[27 February 2008]
“I started having premonitions,” Tilly and the Wall guitarist Derek Pressnall writes of the experience that inspired his latest project, Flowers Forever. “I woke up one morning six months ago and there it was, all over me, a pressure like wet clothes, telling me the future. I was feeling everything, totally connected.” As you might have guessed, the end result of this abstract spiritual experience was what most of us would concretely call a “nervous breakdown.” Bucking the usual Behind the Music trend, however, Pressnall managed to funnel his mental instability into a sort of hyper-creativity, furiously producing visual artwork, videos, and songs as a form of therapy. The culmination of his work from that period is the document that we now hold in our hands: Flowers Forever, the debut album from the band of the same name.
The first thing that you’ll notice about Flowers Forever is that it represents a major departure for Pressnall, considering his day job with Tilly and the tap-dancing twee poppers. The logical opposite of carefree bubblegum, Flowers Forever is a rollicking album of agitated, vaguely political, punk-based indie rock. Energetic and impassioned, yet confused and unfocused, Flowers Forever really does sound like the product of a nervous breakdown—for better or for worse.
Dispensing with subtlety from the get-go, “Beautiful Tornado” opens with a noisy racket of feedback and drums before whittling things down to a single clean guitar. “An eye opened up in the storm”, Presnall sings with a hint of both Joey Ramone’s snottiness and his boss’s (Bright Eyes frontman and Team Love label head Conor Oberst) warble, “A beautiful tornado”. A mere tease at just over a minute long, “Beautiful Tornado” serves as a lead-in to “American Dream”, whose blaring horns and shimmering cymbals signal the arrival of the album proper. Over a steady stomp of acoustic guitar, tambourine, and organ, Pressnall spits out line after rambling line about the confining nature of contemporary American life. It sounds like he’s reaching for Dylan, but the end product is, unfortunately, something more shallow than subterranean. Eventually, the instrumentation gives way to an unaccompanied, escapist chant, seemingly tailor-made for sing-alongs: “Flowers, flowers / You will save us / Cover our eyelids / You will save us”.
Pressnall continues to recount his epiphany with “Black Rosary”, whose chorus reads, “I saw the flashing lights / Of the future” over a bluesy riff and carnival organ. While the song itself is pleasantly Clash-like, Pressnall seems incapable of interpreting what he’s seen, lamenting, “I don’t know / If I’ve changed”. If his brief stint as a prophet blessed him with any insight, Pressnall isn’t letting on; rather, he seems as clueless as we to do when it comes time to wring meaning from his mystic experience.
Luckily, the punk rock rant “Golden Shackles” more than makes up for the previous song’s lack of clarity, ending with Pressnall yelping the less-than-delicately delivered lines “Some change better come / Oh yeah, a change better come / We’re not fucking around no more / We’re not fucking around no more”. Soon he’s joined by a chorus of voices and an escalating guitar line, hammering home the allusion to the great hardcore sing-alongs of yore with ham-fisted abandon.
If you want to savor the album’s most obvious moment of overreach, however, you’ll have to wait until the second half, for the cover of “Strange Fruit”, as performed by Billie Holliday. While Flowers Forever’s up-tempo, dance-rock treatment of the song isn’t necessarily offensive in and of itself, it does nothing to build on the blues standard and more to the point, lacks any of the poignancy that permeates Holiday’s reading (though that’s hardly a surprise). What’s the point in joining the conversation if you have nothing to add?
One of the few songs on Flowers Forever that doesn’t find the band underscoring their limitations, “Smash the Cool” comes as a welcome respite late in the album. After a minute of slow build, the band unleashes a blistering assault of pounding drums and spiraling guitar lines, while Pressnall screams at the top of his lungs unintelligibly. The song is quite reminiscent of another politically charged Omaha album, Read Music | Speak Spanish, the only LP that Bright Eyes side-project Desaparecidos ever produced. And for all of that record’s excess, immaturity, and disregard for subtlety, at least Oberst maintains a single-minded focus when unleashing his vitriol in the direction of globalization, unsustainable capitalism, and the commoditization of culture.
It’s hard to say the same of Flowers Forever. Are they a political band? A cult of self-expression (as the occult-like artwork and accompanying online social network suggest)? A chronicle of one man’s breakdown/rebirth/encounter with the Almighty? Judging by the sound of it, even Pressnall hasn’t quite figured it out yet. Only one thing is for sure: when you sound unfocused next to a guy who releases folk and electro-pop albums on the same day, you know you’ve got some work to do.