Life, Loss, and Love with Joe Goodkin

Slightly over two years ago, Joe Goodkin started a journey, and as a listener, you couldn’t help but join him on it; now, that journey is coming to an end with the release of Goodkin’s Record of Love EP, the third and final in a series that, through incredibly confessional and personal songwriting, explored childhood memories, love, and loss of all kinds, among other things. And in the hands of a less capable and less confident songwriter, this could have been disastrous—but it was anything but.

Writing about Record of Love presents an interesting challenge because, outside of being a stand-alone effort available digitally and on CD, it is also part of Goodkin’s first vinyl release—a 2xLP that collects it, as well as reissuing its companion pieces, 2015’s Record of Life, and Record of Loss, released in February of this year.

As a six-song collection, Record of Love is the most hopeful of the trilogy—that fact should be apparent from the title alone. And, smartly, it begins the same way that Record of Loss ends—this is still a neat trick, and it’s one Goodkin has used before1; Record of Loss began the same way that Record of Life concluded. “What Remains is Love” is a stark opening track, finding Goodkin somberly strumming his beloved 1963 Gibson ES-125t, ruminating on myriad things, including the ghost of Jason Molina (something that haunts us both): “Every time I sing, I’ll always sing this truth: All these songs about loss and pain, burn away the blues and love is what remains,” he sings, plainly yet strongly, with an unabashed honesty that sends you into frisson, and moves a tear to the edge of your eye.

Throughout the other two releases, Goodkin has experimented with looping and multi-tracking his instrument, but Record of Love finds him really expanding on those additional sounds—creating a skittering, sweeping groove that sets the backdrop for “Ashes,” a powerful lyrical portrait that places Goodkind and his family on top of a mountain in Tennessee to release the ashes of loved ones—all three of whom were characters from songs on both earlier EPs in the cycle.

Love is what truly remains on this collection—while Record of Loss mourned those who had passed on, and Record of Life recounts both those still with us as well as those who have died, Record of Love’s final four tracks are of a celebratory manner, written about his sister, mother, father, and his wife.

On the slow burning “The Kind of Artist,” Goodkin recalls childhood with his younger sister, and growing into young adulthood together; on the dramatic “My Mother’s Voice” and the jaunty “Life’s Symphony,” he recalls admiring his mother’s voice as a child, his father’s early encouragement of learning an instrument, and the thanks he owes to both of them today.

Record of Love concludes with a tender and earnest finger plucked ballad for his wife—recalling the day they met, well over a decade ago, following his divorce and the death of her former partner—both of whom were subjects in previous Records, as is the mortality he and her both seem to have a heightened awareness of, all while not taking for granted the relationship they’ve built.

Taken as three separate EPs, aware of how they are connected, there is no way not to be conscious of the emotional weight that is carried from one to the next, but that is even more apparent when you listen to them in their vinyl presentation.

The entire series, as well as releasing all three EPs on vinyl, has been a labor of love for Goodkin. The vinyl edition gives all 18 songs, their stories, and characters more room to breathe, and as anticipated, the collection sounds great on LP, adding a layer of depth and warmth to each song—and in the cases of Life and Loss, it re-conjures all those of those raw emotions from when I first listened to those songs—but now those emotions are stored deep in the grooves of the record.

Re-releasing both Record of Life and Record of Loss in this vinyl set also allowed Goodkin to make a minor, but noticeable change. The song sequencing on Life is slightly different—swapping “Gray,” the original second track, with “As Old as I am Now,” originally the fifth track.

At first, I presumed it had to do with the confines of how much you could fit on a side, but Goodkin explained that once he began performing the songs, and understanding the structure of how the trilogy of albums would work, he needed to, as he put it, “establish a song about my childhood and family before I started talking about people dying.”

Listening to all 18 songs in one sitting, as presented in the vinyl collection, is an exhaustive, cathartic experience. Goodkin’s conceit for these EPs has always been one of an emotional rollercoaster, structured around nostalgic, triumphant, slightly melancholic highs from looking at old photos and creating a life-like narrative that puts you into these memories with him, to dark, claustrophobic lows that plunge you down into deep, devastating loss.

There is no cure for the human condition, but throughout, Goodkin finds the balance between nostalgia and pathos, all while making room for poignancy, clarity, and reflection; and that may be the most impressive feat of all. The entire project—a cycle of three EPs based around such personal songwriting is both ambitious and admirable, and in coming out the other side, Life, Loss, and Love shows that Joe Goodkin is a tremendous and fearless songwriter.

1- It is also worth noting that, according to Goodkin, the last chord of “As Old as I am Now” is also the first chord of “My Friends,” so things flowed better.