Disc 1 Track 8
“Manhattan Countryside” is a straightforward bar-band rocker, an extended cry from Henneman’s heart against small-town sprawl. It’s a good song but not a great one, missing some of the weight that elevates the standouts on the first half of the album. The song seems to acknowledge its own minor-work status, hustling on and off the stage in the space of two minutes.
Having grown up in basically the same milieu that Henneman’s railing against, I can share his distaste for it; I don’t know if it’s some universality of zoning codes or just the cheapest-size-fits-all approach of capitalism, but rural development after 1970 or so sure got ugly, and ugly in a depressingly consistent way. Henneman’s far from the first person to complain about development wrecking their space; my personal favorite is Tom Petty’s “Jammin Me,” where he takes umbrage at a country club being built next to him:
(This seems like a good time, by the way, for me to trot out my pet theory that the most viable route for the Bottle Rockets to ever have reached big-time crossover success—if that was a thing they even wanted—would have been to do a few tours as Tom Petty’s opening act, winning over that consitituency. Even that would have been a long shot, but hey, they’re a more naturally appealing act for Petty fans than, say, the Replacements)
One other thing about “Manhattan” seems worth looking at briefly: the diction. Brian Henneman’s clearly a very smart, literate guy; the sheer volume of clever lyrics he’s produced make this beyond question (just in this song, I’ve always admired the flow and internal rhyme of “Them motels on the horizon / Really caught me by surprise / Who has been advising / all these enterprising guys?”). But “Manhattan” is loaded with examples of him choosing stereotypical “country” word choice and order; look at the “them motels” construction I just quoted. Or the later passage:
I ain’t got to promise
But it hurts me some to say
I was here ‘fore they was
They’re driving me away
He’s clearly making a choice to construct lines like this, no doubt to heighten the small-town identification on a song that depends on it. Which seems like a pretty smart artistic move.