The album art on Rayland Baxter’s second album Imaginary Man features a photograph of Baxter’s face, half of it obscured by shadow. The original plan to make the left side another face didn’t work out, so it was left empty. That side is the “imaginary man,” and it makes sense that it’s just space, because, as with the songs on the album, it’s open-ended. You can make the imaginary side whatever you want in your head, much like the way you interpret songs or dreams.
Many songs on the album, which was produced by Adam Landry and Eric Masse, have a dreamy quality to them, but none more so than “Yellow Eyes.”
“We wanted it to groove,” Rayland says. “To go back to the dreamy quality, we were all pushing for that. A perfect song to me is when you can close your eyes and it can transport you to another place. Maybe like getting shot out of a cannon into the clouds and you just fly for a little bit and then the song ends and you’re back to earth.”
Despite the ethereal quality of the song, it’s also crisp and bright, due in large part to the electric guitar riff, which complements the vocal melody with a hook as hummable as the vocals. In a sense it’s a duet.
“That guitar line in ‘Yellow Eyes’ was written by my good friend Luke Reynolds, who plays guitar for Guster. He lives in New York and I called him a month before tracking and I sent him all the songs, and that was the only line that he wrote for anything regarding the album before he came down to Nashville to record. He sat around with the song and that was the only thing that he wrote in advance.”
Lyrically the song starts with a specific, concrete image: a paper clip that was left behind by an ex-girlfriend. The paper clip is the last really concrete image in the song.
There’s a paper clip resting on my counter top
Sunday morning I forgot what it’s like to lose a friend.
Yesterday how it seemed so far away
And I’ve said all I can say.
(Chorus) And now it’s time I get to going.
But now it’s time I get to finding my own way
And I leave you lonely.
I leave you lonely.
Now I’m on the road
Knowing not which way to go
Is it yes or is it no?
I don’t really care.
For the golden sun
Has washed me away and I’ve become
Just another vagabond
Holding my head.
All in all it’s a beautiful day
And I wake up all alone, I can not help but run away
Now I’m afraid that it’s all in my head
Well don’t you know that it’s all in your head?
So you roll the dice, melt the fire, burn the ice,
Find the girl with yellow eyes, go and break her heart.
And see that nothing changes and I know not what I’ve become
A prisoner to everyone I loved from the start.
“Yeah, you know when you’re writing a story, remember the diagram your English teacher wrote on the chalkboard where it started at the triangle with the point facing up? And then you expand from this simple idea? Just to get everybody’s attention and to get everyone on the same page. Then you can go off into metaphors and symbolism.”
It’s not until the last verse that the “yellow eyes” of the title are mentioned. So what are the yellow eyes?
“To me it was like feline eyes,” Rayland says. “No jaundice or liver disease. I was on tour with a friend of mine a few years ago and we were kind of romantically involved, but we were also playing music together. We were on our way to South by Southwest and we just started jamming on a song and it was partly about, I don’t know, it was just kind of gibberish, but we kept coming back to this ‘yellow eyes’ thing. And so later on down the road, when I needed to reference her in a song, she was the girl with yellow eyes.”
The song is about breaking up, but it doesn’t sound sad, exactly. The breezy melody and lyrics “So you roll the dice, melt the fire, burn the ice, find the girl with yellow eyes, go and break her heart” sound more resigned and matter-of-fact, as if breaking up is the only thing that could happen.
“The life that I live as a touring musician, you’re all the time gone and you meet special people. It’s inevitable…it could end up really great and you could go off and marry this person and spend the rest of your life with this person, but at least at this stage in the game for me the relationship’s gonna end and I’m gonna jump back on the ‘I’ve gotta go’ train. “
Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson/Courtesy of the artist