There’s something about heartbreak, but when musicians get their hearts broken, they tend to pour out album-length expressions of their pain. Beck’s Sea Change might be the most talked about recent album of this type, but another worth attention is Obsessed, the first solo album from Ron House. As the lead singer for first the Great Plains and then Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, House displayed both a school kid’s bared heart and a punk rocker’s ragged recklessness. In concert, he was likely to dance like a giddy 5-year-old in a completely in-your-face way, while the band raged on. On Obsessed, he uses that same emotional openness and DIY musicianship to explore a more darker region: The geography of a broken heart.
Where House’s previous bands played a typically Ohioan brand of melodic, dirty punk, on Obsessed he leans more towards folk, usually singing to a lone guitar. That might sound on paper like a big switch, but it isn’t really. House’s songwriting has always had at its root both rawness and melody, making it just as powerful when it’s him and a guitar, or him with a couple friends (several of the songs feature members of TJSA, Moviola, and Black Swans on guitar, bass and other instruments). These songs are given an extra layer of melancholy by being gentler than those of House’s past bands, but the no-holds-barred approach that he took then is still here now. He rips into his feelings in a brazen way.
Obsessed might be an obvious title, but there’s a broader range of feelings behind it than on most albums of this ilk. Anger is mostly foregone for a mix of sadness, confusion, self-deprecation, and surprise. House matches gut reactions with intellectual analysis; that balance of the instinctive and the rational makes the songs even more resonant.
The first song, “My Heart”, shows what happens when you analyze things too much. After thinking and rethinking what happened, he just wants to escape. “My heart is sick of meaning”, he repeats. On other tracks, he revisits the past through forlorn eyes (“I asked her to marry me, she smiled and said wait and see”), escapes into drink, longs for understanding and wishes for reconciliation (“Can you call her up for me / And ask her one more time can I come home”). There’s also a couple songs where he leavens his perspective with a bit of dark humor, such as one titled “Restraining Order”, where he almost jovially declares, “there’s a restraining order on me”. That sort of sly brattiness is especially in character with House’s previous bands, as is the one track not overtly about breaking up, “Puritan Sex”, which crosses modern life with history in a style quite reminiscent of House’s most legendary band, the Great Plains.
By the end of Obsessed, House has turned his heart inside out on record. He’s cast as much blame on himself as anyone, and has thrown out a field of questions that’ll never be answered. If he seems upset at his one one-track mind—at one point he sings, “I can’t count to three without my mind repeating the same thought on cue it seems why did you leave?”—that feeling isn’t shared by listeners. Obsessed has a genuineness at its center which keeps far away the “get over it, already” response that I usually feel with an album like this. Instead of leading you to ask, “Why do I care?”, House makes you care.
// Notes from the Road
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