[1 December 2008]
Good pop songs are hard to come by. Sometimes all the pieces are there - a distinctive voice, strong melody, great playing - but they don’t add up to a cohesive whole. Other times the voice is warbling, the melody elusive and the playing barely past amateur level, yet still what one hears is exhilarating.
Such is the difference between David-Ivar Herman Dune’s latest, Next Year in Zion and his greatest offering thus far, 2004’s Ya Ya. Where Ya Ya only got better with consecutive listens, Next Year in Zion fails to distinguish itself, even with a nicely polished sound. Ya Ya contained the soul of a man hilariously and sweetly documenting the details of the world around him. Zion finds that same man, four years older, playing a paint-by-number picture of innocence. Sometimes it works, but mostly it sounds as if Herman Dune needs to grow up and allow his obvious observational and writing skills to grow with him.
Next Year in Zion is not a terrible record. It has its charms and will appeal to anyone with a strong inclination to purchase everything by Belle & Sebastian and Jonathan Richman. It’s worthy of consumption by any college-age kid who is finding her or his latest obsession through television commercials and sappy dramas. Herman Dune could set this last group on the right path, moving from Jack Johnson to Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman. Eventually, the melodies being jammed into one’s brain start to stick and the lyrics have an easygoing vibe that is comforting. The production is pristine, allowing the oddball instruments to feel like a cool breeze on a hot day.
“An Afternoon Dance Party” is a song that works. Herman Dune shoves all his words together, making you lean closer to hear the story, which is funny, dysfunctional, and true: “I wondered if I could love you / I wondered if I could be true to you / I wondered if you could make me better”. “My Baby Is Afraid of Sharks” starts with a wonderful, if brief, Burt Bacharach horn tribute and then the jokey title is rendered sincere, as Herman Dune lets his fragility come through his voice. As he sings his girlfriend’s fear into submission, the music dropping out in the exact right place to accentuate our own fears and those who can quell them, it’s hard not to wish the rest of the record were filled with these moments.
Instead, there’s the repetitive title track and the sophomoric “Someone Knows Better Than Me”, in which Herman Dune lets us in on things he does not know about, all to the point of boredom. “My Best Kiss” seems spirited at first but then never manages to get off the ground, relying on a repeating horn line that should probably take over instead of fading out. It’s polite when it needs to take center stage.
Really, too much of Next Year in Zion is just like this. It’s as if David-Ivar Herman Dune doesn’t realize he can command more. He’s cute when he should be real and he repeats himself when he clearly has the voice to say more. He seemed to have the confidence in earlier days, perhaps playing his heart out unsure of who would want to listen. There’s an audience for him, maybe even larger than he could expect, but he’s got to find his edge again and hover over it for a while, drawing on his astute, heartfelt examinations of humanity instead of taking the road of the gifted man-child.