For all of the celebrated subtlety, literary and historical references, richness of imagery, and wit in Grant-Lee Phillips’s songcraft, the man is also nothing if not an entertainer. You can follow the showmanship thread throughout his entire career, from his pre-Grant Lee Buffalo days as guitarist/occasional songwriter for Shiva Burlesque, to the legendarily underrated, classic aforementioned GLB, to his recent solo ventures. Phillips is a gifted writer sure, but he’s never been a shrinking violet-type, sing-my-songs-only-in-the-closet type artist. Even his quietest songs were always destined to be heard, and heard loud. From his dramatically textured voice to his occasional work as a visual artist, film/television composer, and magician, Phillips is all about reaching as many people as possible. So it should come as no surprise that Strangelet is one of his most extroverted albums, more bright and sonically direct than perhaps anything he’s done since his former band’s final album Jubilee. The only problem is, like GLB’s swan song, Strangelet is often pleasant and enjoyable, just not very memorable.
Some early press on Strangelet has dared to suggest that the relatively ho-hum tracks on the record are the result of some sinister careerism on the part of Mr. Phillips, a calculated stab at the mainstream, part of a grand, unit-moving conspiracy that also includes guest-acting as the town troubadour on Gilmore Girls. That’s a bunch of hoo-hah. If anything, the album rings with integrity, continuing the threads of mythical Americana via glam- and folk-rock that have always been Phillips’s musical bread and butter. But the songs are often wrapped in production quirks and dense arrangements when they beg for leaner treatment. The combination of more straightforward rocking songs with thicker instrumentation makes good, sometimes great songs sound too busy and overwhelming. “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” is steady and bouncy, with Phillips breathily crooning a succession of warm syllables. All of the elements from drums on up with in concert with each other toward a decidedly dramatic effect. It’s big and bright, but there’s also nothing new under that sun, nothing contradictory in sound or scope to give the tune any tension.
I understand that Strangelet is intentionally a completely different beast than Phillips’s hushed, minimalist debut Ladies Love Oracle, but the lesson of that record was how the juxtaposition of even just a few disparate sonic elements could keep even the quietest, slowest songs alive and fresh. The best moments, fewer and farther between, apply that idea in the context of bigger songs. “Killing a Dead Man” is one of the few songs I find myself seeking out by name after a weekend of solid listening. Recalling, the grand nocturnal country folk of the excellent Virginia Creeper, “Dead Man” unrolls its jangling guitar through a series of surprising textures, from vibes to cymbal brushes to fiddle, sprinkled across song’s dark waltz. The song is rich, but engaging, and best of all, memorable because there are hidden delights that make repeated listening desirable. The song doesn’t hit you with everything it’s got all of the time; there’s more room for the listener to live inside.
In comparison the track that follows “Killing Dead Man”, “Johnny Guitar”, is mush. Somewhere deep below multi-tracked guitars and vocals, a potentially decent song is buried. But the arrangement is so cluttered, each instrument is a distraction, and by the time the song’s up, I have no idea what I just heard. There’s a difference between replaying a song because you’re intrigued, and replaying because you’re bewildered, especially if the intrigue and bewilderment never abate. Unfortunately, much of Strangelet just glides by, an immensely frustrated exercise given Phillips’s impeccable track record, and the very real beauty and power inherent in the songs that somehow got scrambled. Grant-Lee Phillips is an artist who has given so much to his art, under and within the radar, that rare missteps are understandable. And even a weaker Phillips album like Strangelet is a tall ship in an ocean of musical dinghies, but I’ll gladly and patiently wait for his next one to sail in.