As the lead singer/songwriter for American Music Club and a solo artist, Mark Eitzel has built a catalogue of heartbreaking songs of loneliness and hard times, filled with outsiders and down-on-their-luck characters, drowning their souls with alcohol and looking for a glimmer of hope. He also has a biting sense for sarcasm, a novelist’s skill at storytelling and atmosphere, and a keen ear for melody.
On each of the albums he’s released since AMC disbanded, Eitzel has set his songs against a different musical backdrop. His first two solo albums were quite different from each other stylistically: 1996’s 60 Watt Silver Lining was in the vein of classic, Motown-era soul music, while 1997’s West, a collaboration with Peter Buck, had a fuller pop/rock sound. Yet both had a glossy sheen that at times clouded the emotional intensity of his songs. 1998’s Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby hearkened back to the early American Music Club days, with a raw, bare-bones style that helped amplify his music’s power.
Eitzel’s latest album, The Invisible Man, is somewhere between these two areas. The songs are presented mostly straightforwardly, and, unlike his previous releases, it’s a one-man affair, yet there’s still a fair amount of sonic embellishments, this time courtesy of a sample and a Macintosh G-4. Yet even the most electronic-sounding elements on The Invisible Man can’t conceal the strength of Eitzel’s songwriting.
From the album opener, “The Boy with the Hammer in a Paper Bag”, on, it’s clear that these songs are as detailed, as absorbing and as moving as any he has done. And while the first single, “Proclaim Your Joy”, with its Lou Reed-ish (circa New York) verses and oddly goofy chorus, might lead some fans to think Eitzel is changing up his sound, the essence of his music has remained the same. The material Eitzel has always excelled at—character studies, sly social criticism and personal tales of sadness and fear—is all here.
Eitzel is ever-focused on cutting through the layers of phoniness that cloak people’s lives. The best songs on The Invisible Man deal with this theme, like “Sleep”, which takes on celebrity culture, religious concepts of goodness and more, and “Shine”, a catchy ballad about a costume party. Whatever topic Eitzel takes on, he does it with the articulate honesty of an outsider examining other people’s attitudes and behaviors without fear of repercussion. Yet the eternal truth behind Eitzel’s career, the fact that makes his music so worthwhile and at times so heartwrenching, is that he always turns this same gaze toward himself, making his takes on people less about criticism for its own sake and more about the study of human beings. While for many people, pop music means artifice and glamour, Eitzel, even while adding his own stylized touches here and there, uses pop songs to get at the truths of humankind. He wants to “shine a light into your eyes”, as he puts it on one track, and discover what lies beneath the surface.