The lead track on Paulusma’s latest album, Leaves from the Family Tree, is the latest stop on her road towards mastery of pop songcraft that began with “Dark Side” and “Over The Hill” off her debut album Scissors In My Pocket in 2004. Her early work had the same folky hooks and deft lyrics as her latest batch of songs, but it lacked a certain pop vitality. She sounded emotionally removed (and even a little uninterested), as if intent on reflecting from the distance; critics offered the vision of an English Joni Mitchell, which felt at first listen a perfect comparison, but it came to feel more like a critical cop-out, a kind of grasping for analogical straws. If alike in sound—acoustic guitar and thin, airy voice—they are unlike in temperament.
The crucial difference rested in Mitchell’s ability to draw on a deep well of emotion for her songs; there is something so affecting about the song “Old Man” that it can’t quite be picked apart. Paulusma doesn’t have the same skill (no shame there—most don’t). On this third album, though, Paulusma seems to largely abandon the suffering singer-songwriter project, the Joni-sound-alike competition. She embraces a poppier, peppier version of herself. There is a lilt and candor to her work on this album that was not as present on her first two albums.
“Last Week Me” is the obvious highlight. From the grumbling double bass that plugs along underneath the tune to the chugging fiddles and infectious handclaps, the instrumentation demands a mention. Country-pop arrangements are fickle things; too much emphasis on one element can throw the entire production for a loop. The real strength of the song, however, is the thoughtful lyrics, which offer crucial insight into the human experience…not something you’d expect from a pop song.
At face value, the song seems obvious. Paulusma begins with the sci-fi premise of a time-traveling machine, but, rather than investigating any of the typical fictive routes (The Middle Ages! Dinosaurs! Ford Theater!), she takes an acutely personal one:
I’d take a trip to find myself a week ago.
And if myself could see me
and hear what now-me had to say,
I’d wonder how I’d phrase it all
to make me understand.
It’s enough here to appreciate the careful wording used to differentiate between ‘selves’ (or ‘Paulusmae,’ if you prefer), but Paulusma pulls together a fascinating conflict. The understood problem is that there will always be a ‘last week me’—a curse dragging us down into a Macondo-like horror of circularity. Paulusma’s final thought in that verse is especially valuable: how could we ever convey our short-sightedness to a past self? Everything always seems so hunky-dory when it’s happening! The song gets even more interesting when Paulusma digs deeper into the collusion between past and present selves by shifting the conversation towards her future self:
If I were a time traveler,
I’d write myself a cryptic song
and play it on the radio
And in that song I’d tell me
to hold you tight and never let you go,
to grab my gun and climb up on my rooftop
and fire out a warning.
And last week might have stopped washing the dishes,
might have covered you in kisses
before I wiped my hands dry.
In this final verse, “time traveler” no longer signifies only travel into the past; it suggests travel into the future. As she notes, the song is “cryptic” in the sense that it could read as if she were addressing only her past self, when she’s actually contacting her future self as well.
With this song, Paulusma observes how when we pull out the personal historian card, telling ourselves with backwards-looking frowns, that “last week me” was stupid and short-sighted, we’re always implicitly (and often unknowingly) addressing our future selves, the selves whom will have the same choices again, the same dishes to drop and moments to cash in, that we need to be different. Paulusma’s song, which looks as if it might dance off into an infinity of ‘last week mes’ (will she ever hear the warning shot?!), seems to know that to understand the problem is to escape it. Once we recognize the plight of ‘last week me,’ that person is free to disappear.