Day: July 19, 2011

Just limping along, singing a song, out of key.

I pulled out CREATIVE NIGHTMARES for a listen just the other day for the first time in quite a while.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this album at first. I went into it meaning to do something very strange, inaccessible, and synth-heavy. Instead I ended up with a more eclectic album that felt like some of the more accessible work I’d done at the time. It was the first time I ever decided to go to the trouble of printing the lyrics with the album itself (I later doubled back to reissue CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and AN ABSENCE OF SWAY so they too could benefit from the lyric booklet treatment). That felt a little strange too.

In the two years that have passed since the album was released, I’ve come to realize I really like printing the lyrics, to the point that I can’t imagine not doing it at any point in the future. And it’s also gradually sunk in for me that this was a pretty important album for me. If CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN shook me out of a funk and got my ass back in gear, this one marked the beginning of a deeper interest in the production side of things.

With almost every album I made before CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, I would rarely spend more than thirty minutes or an hour on the recording and mixing of any given song, just getting down the bare essentials of what I thought the music needed and then moving on to the next thing. Here I began to treat each song as a sonic entity unto itself. Every album since has grown more ambitious in that department and — I think/hope — more interesting on a sonic level.

It’s somewhat atypical of my recent work in that there are only thirteen songs and none of them are “tiny”. That makes for a shorter, less scattershot album by my standards. But there’s still a lot going on.

“Kamikaze Daybreak” all on its own is probably still one of the most ambitious songs I’ve recorded, both sonically and structurally. It begins as a dissonant ambient noise collage piece, which segues into something soft and jazzy. Then comes the body of the song — sort of an alt-folk-ish thing, albeit more layered than anything of its kind I’d done before. After that reaches its climax it becomes a completely different electronic piece before finally dissolving into bluesy reverb-drenched slide guitar.

That all happens in the space of one song.

“Pre-Prom Plastic Surgery” is like some sort of stripped-to-the-bone dub/jazz fusion, “Molly, Go Home” still feels like the simultaneous culmination and explosion of the folky/bluesy sound I was exploring on the previous three albums, and “Anthropomorphism Dance”, still kind of makes me think of early/mid-90s U2 (back when they still had some balls), with its skittering percussion, electric guitar squall, and odd ambient touches. “My Good Deed for the Decade” has always felt like one of the more single-worthy songs of mine — odd, because it doesn’t have anything that even resembles a chorus, and it would never stand a chance of getting any airplay on commercial radio.

This was where I started to move away from the ubiquitous triple-tracked lead vocal approach of the last few albums, allowing my voice to stand on its own more often than not. It’s also pretty dark stuff for a summer album. There are references to being tortured and drowned, the loss of identity/individuality, frozen fish(es) thawing and being revived only to die on dry land in short order, broken relationships, the protagonist failing while the villain prevails, using selective memory to make the past seem sunnier than it really was, broken bones, physical mutilation, and violent inflammatory pyogenic bacterial infections.

“The Danger of All Things Adhesive” is a love song delivered to an urn of ashes, with the narrator unable to let go of the person the ashes used to be. “The Penultimate Kiss” still stands as maybe the most cynical, defeated piano ballad I’ve ever written, concluding that no physical affection is worth the emotional fallout that tends to follow when things go to hell. “Generic Love Song to Play at Your Wedding” stands out as something happy and goofy, but it’s sung to a hypothetical person who doesn’t exist, so it ends up getting skewed as well, with lyrical weirdness like, “Let me stroke your reptilian vanilla spine / Let me drink your saltwater tooth brine.”

At the time I wasn’t sure my words would stand alone on the page all that well. I’m pretty fond of this album’s lyric booklet now. I think there’s some interesting stuff going on in there. “Zombies on Parade” has to be one of the best marriages I’ve ever managed between a really catchy, upbeat tune and lyrics that work against the catchiness every step of the way. “Leaking pus from every orifice / Warping minds like a psychologist,” is one of my favourite couplets I’ve ever written. I’ve yet to do anything else that sounds like “Weird Sex Dream #72”, a mostly weightless, impressionistic electronic ballad with its own weird internal logic that really is kind of dream-like, and the use of vocoder is so strangely effective it makes me wonder why I haven’t messed around with that sound anywhere else outside of this album.

“A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods” has gone from being just another song to becoming one of my favourite things I’ve written from any period. And if we’re breaking things down into periods, then the three-album stretch from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to IF I HAD A QUARTER would be my “mining the organic folky/bluesy thing for all it’s worth” phase, bending it in different directions and expanding my sound palette while generally working within a fixed template. CREATIVE NIGHTMARES begins a period of throwing all of that out the window, tearing up the most recent rulebook I’d written for myself, and starting again.

Don’t ask me where I’m at now or where I’m going next. I couldn’t even tell you if I tried. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

I guess what I’m saying is, re-evaluating your own work is an interesting thing. I always liked this album, but I’ve grown to like it a whole lot more as I’ve gained a bit of distance from it. When I’m on my deathbed in Brazil years from now being interviewed by a pretentious journalist for a career retrospective, I think CREATIVE NIGHTMARES could sneak into my personal top ten.

The pretentious journalist will obviously be a hallucination brought on by too much morphine, but still…