Farmlands, small wooden houses, blue lakes, green village ponds”—but they land in a chilly, hollowed-out space. At the end, Kahane drops his oblique strategy and editorializes on historical forgetfulness: “Why would you need / To know anything / That happened any earlier / Than late last week?” It’s a bit hectoring, but it’s a message worth harping on.
As a respite from all that dolor, “Book of Travelers” offers up an enchantingly wistful song called “Little Love,” in which two people describe a favorite seaside spot and sing, “I hope we die here when we’re old.” The lilting melody reminds me a little of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” as does the image of solitary bliss on a beach. It’s perhaps telling that the most tranquil, untroubled music on the album is a fantasy of a happy death:
And when we’re frail in our lawn chairs by the sea,
All twisted hands, shrunken spines, and halting speech,
We’ll listen for the long gray silence to gather and increase
And when it does we’ll close our eyes and rest in narrow peace.
This assumes, of course, that the couple will stay together, that they will grow old together, and that their cherished beach will still exist. The song ends in midair, with an unresolved cadence, suggesting that they know no better than the rest of us how all of this will end.