Two years later, with the release of On The Impossible Past, that hope is all but gone. The past isn’t dead and buried, but it’s definitely a ghost, haunting the 13 songs of what is a quintessentially American record with memories of what was and what no longer is. That, of course, is why it’s the impossible past – because no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to, you cannot bring the past back. Once it slips away, it’s gone forever, lost in the ether of time. Even your memories – much like Lolita’s narrator – are unreliable. Time clouds as it marches on, and everything that happened – and, within that, everything you’ve done, everyone you’ve known and loved and lost – just feels like a distant dream.
Unlike on Time Tables, the past the courses through these songs with no hope of being revived. The past is confined to the past, and it stays there forever. That’s something captured precisely in Gates, in which a burgeoning romance rushes through its existence in seven succinct lines: ‘It’s not hard to fall for a waitress /When you both smoke the same cigarettes / You’ll get seated as diners or lovers / You’ll get the check as friends for the better / You’ll carve your names into the Paupack Cliffs / Just to read them when you get old enough to know / That happiness is just a moment.’
That those names will remain etched in the cliffs for far longer than the relationship will last – even if, on some alternate timeline, it lasts until death – only exacerbates the impermanence that tears at the heart of this record. Carved into the cliffs, those names are now immortal and everlasting. Even if humanity dies out, they’ll still be there. It’s a beautifully bleak and bleakly beautiful reminder that we only have one life, and that we have to make a decision where – or, more accurately, when – to live it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. That longing never goes away. Indeed, in Casey, Greg offers up another entreaty to return to the past: ‘Gin and Casey used to dance inside of me / And I bet I sound like a broken record every time I open my mouth / I want to wander around the city with you again / Like when you waited tables and I waited for your shift breaks.’
This time, though, it’s more abstract – he wants to, but, unlike in Time Tables, he’s not addressing anybody else to see if they’re game. Whether Casey was a lover or just a friend, they’re no longer here, and even though in those four lines the past comes crashing and hurtling into the present for a brief, it’s still just Greg, clawing alone at those memories of what was.