Woe is he. If hauntingly plaintive spare melodies are your thing, then Why Men Fail is the new mother lode. This collection of beautifully doleful songs might as well be entitled Angst for the Memories. Neilson Hubbard, the talented Mississippi native, has gone from the relative good pop cheer of his last release The Slide Project into new darker terrain, putting his heart on display front and center, while letting his mind ponder the associated melancholia. All told, it’s a major advance in creative suffering expressed through fine songwriting and aided by the precisely apt arrangements of Clay Jones’ quiet production.
The CD opens with “Towns”, a tale of life on the road, the familiar emptiness from one town to the next en route to fame and nowhere, and immediately the listener is gripped by Neilson’s vibrating emotive voice, in tones that sound like the male equivalent of Victoria Williams’ distinctive warble. The voice (helped by Garrison Starr’s backup vocal) convinces you of the truth of these lyrics: it could be you in that dirty hotel room.
There are many bittersweet gems among the dozen songs here. “The Last American Hero” is an energetic rock-based version of American disillusionment and features Cracker’s David Lowery chiming in with additional vocals. “The Girl That Killed September” is a poignant ballad with its spare piano and Neilson’s voice telling the sad confession of loneliness, a man in need of a friend’s embrace to bring him back around. “Hollywood 1995” captures the time and place of quick-fix drug-induced happiness—or is it merely confusion: “Probably don’t know what you’ve done, Probably don’t know much about love”.
“Speedin’” opens with a mood-setting Procol Harum-type organ lead-in, again just the right touch to ignite this song about speedin’ away from the world and its problems in search of happiness and real feeling. As Neilson notes in the forlorn lyric “We’ve gotta change the way that they change us into nothing”. “Surrounded” is an upbeat song, an exceptional exception wherein the boy finally gets into the head of the girl he desires.
“Wonderful Pain”, my current favorite, is a catchy, sweet melody that uses organ and string accompaniment with Neilson’s voice to capture the raw pain and desperation of wanting love and attention from someone who will never send it your way. Believe it or not, the tuneful refrain stings with these words: “Hey it’s not a wonderful pain to feel the way this drains the life out of me”. It’s a contrast that works well.
Guests contributing to the wonderful sounds here include the Nashville guitars of Will Kimbrough, the backup vocals of Garrison Starr, the impressive keyboards of Peter Holsapple (dbs, Continental Drifters, R.E.M.), and of course the guitar contributions of producer Clay Jones as well.
Neilson Hubbard’s mom was a singer and he grew up in the South listening to the radio, developing a fondness for melody, great singers and great songs. His own musical tastes range from your standard Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star and Roy Orbison to a more diverse Tom Waits, Bjork and David Gray. His early band This Living Hand covered songs from Dean Wareham’s Galaxie 500 and some of those influences remain, though Hubbard has developed his own songwriting talent. Naming the CD after some 1920s psychology textbook, Hubbard believes that Why Men Fail has better-written songs than anything he’s done before. Its mellow, ethereal sounds are more personal, atmospheric and moody, and closer to his heart. It’s all about human failures—the sadness, longing, loneliness and fear that often result from the failed pursuit of hope and happiness.
While the lyrics are spare and on-target, without question it is Hubbard’s voice that sells the songs to the listener. His high-register vocals often remind me of The Undertones’ Feargal Sharkey, only cross-bred with the sensibility of The Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz in wringing every bit of available emotion out of a poetic phrase. He walks that fine line between confession and self-pity, avoiding what might have been a mawkish nightmare and instead winning listener empathy with vocals that convince you of real personal pain.
With this album, Neilson Hubbard solidly takes his place among the more established ranks of Southern pop/rock Americana confessional songsters, ably capturing that Memphis sound of Big Star and updating it. There are elements of Bell and Chilton, as well as the Counting Crows’ Duritz, Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik, Vic Chesnutt, Richard Davies, Steve Earle, Matthew Sweet, The Jayhawks, Pernice Brothers’ Joe Pernice, Josh Rouse, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, Freedy Johnston and others. While bound to disappoint fans looking for out-and-out power pop, this is just the ticket for those looking for some late-night musical company to their own miseries. If you like your songs colored blue, your lyrics riddled with subtle failures and disenchantments and your music tinged with soulful minor-keyed sadness and aching emotional beauty, Why Men Fail will be your new favorite.