Fans of Clem Snide need little convincing that Eef Barzelay is a gifted songwriter. Possessed of an arch intelligence, as well as an ability to slip seamlessly between irony and heartfelt sentiment, Barzelay, if nothing else, keeps you on your toes. Just one listen to Clem Snide classics like “Joan Jett of Arc”, “The Sound of German Hip-Hop”, or “Nick Drake Tape” is all it takes to decide that Barzelay’s imagination is quite fertile.
So when Bitter Honey‘s title track kicks things off and it boasts, “That was my ass you saw bouncing next to Ludacris/ It was only onscreen for a second but it’s kind of hard to miss/ And all those other hootchie skanks they ain’t got shit on me”, you’re not surprised when he turns the song into something more than a one-dimensional caricature. Does his narrator contain hidden depths, warranting our sympathy? Is she an unflinching and accurate mirror of those around her, or is she simply deluded and arrogant? And how many songwriters could pen a song with such ambiguity, which nurtures that kind of freeform listener interpretation?
So yeah, in case anyone missed it, Barzelay’s the real deal, and Bitter Honey finds him stepping away from Clem Snide with 10 solo tracks. Some might ask why, as Clem Snide always seemed like Barzelay’s brainchild anyway, but Barzelay on his own does offer a slightly different vibe. The temptation to hear Bitter Honey and mentally fill in the blanks with Clem Snide orchestration is understandable, and many of these songs could easily enjoy an alternate life in that band’s hands. But for the here and now, Barzelay showcases his talents as a gentle, thoughtful, probing songwriter, so much so that his distinctive voice sounds less like that of a snarky intellectual and more like that of an inwardly-tuned examiner of human foibles.
Songs like “Thanksgiving Waves”, with its compelling opening of “If this war’s ever over/ If it ever runs out/ Maybe then we can think of traveling” and the delicate repetition of “nothing means anything, nothing means anything any more” in “N.M.A.” find Barzelay mining a familiar vein of ennui. His simple delivery, though—just voice and acoustic guitar—lends weight to seemingly innocuous lines like “What was that actress’s name/ Somewhere there deep in my brain”. Still, if there’s one criticism of Bitter Honey, even at its short running time of 31 minutes, it’s that the danger exists for these quiet, meditative songs to start sounding the same.
It’s a good thing, then, that he mixes things up a bit in the album’s second half. “Little Red Dot” is a nimble ballad that barely lasts past a minute, filled with birdsong in the background, while “Let Us Be Naked” sounds as if it were being piped directly from the ‘30s via some magical Victrola. “I Wasn’t Really Drunk”, appropriately, lurches around with an off-kilter feel in a way that can only be described as Westerbergian (it really doesn’t feel like it’s that far from “If Only You Were Lonely”).
Barzelay finishes things off with a dark-of-the-night version of “Joy to the World”, which feels a little strange here, but you can expect to hear it on numerous left-of-center Christmas mixes come the holidays. It’s pretty strong.
So Barzelay, for all the comparisons he must have known he’d draw to his day job of Clem Snide, has put together a really nice solo effort, one that shows he can turn the spotlight into a very small, personal space. In fact, the more I listen to it, the more I hope that he feels the need to record more projects like this in the future.