There was a sign on the main drag of my town between the McDonald’s and the funeral home that said “No Engine Brake” and I had no clue what that meant. There wasn’t a light in the dashboard of our family’s Toyota Camry that said “Engine Brake” so… But I remember seeing the sign and never even asking my parents what it meant (which was odd for me).
I don’t know when I learned what engine braking was, it doesn’t matter. I know it’s also called a Jake brake, and more specifically it’s used on big trucks and semis to stop them at higher speeds, thereby saving on the brake pads. The Jake brake opens the exhaust valves in the cylinders of the engine, releasing the compressed air trapped inside, thereby slowing the truck down. I’m paraphrasing this from some truck website and it makes no sense to me, but apparently it works, via physics and this truck website.
But for Joanna Newsom, it’s the sound they make. From far away, engine brakes are a legion of bass trombones splattering on the lowest note they can play. They interrupt the white noise of the highway, and depending on where you grew up, crickets just don’t sound right without them entering into the conversation every so often. Close up the sound is the Inception horn, the maw of a hell. There’s a reason there’s no engine braking in small towns and residential areas or between McDonald’s and funeral homes.
It’s a big counterpoint to the ecosystem of “Baby Birch”, which numbers among the songs I would rescue from the underworld. Its composition is drawn in tiny circles, perfect at first, then they grow larger and scribblier and cut into the page inside Ryan Francesconi’s stunning arrangement. As with most of Have One On Me, she simplifies her delivery, and here she sings most of the text in a warm sotto voce until the end.
“Baby Birch” is, as always, leaden with metaphor. It’s commonly read as a 9 minute pang for a miscarriage or an abortion, but maybe it’s broader. It could be about the outline of any figure Newsom cut away from her, either in the clinical violence that she describes with the “barber” in the final stanza or of something a little less drastic.
Always, always, always get chills when it comes around to the final part:
There is a barber who’s cutting,
And cutting away at my only joy;
I saw a rabbit,
As slick as a knife,
And as pale as a candlestick,
And I had thought it’d be harder to do,
But I caught her, and skinned her quick:
held her there,
Kicking and mewling,
Upended, unspooling, unsung and blue;
Told her, “wherever you go,
Little runaway bunny,
I will find you.”
And then she ran,
As they’re liable to do.
I suppose it’s because some years ago, my ex-girlfriend got pregnant after we had an ill-advised rendezvous during a post-breakup limbo period of our relationship and she had an abortion two months later while I was in Thailand volunteering at an orphanage for stateless kids who would otherwise be sold into labor or sex trafficking rings. When I got back to Wisconsin, I asked her with all the grace and tact of a dumb kid who just paid for half of an abortion for a “receipt.” She told me she burned it, along with everything having to do with the abortion. That was the final word either of us ever said about it.
Engine brakes are these otherworldly noises. I only hear them as faraway sounds, something that crests in my ears for a second then disappears again. Contrast to the surgical, busy scene of the last stanza, the present moment of the deed, triage, a whole town watching in the window, witness to the moment this thing leaves your life. It then runs off far away from you, the gravity of it so large that there’s a doppler effect from the noise of its escape, something that bends flat as it passes by. “How about those engine brakes?” those hollow moans of something so small from so long ago that opens big in the night. And it’s like, sometimes those runaway things find you, too.