[22 February 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Last week, I learned how to not sound like an asshole.
I was recording a song last month, because us music journalists all have vivid rockstar fantasies, and it was semi-emotional. So I tried a take in which my voice sounded pained, almost on the verge of tears, filled with wavering timbres and whatnot. I was going for maximum catharsis. I listened to it a few hours later and was honestly disgusted with the results: the self-imposed melodrama, encapsulating the whole notion of “suffering is art” … It just felt dishonest, both to myself and to any potential listener. So I completely deleted that take, tried it again and this time sang my words with a kind of detached, Elliot Smith-styled monotone delivery. The results were infinitely better.
I wasn’t reminded of that incident until I heard “Revenge Songs”, a track from Jacob Golden’s album of the same name. It surprised me, actually. Golden is a very talented vocalist, whose one contribution to Faultline’s underrated 2002 effort Your Love Means Everything managed to outshine all of the other guest vocalists on that disc. That said guest list included the likes of Michael Stipe, Wayne Coyne, and Chris Martin made Golden’s achievement all the more impressive. For a man blessed with such a daring falsetto, it’s horribly disappointing to hear Golden use that quavering, whiny “woe is me voice” for “Revenge Songs” and “Hold Your Hair Back”. It doesn’t come off as cathartic at all. It’s an incredibly indulgent move that hurts his chance of connecting with a listener on an individual basis.
Revenge Songs is a confused, jumbled mess of an album that’s filled with a couple of brilliant moments but even more missed opportunities. Having picked up a few lessons in production work from Faultline maestro David Kosten (whose own production work on Bat For Lashes debut album was fairly remarkable), Golden makes Revenge Songs a solo album in every sense of the word. He writes, produces, and plays just about every instrument on this record. For this, he gets all the praise and all the ire. After listening to Revenge Songs all the way through, you’ll want to give him a healthy dose of both.
When the album works, it works grandly. On the minimalist acoustic ballad “Pretend”, Golden uses his guitar-and-voice setting to paint a sense of after-morning desperation:
I can’t feel or touch the end
Are there no real ends
Maybe I’m just looking for myself
In all my friends
I discovered freedom then I woke up
On the floor
Caught a glimpse of
Pearly horses just the night before
On the melodic front, “On a Saturday” is custom-made for a closing shot during Grey’s Anatomy, or even The O.C., which it was featured on. The wailing chorus of “Hold Your Hair Back” proves to be even more cathartic than the words themselves. Golden is able to craft some fine moments in his songs, but unfortunately he tends to drown out both his voice and his instruments in a literal sea of reverb. Furthermore, this album is somewhat hurt by Golden’s choice of tempos. Almost every song has the same pacing, making certain tracks blur together. This being his second full-length, you’d think Golden would have learned a thing or two about mixing it up by now.
Instead, he has subscribed himself to the Matt Berninger School of Non-Sequitur Lyric Writing. When the baritone-voiced National frontman links his verses together with seemingly random lines, you are at first perturbed, but later—after a few listens—feel the emotional connection that ties his words together, making for surprisingly moving character portraits. Golden tries this exact same thing, but because he is so focused on individual lyrical moments, he often loses sight of the big picture. On “Shine a Light”, Golden tells of his favorite Daniel Johnston song (presumably “Joy Without Pleasure”) and how it “held my hand through an infinite void”, before changing topics again. At times his words sound like they were ripped straight out of his high school journal (for example, “Shadow boxing my way out of the armies of doubt”, from “Church of New Song”), and at times defy any sort of rational interpretation:
Out come the wolves
The hunting of our great American Idols
But the ants will march until their queen has come
Goddamn, downtown, James Brown
What’s taken you so long?
Your kids are starving
Of course, we can’t all be Craig Finn or even Will Sheff: some people are just better at lyrics than others. No one ever wants to get pegged as the King of Vague Wordplay, but it’s still hard to cut through the indulgent dreck that laces songs like “I’m Your Man”:
I shall wear the impossible dream
In a tattoo on my arm for my friends to see
To remind me when my focus turns from love to depression
And I’ll pray to George Harrison’s reincarnation
It’s hard for anyone to deny Golden’s talents as a musician. It’s just unfortunate that the biggest hurdle he faces is his own self-imposed sense of importance. He tries to write “deep” words and gets tripped up in his own pretensions. The sticker on the front of the disc quotes Mojo magazine as saying Revenge Songs is “the most gorgeous break-up record since Beck’s Sea Change”. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. When Beck deals with heartbreak, he stands front and center, speaking simple truths from the heart. When Golden faces it, he hides in an echo chamber while clutching a thesaurus. Which would you rather hear?