Absentee’s lead singer, Dan Michaelson, has a uniquely deep voice. That is, an indescribably deep voice, like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Lee Hazlewood rolled together and taken down a few nautical miles. There’s something about a voice like his that presents a certain kind of bruised but rock-solid confidence. He sounds like someone you don’t want to mess with, and at the same time, like a real ladies man: a Serge Gainsbourg type, loving—and leaving—every woman he meets.
Remember, though, that this album is titled Schmotime...as in, a showtime for idiots, dolts on parade. Michaelson’s voice may sound inherently confident, but the perspective of the songs he sings is self-deprecating to the core. Schmotime presents a wry look at a world that’s filled with people destroying themselves and each other. The album opens with a man trying to decide whether it’s worth leaving his significant other for his mistress, trying to decide between love and sex. “Will she be there when I need her most / Or when the black of my heart begins to show?”, he wonders of his lover. Note that phrase, “the black of my heart”, how it’s taken as a given. That’s the proper starting place to entering Absentee’s worldview: accepting the notion that everyone is decaying inside.
Yet there’s humor in their nihilism; they’re laughing as they’re aching. And the band’s sound is melodic and well-rounded, a dynamic style of rock tinged with flecks of northern soul and country. Melinda Bronstein adds keyboards, melodica, and glockenspiel to the standard rock set-up, while guitarist Babak Ganjei occasionally sits down at the lap steel. Bronstein also sings pretty harmony vocals from time to time, further brightening up these dark tales. Musically, Absentee at times reminds me of a much more rocking version of the Wedding Present offshoot Cinerama: stylish, but substantial, with grit and a core of pain. The sensual, elegant side of their music serves not to disguise the hurt, but still to fully portray it; even the brightest melodies are used in the service of these dark human character studies.
The essence of a Schmotime narrative is two messed-up people hooking up. Sometimes they realize they’re lonely and need someone, and take solace in a body. Other times they know it’s a big mistake. On “We Should Never Have Children”, one participant in a drunken hook-up realizes that some matches are made in hell, not heaven. “Some people never should have met / Let alone find themselves in bed”, Michaelson sings, as the joyful voices of these never-to-be-born children sing the backing vocals.
The infectious, soul-tinged “You Try Sober” describes a recurring drunken booty call from the point of view of the sober half of the couple, wishing the woman he loved wouldn’t come by only when she’s drunk, leaving before he wakes up. “Why don’t you try sober if you’re so sure about it”, he repeats. In the background, though, she tells her side of the tale, as Bronstein sings lines like, “When I hold you I want to make things right”. They sing back and forth as the song continues, each speaking without hearing the other, thoughts going unexpressed and troubles unresolved.
Troubles are rarely resolved in the world of Absentee, where everyone hurts on their own. “There’s a Body in a Car Somewhere” is an apropos title, conveying an impression of constant dread. The country-tinged song describes a dead relationship, one apparently hopeless, with Michaelson singing lines like, “Were you happy / Or am I happy / These are the questions I have tried to avoid”.
There’s a self-awareness, and self-mocking, to these expressions of detachment and portraits of dead ends. It comes out most openly in “Something to Bang”‘s take on masculinity (“I’m tired of being a man / There’s always something to bang”), which reads in part like a psychological analysis of what’s going on in the other tracks.
It’s there, too, in the title of the love song that ends the album: “Treacle”. The song itself feels like more than treacle, its chorus “oh my love you get sweeter every day” another tender touch to round out the album’s bleakness. There’s still clues, though, of a winking eye, with the song’s references to wrinkles on a face and to beauty being just a trick of light. The backing vocal expressions of “oh my” end up sounding slightly robotic, like all this love stuff is just a mechanical process we humans engage in, form more than content. Pulleys and levers are right there inside our hearts with the darkness.
Schmotime is all about exposing, and mocking, the machinations and lies under the surface of things, while its own surfaces provide lasting melodies and a distinct musical voice.