Unpopular advent 2021 – day 18

Dean Wareham – ‘The Last Word’ from I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A.
The Mountain Goats – ‘The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums’ from Dark in Here

There are few artists who have given me as much pleasure during the past thirty odd years as Dean Wareham and John Darnielle. The catalogues of both are extraordinarily rich and delightfully nuanced, and I admit that I look forward to new work from either artist with as much eagerness now as when I was a young and foolish naïf. In Warehams case, 2021 has given us a physical edition of the set of lockdown covers recorded with Britta Phillips, plus a completely new album in the form of ‘I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor of L.A.’ There are covers on here too in the form of Scott Walker’s ‘Duchess‘ and the more obscure ‘Under Skys’ originally written and recorded by late-’60s Boston garage-psych band Lazy Smoke. I’m particularly grateful to Wareham for hipping me to the latter, for the sole Lazy Smoke album, 1968’s ‘Corridor of Faces’ is a treasure of drifty psychedelia that fits perfectly into the expanded universe inhabited elsewhere by Luna and Galaxie 500.

The eight originals on the album are none too shabby either, with Warehem casting his net to make songs informed by topics as diverse as 19th Century dandies, 1940’s Hollywood and Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor. Hardly topics typical amongst artists operating across the spectrum of rock music, and one of the reasons of course why Wareham remains special and naturally strange. Not that the record is detached from contemporary concerns, for underpinning it all is a kind of gently simmering anger and frustration with the state of the world. Indeed, this feeling is one that, in hindsight, seems to permeate so many of my favoured records of 2021. Perhaps this is entirely natural, since much of these works are being made by artists at similar points in life to my own and surely none of us really want to hear more songs about teenagers in unrequited love or twenty somethings assuming they are revolutionaries simply because they slapped a snappy slogan on a photograph and shared it on the Interwebs. Not that we may be weary or cynical or nothin’…

In truth there has always been the most delicious weary scepticism to Dean Wareham’s work, although that might be more to do with his vocal delivery than anything else. Like Lou Reed, Wareham acknowledges his limitations as a singer and more than makes up for any shortcomings by being a remarkably accomplished vocalist. Take the tremendous, ‘Cashing In’, on which he reflects back on a career of ups, downs, maybe-this-times and almost-tomorrows. In anyone else’s hands such a song could be mistreated and turned into something either brash and arrogant or miserably self-pitying. Wareham however pulls it off with a typically cool poise, somehow managing to tread a line between, or more accurately, far beyond those too extremes. If anyone else has delivered a line as great as “Every fuck was a flying fuck” with anything approaching the same level of stealthy, steely humour then I’ve yet to hear it. This is the sound of a coming-to-terms with a life of success that some would call failure; of failure that some would deem success. It’s the sound of Wareham not giving one of those flying fucks, and thank goodness for that.

It’s the beautifully poignant ‘The Last Word’ that I keep coming back to, however. A song in which Wareham recounts the tale of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, and her tragic ending defeated and cheated by faithlessness. With a sparse, down-tempo almost bossa-beat it sometimes recalls The Go-Betweens’ ‘When People Are Dead’ although that could just be me projecting connections of loss and melancholy. It’s certainly a curiously apposite tale for our times, however, as Wareham perhaps hints at the sorrow of socialist and feminist ideals still being poisoned by faithless self-interest. Historical social realism as mirror to our times, or something like that.

John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats have featured in three of the last four Unpopular advent series, and 2021’s ‘Dark In Here’ set makes that a neat four from five. This is surely as much a reflection on the staggeringly productive output of artists caught in the groove of their creative processes as it is my predictable tastes. Speaking of which, I think I mentioned earlier in the month something about how my own personal reclamation of time from the black hole of UK state education and subsequent regroupment has allowed me space to expand my horizons and take in some vistas I might previously have missed. Yet if I am ever tempted to allow myself to feel remotely smug about this then I just take a glimpse at Darnielle’s wildly eclectic range of interests and come away, well, humbly diminished and a shade more determined to not be such a lazy dumb ass (or, indeed, arse).

So whilst I have found myself happily seduced by Steely Dan in my later years, Darnielle’s well documented love for Metal in all its various sub-genres continues to baffle me. I’m certain this is all tied up in our various formative years where Metal may, or may not, have formed a decisive/divisive set of neural connections. For me in the hinterlands of the Scottish west coast it was idiot boys in school with their AC/DC badges and denim jackets beating up on my skinny wanna-be Mod arse (or, indeed, ass) and forevermore I’ve been unable to take a Rainbow record seriously. The counter-argument may well be that one is NEVER meant to take a Rainbow record seriously, and that would be fair enough, but what can I tell you? I mean, to quote Trembling Blue Stars as covered by Mountain Goats themselves on the ‘Babylon Springs’ EP, “sometimes I still feel the bruise”…

The only Death Metal band then that I can work up much interest for is that fictional one out of Denton, whilst the only slow parts in their songs that might grab me are the ones in the title of this cut that’s wormed its way onto my advent mix. Maybe in a parallel universe it would sit next to something by Skillet or Masterclass (no, I have no idea, just pulling names out of hats here…) but not in this one. No, not in this one.

Yet it is to The Mountain Goats eternal credit that they should come even remotely close to tempting me into another tentative peek behind that metal-studded curtain. They do so by deploying a cloaking device of Jazz Rock that is as seductive as it is deceptively smooth; as deftly illusory as it is charmingly comforting. Backing vocals slink like Sirens from Silver Age horror comics as we are drawn into a Noir-black hole of 3am 1940s nightclub where the last solitary customers drain a glass of gut-rot whisky and line up to shoot the piano-player. I mean, that’s the core essence of all of this, isn’t it? An escape from our present presence into something figuratively darker. We hover on the edges, secure in our ability to pull back. The darkness we need in order to feel the true glory of the light… Something like this, anyway.

Mention must also be made of the third and fourth chapters of the group’s celebratory ‘Jordan Lake Sessions’ in which The Mountain Goats entertain us from the COVID secure environment of a live studio. One highlight of these latest sets might be the gorgeous fragility of ‘Snow Owl’ from ‘Full Force Galesburg’ whilst a second could be another terrific take on ‘Tallahassee’s’ Tik-Tok favourite ‘No Children’. It’s perhaps the very funny introductory explanation of ‘Jazz No Children’ and the post-performance dialogue between Darnielle and Peter Hughes about setting up a divorce helpline that appeals as much as the song itself though (terrific as it is, of course). Such divine warmth and friendship shines like a beacon in the darkness of our times.

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