What a grisly place this world can be; school shootings, drug abuse, homelessness, etc. And furthermore, what a strange disorienting existence this is; we plod around trying to find balance, meaning and reason in God’s great con game. While some of us cringe, and many of us ignore, these and other sordid happenings, and others do their best Hamlet and Camus impersonations, Tod A, the guiding light of Firewater has a different approach, he laughs like hell and drags us into a melee of swirling black humor.
Mixing equal parts Homer — a bit of tragedy here and there has a payoff in good art — and Homer Simpson — “it’s funny because I don’t know him” — Firewater are a laughing Buddha, drinking all of life’s vinegar yet feeling all the Dionysian intoxication of wine. When you think about it, A convincingly argues on Psychopharmacology, Firewater’s third — and quite possibly best — installment, you only really have three choices in how to deal with the angst of postmodern living, suicide, Zoloft or a tongue planted firmly in cheek.
A and Firewater clearly choose the latter, as they seem most interested in dwelling in the sordid, cruel, base and idiotic. Between airplane crashes, insurance fraud, home surveillance systems and failed relationships, there is no dearth of absurd material for A to muse about and revel in; a suitable soundtrack companion to the Darwin Awards. And, A shows muse aplenty in his songwriting which picks up right where 1999’s The Ponzi Scheme left off; songs about twits, hard luck losers and lovable scoundrels pissing in the wind just for spite.
Musically, Psychopharmacology is somewhat of a departure from past releases. The quality of musicianship is still high and the arrangements are just as intricate as ever, but gone are the klezmer-infused rhythms and circus carousel strut which are replaced here by poppy organ, tinkling ragtime piano and effective, if sparse, use of strings. Perhaps, in concordance with its title, the music on this album is supposed to act like a psycho-pharmaceutical, swirling and hazy.
“Man with the Blurry Face” is a disorienting take on our obsession with stardom. A scathing indictment of our “reality television” fascination, it pokes fun at the fact that we’ll grant just about anyone 15 minutes, as long as it’s in front of the hidden camera.
“Black Box Recording”, perhaps the best track on Psychopharmacology, is a depressing take on airplane explosions, a slow droning piano waltz in an ashy sky. Yet, as A fills us in, there’s a certain dark beauty about the big kaboom. “It’s hard to keep from laughing. The ‘No Smoking’ sign is flashing.” Later he informs us that the sky too could use a smoke right about now.
On the title track, A and Firewater seamlessly mind-meld a contemporary Brian Wilson with Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. One could only imagine what would happen if the mentally ill and severely depressed Wilson laid it all out on a poppy, peppy track where the only Good Vibrations come from those little blue pills Dr. Landy keeps handing him. Whereas in other tracks A distrusts the magic bullet, suicide, in this case he fears the magic pill, that psycho-pharmaceutical that aims to cure him of the depressing nature of a world in which “God is great and God is good, but he’s also made of wood”. The pill will take away the pain, but it will also take away the ability to create something from it.
This distrust of the happiness scam, provided by anti-depressants and other convenient commodities, combined with the guttural laugh of an ascetic, is the thematic glue that holds Psychopharmacology — and Tod A’s — fragile psyche together. A great landscape of modern foibles, Psychopharmacology belongs on your shelf next to your Vonnegut novels and Tarantino films in that they all poke fun at the grim, the base and the cruel and leave you laughing mean-spiritedly at others, when in actuality you’re really laughing at yourself.