Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this week, which of course has led to a lot of conversations about songwriting within my circle.
I’ve read passionate arguments both for and against treating song lyrics as literature, and I think if you consider them poetry, a good case could be made. Dylan, it seems to me, is perfectly poised to make that case, since his lyrics usually feel divorced from his music in a way that, say, Elvis Costello’s don’t. Dylan songs often consist of repetitive chords designed as delivery vehicles for the words, and it’s those words for which he will be remembered.
Of course, this led to several conversations about favorite songwriters. I’m not sure why, but I’m always surprised when Glen Phillips doesn’t show up on anyone’s lists except mine. Maybe it’s that he fronts a band called Toad the Wet Sprocket, who had a couple hits in the ‘90s? I don’t know why Phillips isn’t taken seriously as a writer, because he fits all the criteria one might imagine for such a list – he’s literate, insightful, simple without being simplistic, pointed when needed, open-hearted and honest.
I’ve been a fan of his writing since Toad’s seminal album Fear, and I’ve kept up with his splendid solo career. I was overjoyed at the Toad reunion, but I’m just as happy to have a new solo album from Phillips. It’s called Swallowed by the New, and it’s mostly as pleasant as the autumn twilight, while offering a fresh and optimistic look at life’s smaller moments. Many of these songs fall neatly into the folk tradition, maintaining the distinction between Phillips’ softer solo material and Toad’s more amped-up sound, but there are a few exploratory detours as well – the dark “Unwritten” rides a pitter-patter groove and a storm-cloud atmosphere, while “Held Up” gallops off in a bluesier direction.
For the most part, though, Swallowed by the New offers delicate meditations that act as healing balms. Songs like “Amnesty” and “Grief and Praise” and the lovely “There’s Always More” are like gentle encouragements to keep going, keep looking up, and Phillips’ oblique spirituality adds a wider scope to these little songs. There’s nothing on Swallowed by the New that will change your mind about Glen Phillips, but these 11 songs are fine additions to what was already a fine catalog.
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Eleven years ago, Mike Doughty issued his best solo album, Haughty Melodic. It was a clean break from the trip-hop soundscapes of his band, Soul Coughing, and from his acoustic songwriter roots – it was a beautifully produced pop album bursting with colorful melodies and memorable moments, thanks in no small part to his creative partner in that endeavor, Dan Wilson.
Since then, fans of his unique beat-poet voice have been waiting for him to equal it. He’s come closer in the last couple years than he ever has – 2015’s Stellar Motel is strong and diverse, and its follow-up, the just-released The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns, keeps the streak going. Neither of these albums quite measure up to Haughty Melodic, but I think this is about the best we can expect to get from Mike Doughty, and it ain’t bad.
The Heart Watches is a more consistent songwriter album than Motel, meaning it sticks to a particular style for most of its running time. These are groove-driven pop songs, performed on guitar and synth by Doughty (with some drumming help by Pete Wilhoit), danceable beats with acoustic strumming and keyboard flourishes. Doughty takes that limited yet instantly recognizable voice for a spin down familiar avenues, firing off nonsense words because the consonants sound good colliding together. His writing is strong here, as it was on Motel – “There Is a Way Out” is one of his hookiest pop tunes in years, and single “I Can’t Believe I Found You in This Town” is a double-time delight.
This is going to sound like a half-hearted compliment, but it’s not meant as such: The Heart Watches also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Where Motel jumped all over the map, this album centers on what Mike Doughty does best, gives us just over half an hour of it, and then gets gone. The result is the first Doughty album that has left me wanting more in a very long time.
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Speaking of leaving me wanting more for the first time in a while, here’s Conor Oberst.
Omaha, Nebraska’s most famous son, Oberst began his career as the sole member of Bright Eyes, his folksy songwriter project. The first Bright Eyes songs were recorded with little more than Oberst’s guitar and voice, but over time – like you do – he expanded his reach. Bright Eyes ventured into mammoth concept albums and electronic noise, and Oberst’s solo career has seen him paint on vast canvases with the Mystic Valley Band. The last Bright Eyes album, 2011’s The People’s Key, could barely breathe under the layers of sound.
All of which makes Ruminations, his new solo record, so refreshing. Written in the months following a bout of laryngitis that led to the cancellation of a tour, the songs on Ruminations sport just piano, guitar and harmonica, and were played and sung live by Oberst on his own. He channels his hero Bob Dylan here, writing simple songs that exist for their lyrics and then leaving them alone, unadorned. Oberst keeps his voice in the low register, never slipping into his trademark emotional screams. Even so, there’s an honesty to this album that hasn’t been in evidence for quite a while, and that alone makes this worth hearing.
The songs aren’t anything special, but I have a fondness for material like this from Oberst. As ever, he keeps the chords easy and the lyrics difficult, name-checking Christopher Hitchens and Sylvia Plath in the same verse and admitting to spreading his anger “like Agent Orange.” Like the earliest Bright Eyes material, these songs sound like streams of consciousness, like they poured forth in a torrent, like the world’s most literate man is just making them up as they go. After years of over-thinking and over-working his material, Ruminations marks a fresh start for Conor Oberst – he could build up in any direction he chooses from here. I’m interested to see which way he goes.
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And now I am about to flush all my remaining credibility by giving a longer and more considered review to Geoff Tate than to Conor Oberst. Such is life.
Longtime readers know of my nearly 20-year love for Queensryche, which began with Operation: Mindcrime, the first concept album I ever heard at the tender age of 14. I followed them through their surging popularity in the early ‘90s and their fall from grace after that, despite thoughtful albums like Tribe and American Soldier. I suffered through the band’s acrimonious split with singer Tate, and through the weird period when there were two Queensryches, one led by Tate and the other featuring the other founding members and phenomenal new singer Todd La Torre.
And I cringed a little when Tate, who lost the rights to the name of the band, re-christened his project after Queensryche’s most famous album, Operation: Mindcrime. Tate’s Operation released the first part of a planned trilogy of albums last year, The Key, and it was… you know, fine. Where Queensryche with La Torre has embraced its metal roots, Operation: Mindcrime has taken up the progressive storytelling part of the band’s work, but The Key was largely forgettable groove-rock, Tate struggling to hold my attention for the full 48 minutes. I figured this was just the sad, slow petering out of a voice and a songwriting style I have loved since my teen years.
But hold on, because the second chapter of that trilogy, called Resurrection, is considerably stronger. In fact, I’m rather surprised at how much I like it. Part of the reason is that Tate has fully embraced his prog-rock tendencies here, leaving any sense that he’s supposed to be fronting a hard rock band behind. Some of Resurrection rocks, for sure, but most of it is concerned with texture and movement, particularly the five longer tracks at the end. Tate has also dropped all pretense that Operation: Mindcrime is a band – he’s the only consistent presence song to song, and he invites guests like Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson to contribute.
The concept drives the album, but not much happens, truthfully. In The Key, we met our main character, a web developer who has fallen into possession of something called (you guessed it) “the key,” which could revolutionize the internet. Or something. At the end of the first album, our hero is buried alive and left for dead, and in Resurrection, he, you know, is resurrected. At the end he’s ready to fight his enemies for possession of the key, which I am assuming will be the subject of the third album in the trilogy. So these songs are largely just motivational epics, with titles like “Taking on the World” and “Invincible,” detailing our hero’s physical and mental return.
But this album contains the best music of Tate’s solo career (for that’s what this is, a continuation of his solo career). The album is structured in an interesting way, beginning with four preludes (lasting a total of five minutes) that set the mood, moving into five catchier normal-length tunes and concluding with five epics that hover around seven minutes each. It eases you in and leads you carefully into the more challenging material, and takes that challenging material seriously – “A Smear Campaign” and “Into the Hands of the World,” the two longest songs, let their arrangements breathe and develop, Tate’s keyboards snaking in and out between guitars by mainstays Kelly Gray and Scott Moughton. (Those keyboards sound cheap and tinny more often than not, unfortunately, which is just a matter of taste.) These songs are downright weird, in a way I didn’t expect, and far more interesting (even when they stumble) than anything on The Key.
Even the more compact numbers, though, like “Miles Away” and “Healing My Wounds,” pack more of a punch this time. Resurrection is a strange album, a sign that Geoff Tate may have entered the deliriously fearless stage of his career, doing whatever he wants regardless of his audience. He plays saxophone here, pretty well, more than once. He flirts with self-parody by inviting also-ran singers Blaze Bayley and Tim “Ripper” Owens to sing on “Taking On the World.” Resurrection is a good title for this album, as its reckless oddness has reawakened my interest in Tate and his Operation: Mindcrime project. There was more here than I thought, and I’m now fascinated to see what he does next.
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Speaking of next, we’ll delve into new ones by Leonard Cohen, Jonatha Brooke and Lady Gaga next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.