There’s this park that snakes its way down the border of North Philadelphia, a park I spent a lot of time exploring, a park whose trails and creeks weave their way throughout my formative years.
I haven’t been back in a while, but it’s all still there. I can still feel the branch in my hands, the walking stick to match my little brother’s, the one taller than me. I can hear the stories my father used to tell us, ghost stories that took place “right in this very forest,” yarns to match the brisk fall breeze. I can smell, years later, the dirt weed stuffed into my best friends’ pipe. I can feel the giggles as they stuff my chest, the jokes and bonds to last a lifetime. I hear Printer’s Devil, the new album from Ratboys, and this is where my mind goes.
Printer’s Devil is Pennypack Park. This might not make sense to anyone else, but it’s the best I can do to describe a record steeped in nostalgia, an album that lives in the muddy, foggy world between memories and remembering, a place both as real and imagined as the Pennypack Park of my mind.
For Ratboys’ frontperson and songwriter Julia Steiner, the memories she accessed throughout Printer’s Devil are moored within her family home in Louisville, Kentucky. Steiner’s parents were selling the house, giving her – along with bandmate and lead guitarist Dave Sagan – an ideal place to finalize and demo much of the record. But nothing about Printer’s Devil is hyper-specific. Printer’s Devil is, instead, a mood; a place where vagaries and ambiguity thrive alongside facts.
Take “Anj,” a thumping song full of specifics – malls, paper airplanes, a bad experience on a motion simulator – but ultimately held together by a chorus of “I’m not alone,” a mantra of connection that gives this mundane trivia meaning. “Clever Hans” takes a similar approach, with its swaying, waltzing mood underlying a story of camaraderie, growth, and heartbreak; memories that can only be made sense of with the benefit of hindsight.
“Printer's Devil is, instead, a mood; a place where vagaries and ambiguity thrive alongside facts. ”
Songs like “My Hands Grow” and “Listening” take the opposite approach. Instead of looking back, with all the wisdom hindsight allows, they embrace the unknowable, finding solace in what is beyond your grasp. The former is an ambling drive down a country road, a sense memory that floats above and beyond any kind of grounded specifics. “Listening” places us even deeper in this mystery, a downbeat and disjointed narrative where everything is questioned and the phrase “I don’t know” litters the lyric sheet. Much of Printer’s Devil is spent looking back, but moments like these are attempting to be back, a task few songwriters can manage.
Which brings me to “A Vision.” It’s a soft song that arrives toward the middle of the record, a hushed, finger-picked ode to uncertainty. And it got me thinking, what does it really matter what’s real? The Pennypack of my memory might not match cold hard fact, but feeling it gives me still – all these years later – is nothing I would trade.
“Much of Printer’s Devil is spent looking back, but moments like these are attempting to be back, a task few songwriters can manage.”
The past is malleable and subjective. As soon as it’s gone it begins its constant shift; sand beneath our feet so if it feels real, then it might as well be real. It’s what “A Vision” captures so shrewdly, juxtaposing otherworldly apparitions with the mundane and tactile, verses swerving from dead possums on the road to air turning to gold, from ghosts to going out for breakfast.
Memory and the past may hold different truths, but we subscribe to meaning either way, and that meaning affects us every day. Printer’s Devil manages to dive headfirst into these ideas, leading me down the rocky path of all those collective moments, cutting through the high, swaying grass of my memory, and bringing me back to Pennypack Park.
Sean Fennell is a freelance writer based in Philly with both too much time on his hands and not nearly enough. When he’s not reading and writing he’s making his way through Bob’s Burgers and making a hopefully delicious mess in the kitchen.