Fans of Jandek who were horrified and disappointed when he emerged from nearly 30 years of self-enforced seclusion and anonymity to play Glasgow’s Instal Festival in October 2004 (documented on the equally anomalous live release Glasgow Sunday last year) will probably be relieved to find that his first release since that notorious coming-out performance contains nothing new. Khartoum, Jandek’s 43rd album since 1978, finds the Emo Phillips of outsider music pursuing familiar obsessions through familiar means. Thankfully, it seems the novelty of actually existing in the peripheries of the public gaze has not noticeably altered the prime motivations of this enigmatic “representative of Corwood Industries”. In short, he still sounds pissed off.
Here, Jandek stumbles through eight pieces of fractured avant-blues, strumming the acoustic guitar in a loose free-time full of twitches and jerks and in what might charitably be called “found tunings”, delivering harrowing, stream of consciousness monologues in that unmistakable voice that ranges from blank, resigned recital right up to an unbearable, tortured lowing.
Lyrically, his stark, confessional non-sequiturs tackle the usual preoccupations of loneliness, abandonment, desperation, and self-loathing and there’s some genuinely poetic—albeit distorted—associations at work. “I Shot Myself” is an investigation into mental and physical dissolution (’‘I shot myself/ I can’t get up/ I’m beyond repair’‘), ending with an unexpected jolt: ‘‘I shot myself/ And your mercy abounds/ Until the ice of your catapult’.’
The meandering title track contains choice snippets of Jandekian despair at the impossibility of maintaining relationships (’‘The combination of your not caring/ And my inability to comprehend/ Shot you out in the distant galaxy’‘) and the inevitable psychic damage incurred (’‘Make me a slow moving creature without complexities/ I don’t want my mind to go a thousands places’‘).
Elsewhere, there are snatches of the elusive Jandek humour as on “New Dimension” where he intones the world’s worst pick-up line with perfect comic timing: ‘‘You’re not married I presume/ I’m not looking/ But if you’re not’… big pause here… ‘‘Be careful/ I’m the vulnerable kind.’’ It’s intentionally funny, and delivered in a burst of self-awareness that begs the question, how much of any of it can we really take seriously?
There are many rabid Jandek fanatics who insist that all his recordings represent not just a singular artistic vision but an ongoing process of self-therapy; that Jandek is actually as miserable, borderline-suicidal and utterly hopeless as his songs suggest; and, moreover, that he has been consistently that way since the late ‘70s. But, surely, you have to ask yourself, is it really possible? Wouldn’t he have done something about it by now, one way or the other? Is it really possible to be so depressed for so long?
Could a man who manages to find the motivation to record and self-release album after album, year after year, really be struggling with the depths of mental illness suggested in “In a Chair I Stare”: ‘‘I’m at the mercy of my brain/ I can’t control what appears/ I can’t control my reactions/ I’m stuck in a chair/ No one else around the place/ It’s a crooked demise’‘? And is it really feasible that all this is due to some monumentally painful break-up: ‘‘I guess we had a total communications breakdown/ The words were not received/ It doesn’t matter where it came the rejection/ Stuck in a chair I stare”?
Clearly, the answer is no in every case.
Jandek is an artist, exploring the darker recesses of the human psyche, the pockets of despair and futility that most of us try not to visit too regularly. He is performing an age-old rite of exploration and exorcism—a service for humanity. Sure, he may get a kick out of it, but you can be sure that the “I” that narrates his twisted stories of loss is not necessarily the artist himself, but merely the vehicle for storytelling. Jandek is singing the blues and everybody knows Muddy Waters wasn’t really a Hoochie Coochie Man born on the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month.
Maybe Jandek’s been having the last laugh all along. Just don’t expect him to turn up unannounced to your barbecue this summer with a Jan and Dean record under his arm.