For Andy Furgeson, it was fate. Another struggling musician grown tired of writing about himself, he was huddled tight in a rented apartment when he came upon a collection of old National Geographic magazines. Ranging from 1957-67, the magazine spoke to Furgeson, especially the bold life of the magazine's editor—and grandson to Alexander Graham Bell—Melville Bell Grosvenor. That is how it came to be that Furgeson, along with his bandmates in Bark Hide and Horn, penned an entire conceptualized record about the life of Grosvenor.
Well, sort of. Much like the early adventure-heavy days of the magazine, the truth is a bit blurred here. First off, the album, National Road, is a lot of things—gorgeously assembled, it's a wide-open recording that dabbles in junkyard folk and basement rock 'n' roll, all with a unique and ambitious flair for lyrical prose—but it's not really a concept record. ELO's Eldorado was a concept record. This, thankfully, is not. The life of Grosvenor, as seen through the songs of Bark Hide and Horn, leans very heavily on fictional adventures the band paints him into, so that basically, for the sake of song, they are liars. But it's a glorious lie, as BHH transforms the magazine editor into a protagonist with a wide range of emotions, fears, and dreams never associated with his work inside the yellow-covered pages of National Geographic.
"I started with a collection of loosely related songs, but with no real narrative," explains Furgeson. "I wanted to write this American epic, where toward the end of Grosvenor's career the ghost of his grandfather, Alexander Graham Bell, visits him and opens his eyes to all the suffering that goes on beneath the surface of the magazine. He takes this mystical journey where he inhabits different perspectives and has this epiphany moment that shatters him. It's all imaginary."
It's an interesting concept to hone in on a person who is barely a footnote in time, one whose path never crossed yours in any way, and reinvent them right down to their emotional needs. It's what Charlie Kaufman scripts are made of, and all that is missing from the wild creativity of National Road is a low-ceiling portal into the mind of John Malkovich. The Grosvenor of BHH songs is a fascinating character, one whose adventures—whether real or imaginary—make for splendid songwriting material and a creative outlet for the band outside their day-to-day lives. But he's not alone as a songwriting subject. There is also Ham, the space chimp.
One of National Road's finest moments is the primate-in-orbit tale, "Ham the Astrochimp," written from the desperate perspective of the first ape ever launched into space. A porch-stomping folk number that builds and builds until it lifts off with a chaotic burst of instrumentation and howled vocals, the song has even made a fan out of Jane Goodall. Namedropped in the song ("Listen, Mrs. Goodall! Please save me now!") she "loves the song" and has even been in communication with the band.
While the subject matter of National Road has one foot in history, the other resting firmly in fictional yarns, its real highlight is the freedom expressed by Bark Hide and Horn in their ability to create stories based around historical characters—whether they be magazine editors or astronaut hominids. As Furgeson puts it, "For a long time I was an autobiographical songwriter and to suddenly not rely on my own experiences, or lack of experiences, was really liberating."