For an album as bold as 2008’s masterful Life…The Only Game in Town was, what was conspicuously absent from that record was the ugliness that Harvey Milk had excelled at capturing in previous years. Sure, Life had more than its share of bleak moods, but the band’s focus was more on toying with conventional songwriting, the album loaded with pop culture references and juxtaposing accessible melodies with their usual bruising brand of sludge/doom metal. Although it was not meant to be specifically a “crossover” record, its broad-ranging sounds did draw in listeners from the indie rock side of the fence along with underground sludge fans, and that alone would be cause for alarm among the more insular listeners who had been into Harvey Milk for the last dozen years. Consequently, in the eyes of many it was imperative that the band return and make a statement on their seventh album, to show they could pull off that unsettling quality once again. And in a move that will thrill longtime fans and befuddle newer audiences, Harvey Milk has done just that.
Back in 1995 Pavement was coming off a similar surprise success story, emerging from the indie underground to become an MTV buzz band thanks to the very accessible Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Expectations surrounding their follow-up were extremely high, but the Californians threw the world one of the biggest change-ups American indie has ever seen with the difficult, morose, borderline impenetrable Wowee Zowee. It went on to have a very resilient shelf life and is regarded with great esteem now, but at the time critics and listeners didn’t quite know what to make of it. Fifteen years later, Havery Milk has done the exact same thing, throwing the gauntlet down to anyone who was expecting another “Death Goes to the Winner” or “Motown”. They roped everybody in, and now comes the payoff, in the form of the gut-wrenching, turgid, incredibly sad white trash opera A Small Turn of Human Kindness.
That’s right. Harvey Milk has a story to tell, and you can rest assured that no fun will be had. No clever Beatles and Velvet Underground homages on this record whatsoever. Instead, it’s simple, funereal doom, slowed down to a patience-testing degree, the anguish exuding from the spaces between the notes, which considering the already morose nature of their lyrics is saying something. With the majority of its seven tracks bleeding into the next, not to mention a clearly defined narrative from song to song, this new record is meant to be listened to in its entirety, starting with the opening “*”, whose slow, stately riff serves as the piece’s overture. With a deep, sustaining bass forming its foundation, the enveloping doom tones of “I Just Want to Go Home” are made deeply disturbing thanks to guitarist Creston Spiers’s horrendously out of tune vocals. Spiers’s delivery is key, as the aching tale he spins feels all the more desperate as he sloppily howls his lyrics that read like a gothic murder ballad.
Mellotron enhances the vulnerability of “I Know This Is No Place For You”, the band bursting into climactic riff sequences that echoes the theatricality of early Alice Cooper as Spiers groans, “I’m just a broken man / Look at my hands / What kind of father will I make / When the baby comes?” The band briefly deviates from the crushing tones in favor of slithering dual guitar harmonies on “I Alone Got Up and Left”, while an elegiac jam of tasteful guitars and synths renders “I Know This is All My Fault” surprisingly beautiful, its second half dissolving into a plaintively struck piano melody. All the misery builds up to the anguished climax of “I Did Not Call Out”, the album’s best track. In classic opera fashion, Spiers lets all the emotion out over an arrangement that sounds like Queen slowed down from 45 to 33 1/3, crying, “Slowly she got up / Reached into her bag / Got her 38 / And walked into the trees.” At one point during all the bloodletting Spiers achieves a moment of clarity, crooning the oddly philosophical line, “As I sat, I looked / There was something everywhere.” Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Spiers’s brutish protagonist has poetry in him, and the band’s minimalist, mournful approach on A Small Turn of Human Kindness is the perfect backdrop as he moans away, alone in the dark amidst the pines. But it’s us who will be shivering the whole night through.