Anton Barbeau
Photo courtesy of the artist

Pop Savant Anton Barbeau Beholds the ‘Stranger’ in the Mirror

In a sea of indistinct pop music, Anton Barbeau’s sheer unmistakability and inimitability prove he is a significant and successful artist, regardless of his level of fame.

Anton Barbeau
Beehive / Gare Du Nord
9 December 2022

Stranger is Anton Barbeau’s newest album, but in the case of this prodigiously productive artist, it might be more appropriate to use the word “current” instead of “newest”. Since making Stranger, Barbeau has already recorded a two-disc extravaganza entitled Morgenmusik, Nacht Schlager und Frau, which is so new it isn’t even out yet. It will be released in 2023—less than three years after his previous double album, the concept-anchored Manbird. In between, Barbeau also delivered Oh the Joys We Live For in 2021, followed by Power Pop!!! in March 2022, barely nine months before Stranger.

That breathless pace is habitual for Barbeau. He has averaged more than an album a year in a recording career that just passed the three-decade mark. That’s another reason Stranger (Beehive / Gare Du Nord) might best be called Barbeau’s “current” release: the word describes the incessant stream of his music. The title of one of the songs Barbeau wrote for his 2006 collaboration with Scott Miller and the Loud Family, What If It Works?, is ”Flow Thee Water”—an apt mantra for Barbeau’s creative approach.

The risk inherent in that approach is that it’s dangerously easy to lose Barbeau’s individual albums in their creator’s wake. His output is so voluminous, not to say relentless, and its quality so consistent that even when Barbeau departs from his DIY pop aesthetic to explore collaborations, alternative genres, etc., it can be difficult to assess any single release on its own unique terms and merits.

But in the case of Stranger, it seems that Barbeau, always a very self-aware artist, may have already done that for us. The lyrics include three of his own canny, succinct, quotable assessments. First, on “Cellar Bar”: “Mellotron downstairs / And my love everywhere.” Prominently featured old-school keyboards, check; hippy-dippy omnidirectional good vibes, check. Second, the spoken-word exclamation that pops up a couple of times between songs: “Purple—so very, very purple!” Flamboyant and colorful, check; Prince-like in his singularity, check.

And then, on “I C U”: “You wouldn’t believe the dream I had / The Beatles and Devo locked in battle high on Petřín Hill”. The Fab Four (check) collide with New Wave (check) in altered consciousness (check) and from a heightened vantage point—double-check. Not only does Barbeau’s idiosyncratic pop synthesis seem to soar over virtually all of its genres, he always seems to be in flight, from his native California to his spirit home of London to his exile’s artist’s quarters in Berlin. (Speaking of check, or rather, Czech, Petřín Hill is in Prague, a city just four hours by bus from Berlin and surely familiar to Barbeau, who tours Europe regularly and widely as a live performer.)

We could let those lines speak for Stranger and turn our attention toward Barbeau’s next album, which is already faintly visible on the upstream horizon. But isn’t that letting ourselves—and Barbeau—off the hook too easily? Allowing his records to pass by without remark allows their sheer quantity to obviate or even to replace standards of quality.. It’s also to ignore the obviously high degree of musical craft clearly present in most of Barbeau’s work.

A defensible case could be made that his profuseness runs paradoxically against the current of his career: that Barbeau might become less of a stranger to the mainstream were he to release fewer albums in the service of giving each one more space and time (and, not incidentally, more marketing muscle) to achieve full sail, pun intended. He may even be suffering from diminishing returns at this point: when an artist puts out as much music as Barbeau does, some fans will undoubtedly start to feel as though they’re drowning in it, or at least eventually feel the need to find other waters and jump ship.

But arguments of this sort feel at once too obvious and, at the same time, illegitimate. For one thing, vastness and frequency of output are essential to Barbeau’s work, if for no other reason than his self-evident helplessness to limit it. His music is what it is and as overabundant as it is because he is who he is. Every artist gives us exactly as much as they must.

For another, to lodge a complaint about Barbeau’s overabundant production—or to effectively diminish it by not reviewing it—is tacitly to argue that overabundance can only be the privilege of a mainstream artist, that is, an overabundantly popular one. Joyce Carol Oates’ 70 books in 50 years don’t stop the literati from taking each one about as seriously as the one before, and no one wishes (at least, not out loud) that Balzac had kept some of his 40 novels to himself. We don’t stand in a roomful of O’Keefes, Picassos, or Rothkos, think of how many more roomfuls of their artworks exist elsewhere in the world, and wish there were fewer of them.

Nor would it matter if we did. Most art by even the most canonical artists goes as widely unread, unseen, and unappreciated as Barbeau’s albums are. Regardless of artists’ differing levels of public stature and esteem—which is very often simply a matter of luck, coincidence, or even accident—their parturition is equally legitimate, whether they are bestselling novelists or little-known pop musicians. Stranger deserves appraisal just as much as Sgt. Pepper and Are We Not Men? do, regardless of which is “better”. That sort of comparative valuation—against both the canon and Barbeau’s discography—fails to hear the album at hand and keeps it at nearly as great a distance as not reviewing it at all.

That disservice would especially slight Stranger, for among all his albums, it might be the one most in need of close and careful recognition. Not because Barbeau is desperate for our attention (in fact, one song wryly lampoons pop stardom) but because he is desperate to recognize himself. Stranger’s title track, which opens the album, laments all the ways and places in which Barbeau feels like a stranger: in his hometown, his bed, his own head.

Perhaps it would make him feel more at home, so to speak, to say that Stranger demonstrates once again just how singular he is. Barbeau may feel alienated from himself, but his music—no matter how varied its influences, genres, and vibes—makes him immediately recognizable to the ears. In a sea of indistinct pop music, his sheer unmistakability and inimitability prove that he is a significant and successful artist, regardless of his level of fame. As soon as you hear almost any given Barbeau song, you know it’s him, just as you know an Edward Hopper as soon as you lay eyes on it, and just as French readers call each of the Nobelist Patrick Modiano’s novels—of which there almost exactly as many as there are Anton Barbeau albums—“a Modiano”.

If you’ve never heard a Barbeau, listen to a few of them, and you will soon recognize their unique qualities. That warbly baritone. The chromatic tendencies in Barbeau’s compositional habits. The Gary Numan-influenced primitive-techno influence and deliberately canned-sounding drum machine loops that support Barbeau’s well-integrated guitar. The sunny-sounding melodies that have a way of going to some befogged places. The way Barbeau can sound at once incurably restless yet utterly stuck, full of gratitude and confidence but also empty of faith and hope. And there is his natural, incomparable, offhand gift for slightly skewing a received phrase—in a way so canny, even practical, that you can’t believe no one thought of doing it before—so that the slight adjustment opens up startling new implications and surprisingly wide vistas of perception, e.g., on Stranger, by singing about life “in an eggshell” instead of “in a nutshell”.

Or what about the repeated line, “You’re only as beautiful as your mirror,” appended and repeated almost as an afterthought at the end of “Sugarcube City”? What about the way “I C U” reveals itself not only to be not even slightly about intensive care units (the spaces between the three letters in the title are a tipoff) but also that it is actually building toward a very different kind self-recovery, which is achieved with the repeated line, “I C me in U / I C me in U”? (There’s the Prince likeness again, in sly typographical homage.)

Given the album’s title and the title track’s establishing confession of alienation, Stranger’s occasional but pronounced fixation on literal self-reflection creates an ironic tension that runs from beginning to end. The stranger at the microphone is looking everywhere for evidence of himself, even if it’s only in the bodiless, deceptive, and often distorted image a mirror yields. Stranger imparts the sense that every album Barbeau makes is another effort to construct a way of seeing himself. What sets the current mirror apart from all the others, perhaps, is that it knows itself to be one. If you’re willing to regard it that way, you might see yourself reflected in some of it, too. Barbeau’s unique way of holding it up might remind you that there is no true antonym for the word stranger. It might also remind you that the search for ourselves never ends and that one of the most honest and uncompromising ways of expressing that is to keep the current endlessly flowing.

RATING 8 / 10