Apprehension can manifest itself in many forms. For William Tell, it’s a girl called Jeannie. More of a symbol than an actual person, she embodies the fear, excitement and anticipation associated with releasing a solo album – and she’s the reason why You Can Hold Me Down manages to hold its own.
The 27-year-old singer-songwriter spent three years as a rhythm guitarist for the band Something Corporate before announcing in February 2004 he was pursuing a solo career. It took two years before he signed with New Door Records, giving him ample time to explore his own musical style and develop a more introspective, pop-infused sound to differentiate himself from his former alt-rock band.
That’s where Jeannie comes in. Serving as the album’s opening track, “Jeannie” sets the tone of the record, featuring an admonition that sounds just as much a reassurance to Tell himself as advice to a friend in need. “Wake up / Don’t let them get you down / You’ve got to find your mother who never doubted you” starts off the song, reminding Tell – and listeners – to seek the one person who will always believe in him even when he’s unsure of himself. Though Tell’s split from Something Corporate was amicable, and drummer Brian Ireland and singer Andrew McMahon contributed to the album, spending two years without a record deal could have anyone questioning his or her latest career move.
Fans of Ryan Cabrera will find a similar sound on Tell’s solo effort, You Can Hold Me Down. “Young at Heart” and “Trouble” are the standout tracks of the album.
Interwoven in the opening guitar riffs and about two minutes into “Jeannie” is the voice of a woman speaking Italian. While the liner notes never mention exactly what she’s saying, it doesn’t seem to matter – it becomes threads in the fabric of a melody laced so tightly that listeners can simply cover themselves in the collective sound.
Though most tracks on the guitar-driven album rely on speculation to connect Tell’s wavering discourse on relationships to the tribulations of his fledgling solo career, Tell openly admits that “Sounds” uses the girl as an allegory for his uncertainty.
“I wrote that song almost stream of consciousness,” he said on his Web site, williamtell.com. “I didn’t realize what it was about at the time, but looking back I realize it’s about the mixed emotions I had about leaving the band. It was hard, but I felt like this was something I needed to do to grow.”
During the final chorus in “Sounds,” Tell pleads, “You keep ringing in my head / Whatever happened to your song? / It’s just how the radio sounds.” This could refer to North, Tell’s last album with Something Corporate, and how many of its tracks strayed from the band’s traditional piano-rock sound in favor of darker lyrics and stronger guitar riffs.
One of the album’s most powerful tracks, “Young at Heart,” chronicles the lifetime of a girl caught in the past, who ultimately commits suicide when she feels as though she can’t catch up with a world that’s hurtling ahead of her. Throughout the song, the girl moves from being a single person to a representation of feelings trapped in everyone: “She laid there eight days cold on the floor / Finally a neighbor called / he said something seems suspicious / they had to break down the door / they found we’re all young at heart.”
“On a subconscious level, I probably wrote the song to remind myself to enjoy the ride and not worry so much about where it’s taking me because I can’t control it anyway,” Tell said in his biography.
Like a sort of phantom, Jeannie – or rather, the decision to leave Something Corporate – seems to haunt Tell throughout the album. Maybe he centered his songs around a girl to make the album more relatable to his audience, or maybe he grappled with both relationship and professional woes while making the album. Either way, every track tends to follow the same struggle of being held back by someone, but not being entirely sure whether he wants to break free.
It’s this wavering indecision that makes Tell’s lyrics resonate with fans. Rather than spouting authoritative lyrics on love, he allows his songs to read like pages from a diary, riddled with confusion and unanswered questions.
My biggest complaint is that fans may find the album stale, since nearly every track on You Can Hold Me Down has been played on his MySpace.com profile for the last six months. Certain outlets, such as Wal-Mart, offer bonus downloads of otherwise unreleased (not even on MySpace) songs, like “Katie (Where’d You Go?)” and “This Mess.”