[25 June 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Christopher Laufman is the man behind Wise Blood, and two years ago a lot of people were talking about him. Everyone was excited about this new musical project. And then Laufman got himself into some trouble, like the legal kind. Plus, he recorded a full-length that he completely scrapped. In other words, he had quickly earned some critical currency and flat-out blew it all. But now he’s regrouped and recorded id, his first proper album as Wise Blood, a project that shares its name with a Flannery O’Connor novel. Hearing id, that link to O’Connor starts to make an odd amount of sense. O’Connor was a short story writer of big, weighty symbols and themes. In her novels, especially Wise Blood, that heft sometimes turns heavy-handed, too free of subtlety. Laufman’s aims are much less ambitious than O’Connor’s – and I doubt O’Connor would like to be tied to this kind of electro-pop madness – but despite his smaller scope, he too lacks subtlety at nearly every turn here.
Now, musically, that lack of subtlety sometimes does him some favors. The keys and horns that warm up opener “Alarm” set us up for the free-jazz sax freak-outs of “Rat”. “AM 1020” glides along until a curious acoustic guitar break in the middle. “8 P.M. - 10 P.M.” takes a smooth late-night horn riff and twists if with sampled trumpets, plinking banjoes, and wobbling violin, curiously country-mouse turns for an album built of cool city-mouse beats.
So there is a musical focus to this, one that sometimes makes for interesting surprises. But it is an album very much about distractions. On “Alarm”, Laufman begs “get me out of this place” and from there he loses himself in the AM radio (“AM 1020”) or goes mad imagining the vermin in his wall as a one-eyed king (“Rat”). He tries to escape to the movies only to get frustrated by talking teens and ringing phones (“AMC Loews Waterfront”) or he tries to find peace in buying undershirts at Target (seriously) in “Target”. When he’s not talking about a characterized version of himself, Laufman sings of, say, the muscle-head trying to deadlift his troubles away in “Routine Reality”.
These basic kinds of escape could be interesting, but there’s a larger distraction at play here. The album seems distracted by its own self-confirmed cleverness. Laufman spends the album speak-singing and you can about hear the smirk on his face, as he winks his way through “Routine Reality”, tearing down some muscle-bound straw man instead of asking questions about body image and obsession. In “AMC Loews Waterfront”, he interjects the ringing cell phone in between verses, annoying us as much as it apparently does him. “Target” is the most revealing here, since the hungover wandering of the song seems autobiographical, but Laufman can’t sell the absurdity of it, since the comfort he finds is laid on too thick, too ironic for its own good.
Delivery is at the heart of this problem. Laufman is aware of the limited range of his voice, but rather than use it to make these songs seem more personal or confessional, he instead adopts a kind of basic approximation of early rap cadences. In fact, there’s much of this album – see “Rapid Reality” and “Spider Web” especially – that seem to tap into a hip-hop influence. I’m even willing to belief it’s an earnest attempt to honor an influence, but Laufman can’t wipe the smirk off his face long enough, and the results vacillate somewhere between insult and embarrassment.
The bottom line is that the project and the album are both misnamed. The album can’t truly be id, because despite seeming like it wants to be funny, it delivers everything in joyless deadpan. On top of that, that deadpan isn’t masking some hidden desire. Even if it’s I.D., as in identification, it tells us little about Laufman. It does tell us that, for now, Wise Blood isn’t as smart as it claims, and isn’t of the stuff that pumps through veins. If you’re going to study O’Connor, stick with the short stories. For clever electronic pop, start anywhere but here.