#21. Lost Cause (1992).
I got into Jandek in 2007, which means by the time I discovered this strange enigma wrapped in a riddle, things were a lot less enigmatic. The Rep had already played live about 20 times, and had released a few of those shows on CD and DVD. Anyone who wanted to could see for themselves that the central performer in the Jandek live shows was the guy on all the album covers. As more shows were announced and the performances themselves proved to be diverse and fascinating, Jandek had taken on this strange new momentum. Before long there was a website and an email address, and the whole Jandek thing began to feel much more permanent.
But 1992, as I understand it, was a different story. The P.O. box in Houston was still the only conduit for Jandek news, and the unheralded appearance of a new title at the bottom of the printed discography list still the way most people found out about new releases. The whole enterprise must have seemed ephemeral, the records the only clues to the Rep’s intentions. How long could this possibly last? There was a rumor at the time that the Rep had recorded enough material for 19 Jandek albums, and once those were out, he would stop. Where that rumor came from, I have no idea. But he issued his 19th in 1990, and kept going.
You’d definitely be forgiven for hearing Lost Cause and thinking it would be the last one, though. It certainly feels like the end of something, and though that something would end up being this collaborative electric phase, there’s a finality to this one that cannot be overstated. Its first half gives us another retrospective of the recent styles, from the slow shuffle of “Green and Yellow” to the in-tune acoustic shimmy of “Babe I Love You” to the meandering folk of “How Many Places,” all of which feature Eddie or someone like him on guitar, to the de-tuned howling of “God Came Between Us” and “I Love You Now It’s True,” solo Jandek pieces that sound like the more aggressive numbers on Later On.
The interesting thing about the first half of Lost Cause is how biblical it is. The Rep sneaks the line “Christ is near if you fear” into “Babe I Love You,” and then spends the last two tracks struggling with his own spirituality. “God Came Between Us” is harrowing, the Rep shouting “He lit our hearts on fire and he put it out with oceans,” but by the end of the last song, he’s accepted his belief: “Jesus, in the morning, late at night, smiling, oh thank you Lord…” It’s the first real hints of the Rep’s idea of faith since the earliest albums, and it does feel like bringing them full circle.
And then there is the second side, which is given over entirely to a 19-minute instrumental monstrosity called “The Electric End.” If you can get through this without a throbbing headache, you’ll be lucky. Guitars burst out in completely random ways, drums are beaten into submission, the Rep and his friends yelp and hoot in the background. There’s some kind of strange high-pitched noise in the right speaker that gets more and more intense as the jam rolls on. Then, as abruptly as it began, it’s over. And it feels like putting all of this – the joyous pounding and thrashing, the cranked-up amps, even the idea that Jandek is a band – to bed. It’s one last blowout, the future uncertain.
At least for another few months. In retrospect, 80 albums later, Lost Cause feels like the deliberate closing of a chapter. These 21 albums feel like act one, like the early Jandek, and though it’s impossible to say when they were put to tape, it almost feels like some of these recordings were saved up and parceled out. From now on, Jandek studio albums will clearly be the products of single sessions with the same lineup, usually just the Rep himself. Lost Cause is an ending, but though it may have felt like the end at the time, the Rep was just getting started.
Listen to “The Electric End.”
#22. Twelfth Apostle (1993).
And just like that, we’re back to the classic Jandek sound: one man, one oddly tuned guitar. Except it all sounds different to my ears. Twelfth Apostle is the start of another acoustic phase, similar to the first seven albums, but it’s crisper and cleaner, as if the Rep has traded in the old tape recorder for a genuine studio setup. It still feels like a broken man alone in a room, but the room now gleams with a pristine shine. The effect is like a nearsighted person putting glasses on. The images, once blurry and indistinct, are now sharp.
The Rep sounds older here too, which makes sense. While there’s no telling when or in what order the previous 21 albums were recorded, this one sounds contemporary. The Rep would have been about 50 years old here, and his voice is deeper, his playing more confident. He has well and truly developed his guitar playing into a style by this point, and Twelfth Apostle is a showcase for it. He’s making dissonant chords now, and his strumming and picking sound more deliberate. He uses echo effects everywhere and pitch-shifting technology on “Whispers,” and it’s deceptively clever. This is also the first one since those early albums that definitely was recorded in the same session, not mixed and matched from various recordings of different ensembles.
And like those early records, this one is full of dark, surreal, sometimes spiritual imagery. The title track seems to be a plea from a man who would like to follow God, but is finding it difficult. “The Gone Wait,” a title which will be reused in a few years’ time, sees the Rep musing about “walking that faithful mile” toward the “promised land you hold in your hand.” But elsewhere he sings about losing an eye, about “going off the deep end,” and being “blessed with a putty knife.” It’s all unsettling, and the clarity in the guitar and vocals only adds to that feeling.
Twelfth Apostle feels like a new beginning, one that circles back to Jandek’s original core and builds on it. This was also the last Corwood album to come out on vinyl, so it really does begin a new chapter in this story. As we’ll see, this is the first part of a trilogy, and taken as a whole, that trilogy feels like a reset and a relaunch. I know that’s quite melodramatic for a 44-minute album of atonal strumming and moaning, but inside this universe, this one is a big deal.
Listen to “Twelfth Apostle.”
#23. Graven Image (1994).
I say that Graven Image is the second part of a trilogy for a couple reasons. For one, the covers of these three albums – Twelfth Apostle, this one, and the next, Glad to Get Away – are all very similar. They are oddly framed photographs of the same suburban neighborhood, likely the same one featured on Foreign Keys. It is easy to imagine one of these houses being the Rep’s childhood home, and perhaps one of these windows is the one featured on the cover of Ready for the House. It feels like a puzzle, like the “Paul is dead” clues on Beatles albums.
But more than that, these three records re-center Jandek on that desolate, dissonant acoustic sound that is the foundation for the entire project. For the most part, this album is again the Rep and his guitar, and the 15 short numbers here are reminiscent of the Living in a Moon So Blue era. The guitar style has definitely evolved, the Rep confidently setting moods and playing alien chords. Songs like “For You and I,” on which the Rep moans “I am waiting” over and over, sound impossibly lonely, and the spiritual imagery continues here: “I know there’s an answer waiting for you and I when we die.”
What separates this one from its predecessor? First, there’s the introduction of accordion on the instrumental “A Real Number.” The Rep plays this instrument about as skillfully as he plays everything else, and even though we don’t know it’s him playing, we can be reasonably sure. “Janky” is a genuine surprise, a fun bit of nonsense performed on harmonica and spoken vocals: “That Janky is clanky all the time.” And if you can permit the idea that there are Jandek classics, this album has two: “Ghost Town By the Sea” is typically desolate and mentions Point Judith, Rhode Island for the first time since Six and Six, and “Going Away My Darling,” the album’s longest song, makes effective use of pitch shifting on the guitar notes again. This adds a disorienting new dimension to the Rep’s picking and the surreal sweetness in the lyrics.
Graven Image doesn’t take any bold steps by itself, merely continuing the sound of its predecessor. But that sound is the purest form of Jandek. In context this trilogy sets the clock back to zero, in a way, in preparation for the out-there excursions to come. But if you are acclimated to the solo Jandek sound, it’s also a full experience in its own right. (Note: This was the first Jandek album to be issued solely on CD. The Rep would go back and reissue the 22 previous albums on CD and phase out vinyl production, making the original records of those first 22 pretty darn rare.)
Listen to “Ghost Town By the Sea.”
#24. Glad to Get Away (1994).
Glad to Get Away concludes this acoustic trilogy in much the same way as it began, with the Rep alone strumming and picking his oddly tuned guitar. But this one seems decidedly weirder, both in its playing and its imagery. Among the first lines here is “Hey mister can you tell me, is there a knife stuck in your face,” and it continues in that vein, the Rep spinning nightmarish visions alongside Biblical allusions and songs of solitude. This is a dark and surreal album, even for Jandek.
“Ezekiel,” for instance, focuses on a single-string playing style that the Rep will use extensively on the next album, and it opens with this nonsensical couplet: “Ezekiel, I don’t know your name.” “Moon Dance” finds the Rep declaring he has “life and death stains on my pants,” and conjures up a landscape of “bloody mountain chasing desert running freaks.” He repeats the word “fingers” four times on “Flowers on My Shirt” for no discernible reason. When the lyrics are straightforward, they are lonesome. “Rain in Madison” is about someone who drives in the rain to meet his love, only to be stood up. “Morning Drum” is about waiting alone, and it doesn’t even matter for what. The point is the waiting.
Amidst all this, the Rep cries out to Jesus on “Take My Will,” the closest thing to a Jandek hymn: “Jesus take my will, take mine and make it yours.” This follows on the heels of an instrumental called “Nancy Knows,” the first mention of our mystery woman since Modern Dances. And it is followed by a brief song called “Plenty” that sums up the Jandek experience: “You must, you must keep listening, I don’t know why but I must keep listening.” This is, no doubt, intended as a lonely and abandoned man hoping for a sign of hope, but it is also a reflection of the listener, drawn into this strangely compelling world. I don’t know why, but I must keep listening.
Listen to “Take My Will.”
#25. White Box Requiem (1996).
The Rep took all of 1995 off (this would never happen again) and returned in 1996 with White Box Requiem, his first real concept album. I suppose it could be argued that Jandek as a whole is a concept, and every record fits into it, but this is the first one intended to tell a story from first track to last. That story is a surreal one, as you’d expect: it’s about death and loss and reconsideration and a mysterious white box that the Rep keeps reminding us he has opened. I’ve seen many theories about it – the white box is his own coffin, for example. Even among Jandek albums, this one stands out for its ambiguity.
It’s also an interesting progression in this second acoustic phase. White Box Requiem is another solo work, the Rep on vocals and acoustic guitar, but it’s a much odder affair than the previous three. This one is half instrumental, and those wordless pieces find the Rep improvising solos on the acoustic with no accompaniment. They’re sparse excursions, experiments in echo, and the Rep’s playing style has evolved to be as restless as his artistic sensibility. It’s all atonal plonking, but it’s consistently inventive atonal plonking that never sits still. I will happy count that as a virtue.
These instrumental tracks are mood-setters – who knows what action they are scoring in the Rep’s mind – but the vocal tracks all connect. The lyrics reference second thoughts repeatedly, as the Rep opens the white box and immediately regrets it. There’s a romance at the heart of it, as heard in “Part Yesterday” and “Must Have Been a Miracle,” but the singer is unable to communicate his thoughts. He assures us at the end of the record that he “Didn’t Really Die,” but he ends this journey alone, having opened the box and learned… something? Something he should not have. There’s more, of course – White Box Requiem is one of the most discussable and debatable Jandek albums, if you can find anyone willing to discuss or debate it.
I find myself thinking that this entire record was improvised in one shot, and was originally much longer than what we have. The Rep found the bits he liked and cut out everything else. I say this because it all sounds tonally similar and all the songs begin and end abruptly. But I could be wrong. I could always be wrong. I have listened to White Box Requiem more than most Jandek albums, and it remains a mystery to me.
Listen to “Eternal Waltz.”
#26. I Woke Up (1997).
My first question upon hearing I Woke Up: Who the hell is that guy singing? The Rep introduces another anonymous collaborator here, a singer with a sort of laissez-faire attitude to his voice but a clear willingness to go along with the Jandek ethos. No one has any idea who this guy is, but he’s on nearly every track of I Woke Up, and then he disappears forever. It’s a riddle.
My second question: What the hell did I just hear? I Woke Up is one of the most dissonant, unpleasant Jandek listening experiences. It’s a fascinating storm cloud of echo-y guitars and harmonicas, and as improvised as all Jandek material is, this one feels like a bunch of experiments with obscure objectives. The three minutes of harmonica and accordion fighting against each other on “Get Back Inside” are an endurance test. “I Can Not” features that harmonica weaving in and out of two combating dissonant guitar tracks, and while it’s certainly unique, I’m not sure how to process it otherwise. “Long Long” brings the drums back for a hyper-processed sing-speak beat poem (with more harmonica), and while I have no doubt this sounds exactly like the Rep wants it to, it’s even more difficult than usual to suss out just what he was aiming for.
I’ve been waxing a little too eloquent lately about these albums, looking for readings that explain my fascination. I Woke Up is a good reminder of one of the main reasons I am fascinated by Jandek: on some level, I can’t believe there is someone who hears music this way, and who has remained committed for 40-plus years to pressing up that music and distributing it. The levity of “Pending Doom,” all hand percussion and chanting, is as bizarre as it is unexpected, as is the minute-long hymn that ends the record, this guest-star singer telling us that “God is now alive in the world today.” I can relate some Jandek albums to other music. This one is just, you know, Jandek.
Listen to “Long Long.”
#27. New Town (1998).
New Town is a pastoral folk album compared with I Woke Up. We’re back in one-man acoustic territory, but these pieces are like long walks alone. They’re mostly slow and rambling, sparse with lots of background noise, the Rep singing in his breathy whisper. The opening title track is one of the most conventionally pretty things he’s done, the picking purposeful and sedate. The guitar playing here gives the distinct impression that the Rep could sound more conventional if he wanted to, but he’s not interested. His tunings remain dissonant, his playing still more about communicating his tortured mind than approximating what most would call music.
Points of interest include the single-string playing on “Desert Voice,” this time with vocals; the odd romantic metaphor of “The Real You” (“When I was nine I wanted a real gun, they gave me an air gun, when I was 25 I wanted you, you gave me a stone…”); and the inspirational number “Who You Are” that sits at the end. Over the same slow picking the Rep wonders where his talents really lie, and what it will mean when he dies, before turning it around on his audience: “I came to ask you just who you think you are.” Given the stylistic shifts of the next few albums, this questioning of purpose takes on new meaning.
Otherwise New Town is the last of these traditional Jandek albums, or at least the last one before the major change in tone with I Threw You Away. It’s a reflective work, one that takes its time, and one can imagine the Rep considering the next chapters in the Jandek story while making it. The next four albums all fly off into uncharted territory, so it makes sense to issue this more grounded effort first. Considering what is to come, it’s easy to forget this one, but it’s interesting in its own right.
Listen to “New Town.”
#28. The Beginning (1999).
On the precipice of a new millennium, Jandek releases an album called The Beginning that, again, feels like an ending. This one came out in a time before the live shows, before Corwood could be reached online, and I’m sure the message groups were alight with speculation. Was this it? Was Corwood signing off? One could easily be forgiven for thinking that this would be the last will and testament.
The album’s first half is of a piece with the previous acoustic albums, from the aggressive strumming of “You Standing There” (which also appeared on New Town) to the single-note playing of “I Never Left You Anyway.” “Moving Slow” sounds decidedly like the early era, like it could fit perfectly on Six and Six, and “Lonesome Bridge” feels even more so like the Jandek of 15 years prior. The impression that the Rep is revisiting his old haunts comes to the fore with “A Dozen Drops,” which is another re-arrangement of the song once called “Nancy Sings.” Some of the tracks on this first half feel like they might actually come from that earlier era – the production is thinner, the Rep sounds younger. But that’s just speculation.
Either way, the intent is clear: the first half of the album is meant to evoke the past, meant to look back at where we’ve been. And then the second half… well, that is something new. It is entirely taken up by the title track, a 15-minute solo piano piece, and though we have never heard the Rep play piano before, there is no doubt this is him. He approaches the piano the same way he approaches guitar: with a restlessness and a curiosity backed by very little traditional skill. He just sorta pounds away at it, like a little kid learning what all the keys do. There’s something joyous about it, though, something like discovery. (What’s that, you ask? Is the piano in tune? Of course not.)
The Beginning spends half its time deliberately evoking the past, and half its time exploring new places we’ve never been. In many ways, this would have been a fitting record to end on. In retrospect, I can almost envision these first 28 albums having been created years before we heard them, the product of a younger Corwood representative, and The Beginning drawing the curtain. When next we hear him pick up a guitar, the Rep will sound considerably older, with a harsher and darker style. I have no idea how many years passed in real time between The Beginning and the next era. But it’s fun to think about.
Listen to “The Beginning.”
#29. Put My Dream on This Planet (2000).
But before we get to that next era, we have the oddest three-album interlude in Jandek’s entire catalog. It’s going to be difficult to even know what to say about Put My Dream on This Planet and its two successors, other than just marveling at the fact that they exist. They are remarkable curiosities awash with questions, most notably the question of whether the Rep actually expected people to listen to them. If Jandek has often felt like eavesdropping on painful moments, these three albums intensify that feeling to an almost uncomfortable degree.
So let’s just say what they are: these three albums contain nothing but the Rep’s voice. It is lower and deeper than we have heard it, and he has produced this to sound like he’s singing into an old Dictaphone, with strange silences between the lines. It’s uncomfortable, like the ramblings of a madman preserved for our amusement. I can only listen to this for short periods of time, and this first album makes that all but impossible. First track “I Need Your Life” is 28:44, and second track “It’s Your House” is 22:15.
I’m pretty sure “I Need Your Life” is a one-sided conversation with God, which makes it even less comfortable. There’s no poetry here, just plain-spoken pleading: “I want to be good and right, I don’t want to have to fight and lose, please let me win…” “It’s Your House” is similar, the Rep sing-speaking about building a house to let God in. He proclaims himself “ready for the house” a few times here, in a nice callback. (I like that an album so off the path the Rep has beaten ties back into his origins.) Finale “I Went Outside” is a brief coda about putting on shoes and going outside, and there’s a goofy bluesy charm to it. It’s also only a minute long, which helps.
I have been listening to Put My Dream on This Planet for more than 10 years and I still don’t know what to make of it. It really does feel like reading someone’s diary, or listening in while someone talks to himself. It is one of the strangest experiences I have ever had with an album. I often don’t know what the Rep is thinking when he makes decisions, but in this case I am doubly baffled. It works well in one way, though: Jandek has never sounded more alone.
Listen to “I Need Your Life.”
#30. This Narrow Road (2001).
I don’t know if anyone who heard Put My Dream on This Planet expected that the Rep would continue on in this style, but here is the sequel. It is very similar – just the Rep’s voice, reciting poetry in a low sing-speak tone, for another hour. This one sounds cleaner, like he got a new Dictaphone, but otherwise it’s like turning the page in his diary and continuing to read.
This time the Rep starts things with a half-hour piece called “One Last Chance” and then follows it with eleven shorter poems. “One Last Chance” is a therapy session, the Rep talking himself through hard times, giving himself the will to live right. “I wanna control my body, my soul, my mind, my spirit, I wanna be in charge…” After 30 minutes of this he ends up in the same place, asking for help to face a new day. The shorter pieces are easier to get through, certainly. “Yes You Are” finds the Rep talking to a woman, and telling her to “let my body tell you just what I think about you.” (A line like that is much more palatable when accompanied by music.) The surreal imagery makes a comeback in poems like “Just Like the Floor” and “Frosted Field.”
Some of This Narrow Road comes off more like a poetry reading this time than like listening in on the Rep’s internal monologue, and that makes this one feel more like a performance. I would like to see video of the Rep recording this. I think that might make the intention more clear. As it is, this is another puzzler, another difficult listen, and another testament to absolute loneliness.
Listen to “One Last Chance.”
#31. Worthless Recluse (2001).
The a cappella trilogy ends here, with an album of shorter poems. The sound has changed again – the voice is just as clear as on This Narrow Road, but the background noise and room tone are different. There is definitely a more performative aspect to this one, too. Where Put My Dream on This Planet felt like hearing conversations we shouldn’t, Worthless Recluse feels like it is aimed at us, the listeners. That makes it an easier thing to reckon with, to me.
Most of these final poems hover around the two-minute mark, like the digest version of the marathons on earlier records. “The Dunes” finds the Rep lamenting that he “missed the boat, the one sailing through your heart,” while “Interlude” is actually about an interlude, a moment of reflection upon seeing an old lover again. “The Stars Spell Your Name” is as romantic as its title: “When I find myself in another place, alone, when the dance is something I can’t do, through all these things it comes again, some quiet thrill that I love you.”
The centerpiece here is the 17-minute title track. It starts with the Rep working out his own loneliness and ends with him stepping into the eye of God. The final track, “You Won’t Get Up,” is a fascinating conclusion, the Rep threatening to beat someone down for a full minute. I expect he is role-playing depression here, but the cumulative effect of these three a cappella albums is like a knockout punch to me. They fascinate me, but they’re a chore as well, and by the end I feel like I’m down and don’t want to get up.
I do wonder if there were Jandek afficionados in 2001 who thought that this change in style might be permanent, that the Rep would continue to release these strange, vocals-only albums for years. Thankfully these three records exist as a curiosity, an island between two distinct eras of the Jandek story. They truly are fascinating, even if I never reach for them. In a lot of ways, they embody the unpredictable, restless nature of the Jandek project better than anything to this point. They’re unsettling, unnerving, unfathomable things. I love them, I hate them, I never listen to them and I am so glad they exist.
Listen to “Aimless Breeze.”
#32. I Threw You Away (2002).
Everything is different, everything is the same. I Threw You Away begins a distinct new chapter in the Jandek saga, and it does so by returning to solo voice and acoustic guitar. The difference here is utterly remarkable, however. First, the physical sound of this one is beautiful. It’s crisp and clear, the guitar strings shimmer, there is no background noise. This feels like the first professionally recorded Jandek album, giving credence to the theory that the first 28 albums perhaps were captured to tape much earlier, with more primitive equipment.
Second, this sounds like the work of an older Representative from Corwood. His voice is deeper, more worn. The bleakness feels more lived-in. The guitar playing is similar to that of previous Jandek records, but sounds more assured, more practiced. This is the vocal tone and playing style we will hear from now on, the one he has used when performing live. In retrospect, the a cappella records may have been the first contemporary Jandek albums, the first ones recorded shortly before we heard them, and this is the debut of the fifty-something Rep, going back to his roots and yet redefining himself again.
I Threw You Away is a mesmerizing album. It’s bleak, but that word doesn’t seem adequate. It is a lonely voice howling in the wilderness, of course, but somehow the hopelessness and despair is more tactile this time, permeating every instant. The guitar is dissonant, the voice unhinged, and they work in tandem, setting an inescapably dark tone. “Blues Turned Black” is the quintessential song for this style, the Rep reaching up for a plummeting falsetto while lamenting his “rotten, stinking flesh” and proclaiming “I’m gone, I can’t come back.” It’s powerful, and it never lets up over its 12 minutes.
It’s almost a shame that “Blues Turned Black” is so perfect and that the Rep hit upon it so early, because the other four songs, while similarly affecting, feel diminished in its wake. We’re going to be with this style for a long, long time, and it’s distressing to think that the Rep never quite manages something more fully realized than the first song on the first of these records. None of which is to say the other songs are bad. On the contrary, they are extraordinary conduits for the Rep’s despair. There’s no essential difference between them – they play like one long excursion through the tunnels of his soul. Even the harmonica solos work to further the effect.
I Threw You Away is an essential listen, charting the course for the Rep’s studio albums for the next eight years. After so many stylistic deviations, this one feels like the Rep has truly landed somewhere. It is still music only he would make, music that is built around limitations, but it makes emotional sense, if not musical sense. You cannot listen to this album without feeling the encroaching darkness, without wanting to crawl in a hole. That’s impressive. That kind of connection is the goal of most art, and I Threw You Away gets there.
Listen to “Blues Turned Black.”
#33. The Humility of Pain (2002).
Even more than its predecessor, The Humility of Pain establishes this new Jandek guitar style. I had never in my life heard an acoustic guitar sound like this. On previous acoustic albums – and even on I Threw You Away – the Rep found ways to suggest rhythm, strumming within what felt like a framework. There’s a root note to “Blues Turned Black,” for instance, that the song doesn’t stray far from. But the seven songs on Humility dispense with all that. The dissonance is much more random, the patterns much more chaotic. This is still recorded with remarkable clarity, so you can hear these roaming attacks on the strings beautifully.
The guitar style, which the Rep will adopt pretty much from now on, accentuates the confusion in the lyrics and vocals. This was all clearly done live, as the Rep’s long, low moans and more aggressive pickwork trade off. These seven songs are about stepping out of the world and looking back in, being a perpetual outsider, yet wanting someone to share life with. Some of the lyrics sound motivational, but the way the Rep intones them over this remarkably disorienting music makes them sound much more like internal battles.
Truth be told, this run of voice-and-guitar studio albums is the most difficult stretch of Jandek material for me to get through. But I think that’s because it does its job well. None of this music is supposed to be easy. It is meant to communicate a tortured and embattled psyche, and it does so with an almost magical effectiveness. It requires me to be in a particular state of mind to hear it, but I cannot imagine music more apt for the intended purpose.
Listen to “The Humility of Pain.”
#34. The Place (2003).
Having established his new style on acoustic, the Rep breaks out his electric for The Place, playing it in much the same manner. There are moments here when he absolutely attacks the strings, like the end of the title track, and the ringing amplified tones only add to the sense of chaos. The electric (or perhaps it is an amplified acoustic?) is tuned to the same dissonance, and at no point does the Rep try to lay down a rhythm. The guitar is, again, intended to communicate confusion and uncertainty.
These five songs all have definite-article titles (“The Picture,” “The Place,” “The Highway,” “The Answer” and “The Stumble”) and they seem to tell a story. It’s mostly an abstract one, with a protagonist searching for a key to open something locked up in a place, and there’s a lot of dream imagery. A song called “The Answer” provides none, or at least none that can be immediately discerned: “Imagination’s taking over me, I got geometric patterns, there’s lightning bolts and sheets of vapor, and a long coat in the haze…” The surreal nature of the lyrics matches well with the unreality of the music, and the return of the harmonica on “The Stumble” only adds to the feeling.
It strikes me how much these later-period studio albums already sound like live performances. The Rep is playing these as we hear them, with no evident studio effects, almost as if he is road-testing this new style before bringing it in front of people. Of course, when he did take the stage the following year, he sounded nothing like this, but eventually he would unveil conceptual pieces on guitar, and these albums feel like the trial run. The Place could easily have been performed in front of an audience – it no longer quite feels like listening in on a lonely confession, but more like experiencing something intended to be heard. That alone is a sizable shift.
Listen to “The Place.”
#35. The Gone Wait (2003).
The Gone Wait continues this run of live-performance studio albums in an unexpected way: the Rep performs the entire thing on fretless bass and vocals. He plays the bass the same way he played the electric on The Place, and the effect is similarly chaotic, only much more low and rumbling. As on the guitar, the Rep’s playing here never sits still. He bends strings, he slides his left hand up the fretboard, he attacks the upper register. In short, he plays bass like no one else on earth, and the lower tones complement his resonant moan better than you’d expect.
Lyrically this one seems to follow on from The Place. It’s all first-person confusion, the Rep’s thoughts wrapped up in nostalgia and yearning for someone to be with him. It cannot be a coincidence that this album is named after a song from Twelfth Apostle, released ten years earlier. It feels like this one is about memory, particularly the slower and more menacing “I Was a King.” But by the closer, “I Found the Right Change,” the Rep seems to have renewed his purpose. Musically he still sounds at sea, but the words take on a hopefulness that feels like light shining in.
That these five songs all sound the same is a valid criticism, one that can be levied at this entire era of Jandek. The Rep took great pains on earlier acoustic records to differentiate songs, but these all feel like chapters of the same story, like one long thought performed in sequence. This certainly adds to the feeling that The Gone Wait is a conceptual piece, but as we move along these studio albums the same style of playing will be employed for every type of song the Rep pulls out. The Gone Wait is novel, a wildly unexpected swerve to a new instrument, and yet feels of a piece with this run of records.
Listen to “I Found the Right Change.”
#36. Shadow of Leaves (2004).
I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that 2004 was the most monumental year for Jandek since Ready for the House came out in 1978. Not only did he issue a record four new studio albums, but on October 17 he performed live for the first time, taking the stage unannounced at the Instal Festival in Scotland. Clearly he was riding a renewed interest in his work, at least partially brought on by the premiere of the documentary Jandek on Corwood the previous year. This must have been an extraordinary time to be a Jandek listener.
I have seen the Rep play live only once, in May of 2008, in a small theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I mention this here because the Rep played bass at that gig, and I got to see first-hand the way he approaches the strings (attacking them with gusto) and the fretboard (zipping along it with no rhyme nor reason). It is this image I have in my head when I listen to albums like Shadow of Leaves, which treads the same path as The Gone Wait. I can see him playing this material in my mind, and it adds a dimension that doesn’t quite exist for me with the guitar albums.
This time, instead of linking several smaller pieces together, the Rep lets loose for 29 minutes on the title track. It’s quite the odyssey, sticking mostly to the lower strings, the shifting tremors of sound providing an interesting backdrop for the Rep’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The vocal intensity ebbs and flows, the Rep sounding quite unhinged at times. It can feel even longer than it is, and it takes some getting through. Your sense of accomplishment will be muted somewhat by the two similar-sounding shorter songs at the end, neither of which leave much of an impression after the behemoth.
Just hearing the Rep play fretless bass is novel enough, though. The Gone Wait and Shadow of Leaves stand out among the guitar-centric Corwood catalog thus far, and add a fascinating new dimension to the Rep’s work. I am always interested to hear what he will bring to a new instrument, given his unique approach. As we will soon see, it is live audiences and new collaborators that will bring this exploratory side out more.
No tracks available online.
#37. The End of it All (2004).
Unlike The Beginning from five years before, The End of it All doesn’t offer a sense of finality in any way. The title does have a slight significance – this is the last album the Rep released before performing live for the first time, so in a sense it was the end of his reclusive period. But this one is of a piece with The Humility of Pain and The Place – it’s a solo electric guitar and voice record, featuring the same style of random dissonant playing (albeit a touch gentler) and long, low, moaning vocals. In a lot of ways, this feels like just another one in an ever-lengthening series.
The title is interesting, because The End of it All is a romantic record. The 20-minute “One of Those Moments” makes clear that the Rep (or the character he is playing here) has met someone special. The epic ends with these lines: “If you want to touch me, I wouldn’t mind, it doesn’t happen too often, this kind of thing.” The other three songs are peppered with meet-cute lines like “I was so happy, I still am,” “See if that soul you got wants to be with mine, then the other differences don’t matter at all” and “I’m at the best place I ever knew, and it’s just after I met you.” That last one is almost worthy of Cole Porter.
All of which is fascinating, since the music doesn’t sound even a little bit romantic. It is just as dissonant, just as foreboding as the previous five albums in this style, and the Rep’s vocals remain despondent and tortured. Musically this feels just as sad and bewildered as The Place, and coupled with the title (which actually gets a sweet spin on “I Hadn’t Been There Before”), one gets the sense that this new fling is marked for failure. The Rep is destined to be alone again. If The End of it All is genuinely intended to be joyous and sweet, it points to the limitations of this style. The Rep would find ways to create joyous music on stage. This effort, however, is a study in contrasts.
No tracks available online.
#38. The Door Behind (2004).
Mere days before The Door Behind was released, the Rep played live for the first time, and so many Jandekian questions were answered. Chief among them was whether the central performer was the same guy who appeared on all the album covers, and now there was proof that he was. This was the biggest tectonic plate shift in Jandek history, and to celebrate, the Rep issued another solo guitar and voice record, exactly like the last one. The fact that the photo chosen for this one, with a younger Rep sporting a wooly haircut and a long beard, rendered him unrecognizable from the live shows almost feels like a joke.
If you think you’ve heard The Door Behind before, that’s because you pretty much have. It is the direct sequel to The End of it All, continuing the same electric guitar style and the same sonorous, stretched-out vocals. It even features the same romantic lyrics, although here and there the Rep lets some doubt and confusion creep back in. “I’m Not That Good” finds him asking God for help taking a risk in his relationship, and “The Slow Burn” gets more paranoid and self-critical. The latter song includes this amazing line: “I need to kill those squirrels running around in the top of my head.”
But on the whole, this feels like just another in this long run of Jandek albums. It is the Rep’s third of 2004, and it offers nothing that the previous album did not. It is, again, an exercise in contrasts, as the troubling music rubs up uncomfortably with the (mostly) sweetly thoughtful lyrics. Only the Rep could make a line like “There’s no end to this moment, you’re the everlasting one” feel like being set on fire inch by inch. It’s fascinating, but it’s fascinating in exactly the same way its predecessor was.
Listen to “Gate Strikes One.”
#39. A Kingdom He Likes (2004).
The Rep closes out his most active year yet with this return to his acoustic guitar sound, and to the surreal, lonely imagery that characterized his early work. In other words, this one isn’t breaking any new ground. I wish I could convey the experience of listening to all nine of these post-a-cappella, pre-live-albums solo efforts in a row. It’s like crawling through the swamp of sadness for 20 years. Even the most heartwarming sentiment expressed on these records feels like the final moments before death, and the cumulative effect of six hours and 15 minutes of this wears on the psyche.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to say about A Kingdom He Likes that hasn’t been said about the previous seven records. There’s a strange lyric about one’s refrigerator being an altar to God, “whether you slaughter human, animal or grapes,” and that one finds the Rep shouting “skank, you skank” out of nowhere. There’s a song called “Your Own Little World” about spiders spinning a web around the Rep, and he ends that one by calling for a salamander to eat them. In some ways this one feels like a fall back to earth after the romanticism of its two predecessors. The aggressive picking on “A Windy Time,” which sounds like needles in a hurricane, is a nice change from the previously established playing style.
But there isn’t much to differentiate this one from the pack. At this point it must have felt like the Rep could keep on making albums exactly like this forever, if he wanted to. Thankfully, he didn’t want to.
Listen to “Sticks in the Marsh.”
#40. When I Took That Train (2005).
This one is largely important just because of the position it occupies in the Jandek catalog. After this one, nothing would be the same again. When I Took That Train ends a run of 40 studio albums – from this point on the Rep would alternate studio and live records, and over time would slow down his studio output to the point where 19 of the last 20 Jandek albums have been live documents. The entire idea of Jandek as a studio project ends here, and the redefinition that begins with the next album reverberates even now, 15 years later.
But really, any Jandek record here in the 40th slot would have been important. Does this one stand out on its own merit? Eh, not really. This is another acoustic album, one that is largely slow and muted, with the Rep’s dissonant playing and low sing-speaking sounding pretty routine by this point. When I Took That Train is a conceptual piece detailing the early stages of a relationship, and it plays with the same contrast that The End of it All does.
This one is sexier, if you can believe that, the Rep cooing and crooning to his lady love. (His “Hey baby, hello” on “The Image of You” has to be heard to be believed.) But this one earns its foreboding musical tone with the closing track, “My Escape,” on which the Rep tries to flee his new love, but ends up eating her heart while she eats his. It’s a nightmarish finish, and it almost makes the previous ten tracks of ominous music and romantic lyrics feel like they were leading up to something.
But with the excitement of the live albums on the horizon, When I Took That Train feels like an album you have to get through instead of one you will enjoy on its own. In isolation, it is an interesting affair, the sparse and dissonant guitars providing a fitting foundation for the Rep’s unique voice. But at the end of a long run of similar-sounding records, with much more interesting material in the wings, this one kind of lies there.
Next week, albums 41-60, starting with the first ever Jandek live show.
See you in line Tuesday morning.