“He’s a beautiful man, and he’s here to help us,” Black Swans singer Jerry DeCicca says in the spoken introduction to “Joe Tex”, a song about the 1960s R&B singer and, perhaps more so, about the way hearing a singer sing about life’s struggles can make a listener feel better able to deal with their own. Similar references to singer are scattered across the Ohio band’s fourth LP. While on an existential road trip (“I Forgot to Change the Windshield Wipers in My Mind”), DeCicca gets comfort from the radio and testifies back to it: “A change is gonna come soon / Sam Cooke, you’re always right.” While trying to wean himself away from using “Mean Medicine” to escape from life’s pain, he sings along with Jimi Hendrix, crying at the same time.
If Don’t Blame the Stars is about songs as comfort in times of sadness, it’s also an exercise in creating the same. Melancholy songs about a search for solace abound. The songs’ protagonist turns to people for help (but they leave, purposely or not), to a worry stone (it gets thrown into the sea prematurely), and to drugs (which turn “mean”). The moments of peace, of coming to terms with horrible things, come when he turns to music.
The album, which DeCicca has said was influenced by various 1970s Nashville songwriters, has songs which evoke highways, film-noir-like city scenes, open skies and claustrophobic spaces. A violin recurs, seeming both sad and hopeful – no less so when we know it’s being played by founding member Noel Sayre, who passed away in 2008, in the wake of a swimming accident. His presence is inescapable on the album once you know his story, and that Sayre and DeCicca started playing music together at the start, really, and were close friends. His presence is especially strong in “My Brother”, a poetic song about a close companion who is gone, about scars and winds, and “tear-stained dreams”.
In that way, the album seems less of a formal intellectual exercise than their previous ones, like Words Are Stupid, their powerful 2010 album about the ultimate failure of human communication, or 2006’s clever Sex Brain EP. This feels less like one because the form used is one built on the open expression of inner feelings. At the same time, the album is as mannered as the others, feels as carefully though-out, and not just because of the spoken-word intros to four songs. It’s in the way these are songs about pain that also comment on the idea of songs as an expression of pain, and on the relationship that’s built in songs like these between the singer and the listener. At the same time, they punch you in the gut, hard. You are moved nearly to tears while also being provoked to think about the very act of a song moving someone to tears.
The songs get into your personal space – while DeCicca sings about turmoil, it’s hard not to think about the times you were in turmoil. As he finds comfort in the “Little Things” of life, at the album’s end, it’s hard not to make your own list. And as he sings in tribute to singers who chronicled heartbreak and loneliness, you think of your own examples. He sings in tribute to Roy Orbison and others on “Blue Bayou”, the song that’s most centrally about music, and perhaps also the one with the most prominent, or most stirring, violin part. Roy Orbison could take you to a place “where the arms of sadness let go”, he tells us. “In his voice and his song / I heard a world yet to go wrong”. As he gives a litany of singers whose music helped him in tough times, from Charlie Rich and Gregory Isaacs to Prince and Iris Dement, we’re adding names to the list. When he proclaims, “This song is for anybody who ever wrote a song that someone sang to themselves when they were walking down the sidewalk, because they felt alone”, we get that, too. We’re in the midst of conversations between singer and listener, singer and artists of the past, current self and past selves, human beings and the uncaring cosmos, yet we’re also feeling right there in the moment, the words and sounds reaching us as only words and sounds, combined together in song, can.