“It’s quiet in the streets now/But it’s screaming in your head.”
Augustana frontman Dan Layus sings those words near the outset of Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, his band’s second major label LP. He sings them in a low register, at a near-whisper. It’s the calm before the storm, both for the song (called “Hey Now”) and the album. Eventually, the song crescendos into a big anthemic burst of sound—one that suits Layus’s big, craggy voice perfectly. The album, meanwhile, delves deep into roots rock in inventive, versatile ways, twisting the threads of the genres under that umbrella in half a dozen different directions. From country to Americana to southern rock to the glossy pop-roots sounds of 90s radio bands like The Wallflowers and Counting Crows, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt crisscrosses the heartland and comes back with rewarding treasures from every segment of the musical map.
For me personally, this record was also the calm before a turbulent storm. “It’s quiet in the streets now”—but it won’t be for long. I remember hearing those words in my car on a late spring evening, driving home from school at 9 or 10 at night on a weekday. It was the tail end of my junior year of high school and our music program was preparing to mount our annual pop variety show—a last hurrah for the seniors and a celebration of summer’s arrival for the rest of us. “Hey Now” seemed to capture the floral fragrance of the season, the possibility of the evening, and the aching anticipation for summertime. It was one of those nights where no one else is on the road and you feel like you’re the only person in town. I had the windows down and it was that perfect level of springtime warm outside, and the breeze was melding with the music in a way that felt like freedom. It was maybe the first time I’d ever driven alone on a night like that. In the next 10 years, driving alone on nights like that would become one of my favorite pastimes.
As I fell for one of my best friends—slowly at first, then with quick and reckless abandon—the songs on Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt seemed to send a message: things were never going to be the same again. They weren’t. I didn’t know it that night, but my youth was running for the door, and “Hey Now” was sending a warning. Later in the song, the line I quoted shifts subtly. Instead of “It’s quiet in the streets now,” sung down the octave at a near-whisper, the lyric becomes “There’s fire in the streets now,” bellowed up the octave with a touch of desperation. My life up to that point had been simple and easy. It was about to become chaotic and wild, and this album was there to provide the soundtrack.
Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt is a perfect coming-of-age record. It’s also a perfect record for spring and summer nights, where you can faintly hear the hum of crickets in the distance underneath the melodies of the songs. I played this album a lot that summer, clinging to it in the tumult of peak adolescence. Something about Dan Layus’s voice makes it perfect company for that time of your life. It’s that touch of desperation I mentioned before, that feeling—so prevalent in these songs—that Layus is singing because his life depends on it. It’s there in the crashing waves of emotion at the end of “Twenty Years,” in that long, sustained high note in “Fire,” and in the rattling climax of the southern-rock-flavored “Dust.” It’s certainly there in “Sweet and Low,” which masquerades as a radio-friendly first single until it hits its big, urgent bridge. “And I’ll carry you all the way/When you say you’re fine/But you’re still young, and out of line/When all I need is to turn around/To make it last, to make it count/I ain’t gonna make the same mistakes that put my mama in her grave/I don’t want to be alone.” Who does?
Augustana were always great at distilling restlessness in their music. There’s a clash and a dichotomy in many of their songs between settling down to be a source of stability for the people in your life and running for the hills. In “Stars and Boulevards,” the pseudo title track from the band’s 2005 debut album All the Stars and Boulevards, Layus looks at the dark side of the touring lifestyle and of always being away from home. And in “Boston,” the band’s big recognizable hit, he breaks a girl down so much that she fantasizes about leaving him (and the entire West Coast) behind. “I think I’ll go to Boston…where no one knows my name.”
Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, to me, is an album about grappling with those ideas: with the mistakes that lead to loneliness, with the things that drive us to make those mistakes, and with the choices we can make to avoid such a fate. At the outset of “Twenty Years,” Layus sings “I’ve been running from something/Twenty years in the car/Down a road that’s leading me nowhere.” By the end of the song, he’s crying out “I’ll be back again” over and over, like he’s trying to convince himself that it’s true. Later in the album, though, he sounds a lot more sure of a different claim: “Either Way, I’ll Break Your Heart Someday.”
The wildness of that summer broke my heart. It bruised a few of my dreams and it hardened me for the fight to come: the fight of growing up and facing the challenges of adulthood. To this day, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt plays like a reminder of the way things were right before everything changed. Its radiant choruses and lilting alt-country vibes take those unseasonably hot spring evenings from the beginning of this story and transform them into something that can be conveyed through a speaker.
They also serve as a reminder of one of the best and most undervalued rock bands we had in the 2000s. Had Augustana arrived a decade earlier, they would have been a platinum-selling band, with half a dozen recognizable hits. Instead, most people know them for “Boston” and that’s about it. Augustana would get two more records after this one—2011’s sublime self-titled effort and the aforementioned Life Imitating Life—before the moniker would be retired for good. By Life, all the original members were gone, prompting Layus to switch the band’s social media feeds over to his name. He released a solo album in 2016, officially making the leap to country music after flirting with that direction heavily on Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt and subsequent albums. That record, Dangerous Things, is solid enough, because Layus is too good of a singer and too good of a songwriter for it to be anything else. But I would rather have had more albums like this one. All the Augustana LPs were good, but Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt sounded classic from the first note, perfectly pairing the lush, glossy sound of a modern major label band with the dusty, wistful history of roots rock. 10 years later, it’s still the rare album that I would recommend to anyone.