“There’s a man at the end of a dead end street/with a Bible in his hand like a trophy thief/I know, but I can’t say I blame him.” These are some of the lyrics in the first verse of “Trophy Thieves,” a thoughtful new song by the Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter Ryan Hoffman, and it provides only a taste of the imagery he deploys throughout the song. But they’re the lines that stuck with me once the song was over, and not just because it contains the title. There’s the use of a “dead end street” to imply a certain sense of despondence, which has always intrigued me even though I’ve lived almost the entirety of a happy, comfortable life on a dead end street. There’s the detail about a man proudly holding a Bible – one of the most common books on the planet, and a book that preaches morality, including not stealing – as though it’s something priceless he stole. And there’s the fact that our narrator, while acknowledging the absurdity of it, can’t blame the man for acting in such a way. Shouldn’t we all find something to be proud of, regardless of whether it belonged to us to begin with?
“Trophy Thieves” takes inspiration from plain-spoken folk rock as well as arena-ready heartland rock: it reminds me equally of Springsteen and Silver Jews. Too often people trying to evoke hand-on-heart warmth or open-sky hugeness end up sounding corny, but Hoffman is more careful than that. There’s something wonderfully tangible about the guitar sound on this song; it’s crisp and colorful and slightly brittle, like autumn leaves. And while there are plenty of solid hooks and grand, sweeping statements (“you give and take/to your final days”), it never feels like it’s trying to be huge. It feels like it’s aiming for a certain sound and achieving it, no calculation necessary.
Similarly, the lyrics tell a story without feeling like they’re trying to Tell A Story. It concerns an old man who lives in a duplex with a young couple and the ways they go about their life – until the old man dreams that he dies and goes on a train, presumably to the afterlife. While the lyrics aren’t abstract, they aren’t necessarily straightforward, drily narrating the events to you; it’s left for you to piece together, which makes it all the more rewarding. As the old man departs, figuratively or literally, he leaves behind a wonderful song.