There’s something a bit voyeuristic about listening to an album about death. In most cases, it’s treated as an intensely personal experience, explored with care and expressed in terms that alternate between poetically oblique and horrifyingly real. The listener is being given the chance to explore someone else’s feelings on death, and they may or may not be feelings that jive with the listener’s own thoughts and ruminations on the topic. It allows the listener to pass judgment, of sorts, on the artist’s ability to cope—often an exercise that can leave a listener a little bit queasy, but satisfied in the artist’s ability to evoke intelligent thought.
So what happens when death becomes a laughing matter?
“I wouldn’t cry if you were run over by a train / But I just might laugh if the train cut you in half,” says LD Beghtol at the beginning of the debut album from his New Criticism, a 16-song set called Tragic Realism. It wouldn’t be a funny line, except that it’s delivered in an approximation of the mating of trad-country and doo-wop styles. It’s the dichotomy of a line that makes light of death itself with genres predominantly known for love songs both requited and not that makes itself known throughout the album. Indeed, if what you’re looking for is an introspective work that deals with, you know, feelings, Tragic Realism is going to be a profound disappointment. If, however, a cathartic set of silly breakup anthems that usually result in the death of one or more parties sounds like your cup of tea, well, LD is here to help.
The comprehensive, excellent liner notes include a fantastic album synopsis from famed horror writer Peter Straub, lyrics to all of the songs, and a legend to guide us through the themes that pop up in the songs. Each song in the liners is adorned with a symbol or three, and the symbols stand for things like “murder”, “suicide”, “possible suicide”, and “euthanasia”. And yes, the topics represented are indeed true indicators of the content of the songs themselves—this much is obvious even by the song titles themselves: “(If You Love Me, Baby) Pull the Plug”, “Too Old to Die Young”, and my personal favorite “Burn, Burn, Burn in Hell” are all here, amongst such more subtle titles as “Apathy” and “In Blue”.
Of course, none of the titles or lyrics would have half the impact that they have without the music that LD and the New Criticism provides. A song like “Trouble in Toyland” (a sad little ditty about Barbie, Ken, and Midge) only works because it’s sung as a slow, acoustic, folk-country song complete with ornamental slide guitars and a thick southern drawl. “Apathy” is a mid-tempo tune that’s notable as much for Jonathan Segel’s violin work (straight out of Camper Van Beethoven) as it is for the scathing words (“Those freckles on your face aren’t cute / They look like liver spots / And you’re not yet 30!”). And then there’s the short, closing, hidden track, just LD and a rollicking barroom piano, singing “Who found the FU in fun, hon, why the same guy who proved pigs could fly!” Just about the whole thing sounds like it could have come out of a country-western bar in the ‘60s—there’s not an electronic or heavily produced sound to be heard—but it’s all slathered in such irony that there’s no mistaking it for pure nostalgia.
Interesting as it all is, however, Tragic Realism is bound to leave its listeners a bit alienated, a point underscored by The New Criticism’s version of “Definitive”, a song originally performed by Flare, the chamber-pop ensemble that Beghtol is, to date, most known for. Where the Flare version of the song enters the ears with a quiet whisper, the New Criticism version announces itself with a splat. It has the potential of being the grounding point for the album, the heart of the tale of unrequited love whose frustrations are allowed outlets in the form of the other 15 songs, but instead, it comes off as just another silly little song on a silly little album. Look at the legend, file it under “possible suicide”, and be done with it. Tragic Realism is a fun little curiosity as a slice of black humor, but it has the emotional resonance of a brick.