I came to a disturbing realization the other day.
For those of you just joining the ongoing saga of my scintillating existence in this west Tennessee town, I’m the education and features reporter for the State Gazette here in Dyersburg. This means that, by and large, I cover school events. So I was lining a bunch of third-graders up for a photo the other day when it struck me that since I started in this position (three months ago), I have yet to meet anyone my own age.
At first I thought it was just a side effect of my beat, since most of my time is spent in schools and at school functions. Then I started looking about this town, trying to discern the ages of the people milling about me, and remarkably, there just aren’t any twenty-somethings here at all. I’m not sure where they all go between the ages of 19 and 30, but it’s not Dyersburg.
Yeah, I know, not very interesting, but I had fabled first-line writer’s block this time, and I needed something to start with. There you go, and piss off if you don’t like it.
Some random notes to begin:
All you Portlandites have this info already, I’m sure, but I just found out, so I thought I’d spread the good news. Portland’s own Rustic Overtones have salvaged their major-label career by signing with Tommy Boy Records, the long-running purveyor of ground-breaking hip-hop. Tommy Boy is also famous for sticking with artists through thick and thin to watch them develop. Witness De La Soul, who hit huge with their debut and haven’t had a hit since. When the trio proposed the idea of a triple album, released in stages over a year and a half, Tommy Boy went for it. Most labels would have laughed in their faces.
All of which leads me to believe that the Rustic Overtones /Tommy Boy relationship will be a long and fruitful one. If you’re not from Portland, Rustic is a long-running (like 11 years) band that mashes several styles into a horn-driven stew. They’ve gone through several stylistic shifts, which culminated in a big contract with Arista in 1999. The proposed album, This Is Rock and Roll, died on the vine, which is okay because that awful title would have haunted them to the grave. They’ve regrouped and reassembled the new album, calling the finished product Viva Nueva, which means “new life.” That’s out sometime in June, or so says the Tommy Boy website. Congrats, guys, and may this second shot be the keeper.
There are a number of artists who are contenders for my Top 10 List every time they release something, just by dint of their past excellence. Two of them have new records this year, one week apart. I’ve already reported that Tori Amos will release Strange Little Girls on September 18. A week before that, Ben Folds will unveil his solo album, his first without the Five. He’s called it Rockin’ the Suburbs. Can’t wait…
On to the review:
I’ve heard it said that everyone should own one Mark Eitzel album. The reason for this is simple, at least to me: no one does sadness like Eitzel. He is perhaps the most honestly depressing songwriter currently working. Listening to his haunted vocals alone lends the impression that this guy has never had a good day in his life, and the lyrics and arrangements of his tunes do nothing to alter that notion. Eitzel’s music is soul-deadening, numbing, powerful stuff.
Whether or not it should be mandatory to own one of his long-players, everyone should at least hear “Saved,” the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your perspective) of Eitzel’s first solo album, 60-Watt Silver Lining. It was on this tune that he abandoned the indie-rock roots of his former band, American Music Club, for a richer, more jazz-oriented sound that perfectly complemented his sad-sack voice. “Saved” has lyrics and a melody that would have been almost uplifting if sung by anyone else. In Eitzel’s hands, it’s a melancholy wonder that plays like a dialogue between singer and instrumentalists, the vocals daring the music to cheer them up.
To his credit, Eitzel has wildly varied his approach each time out. West was a jangly pop collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck that transformed the dialogue to an all-out argument, and the stripped-down Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby showed that Eitzel could be just as chillingly effective with little or no instrumentation at all. (That album, in fact, was the product of a very strange clause in his Warner Bros. contract that allowed him to do albums for other, smaller labels if those albums evidenced “no commercial appeal.”)
And now we have number four, The Invisible Man. It’s so titled because of a lyric in the gorgeous “Shine” that reads, “The only costume prize I’ll win is if I go as the invisible man,” a typical sentiment here. Eitzel has definitely not lost his touch, even though he’s spent the last two years reportedly working on the complex production of this album. What’s cool about The Invisible Man is that it’s still an Eitzel album underneath it all.
On the surface, though, Eitzel has expanded his sonic palette greatly here. He’s incorporated subtle electronic percussion, backwards loops, strange synth noises and an overarching sense of studio wizardry. Every track is layered several times over, and it’s very easy to imagine this album as a stunning disaster. That it isn’t is a testament to the skill with which Eitzel has assembled the sonic building blocks here, never losing sense of the songs he was augmenting or of the voice that leads the whole production.
In typical Mark Eitzel fashion, The Invisible Man is undoubtedly his biggest album sonically, yet it still sounds small and intimate. Eitzel has a particular talent for making even the most optimistic songs into mournful elegies, and his lyrics are fantastic models of stream-of-consciousness observation and emotion. Take, for example, the entirety of “Christian Science Reading Room”:
“I was so high I stood for an hour outside the Christian Science Reading Room and suddenly I could not resist – I became a Christian Scientist – and I studied light and I studied sound and every question that I asked was suddenly profound – the holy martyrs of gravity, the absolute measure of being free. I was so high that I even scared the cat, and using the language of his tail he said he had a vision a thousand white flags circling around my hat and then he hid under the bed, and his eyes were as big as bells, and suddenly he could not resist and he became a Christian Scientist, and together we explored our world, and found it became more beautiful as its teeth were revealed.”
Eitzel’s worldview is represented in the words here. Everything would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing to actually laugh. He has spent a good chunk of his solo career mourning his sense of humor, and unlike most pseudo-depressives in pop music, he never dwells on death. Far worse, it seems to him, to remain alive and not be able to enjoy a single thing.
All of which makes the closing track, “Proclaim Your Joy,” such a strange revelation. It is, by far, the happiest and most irony-free piece of music to bear Eitzel’s name, and it finds him repeating in nearly giddy tones, “It is important throughout your life to proclaim your joy.” Even though the liner notes call this tune a joke, it’s impressively sincere-sounding, as if it’s taken Eitzel years to reach the point where he can make his voice dance. He simply revels in it, and from such an honest musician, it’s explosive in its pure emotional turnabout. That song alone is worth the price of admission for Eitzel fans.
If it’s true that everyone should own one Eitzel album, well, there are four of them now to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The Invisible Man is another idiosyncratic achievement from a true depressive, and it’s impressive both for the growth it exhibits as well as the glorious stagnation it represents. Mark Eitzel is truly one of a kind.
Next time, the long-awaited Radiohead album, the subject of more dread and anticipation than any other record this year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.