[1 October 2009]
On Admirations, Beaujolais, the solo project of J.A. Ziemba, features songwriting and instrumentation in the vein of Belle & Sebastian; vocals eerily and sometimes exasperatingly redolent of Elliott Smith, but with moments of exuberance that pierce the depressive veil; and the delicate, devotional sensibility of Sufjan Stevens, but without a transcendent God to receive his devotion.
Instead, the thematic core of the would-be devotee’s second solo effort is the tremendous effort it takes to go solo. Beaujolais’ debut Love at Thirty (2008) documented Ziemba’s betrayal and subsequent abandonment by his former muse, collaborator and wife. Fortunately for Ziemba, revenge is a dish best served cold, and the leftovers taste just as good after sitting in the refrigerator for a year. So let it be a lesson to the lovers of sensitive songwriters everywhere. “Be careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” applies to concept albums, too.
Admirations doesn’t retread Love at Thirty so much as it explains what happened next, in the roughly 13 months following the events of that unlucky Friday. Written, performed, recorded, and mixed by Ziemba at his Chicago home, the album plays out narratively, beginning one year after he discovered his wife’s infidelity, the anniversary of which catalyses another month of hand-wringing, soul-searching struggle, deconstruction, and recovery. Self-indulgent? Not really. Indulgence is a combination of excess and discourtesy, and Admirations exhibits neither of these. Its songs are mostly brief, digestible snapshots of lingering memories and punctuated epiphanies. Although Ziemba leans on the accordion-grinder synth pretty heavily sometimes (the introduction to the finger-snappy “Splendor in the Attic” being one of the chief, and still minor, offenders), Admirations remains consistently melodious, accessible, and user-friendly—courteous, in other words—without being any less challenging for its consonance. “Self-centered” better describes Ziemba’s project, not as a value judgment but as a declaration of setting.
Still, that setting contains some natural obstacles for the listener. If Ziemba wants to work out his pain through song, then as far as this reviewer is concerned, he’s entitled to do so. Admirations’ foremost flaw is not its literal, autobiographical subject matter, which is itself worthy of expression. It’s not that Ziemba is talking about Ziemba, but that he’s talking about Ziemba to Ziemba. And not to us. “This is my release”, he sings on the pivotal track “A Decision”, a prelude to the album’s soaring, climactic catharsis, his first glimpse of a clearing beyond the forest of his discontent. Surely his intention here is to celebrate a breakthrough, but for the listener, the emphasis is on the possessive pronoun. It’s his release, not ours.
Ziemba doesn’t speak, or sing, to the listener so much as let him tag along. He has no trouble conjuring lovely, Death Cab-style sentimental soundscapes, but only rarely creates genuine beauty or connects empathetically with the listener. “Elbows”, the best track on the album, is an exception. “And I could not read ‘Rabbit, Run’”, Ziemba croons, and I feel him. Yet “Elbows” features the songwriter during one of the few moments in the narrative when he is not alone, brooding interiorly, but with a new lover. It is the exception that proves the rule, making the listener feel that much more a spectator of, not a participant in, Ziemba’s healing.
Admirations is a kind of mundane comedy. It sinks and triumphantly resurfaces, but like Virgil, the listener remains in limbo. Its epilogue, track 13, “Night of a Thousand Firsts”, shows us the hero, transfigured, but now unrecognizable: willful, deeper-voiced, more Liam Gallagher than Elliott Smith. And he’s going to L.A., baby. “There’s who I was, and now, there’s me”, he observes, looking back on his past and seeing a stranger. “Though the reasons are escaping / No matter now, ‘cause all my fears are gone / And when I return to Hollywood / I hope it’ll be for good”. For better or for worse, Beaujolais transcends himself. The rest of us, wanting in, get left outside.