[20 February 2007]
Most people believe the American Dream is that if one works hard, one will succeed. Not Bobby Conn. He thinks the American Dream is self-delusion. We kid ourselves about our lives and our fate. Conn knows we are not in control of our destiny. We are not even in control of ourselves. That doesn’t mean he’s gloomy. Indeed, the opposite is true. Conn celebrates life, especially our sexual and sensual sides and our ability to fantasize. His latest release, King for a Day, is an ambitious ode to living and a commentary about how we trick ourselves into making our existence more meaningful.
The album begins with an eight-minute tour de force, “Vanitas”, which opens with the sound of a gong and features a string section, bells, a choir chanting in Latin, a searing, distorted electric guitar solo, and the twittering of real birds. The impressive sonics of the opening sets the stage for what follows. Think of the first cut of a classic progressive rock album from the ‘60s, say In the Court of the Crimson King, but in this case Conn follows by getting funky and weird. The associative connections between songs follow a dream-like logic. There’s a psychedelic relationship to be sure. The album works as a concept record of one person’s bizarre thoughts and desires. Going all over the place musically ties everything together as an aural collage. The listener can both admire the brilliance of the individual pieces within the songs, the separate tracks themselves, and the entirety of the 12 cuts as a single unit. King for a Day shines from all perspectives.
Conn impressively conceived and composed the disc with instrumental interludes and strange orchestral overdubs. The music can go from someone whistling to Beach Boy type vocal harmonies to horn sections to a blaring rock crescendo in a smooth and purposeful manner. He’s assisted by a nine-piece band that includes the sensational Monica Boubou on violin, slashing electric guitarist Marc Ruecker, and monster drummer Josh Johanpeter. On songs like “Sinking Ship” the players loudly roar like an ocean storm while on softer tracks like “Mister Lucky”, they perform in a statelier manner.
The lyrics go from the sacred to the profane (or vice versa), often in the same song. Conn begins “When the Money’s Gone” with, “I feel old fashioned when we fuck in the dark / Like the Pilgrims used to do.” He sings about shrimping, or the sucking of toes, on the title track that was based on something that actually happened to the band while performing live in England. Members of the Manchester audience paid tribute in this way, but what makes the song work as something more than just a commemoration of a strange event is how Conn ends the tune. He notes that Monday morning he’s back at work as if nothing ever happened. One day you’re a star—“King for a Day”—the next day you’re back on the job.
Other songs deal with sex and love in salacious ways without being explicit. Conn understands that sometimes it’s sleazier just to hint at the perverse than to describe it. The expressions of physical desire work as metaphors for the larger theme of success. Sex is just one more thing one can acquire—or not. The underlying theme of the album is that even if you get what you want, you are gonna want more or something else or find out you didn’t really want it to begin with. That’s the biggest problem with things like self-actualization, as in the song “Anybody”. What if you discover who you really are and simplify yourself back to the basics. No bullshit, you just are what you are. The problem becomes one of so what? You become nothing. Your problems are what make you interesting.
Of course Conn realizes that everyone just wants to be themselves. We are deluded into thinking each of us are special in our own way, apart from our relationships to others. We deceive ourselves into thinking that our individual efforts matter. This is America, the land that pays lip service to individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Yeah, we all can be kings for a day, but remember tomorrow to be back at work. In the meantime it’s important to party.