S.G. Goodman is the Keeper of the Time

Art can often pose questions, forcing us to interrogate our own comfortable assumptions about ourselves or the world the around us. Other times it can answer them, revealing an essential truth we needed to hear. “The Keeper of the Time,” the final song on S.G. Goodman’s sophomore album Teeth Marks, is a powerful expression of the latter, a vital insight about self-preservation in these troubled times.

Modern neuroscience has taught us that trauma rewires our brain, and in turn, reorders our body. When exposed to it, we are more susceptible to feelings of rage and anxiety, we are less trusting, and more prone to physical ailments. And while the word “trauma” was once a condition reserved for people who fought in wars, we now know that the body responds in the same way to abuse, violence and grief. Trauma is often planted in us during childhood, sometimes grotesquely, other times innocuously, but either way, in the fertile soil of youth, it tends to take firm root.

If Goodman’s song merely shined a light on this knowledge, it would be a valuable resource for people without access to a professional therapist or the latest findings in the American Journal of Psychology. But “Keeper of the Time” does something even more powerful than that. Through the alchemy of lyrical sentiment, arrangement, and Goodman’s emotional vocal treatment, the song acts like a loosening agent for our own trauma.

The song comes at you like the steady beat of a broom to a dusty rug draped over a railing, pummeling out the foulness.

Goodman wrote it as a direct response to the album’s title track “Teeth Marks”—a tune that poses a range of questions about what kinds of behaviors we’re willing to tolerate from the people we love—and placed it at the end of the record like an exclamation point.

“Keeper of the Time” begins like a soft, slow ballad, Goodman gently coaxing, “If it’s not something you should carry, then you better set it loose.” She uses repetition throughout the song, both for emphasis and affect, and continues, voice rising lightly: “If it’s not something you should carry, and it wakes you in the night//If it’s not something you should carry, let your heart bring it to light.”

“The song leans back in the beginning,” said Michael Romanowski, a four-time GRAMMY winning mastering engineer. “It’s passive, timid. They’re playing just behind the beat, and S.G.’s voice wavers, giving us some vulnerability. It all reinforces the lyrics, giving the sense of something not quite healed yet.”

But at roughly the song’s halfway point, the tempo quickens into a long, Beatles-like instrumental section—and then Goodman comes back in, repeating the lyric, “’Tis the keeper of the time,” over and over, with increasing desperation, as the music crescendos, the band now leaning forward. And instead of coaxing, Goodman is now telling it like it is, extolling us, challenging us to let go of our pain.

When I played it for Romanowski in his Berkeley studio, he smiled at the song’s frenzied coda, bouncing his head to the beat and Goodman’s howl, admiring the Southern, punk guitar lick that drives the song home. “They’re playing each other and the song now, not their instruments.”

You feel wrung out when it’s over. The song comes at you like the steady beat of a broom to a dusty rug draped over a railing, pummeling out the foulness. Or maybe like a child being hugged by a parent while she beats and flails and hollers and sobs and hurts, but who, exhausted, finally relents to the warm, unyielding, everloving embrace.

As a society, we’ve lived through years of collective trauma—the pandemic, economic and environmental anxiety, inequality, bitter polarization, fungible truth. The CEO of the American Psychological Association recently said that we “absolutely are experiencing a mental health tsunami.”

For all this, “Keeper of the Time” warrants consideration as one of the era’s anthem songs. We need a song like this. It’s connecting with audiences wherever Goodman goes. She now closes her shows with it, and released a performance video. I’ve seen her perform it on three different occasions, and in each instance, I’ve watched people weep in catharsis. How a body will remember, ‘tis the keeper of the time.

A body of work remembers too. Music marks eras. We associate certain artists and bands with distinct stages in our lives, or entire decades. Indeed, music is often what defines a period of time, or gives it its identity.

Goodman’s music lands on a big, broad Americana musicscape teeming with energy, overflowing with sounds, stylings, and original artistry. But her work stands out for its hard-to-pin-down genre-fluidity—she calls it new southern rock—the exacting songwriting and arranging, the directness, the ability to craft songs that are snapshots of our time. Or, like “Keeper of the Time,” balms for it.

Goodman’s new record Teeth Marks unfolds like a Faulknerian novel set in the modern South, a “thoughtful distillation of…religious hypocrisy, financial ruin, systemic addiction, ruinous love, devotion so intense it begins to burn like hatred,” as Pitchfork so aptly observed. The album’s reception has propelled Goodman to new heights. In October, she played alongside Chris Stapleton, Dwight Yoakam, Tyler Childers and others at the Kentucky Rising benefit concert in Lexington’s Rupp Arena. She’s toured everywhere, been on Tiny Desk, and was recently nominated by the Americana Music Association in the Emerging Act of the Year category.

Anthony Simpkins, founder of Gems on VHS, recently said of Goodman and this generation of truth-tellers, “Hopefully, when people look back in 100 years, they’ll read these songs like a newspaper.”

A hundred years from now, amidst whatever is said about today’s music, some insightful artist is very likely to conclude about S.G. Goodman what Derek Trucks said of blues legend Charley Patton: “His sound is so guttural. It sounds like what I imagine what that time must have felt like. It’s as raw as it gets.”

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