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Mark Eitzel - Don’t Be A Stranger

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Artist: Mark Eitzel

Album: Don’t Be A Stranger

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 27, 2012

Mark Eitzel has always had lounge pop tendencies, a slick melodic penchant that he’s undercut in his American Music Club and solo work with various kinds of violence. Last time around, with the American Music Club reunion album Golden Age, he used long-time collaborator Vudi’s guitar to roil his cabaret songs with danger. Now, on his sixth solo album, Don’t Be a Stranger, he sticks mostly to a piano-bar palette of sounds — lovely minimal jazz piano by Larry Golding, reticent drums from Elvis Costello associate Pete Thomas, a modest string section and Vudi again, though in much quieter mode — to frame his songs. The necessary darkness comes, this time, from the lyrics, which are lacerating, self-loathing and devastatingly clever.

Eitzel wrote most of these songs after suffering a heart attack in May 2011, so, perhaps not surprisingly, Don’t Be a Stranger is a skull-beneath-the-skin kind of record. It is permeated throughout by observations on the nearness of death, the façade-ish falsity of life and the ways people distract themselves (love, music) from these essential realities. In this vein, the single, “I Love You But You’re Dead,” is its strongest song. It conveys all at once the seedy glamour, the existential futility, the inexplicable uplift of making rock music. Eitzel dives into a scene so particularly observed that you see beer-soaked stages, rotten carpets on plywood, a singer crawling on their hands and knees, bands turned weightless with sheer obliterating volume, but he holds himself apart. The last line of the song is chilling: “I control my arms and my legs and my hands and my hair and my face, like I’m holding a gun in a video game.”

The image of the broken entertainer flits through these 11 songs like a wise-cracking, fast-talking ghost. It’s there in “Oh Mercy,” in the self-hating raconteur who boasts “I got party talk for all your party guests / My topics include facism and rising crime / And when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well, that’ll ensure everyone’s good time.” It’s there in the sad songs about Magic Kingdom employees (“Costume Characters Face Dangers in the Workplace”) and clowns (“Lament for Bobo the Clown”). It’s there, perhaps, in the fact that Eitzel started playing live shows (in Europe) only six months after he nearly died. The show goes on, even after the main character has pulled back the curtain. (Or, as Eitzel puts it in “Costume Characters,” “I don’t believe in the future, it’s all going to shit, but I thought we could still put on a show.”)

Eitzel revisits one older song, “All My Love,” reimaging it for his new jazz-tinged ensemble, in a piano-glittering, acoustic-bass-plunking, late night sort of way. Eitzel has described this song, which appeared on 2008’s Golden Age as his “gooey-est-ever,” and, indeed, the piece’s relentless, swelling crescendos (“and I…can’t…give…you…all my love!”) have the calculated pay-off of a musical’s show-stopper. Here, however, the song has been shaded and chilled, downsized and made more complicated. It’s a smaller, sadder, wiser version of a song that has always been more complex than it sounds, and it works rather well in the context of the other material.

The album’s most desolate song, ““We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out,” comes late in the album, a bone-simple arrangement of voice and piano framing Eitzel’s musings on suicide, despair and the often insufficient power of love. He is, at least on the surface, singing about someone else in the song, someone he doesn’t love enough to save. But you can’t help but hear his own brush with death in the recurring line, “We all have to find our own way out.”

Eitzel’s new songs are so stark and chilling that it becomes almost necessary to couch them in the friendliest terms, in sparse but warm arrangements that highlight the skill and accessibility of his melodies. Golding is particularly good here, playing lightly and beautifully over the surfaces of these songs. I like him best on “Why Are You With Me?” where the piano line glistens and twinkles over a brush-stroked snare line, nothing obvious, nothing extra in its quiet commentaries. The strings, too, are soft and unshowy, splashing watery color onto “The Bill Is Due,” weaving occasionally into dissonance. The musical backing is reassuring and professional, the calm therapist nodding at Eitzel’s wilder confessions and asking, quietly, “And how do you feel about that?”

Don’t Be A Stranger is very subtle album, soft in tone but twisted and eaten from the inside by corrosive intelligence. Eitzel’s lyrics have never been sharper, his rage and cleverness never more tangled or better articulated. He’s wrapped life and art and love and near-death in a silky covering, but you could still cut yourself on what’s inside.

By Jennifer Kelly

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