Clem Snide’s return was one of 2009’s more pleasant surprises. Sure, Eef Barzelay was doing all right on his own, but his solo work didn’t quite capture the feeling, the subtle energy his band always had on their records. The document they gave us upon their return, the long-recorded but never released album Hungry Bird, was a soft, breezy reminder of what we’d been missing.
However, it was also weighed down by the past. Hungry Bird felt like a hangover from all the band’s old baggage. The one last thing to leave behind before they start again in earnest. So, in a lot of ways, Clem Snide’s real return is now, with The Meat of Life, and it’s awfully good to have them back.
Recorded and co-produced by Mark Nevers, and including a number of players — including excellent work by keyboardist Tony Crow, who plays in Lambchop with Nevers — the album has a richer, brighter palette than its predecessor, and isn’t afraid to turn up the volume here and there. Opener “Walmart Parking Lot” starts as classic Clem Snide, as swaying chords behind Barzelay’s heartworn bleat fill out the verses, but something changes in the chorus. The song kicks into a fuzzy rock overdrive, breaking up the mid-tempo track into something more off-kilter, and awfully catchy.
The title track builds itself up into a rock frenzy, too, after starting with a cool, spacey jam swirling with keys. In these moments, the guys seem determined to break their fragile sound, to open up something with a little more life than we’ve seen from them in a while, at least sonically. “BFF” drives home the point. It doesn’t ease us in like these other songs, and instead delivers driving power-pop from beginning to end, and Barzelay howls joyously over it all.
All that’s not to say that Clem Snide have forgotten what they’re great at. There’s plenty of the country-inflected pop we’ve come to love them for. “I Got High” has a lush size to it, as horns and strings echo out over carefully picked guitar. The excellent “Forgive Me, Love”, with its thick bed of piano, is warm and laid-back without feeling slack, as Barzelay keeps his voice sharp instead of melting into the sound.
That sharp voice delivers some crazy lines here. Barzelay has always been a daring lyricist, and The Meat of Life is no exception. Of course, that daring can make for some strange moments. That titular phrase alone makes for one or two stumbles in the record, since it comes up in a few tracks. In the title track, Barzelay makes the unpleasant promise that “to grow the meat of life, I will plant my seed”.That image is made all the more unsettling when, a few songs later, he declares he and his buddies are “just chewing on the meat of life”. Never mind that the album title is, in and of itself, a pretty awkward phrase, to put it into play in these two ways, a few minutes apart from each other, is a pretty weird choice. As is the unneeded specificity of lines like “I got high with a Sufjan Stevens fan in Normal, Illinois”. There’s no real reason to name drop Stevens in there, and it’s not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue.
It’s almost as if Barzelay intentionally puts these speed bumps in there, challenging you to hang with him, and when you do, on his best stuff, you get rewarded. So even though “I Got High” starts with that strange moment, it leads to great lines like “The earth is flat, at least around here”. In other spots, he gives us some of his best unreliable narrators, characters who have a creepy charm, and are as off-putting as they are sympathetic. “Denver” seems at first like a story of found love — where a couple meet in Denver and conceive a child — but then there’s the sneaky opening line. “I hope that you never forgive me”, Barzelay sings, as if he would come back to his ex, new pregnant girlfriend or not, if he were given the option. This guy doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, trust himself to do the right thing. The quiet ballad “Please” gives us another of these strange characters, although his want is a little more direct. “Please be sweet to me”, he starts the chorus, until he finally just comes out with “Please just sleep with me”, grasping for some serious pity.
So The Meat of Life is very much what you’d expect from Clem Snide. What makes it so solid, and what maybe you wouldn’t expect, is how energized they sound here. Barzelay and bandmates Brendan Fitzpatrick and Ben Martin sound excited to be playing together again at every moment in this record. “Let’s turn after back into before”, Barzelay sings on album closer “Anita”, and though he’s speaking of a lost love, he might as well be talking about his band. Because the lightning is working its way back to the bottle on this record. It may not quite match up to their best work — which is, for my money, The Ghost of Fashion — but it’s a sure sign that they’re on their way back to that high-watermark.