What’s our fascination with songs about travelling shows?
From soul classics like “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, to show tune standards like “Have I Stayed Too Long At The Fair”, songs about running away with the circus are everywhere. Even contemporary pop music is enamoured with the idea, Emma Dean’s concept album “Dr. Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret” for example, features a song called “Bigger Than You Bigger Than Me” that luxuriates in the fantasy of becoming a trapeze artist or sword swallower under the big top.
So why are we so obsessed? It can’t just be that we love songs about the open road, although that’s probably a good part of it. Maybe it’s because with most road trip music we embark with a set destination in mind, and we know the journey at some point has to end. When we flee to join up with a band of travelling actors or a cohort of clowns, there is no final destination, and the road trip never has to stop.
That’s the feeling that Matthew and the Arrogant Sea’s “Travelling Show” gives me.
The vocals are calm and meandering, the melody lilting, like a road spread out before you but going nowhere in particular. The lyrics seem to reflect this pleasant kind of aimlessness, we circle back to the refrain of
“there’s nothing to it / life in the travelling show”
over and over again, melting into the ease of watching towns and cities flatten out into one long line. Most songs on this topic are brassy and bombastic, focussing on the sequins and spotlights that come with life as a touring performer; “Travelling Show” is more about the quiet moments in between.
That edge of melancholy makes sense when you take the rest of the album into account. “The Gloom pt.1” is dreamy but dark, often getting sadder the more soothing it sounds. Both “Borrowed Smokes” and “Swedish Death Metal Cassette” sound like lullabies until you listen to the lyrics, and “Dreams Are Nightmares Too” has some unexpectedly raw edges.
In that context, “Travelling Show” takes on a much bleaker edge. Maybe the line “there’s nothing to it” isn’t about how laid-back life on the road is, but how shallow it can be, how it’s more smoke and mirrors than actual substance. Maybe that’s why the rest of the song talks about audiences who laugh before the joke is told and scratch their heads when the message gets too difficult – as well as the artists who lose themselves in trying to make them happy. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much into it.
Either way, “Travelling Show” takes a complex knot of emotions, nostalgia and wanderlust, and unspools into a slow-build folk song that you could listen to for hours on end.
At least in my case, it made me crave escape, but the kind that exists in a good book just as much as it does in a spontaneous road trip. In that way, it’s the perfect lazy day soundtrack no matter what you’re getting up to, whether that’s wiling away long car journeys while staring out of the window, absentmindedly writing in a coffee shop, or actually going outside in search of a real adventure.
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