At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, America was introduced to a dense, climbing vine from Japan known as kuzu, or kudzu. It was marketed as a decorative plant to provide shade for porches, and it could also serve as cheap, healthy cattle fodder. It was even used to combat soil erosion during the Dust Bowl. And yet, once kudzu started growing, it didn’t stop. It became most popular in the southern states, where the warm weather and an ill-timed boll weevil infestation meant the vine had no competition. Now, vast swaths of land are smothered in blankets of kudzu; you can find dead trees groaning beneath the weight of the vines, tangles of dried weeds that used to be a field, even abandoned houses choked with the stuff. Kudzu is now known as “the vine that ate the South.”
Jessey Clark, the singer-songwriter of Creature Comfort, grew up on a farm in Tullahoma, Tennessee, which means he was likely already familiar with the invasive plant. But he might not have written a song about it were it not for Podsongs, a podcast that has musical artists interview people from various other fields, then write songs inspired by the discussion. Creature Comfort interviewed a conservation biologist by the name of Charles van Rees, and their discussion on kudzu inspired “Kudzu from Heaven.”
The idea of an adaptable biological threat spreading wildly and causing destruction obviously has some resonance in this day and age, but Clark is canny enough to know that there’s more to the metaphor than that. “Kudzu from Heaven” uses the idea of kudzu to signify a deeper societal ill, a spiritual sickness that leaves nothing untouched. The kudzu kills the pine trees, yes, but soon enough the rivers dry up, and when Clark wakes up in Tullahoma he finds it unrecognizable. “What can one man do to stop the invasion?”, he asks in the chorus, before adding “what can one man say to keep the soul of the nation from fading away?” There are some answers provided in the bridge, but the implied truth may be “not a damn thing.”
Bleak stuff, to be sure, but “Kudzu from Heaven” doesn’t feel like a downer; in fact, it feels pretty fun. The song moves at a brisk pace, and there are plenty of great big shout-along hooks that you could imagine being belted out by an excited crowd once we can do that without fear. Clark has mentioned the influence the Beatles have had on his music, but to me “Kudzu” sounds most like Britpop, a wave of British pop rock made in the 90s during a period of national optimism. The melodies bring to mind Oasis at their strongest, and the outstanding guitar work reminds me of Ride in the way it swirls and sparks and rockets across the sky. The sound of one country’s optimism has turned into the sound of another country’s spiritual rot, and it improbably works.