When I first heard Max Clarke, I was convinced he had Everly blood. The Brooklyn singer-songwriter, better known by his moniker Cut Worms, sings in the same nasally register as Don and Phil and writes songs that wouldn’t be out of place at the hop. 2018’s Hollow Ground didn’t break any new ground, but that seemed to be the point: it sounded like a stack of 45s from a box sealed back in 1958.
On his latest, the double LP Nobody Lives Here Anymore, Clarke attempts to push the project beyond emulation and into something more contemporary. In his telling, it’s about the empty shell that is 2020 America, about “throwaway consumer culture and how the postwar commercial wet dreams never came true, how nothing is made to last”. To accomplish that, Clarke went to Memphis to work with Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price) and record at the legendary Sam Phillips Studio.
Among the album’s 17 tracks are some of the best Cut Worms songs to date. “Last Words to a Refugee” finds Clarke showcasing a wider vocal range, one that moves between impassioned strain and sweetened falsetto. “Veteran’s Day” features a chorus that’s as endearing as any Everly classic, though it sounds less like facsimile and more like Clarke’s own voice, both in tenor and perspective.
Beyond the highlights, there’s nothing especially bad here. Fans of earlier Cut Worms records will find a lot to like, and thanks to some seriously catchy hooks, I’m certain Clarke will gain a slew of new fans as well. Still, there aren’t risks, either. Double LPs are rough beasts; their length only feels justified when artists feel compelled to mess about in filling the wide margins of the oversized canvas, throwing their experiments and fragments next to their grandest delusions and weirdest ideas. If Clarke was doing something truly radical with Cut Worms, 17 songs might be more interesting, even necessary, but that’s not the case. For the most part, this sounds like what you’d expect from the sophomore effort from Cut Worms, plus an EP.
Despite its ambitious concept, Nobody Lives Here Anymore is as much a product of nostalgic consumer culture as the society it criticizes. Clarke’s sound itself is a kind of sepia-toned playacting, one that demanded cutting the tracks in the same place as Elvis and Cash. But that wouldn’t be as frustrating if Clarke didn’t seem so acutely aware of his hypocrisy. On “Sold My Soul”, Clarke aims at disposable culture, admitting how Cut Worms could easily subsist on appealing to Boomers and those interested in reliving the good old days.
“Well, the trip that I was on,” he sings, “like a re-run marathon of ‘Blue Days and Black Nights’“. By the end, he’s directly confronting his listeners: “Can you tell me so? / Cause I’d like to know / if you have been entertained / By a funeral song / For even half as long / As your attention span allows.” That’s where the critique stops: at us, the mindless audience. Nobody Lives Here Anymore does little to move beyond Cut Worms’ reliance on nostalgia, yet Clarke isn’t interested in self-analysis. After all, it’s a lot more convenient to look elsewhere.