Music, when done effectively, should elicit some type of emotional response. In fact, one could perhaps even say that the true essence of music is emotion. As human beings, we experience the entire spectrum of emotion, and in-turn, we continue to make every type of music imaginable. Artists are driven to create their music because of what they feel inside, and fans are pulled to consume that music because of what we feel. When stripped of all the money, marketing, and publicity, when void of the "business" and pared down to just the actual music, it is an attempt to harness the power of emotion and hopefully to have it connect with someone else.
Michael Houser's Sandbox is an exercise in this "Music = Emotion" theory. For the majority of the album, it's impossible to separate Houser's emotions from his playing. In the world of album releases, there is no more emotional starting point than a posthumous one. Recorded at his home studio in Athens, GA between the Fall of 2001 and Spring 2002, this is more than just a collection of Houser's lingering songs. This is his goodbye. Houser became aware that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer partway through the recording process. A week before his August 10, 2002 death, he approached long-time friend and producer John Keane and gave him the rough recordings. With instructions to enlist forever Widespread Panic bandmate John Bell for vocals, Keane set off to flesh out Mikey's final words.
The twelve songs that make up Sandbox are deeply intimate and do a remarkable job of displaying both the various aspects of Houser the musician as well as lending insight into Houser the man. In many ways the album epitomizes the dualities that have always adored fans to Houser. As stated, a good portion of Sandbox was written and recorded with the harsh knowledge that death was coming soon, yet in the heart of this darkness, Houser was able to maintain the simple, childlike beauty and ease that has always permeated his work. Evidence of this can easily be found on the title track, fan favorite "Sandbox." While there are several lighter songs that lean on the bright strings of the mandolin ("Nacoochee Queen" and "Country Sex Song"), the more memorable selections seem to deal directly with meeting one's maker. Songs like the haunting "Solitude" highlight the lingering lead that always set Houser apart, and the album-opener "No Matter What" features perfect vocal harmonies between John Bell and Houser as they sing about "crossing a river" and finding one's way back to shore. The message is clear and incredibly heavy, yet the guitar lines manage to be both angelic and mournful, but never despondent. Perhaps most emotional is "Goodbye My Love," where one can only assume Mikey is saying goodbye to his loving wife Barbette. To truly digest this song one must step back and consider how he or she would attempt such a feat. For anyone who has found that person they are to spend their life with, they know that the notion of leaving them is the saddest, heaviest notion of all. While "Goodbye My Love" could have been too much to bare, Houser makes it a starkly beautiful song that is clearly weighed down with emotions and sadness, yet the song refuses to sink and instead rises upward.
Houser was always the "Anti Rock Star," seated on stage, almost hiding from the lights and screaming fans. Yet when faced with his own mortality, he was able to stand strong, take one long last look at his life, and create a beautiful album full of that simple, emotional brilliance that defined his career.
I've said goodbye to many old friends and many places
I've said goodbye to some happy times familiar faces
I've said goodbye to young summer nights and electric guitars
And carefree sunny summer days having fun with the boys
Well I've said goodbye to a lot of things in my life
But I never thought the day would come
When I would say goodbye my love
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