Despite being one of the most important American songwriters of the last 20 years, Mark Eitzel has a remarkably inconsistent catalog of solo releases. His work with San Francisco-based American Music Club remains his definitive achievement; last year’s stellar reunion record Love Songs for Patriots bested even the greatest of Eitzel’s solo discs. When he’s stirred to be passionate, Eitzel is one of the few songwriters who can transform humor, self-deprecation, and loss into something that’s overwhelmingly human and dignified.
Alas, they all can’t be winners. Every other solo record provides a foggy, half-assed approximation of Eitzel’s significance, sabotaging the legacy that he otherwise justifies. Candy Ass, his eighth solo record since the classic Songs of Love Live (1991), finds Eitzel once again drifting off into inessential, self-indulgent territory. Delving deeper into his fascination with electronic music first explored on 2001’s The Invisible Man, Eitzel submerges Candy Ass’ songs in cold ambience and digital nothingness. It’s a scatterbrained collection of atmosphere pieces and almost-songs, all recorded over the last three years: ambient instrumental tracks, destined for an upcoming 2006 soundtrack, are squashed up next to generic acoustic songs and even more generic trip-hop fiascos. Whether or not the record is merely cobbled together from a few years’ worth of loose ends doesn’t excuse it from potentially alienating new listeners and/or tarnishing the opinion of the curious.
Eitzel’s amateur electronic dabbling, dated and nondescript, suffocates the already stagnant snippets of recycled melodies and exhausted tempos. Candy Ass has an overabundance of maniacal house (“Cotton Candy Tenth Power”), club-thumping (“A Loving Tribute to My City”), and digital depictions of real instrumentation (“Roll Away My Stone”), but none of it ever serves the songs appropriately. Tracks like “Homeland Pastoral” and the Calexico collaboration “Green Eyes” are ruined by their muffled mixes: the former overlaps vocals and synths unintelligibly, while the latter tosses an undistinguishable “Day in the Life”-esque climax somewhere in its middle. Furthermore, Eitzel’s attempts to dumb down his lyrics to fit the more commercially conscious electro-pop template on the bewildering “I Am Fassbinder” and more restrained “Make Sure They Hear” suggest that he may be just as uncomfortable creating the music as we are listening to it.
It’s not just the electronic tracks that stumble on Candy Ass. The record opens deceptively with “My Pat Ret Is St. Michael”, which utilizes an acoustic guitar and voice only. On the surface, it’s textbook Eitzel: investing a complex concept, via humor and gravity, into a seemingly unrelated object. But the song is burdened with graceless lines that tumble head-over-feet, reeking of a throwaway composition or an underdeveloped idea that was later folded into a better song entirely (he worked this technique with superior results on Love Songs’ “Patriot’s Heart”). “He would hang himself except he already chewed through the rope,” Eitzel sings, and then, instead of letting the image be, appends it with excessive commentary about being “miserable as the pope”. It’s a desperate appeal to force the rhyme-resistant song into a more recognizable configuration, a mistake that a much less accomplished songwriter should be making.
For those who saw their love for Eitzel reenergized by last year’s long-awaited American Music Club reformation, Candy Ass will only bring frustration. It suffers the unfortunate distinction of being the one Eitzel release (save the tour-only Lover’s Leap USA, possibly) with very little redeeming qualities. Stick with it for longer than your better judgment advises, however, and you’ll be able to find at least one moment of substance: “Sleeping Beauty”, a gorgeous and haunting ballad, makes the awkward acoustic-electronic merger work as it did on The Invisible Man. The acoustic guitar glimmers, the electronics are minimal and cooperative, and Eitzel’s breathy delivery flutters chillingly. “I drove away over the dead leaves of your Southern town,” Eitzel begins, vividly, guardedly, and goes on to mix regret with inevitability, recalling “frozen hands… trembling hands that cannot hold onto any heart that’s warm”. “Sleeping Beauty” illustrates what Candy Ass fails to sketch up: Eitzel is far too valuable a songwriter to be wasting time on laptop excursions.