Sage Francis has always made intense music. Whether rapping political (2001’s “Makeshift Patriot”) or personal (2005’s “Escape Artist”), the former spoken-word champion with the acid tongue seems to treat intensity as an end in and of itself. His newest, Copper Gone, deals with a failed relationship and personal breakdown culminating in a stint as a recluse in the woods of Rhode Island. Its opening track is called “Pressure Cooker”, and it includes the lyric “They say anger is a gift / I’m very gifted.” In other words, don’t expect Francis to pull an Atmosphere and simmer down in middle age. If anything, Copper Gone ratchets the intensity up. It’s like a shotgun blast of rage fired while blindfolded. It has power, but it misses its target as often as it hits.
Francis hates a lot of shit, up to and including himself. That’s nothing new, but past albums also contained a sense of biting humor that is conspicuously absent from Copper Gone. The majority of the album is packed to the gills with such non-specific rage that it’s actually hard to tell what he’s so damn mad at. His ex, sellouts, gym rats, superficial women, customer service reps, and such generic antagonists as the Bank, the Government, and the Internet all get a hot dose of hatred. At times it seems Francis wants to paint the whole world as awful, but the effect is not the bleak emotional wasteland of Cage’s Hell’s Winter, nor is it El-P’s terrifying dystopia. Whereas El raps about breadlines and “the chip under your wrist skin” in a post-middle class future, the best Sage can muster is “don’t want banks charging me for paper statements”, which, like many of his gripes, just sounds grumpy. He shakes an angry fist at the #YOLO crowd. He tells a lover to “abuse me like customer support.” At his most pedantic, he actually calls himself “a citizen of the world.” There are a handful of sentiments here, one in particular about mob mentality, which are probably quite profound, but damn if they come across as such strung around lines like “I am not a tween / don’t wanna talk in memes / or let the Internet infiltrate all my dreams.”
Not until “Make Em Purr” is a track detailed and specific enough to hit home. And when it does, it hits hard. Francis details the life of a recluse in spiraling rounds of imagery, finally settling on his cat as the cornerstone of his sanity. “Spent more cash on my cat than I did on myself” he admits almost sheepishly, and when the cat gets sick, Francis begins to unravel. He feels panicked, helpless, desperate, and in that moment he drops the catcher’s mask of rage and shows a pained human face. In an album that lashes out at everything faceless, the weight placed on the fate of one cat is gripping, especially when he connects back to himself with a beautifully bruised mantra: “My 20s were a war / My 30s were a blur / My 40s, I’m not so sure, but I’ma make ‘em purr.”
The production generally fares better. Splitting the tracks between several producers including Cecil Otter, Reanimator, and Buck65, results in a mixed soundscape that tempers Francis’s venom cannon. “Pressure Cooker” combines vocal overlays with alternating rock riffs and overdrive drum passages. It’s busy without being overly busy, similar to single “Vonnegut Busy”, and contrasts nicely with downtempo keyboard-driven canvases like “Grace” and “Make Em Purr” over which Francis’s guttural growl stretches out and softens, giving brief hints at an emotion other than anger.
In the canon of western music, there are endless examples of breakup/breakdown albums. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Nas has written one. Tim Kasher has written, like, five. The best ones (John Vanderslice, John Grant, and Josh Ritter all come to mind as good examples from last year) deal intimately with dissolution and disillusion, but they show a range of emotions. They’re complex. That is where Copper Gone really falls short. In previous projects, Francis has demonstrated an ability to describe his world in vivid color. But when all you see is red, it’s hard to speak on anything else.