[6 July 2009]
John Joseph McCauley III is a man’s man, a defiant vestige of the days when self-made independence determined your destiny, and men shared their innermost feelings with a bottle rather than a therapist. He has little patience with the Ben Gibbards and Justin Vernons of the world—in fact, he sounds like the guy who stole their wallets and fucked their girlfriends. Honky-tonk hellraisers Hank, Cash, and Merle are his true forefathers, and for him, like so many others, country died when Garth took over. This all makes him hopelessly conservative, but this prematurely grizzled twentysomething-going-on-seventysomething has channeled his back-dated ethos into something brilliant: a tear-stained, beer-soaked elegy for an America that probably never was and certainly never will be again, an America that millions of balls-to-the-wall men fondly remember as it slips from their grasp. Deer Tick’s Born on Flag Day is thus a musical companion piece to Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Judge’s King of the Hill: a spare, laconic, heartfelt testament to one man’s fatalistic nostalgia.
Deer Tick’s 2007 debut War Elephant (reissued in 2008) was basically a one-man-band affair: the product of McCauley’s Hank Williams-inspired musical epiphany, liberal doses of distilled spirits, and an irrepressible determination. The album was bloated, uneven, and at times shoddy, but on standout cuts like “Baltimore Blues No. 1” and “These Old Shoes”, McCauley’s prodigious talent promised a bold, singular new voice bound to shake up the often staid, safe roots-music racket. Within a year, Deer Tick was touring with Jenny Lewis, and even gained the unlikely approval of NBC Newsman Brian Williams, alongside the requisite critical and hipster hype. “God Bless Deer Tick” stickers are ubiquitous in Baltimore, where Deer Tick recorded both albums, and their South by Southwest set was widely proclaimed a highlight.
Born on Flag Day is a full-band album. Deer Tick’s once-revolving touring lineup has stabilized, and that collective lends Flag Day a tougher, harder feel than War Elephant’s sometimes tentative demos. The album opener, “Easy”, showcases each band member in its minute-long intro: Dennis Ryan’s battering bass drum, Chris Ryan’s wily bass, and ascending eighth-note riffs played by McCauley and guitarist Andrew Tobaissen in unison. The effect is panoramic, the perfect soundtrack for speeding down an open road at 2 am, drunk, bitter, and up to no good. It makes for one of the year’s most gripping kickoffs, and foretells the warped world McCauley is about to convey for the next 40 minutes.
For make no mistake: McCauley is still the star of this show, and by the second verse, when his gritted-teeth rasp asserts, “Out of the door with the devil in my eyes / That son of a bitch crossed me once but he won’t cross me twice / The angel on my shoulder, well, she better be right / She got me flyin’ like a wild man in the middle of the night”, he establishes his forceful presence, devastating with a mic, a pen, an ax, and a right hook dare you cross him like Satan did.
McCauley’s are downtrodden, weathered songs, played with finger-pickin’ back-porch laxity, and sung in a guttural rumble that seamlessly melds a variety of sources, from Johnny Horton to James Hetfield, into something wholly captivating, occasionally unique, and reliably poignant. “How can a man feel anything when all he’s ever got was sympathy”, he poses on “Song About a Man”, before unleashing a barrage of drunkard profundities (“I drank away all the things I could provide”, “God don’t listen to [my grandson’s] prayers anymore”) that add up to possibly the most tragically beautiful drinkin’ song since “Whiskey Lullaby”. Like a cookie-cutter Springsteen character, McCauley is a man stranded within his circumstances, his desperate search for pride and power coming up short, leaving him to rationalize his resignation. His lifelong struggle has been fruitless, but he refuses to give up the fight. He clings to whatever can justify his existence: women, booze, and yes, his culture, a culture disappearing from the larger consciousness, increasingly confined to his own geographic nexus, and increasingly attached to his own identity. Within the songs, there is a palpable sense of duty, as if updating and continuing American musical traditions (folk, blues, rock) is his best, or his only, shot at a legacy.
Even though he is prone to sentiments like “hell on earth is all you know”, McCauley is not entirely a downer. “Straight Into a Storm” is a frisky rockabilly barnburner, with a torrential guitar solo that sweeps through the aural space like a Texas tornado. The animated centerpiece offers a glimpse of the incorrigible wild man whose miscreantic misdeeds produce the wistful melancholia that precede and follow it. His fractured relationships are symbolic of his fractured masculinity: like many good country boys, he is a man torn between drinking and decency, between doing the fun thing and the right thing, between satisfying his immediate urges and his upstanding duties. McCauley and Liz Isenberg cook up some Johnny-and-June-style sizzle on “Friday XIII”, which has that ultimate Deer Tick rarity: a happy ending. The album concludes with a hidden-track cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”, an explicit nod to McCauley’s heretofore implicit folkie informants, and a lightly strummed, ostensibly impromptu singalong, full of background noises (beer cans crackling, lighters flicking, revelers chuckling), and fading out with a brief snippet of “More Than a Feeling”.
Like the modest simple-kinda-man who dominates the narratives, Flag Day stumbles when it exceeds its grasp. “Smith Hill” is an ambitious attempt at an epic song, but the superfluous string arrangement and squalid walls of reverb smother a potentially harrowing track, keeping it grounded when it should soar. When McCauley proudly proclaims, “You can’t tread on me anymore”, what could be one of the album’s most crucial moments is instead barely audible. And “Stung” is an attempt at a love song, but thanks to its brevity and its generic central metaphor (“stung by your velvet touch”), it’s a slight afterthought amongst the heavier cuts.
Though Deer Tick is wisely more Creedence than Burritos, it comes as close to achieving Saint Gram’s prophecy of “cosmic American music” as anybody since the Democrats regained Congress. But McCauley is no truer to Saint Hank’s vision than Brad Paisley or Toby Keith. And therein lies the issue: as terrific as Flag Day is, it, like so much under the alt-country umbrella, romanticizes the American working class from an outsider’s perspective (McCauley is a native of Providence, Rhode Island, a long way from the Mississippi Delta that informs his delivery), often starkly opposing the (non-alcoholic, non-sexual) tastes of that class. This album will be blaring not from the roadside shitkicker bars that McCauley supposedly frequents, but from college-town and cultural-district dives with PBR on tap and young urban slummers on parade.
Flag Day is a resonant document of the American working class that is primarily inaccessible to that class: its songs won’t be aired beyond public radio, the album won’t be sold at Wal-Mart, Deer Tick will not be opening for Jason Aldean. Its tales of the underprivileged will fall largely on privileged ears. Very little of this is McCauley’s fault—he is working in an inherently problematic idiom, and to his credit, his coarse drawl and dogged conviction eradicate most questions of authenticity. He is inhabiting characters, or at least a persona that, while deeply felt, are also deeply, albeit expertly, performed.
From its swampy backwoods grooves to its alpha-male protagonists, Born on Flag Day is a fundamentally, rivetingly nostalgic album. But it raises the question of who can rightfully claim that nostalgia: the battle-hardened grumps longing for the world they used to know (i.e. the subjects), or the middle-class historical plunderers exploring a world they’ve never known (i.e. the creator)? Perhaps Deer Tick’s greatest achievement on Flag Day is subtly flouting such divisions. For we are all Americans, and whatever our class or gender or race, that nostalgia, that culture of yesteryear, belongs to us all.