Is Black's 'Nashville record' the final rehabilitative step in a 12-step program for artistic ordinariness?"
Is Honeycomb Frank Black's down payment on a member's only jacket for the Respectable Songwriter's Club? A dreary concept, indeed: Black, suppressing the fantastical urges to sing of UFOs, pong, abstract planes, and monkeys gone to heaven; Black, fitted in bowtie and tails, sharing cocktails with a new set of colleagues who traffic in classical chord structures and universal themes; Black, the chameleon whose latest ch-ch-change is less about invention than it is about conformity. Is this the final rehabilitative step in a 12-step program for artistic ordinariness? What has Frank Black done with Frank Black?
Honeycomb, recorded in just four days at Dan Penn's Nashville studio with some legendary American studio musicians (Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, David Hood), is being marketed as Black's first solo album since 1996's The Cult of Ray. Not exactly true, as he's released six albums in the interim with his band the Catholics: raw, garage-ready rockers that have further distanced him from the alternative movement he helped forge with Pixies in the late '80s. Black's solo career, following the 1993 demise of Pixies, was full of promise at its inception. His 1993 self-titled debut wasn't just one of its decade's greatest rock records, but it arguably trumped any single Pixies album based on its songs and immediacy alone. Teenager of the Year (1994) proved that his way around a hook was second nature. But as he continued to knock out albums with the Catholics (fast-and-loose affairs straight to two-track tape), Black seemingly cut against the grain of his own idiosyncrasies, squeezing himself into a cubbyhole of commonness. Honeycomb makes good on this prolonged promise of reverse evolution, this complacent stumble deep into the recesses of normalcy prophesized by Dog in the Sand (2001) and Show Me Your Tears (2003) -- but why? Why support one's arms on the well-worn crutches of classic rock? For maturation's sake?
If we agree, for argumentative purposes, that Black has matured as a lyricist since he was known as Black Francis (matured in the sense that he no longer relies on speculative or peculiar abstractions to get himself through a song), then Honeycomb exhibits a deft grasp on more adult sensibilities. Though he still relies (successfully) on metaphor and omen-rich imagery, Black surveys emotional devastations like a helicopter pilot whose map makes no sense, peeling open scabs of old wounds to see if they still hurt like they used to. "I had a castle / I had no hassles / Now tears are tassels," he sings in "My Life Is in Storage", which represents Honeycomb's major theme of uncomfortable transition and, furthermore, the dread of self-analysis while stuck in limbo -- a theme he already began exploring on earlier songs like "Los Angeles" and "(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain". His choices of cover songs (specifically, Dan Penn's "Dark End of the Street" and "Song of the Shrimp", a tune best known from Elvis Presley's Girls Girls Girls movie) reflect this premise accurately. While they may be thematic fits, a song like "Dark End of the Street" is, admittedly, a little out of Black's range -- he finds its vulnerability and hopelessness in the upper register of his voice, but that doesn't mean he sells it.
Many are already hailing Honeycomb as Black's Dylan record (its tongue-in-cheek working title was Black on Blonde), but the two are like apples and oranges. If Honeycomb exercises Dylanisms, they're the indulgent kind: stifled melodic repetitions, gaggles of verses, rushed takes that make brilliant musicians appear barely competent. In fact, one of the album's most aggravating shortcomings is its unexceptional sound: we're offered fleeting glimpses of the studio musicians' greatness, but the production is so flat and slick that their individual characters are rendered sterile. The overlong instrumental introduction to "Selkie Bride" is so expressionless, the band so woefully out-of-sync in "Lone Child", it's as if elevator music is attempting to mimic Black's trademark restless chord changes. Where Dylan used his Nashville experience to blow open the consciousness of his songs, Black's intention is merely to find a decent retirement home for some of his best ideas. Honeycomb is lonely music -- don't expect visitors.