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[For those who wade through all the below and/or are curious to hear the album, it's at https://dansonenberg.bandcamp.com/releases. As of post time it's in preorder, and only three songs are available for preview, until the whole thing is released on Sep. 23, 2014.]
Track 1: "Turn it over" Given that the baseline quality of even the bottom rung of Dan’s songs is somewhere north of "totally listenable", I’d say this is middle of the road for him, a solid B or B+. Not particularly adventurous in terms of songwriting, and slightly familiar to anyone who knows his influences, but literate and full of enough unique and vivid imagery to stand out from the pack. It also continues Dan's lifelong trajectory of finding ways to sneak weirder and weirder musical flourishes into conventional-on-the-surface songs in ways that still sound natural and unforced.
Track 2: "Yoko Song" Ok, this is why I’ve always loved Dan’s best moments as a songwriter: this is a guy who is as sensitive as anyone I know, yet unlike most of us, he manages to take that heartfelt feeling and crystallize it into a well-executed, occasionally quirky pop gem that might even be a little too easy to let pass as conventional if you didn’t know to keep your brain running and actually listen to it. Dan isn’t Elvis Costello (or Ray Davies) in terms of pure pop genius, but he definitely dwells comfortably in their environs, and he makes up for not quite equalling their catchiness and hooky innovation by succeeding where they never did: he doesn’t let a song's charm come at cost of letting you know just what he fucking feels. The John Lennon reference in the title & lyrics is apt. I can’t think of anybody else with a similar skill at packaging such pain and doubt into such a listenable 3 1/2 minutes.
Track 3: "Every Message Is Erased" Haha. Initial impression: Maybe I know Dan a little too well, but soooooomebody has been listening to Rufus Wainwright. That’s not a slam, actually that influence takes a lot of skill to evoke, and again, the song is chock-full of smart lyrics full of vivid, compelling imagery. As it progresses: Again, for Dan this is not exceptionally adventurous, and as the song evolves I can pick out which elements of the song and production came from which of his influences (BTW, best Bowiesque-multitracked-backing-choir vocals you’ve ever done, Dan) but it’s not just rehash the way Dan does it, it’s more like he has a box of tools and knows how to properly use each of them. It’s more than entirely listenable. Too bad Mick Ralphs and Ian Hunter couldn’t make it to the studio to do duties on this one, though.
Track 4: "Everybody’s Going To Sleep" Every singer/songwriter who becomes a parent seems to be obligated to write a song like this at some point. Fortunately, unlike many, Dan doesn’t take the self-indulgent route, and any fears of bathetic sentimentality are quickly banished. His usual engaging lyrical sense and quirky harmonic left-hand turns keep this one more mint chip than molasses, and another welcome vocal performance in the best now-raw-and-vulnerable, now-theatrically-aloof style of his that I like so well (because it seems to so well reflect what actually Dan is like as a person) is the cherry on top. File this one right next to David Bowie’s "Hunky Dory".
Track 5: "Bar Harbor" I feel like I’m going to be repeating myself here. At the halfway mark, I can say, this is a very consistent collection of songs. Another one with deeply personal lyrics deceptively couched in a workmanlike piano-centric arrangement, dusted with just enough unusual touches to keep it Dan’s own, and the ghost of a famous influence once again hovering around (this time, David Gilmour’s spirit taking the helm for Dan’s lead guitar playing—again, though, a style it’s no mean feat to even passably evoke, and it's an appropriate if not inspired choice.)
I’m always inclined to listen to music first and lyrics second, but that’s not what this album is about. In this case, it especially disserved me, as the song had actually played a fair bit of the way through before I suddenly realized how crushingly, devastatingly sad it was. As Dan’s life has been full of childrearing and opera writing and go go go, I haven’t really gotten more than a three-sentence summary of what’s going on with him personally in a pretty long time, this album is filling in a lot of the blanks. It hasn’t all been pleasant. It’s a real credit to him that he manages to convey so much heavy shit without ever leaving the listener feeling bludgeoned by it. It strikes me that what I admire so much about Dan’s efforts is that he knows that the thing to copy from his artistic idols, such as the similarly craftsmanlike Randy Newman, is not the specific style, riffs, or production, as most people would try to emulate; but instead, the underlying artistic attitudes and priorities that all that stuff springs from. It’s a very sophisticated understanding of songcraft, and I find it makes even his most throwaway songs—of which this is emphatically not one—still a rewarding listen.
Track 6: "Target" A stripped-down, late-night barroom version of a song that Dan previously recorded with such upbeat, poppy style that I never even detected before now that, once again, the lyrics are a piquant, intelligent, and highly poetic expression of a single moment of sadness and regret. I like this much, much better than the previous uptempo pop treatment, these lyrics deserve the center stage they take here. I’m not a Tom Waits fan, and I’m not aware than Dan is, but, damned if I can’t hear Waits’s spare, boozy style all over this, and imagine his ragged vocal rasp belting this one out after his third shot.
Track 7: "Lullaby Waltz" Another stripped-down one spotlighting the songwriting, this time just highly capable guitar accompaniment alongside Dan’s signature reedy, emotive vocal stylee. I like the way he gives the vocals a lot of space on this album. The song is autumnal, in the manner off Robyn Hitchcock circa 1984, if he was feeling unusually serious after an extended session listening to Bertolt Brecht. It is exactly what it is, plainly and honestly. If I could pick apart all previous songs here, this one I cannot. You’re either going to like it, or you’re not. I like it.
Track 8: "Happy Birthday" I can't offer an opinion on an old friend sounding this crushed and heartbroken. Our friend Lexi once said, "Dan could stub his toe, and write a heartbreakingly beautiful song about it." Yeah. And something much worse than a stubbed toe has happened here.
Dan also pulls out his formal music chops (he's a music professor) with a highly skilled, polished arrangement for violin and piano that only drives the stake in further.
This is the most impressive track on the album so far. But it's also the only one that I had no desire to throw back on and give a second listen to. No amount of appreciation for his musical skills will ever make hearing something like this come out of a friend enjoyable.
Track 9: "Peaks Island Ferry" In a smart bit of sequencing, the raw regret of "Happy Birthday" leads directly into the almost "sunshine pop"-like opening to this one. It still lingers on the same personal loss that's been a touchstone for much of this album, but now with a sense of resolution and looking forward. These are some of the most explicitly autobiographical lyrics I've ever heard from Dan, couched in a production number that unrepentantly declares its author's love for oddball early Bowie production values and middle-period Kinks songwriting chops, and, as always, skillfully enough to be a synthesis of influences rather than an imitation.
With one song left on the album, I'm going to hazard a prediction. If the final song, promisingly named "Resolution Time", keeps up the arc of the last few songs, then I'm going suggest, Dan, that you should knock a couple of the earlier songs off it, cut it down to a long EP, with a tighter dramatic arc and more uniform tone and confessional thematic focus, and it's going to be your own personal "Plastic Ono Band"—just unassailable as a man's personal statement about coming to grips with where he is in life. The second half of the album absolutely holds together as that, it's clearly a cohesive suite of songs. Once that became apparent, in retrospect I could see how the songs of the first half might fit in with that theme, but it didn't strike me that way as I listened to them, and it really doesn't become clear that this is an album, not just a collection of songs, until you're almost 3/4 of the way through. But, goddamn, repackage or resequence it as a solid album/EP/suite, plus the rest of the songs as separate "digital b-sides" or a "virtual bonus disk", and it will go from being an album to being a statement.
That's my prediction for what I'm going to say after the next song.
Track 10: "Resolution Time" Considered on its own merits, a nice song. Moments in this song will stand out in my mind as some of my favorite production I've heard you do to date, Dan. I wish the whole song was as incredibly fun as the oddball parts that stick out. Overall, though... I believe I've heard you do this song before, and it's good, but nothing about it resonates with me emotionally. And in this case some of the unconventional chord changes sound a little too jarring, this is the only case where something that could have added interest seemed a little bit contrived rather than inspired.
Now, in the context of the preceding few songs: I wanted a cathartic end to the song cycle after the climactic previous song. I was ready for a "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide", but I got a "TVC 15". Solid effort, good on its own, but unsatisfying in context. I think this is going to take some repeat listens, but it might actually have been stronger to put this somewhere in the middle of the first half, and end the album after "Peaks Island Ferry", if you don't have a more appropriate coda than this.
Have you ever read the original British version of "A Clockwork Orange", with the extra chapter that wasn't in the American version, hence not in the movie? There's an extra chapter where we see that Alex eventually begins to grow up, and begins dreaming of starting a family. Burgess said, "That chapter makes it a novel, rather than a fable." I've always thought that, if that's the case, then it's much stronger as a fable than a novel. Maybe someone with a literature degree would prefer it Burgess's way, but I know I don't. The final chapter is no time to suddenly lay off socking your audience in the guts.
Standing by my previous opinion: be a little bit cold, cut a few of the earlier songs that don't add to the cohesiveness, cut the final song, and move those cuts to their own distinct conceptual pen. Take the long stretch that, intentionally or not, already forms a strong suite, and keep it to that. Being concise will only give it more power.