“Sweeps,” a song by the Houston-born singer-songwriter John Hollywood, is, in a word, exhausted. On paper, it’s a witty, easygoing folk tune in the tradition of John Prine and Arlo Guthrie (in particular, Hollywood’s voice is a dead ringer for Guthrie’s), going through all the things that have gone from the narrator’s life: a restaurant, a girlfriend, the memory of a book, his whole social circle. Even as he laments that everything was “all for naught”, Hollywood delivers his lyrics with a wry smile and a devil-may-care shrug, along the lines of Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” (about dealing with the draft during the Vietnam War) or Prine’s “Illegal Smile” (about being arrested for marijuana possession.) What can ya do, right?, these songs seem to say.
But Hollywood isn’t content with just vibing, and subverts that lackadaisical attitude through the song’s atmosphere. Everyone in this song, from the singer to the guitarist to the drummer, sounds absolutely dead on their feet: not in the sense that they’re unable to keep up with the song, but in the sense that it’s taking a Herculean effort to stay awake for even a second longer. You can see their red eyes – from lack of sleep or otherwise – through the lo-fi roughness of the mix, which was initially recorded on a flip phone(!). In many ways, “Sweeps” is a warm, almost welcoming song, but it’s recorded to sound as brittle and strung-out as possible.
There’s a very good reason for that. Hollywood recorded the original demo of “Sweeps” in the early weeks of the pandemic, when everything was gone – our routines, our plans for the near future, our already-tenuous sense of security – and we were already starting to wonder if everything we had built for our lives was “for naught.” These were bleak times, even for the most comfortable among us, and the rituals we went through to carry on with some sense of normalcy – Zoom calls, rubbery delivery food, numbing Netflix binges – just alienated us further from where we felt we were supposed to be. It feels dramatic to describe it as purgatory, but for some that’s what it felt like.
“Sweeps” captures that peculiar mix of comfort and crisis; it’s a cry for help in pajamas. It’s funny and it’s friendly and it makes you feel less alone if you’re feeling particularly strung-out, but it’s an effective reminder of what it feels like to try and laugh through a miserable situation you still can’t see the end of. If this great song’s attitude towards the state of things can be summed up in one image, consider the meme of Hannibal Burress, giving a good-natured chuckle before flatly stating the obvious: “this sucks, man.”