Love Songs for Nihilists (2010)

If you want to use my somewhat tongue-in-cheek “seasonal releases” idea as a guideline, IF I HAD A QUARTER… is a spring album, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES is a summer album, and this one here is very much a fall/winter album. AN ABSENCE OF SWAY also falls into that last category, but this is a bit of a different beast.

Without going into too much detail, I made the mistake — not for the first time, or the last — of investing a lot in a friendship that had nothing much to give back to me. Finding out I was little more than a means to an end left me more depressed than I could remember being in a long time.

By the time I was finished with the album and it was finished with me, I found myself in a much happier place. Still, I think there’s a feeling of sadness hanging over quite a few of these songs, even if it isn’t often spelled out in the lyrics.

In the beginning I set out to do something denser and more challenging than anything I’d done in a very long time, if not ever. And again I ended up with something that scarcely resembled the album I laid out in my head when I first started working on it. Of the twenty or so songs I put down on paper when I was mapping out what I thought this was going to be, two are on the finished album.

It all started with the desire to create music that existed in moments, tangling itself into knots and then violently tearing the fabric apart, only for the musical shards to regenerate as something new. Beautiful moments and ugly moments sitting side-by-side.

The concept didn’t end up sticking, but some of its soul is still floating around in there. Most of the songs either keep mutating until they die, or else they’re oblivious to the idea of hooks in any traditional sense. It’s also one of the most dynamic albums I’ve ever made, with whisper-quiet moments and big explosions of sound sometimes coexisting in the same song.

I hit a bit of a mental block for a while early in the recording process, spending too much time thinking about what I was going to do and not enough time doing it. I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into the trap of repeating myself. This album needed to be something different, and I needed to challenge myself instead of resting on my laurels. (You don’t know how many people I keep around here named Laurel. It’s getting bad.)

I kept throwing most of the things I was writing in the “to be revisited at some later date, maybe” pile. They didn’t seem strange or jagged enough to fit in with my original conception of what the album was supposed to be. All told, there were somewhere around fifty songs I wrote for this album that didn’t make the cut — in most cases not because I didn’t feel they were good enough, but because they didn’t feel right for whatever this was going to become.

And they say I’m a reluctant editor.

I was lucky enough to figure out this was a trap. I needed to stop over-thinking things and start throwing a bunch of stuff up in the air, waiting for it to fall around me in uneven clumps.

Some fruitful recording sessions with Travis Reitsma, working on what became his second solo album OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES, helped to recalibrate things. I wasn’t expecting to ever get the call again to do any work recording anyone other than myself at that point in my life. When it happened, it forced me to stop thinking and start doing, and the newfound motivation and clarity of thought bled back into my own work.

Travis’s album has always felt like something of a sister album to this one, right down to a shared colour scheme in the physical packaging, with some interesting moments of sonic overlap and divergence. If you ever wanted to know what would happen if I produced, recorded, and played a bunch of instruments on someone else’s album at the exact same time I was working on one of my own, and how the two pieces of work might each illuminate some interesting qualities in the other, listen to LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS and OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES back to back, in whatever order you prefer, and you’ll get to hear just that.

Knee-Jerk Howl has to be one of my favourite opening tracks on any album I’ve made. It’s a bit of an unusual choice, really. Most of the time I come running out of the gate with something jarring or uptempo — or both — to get the listener’s attention. This is very much a ballad.

It’s a pretty simple song, with nothing very strange going on structurally, but the dynamics are a little odd. The whole thing splinters and falls apart near the end only to put itself back together again. It’s not a case of the song destroying itself in an act of musical self-sabotage as much as it’s just a thing that happens.

It’s also home to what might be the most effective use I’ve ever made of the bugle. It’s the closest I’ve ever managed to come to faking my own horn section in a somewhat melodic way.

In the thick of my depressed fog, I was working on a more ambitious extended piece that wouldn’t end up making the album, feeling lethargic and unmotivated, not making much progress. I thought I would tackle this song in an effort to get something useful accomplished. It existed only as an acoustic guitar pattern and some lyrics. I had no arrangement ideas.

By the time I’d recorded the guitars, bass, drums, bugle, mandolin, and was laying down the vocals, it felt like I managed to perforate the depression for a moment, or at least find a way to twist it to my advantage and make some music out of it.

As a writer, I find it fascinating how different emotional states can bend music. When I’m angry or working through anxiety, I swear a lot, my writing becomes confrontational and blunt without much of any attempt at being poetic, and I rip songs to shreds almost as a fuck-you to the songs themselves, just to make them feel what I feel. When I’m in a pretty happy place, I tend to get weird, with a lot of wordplay and silliness toppling out.

Sadness is something different. It seems to make me more thoughtful, more cryptic, and for whatever reason it sometimes seems to make me a better singer.

Skull Jugglers takes the relative calm established by that first track and spits spiked tomato juice in its face. To date it’s the only song I’ve built from a percussion track made up of gongs. It’s an improvisation, but it’s different from the way I used to improvise while recording.

Instead of being a live off-the-floor performance, this is more of a sonic improvisation that establishes a groove only to tear it down and build something new from its ashes, and then it tears that down too. The Fender Rhodes gets some long overdue love here. One of its finest moments is probably the double-tracked melody that comes in during the jazzy piano-led section, which builds to something that sounds, to me, sort of like a strange, sad spiritual.

It’s Only a Chocolate Cigarette is another improvisation that turned itself into something like a song. In this case it started with a few different bass parts. There’s not much to it in terms of lyrics (what words there are were made up on the spot), and there’s no hook to the thing at all, but I like it as an atmospheric interlude, and I like the way it builds to a sloppy climax and then an unexpected ending where the bottom drops out.

Crustacean Cancer Survivor is the sort of thing that never would have been allowed on the album if I stuck with the initial concept. Instead of messing with structure, it keeps doing more or less the same thing, like a mantra, and there are only four lines of lyrics. The song marks the recording debut of a ridiculously cheap classical guitar I picked up on a whim. That guitar went on to inspire an unexpected new batch of songs, none of them really in keeping with the initial concept either. I decided I’d best let the stubborn cheap axe assert itself.

It’s pretty funny when there’s a 1940s Martin 00-17 you’ve just got your hands on that’s sort of your holy grail acoustic guitar, you’re excited to have it all over your next album, and it only ends up on two songs, usurped by a laminated, factory-made, entry-level classical guitar that ran you less than two hundred bucks new. The Martin got its due later on, but I still wouldn’t take my eye off that cheap classical thing.

There’s often a song that will stand out as feeling (to me, at least) like the centerpiece of an album — the point around which everything else pivots, or the moment when everything seems to build to a sonic and emotional peak. On AN ABSENCE OF SWAY it’s “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue”. On CREATIVE NIGHTMARES it’s “Molly, Go Home”. On GIFT FOR A SPIDER it’s “Light Sleeper”. On STEW it’s “Remorse Code”.

Here it’s a mystery.

Kings might have fit the bill if it didn’t pop up so early. It starts out as a skeletal bluesy thing that keeps on shifting and fracturing itself every step of the way, culminating in the dirtiest guitar noise I’d unleashed in quite a while. It came from a place of real anger. I’d call it a guitar solo, but I’m not sure the title quite fits. There’s nothing flashy about it. If anything, it looks back a little bit to some of the jagged chunks of sound I used to strangle out of guitars back in the band days of old.

The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave) would be another contender for “album centerpiece” if it didn’t pop up right near the end. It’s another thing that comes from the melancholy place I started out wallowing in. It’s long, it’s drenched in a feeling of sadness, and it passes through several different “scenes” before dissolving in a wash of funny horror movie-sounding synthesizer. It’s fun playing around with different time signatures. This one starts out in a jazzy 5/4 shuffle before shifting to 6/8 and then standard 4/4 (along with some passages that are pretty “free” and aren’t really governed by any time signature), and the dynamics are all over the place.

So, in addition to whatever else this album is, you could call it “the album of centerpieces that live far from the center”.

Late in the game, with the finish line in sight, I felt like there was something missing. It took me a while to put it together that the thing I was casually avoiding was what the album needed: some of those really short “tiny songs”. There aren’t anywhere near as many of them here as there were on the preceding few albums, but the ones that are here serve to shake things up a bit.

You Make Me Feel like an Impotent Squadger is a demented strut that sounds like some sort of garage band glam metal stomp, with nothing but fuzz bass, drums, distorted vocals, and a little bit of synth torture thrown in for good measure. For those who don’t know, a squadger is what happens when a squirrel and a badger really love each other and decide to make a baby.

Moonwalking was gifted to me by a dream, pretty much fully-formed. In the dream it was a Blue Nile song. I toyed with the idea of trying to sing it like Paul Buchanan before opting to stick with my own vocal cords. No one could ever hope to imitate the unique beauty of that guy’s voice anyway.

How We Float When We Shit, which is as warped as its title, was a quick improvisation for ukulele and voice, with everything distant mic’d and smashed to hell with compression. I slammed my hands against my desk for percussion. That it came out sounding a good deal less lo-fi than I expected is either a testament to me sort of sometimes knowing what I’m doing and having some pretty good equipment, or just a happy accident. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Burn It is an a cappella number that is, as irony would have it, probably one of the catchiest, most accessible things on the whole album — at least until the final ten seconds or so — without a single musical instrument in sight.

I kept writing songs that could have made the album right up until the moment I cut myself off, and some of my favourite things were written very late in the game.

Bent Bird, Broken Wing has to be one of the best piano ballads I’ve written. How a song that begins with the line, “Dickless romancer with curved salmon spine,” could ever grab that distinction, I have no idea, but there you go. The wordless vocal harmonies that come in about halfway through might make up my favourite moment on the whole album.

Improvised Lake was written about four days before I did the final mix of the final song and called it a day. It’s further proof that the cheap classical guitar has some kind of ridiculous magic to it. The song originally segued into a long flamenco-style section that kept building until it exploded into dissonance, but it ended up feeling a bit too similar to the big noisy climax at the end of Crustacean Cancer Survivor. That song wouldn’t work without the buildup, while this one would survive just fine, so I chopped out most of it and chose to fade back in when things were at their messiest just for fun.

Animal Altruism is equal parts catchy and absurd. The lyrics were inspired by reading about some of the startling things animals will do to help humans and one another, sometimes risking their lives in the process.

The inspiration for the atonal bridge section came from a different place. At the time I was making this album, there were some people telling me if I would just cut out the weirdness and musical curveballs, and if I would just make a catchy ten-song album that kept itself tethered to one place, I could really go places. I could finally realize my potential and “make it”. Whatever “making it” means anymore.

Some of those people meant well and just wanted to see me succeed, even if their idea of success was very different from my own. Some of them were douche canoes who didn’t like me making so much music that was so varied and giving it away for free because they felt like I was showing them up.

Constructive criticism is one thing. But when someone tells me I shouldn’t do something with my music, with an attitude that implies they know better than I do what’s best for the noises I make, I’m going to go out of my way to do what they don’t want me to do just to mess with them. That’s how an uptempo song with some pretty juicy hooks will find itself drifting into intentionally off-key fake opera territory for a little bit.

But back to those other songs that were written at the last minute.

Jesus Don’t Know My Name and The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living were both written at about 6:00 in the morning, back-to-back, on two successive days when my sleep was a mess. They’re about as different from each another as two songs written on the same cheap classical guitar on subsequent days can be.

Jesus Don’t Know My Name is borderline gospel blues, if you can believe that. It’s even played pretty straight. It was probably inspired by the Odetta record Travis let me borrow around that time. I started out singing in a somewhat garbled voice, not unlike the way a few of the bluesy tunes on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN got sung, but in the end the words felt best sung more or less in my normal voice. It was fun acting as my own little backup gospel choir, too.

The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living lives on another planet. Musically it’s pretty simple, but the production is off-kilter, with muffled heartbeat drums, slightly out-of-tune piano, and electric guitar plugged into an old tube amp that sounded like it was dying that day.

The lyrics are also a bit of a switch, touching on faith, disillusionment, and death. On some level you could look at it as a precursor to some of the heavier themes that would seep into the songs on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART.

I like how the whole thing comes full circle, and the last verse is one of my favourite last verses I’ve ever written, simple as it is. The way it echoes the first verse, it feels like it pulls everything together in a really nice way. A good and proper ending.

Speaking of endings, In My Time of Weakness isn’t quite like any other album-ending track I’ve ever committed to plastic. It feels less like a song than an ebbing and flowing of sound, all rise and fall, full of pregnant silences, detonations of feedback-tinged guitar, and thudding slapback echo-drenched drums. There are no real verses or choruses or hooks. It’s just music that’s there until it isn’t there anymore. That electric guitar part all by itself is not like any guitar part I’ve played on any other album I’ve made, and it’s another one of my favourite musical moments on the album.

The way the song was written, it didn’t sound anything at all like what it turned into. It was a jaunty little waltz in a different key. The recurring guitar line that shadows and is shadowed by the voice was a total fluke that rewired the whole thing and led it in a very different musical direction.

Musical flukes that redefine everything are fun.

The album title was something I came up with years ago, maybe as far back as 2005. There are a lot of album titles I like that just sit around waiting until they find the right songs to attach themselves to. I had a few vague ideas for album cover art but didn’t feel like scrambling around trying to figure out what would make sense.

So this time the cover art is just a colour and some words. Stark white text on a black background felt appropriate somehow. Even though it’s some of the least visually interesting album art I’ve ever thrown together, someone decided to plagiarize it anyway. 

I swear I can’t even make this stuff up.

This was another album I didn’t think people would be into so much. It felt like a more “difficult” one to me, like AN ABSENCE OF SWAY before it. And again, the response was really positive. Shows what I know.

As much as it’s a cliché to say the best songs come out of heartbreak or some form of crisis, I feel like I’ve done some of my best work when I wasn’t at my happiest. I think that was the case again here. It’s another album I’ll always feel close to.

TRACKS:

Knee-Jerk Howl
Skull Jugglers
Jesus Don’t Know My Name
Improvised Lake
Kings
How We Float When We Shit
The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living
Animal Altruism
Crustacean Cancer Survivor
It’s Only a Chocolate Cigarette
We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Burn It
Bent Bird, Broken Wing
You Make Me Feel like an Impotent Squadger
Moonwalking
The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)
In My Time of Weakness

LISTEN:

Animal Altruism

Kings

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