Mark Eitzel has long been one of the great sardonic, bittersweet voices in American songwriting. He crafts intricate narratives of desperation, of the heartbroken and the down and out, of people at both the end of their wits and the end of their funds. Eitzel himself has seen his share of setbacks recently, as he saw American Music Club—who reunited in 2004 for two great albums on Merge—fall apart again and, more alarmingly, Eitzel suffered a heart attack that put a hold on any musical projects so he could recover.
And recover he did, as is evidenced on Don’t Be a Stranger. The new record comes after his musical, written with Simon Stephens, and teaming up with producer Sheldon Gomberg for the recordings that make up the record. Both collaborations show an interesting, and fruitful, shift in Eitzel’s music. His approach seems much more direct here, his stories still intricate yet very clear in their intentions. Meanwhile the music feels quiet and direct as well, but is actually quite expansive, full with string sections and Eitzel’s honeyed, drawn-out phrasings and (sometimes) American Music Club guitarist Vudi’s tones, which always were Eitzel’s finest shadow.
“I Love You But You’re Dead”, the album’s opener, feels both like trademark Eitzel and a refreshing new twist. As he has done before, Eitzel walks us through a shabby rock club, this one “the old Horror House,” and—like a good host—introduces us around to “Leadpipe” who squeals like a pig instead of talking and people quite familiar with writhing “on that beer-soaked floor.” You can feel the desperation in the air, but that title is more an in-joke than it is a depressed admission. This is still a community with a center—music—that keeps it together, and it’s that mix of hope and fear that Eitzel has always mixed so well that sells this bittersweet tale and sets up the rest of the record.
“The Bill Is Due” does take a more somber turn, a more bleary-eyed morning after the cautious joy of “I Love You But You’re Dead”. Here, with the more solitary guitar and strings, with Eitzel pulling on every word with a slight rasp in his voice, he warns to not “become a ghost” even as things seem to be pretty meager at the end of the month. “You try and move on,” he admits. “But the bill is due.” It’s a more shadowy turn, but it leads into the narcotic haze of “All My Love”, a reworking of a song from the last American Music Club. Eitzel cites albums like Neil Young’s Harvest as inspiration for Don’t Be a Stranger, and you can hear it on a song like this. It lacks that album’s dust, but there’s a simple quiet to these songs, and this spacey remake of his own song shows a new investment in texture and space. Eitzel has always flirted with melodrama—or flung himself whole-hog into it—in the past, but here textures are more considered, space used in subtle and compelling ways. “Oh Mercy” is as biting as things get, with Eitzel playing the terrible party crasher, but it never upsets the fragile balance of this record as he retreats from the bombast of the verses into the pleading quiet of the chorus.
The first half of the record twists between grey light and long shadows, culminating in the excellently spare “Costume Characters May Face Danger in the Workplace”. But as contemplative and rewarding as these sweet textures can be early on, the second half of the record seems to rely more on texture than structure. Part of this is a sequencing issue, but things slow way down on the second half of the record, and what started off feeling contemplative starts to feel a bit self-indulgent. It starts with “Lament For Bobo the Clown”, which, in the light of the character studies in “I Love You But You’re Dead” and in particular “Oh Mercy”, feels like a more forced breakdown on an outsider, something that should be affecting but instead feels formulaic. “We All Have to Find Out Own Way Out” is well-intentioned piano ballad, and it reflects themes in a lot of these other songs, but its trudging pace and wandering melodies make it feel more like repetition than moving ideas forward. It also leads into the equally hushed “You’re Waiting” that feels dragged down by its predecessor’s weight.
In short, the album’s energy runs out on itself. It’s not that the second half of the record falls apart necessarily, but the first half sounds like it’s reaching out, like it’s interacting with its subjects and ideas, like it genuinely wants to shed new light on its forms of isolation, on its murky combination of good days and bad moments, or vice versa. The second half of the record, though, seems to close in on itself. If the best parts of Don’t Be a Stranger find Eitzel making a welcome return—inviting us to make that titular offer to him—it’s a return as a great songwriter and band leader. This second quality gets undersold when we talk about Eitzel, and maybe Eitzel undersells it himself, since the second half here sounds far more solitary, far less shaped by the sound of others and, as a result, murky in their intention and execution rather than their emotions.
- "I Love You But You're Dead" Soundcloud