Tim Kinsella is arguably one of the most controversial figures in indie-rock. His knack for surrounding himself with exceptionally gifted and creative musicians (most notably his cousin Nate, his brother Mike, and guitarist Sam Zurick) ensures that any band he fronts will make compelling music, at least from an instrumental standpoint. However, once he starts singing his defiantly stream-of-consciousness lyrics in that perpetually untrained voice of his, that music will instantly become an acquired taste.
Of all the bands that Kinsella has fronted, none have been more prolific or more polarizing than Joan of Arc. His lyrics and vocals aside, Joan of Arc’s biggest trademark is their employment of the recording studio as an instrument. Their fetish for experimentation can lead to self-sabotage: 2001’s The Gap, in particular, was marred by long stretches of digitally processed negative space. Conversely, their last two albums found them streamlining their music a bit too much: on 2006’s Eventually, All at Once, the band was so in love with the sound of its own guitars that I kept hoping for Kinsella to start wailing like an angry Alfalfa, or to interrupt the music with a blast of white noise — anything to shock me out of the stupor that the band’s incessant finger-picking lulled me into.
Fortunately, Joan of Arc’s 10th album, Boo! Human, restores the balance that marked their last great album, 2004’s Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain… It avoids that album’s vague political statements — there IS a song called “9/11 2”, but I’ll get to that later — but, otherwise, it does everything else that a Joan of Arc album is supposed to do. It alternates between solo acoustic ditties (the opening and closing tracks), densely arranged compositions (“A Tell-Tale Penis”, “Insects Don’t Eat Bananas”), songs that sound like they were just barely sculpted out of disorganized jam sessions (“Laughter Reflected Back”, “Just Pack or Unpack”), and brief, jarring sound collages (“Everywhere I Go”, “Lying and Cheating Mind”). There are even alternate versions of two songs placed back-to-back near the album’s end, both of which actually improve on the originals!
Kinsella’s lyrics, most of which seem to be about a broken relationship, sandwich sincere expressions of emotion between metaphors that range from the charmingly awkward to the grossly inappropriate. Amidst the regal arpeggios of “Vine on a Wire”, Kinsella expresses resignation with simple phrases (“I can stay away / If that’s how she needs me”). On the sprightly, echo-drenched “Insects Don’t Eat Bananas”, he sings, “If you really insist on squashing me like a bug / Couldn’t you be merciful and just stomp on me / Instead of this prolonged smear?” Then, there’s “9/11 2”, in which Kinsella compares his lover’s behavior to a terrorist attack, a lyrical gaffe so melodramatic that it almost has to be a joke. He amplifies the melodrama with a raspy yell that tonally clashes with the sonorous strings droning behind him.
Perhaps the one truly shocking thing about Boo! Human is the strength of Kinsella’s singing throughout. There are still some moments in which he pushes his vocal cords way past their breaking point. More often than not, though, he stays mellow, occasionally overdubbing gorgeous harmonies on top of himself, and even displaying a strong falsetto on “Vine on a Wire”. He’s slowly becoming a crooner, one who can make even the most verbose and awkward lyrics flow mellifluously atop the music that he and his collaborators create (most of the time).
On “If There Was a Time #2”, Kinsella sings a particularly telling lyric: “I still have those who know I’m full of shit and love me anyway.” He could easily be singing about the cult following that has spent the last decade or so trying to decipher his musical non sequiturs. After a few years of estrangement, I’m glad to be part of this following again. Boo! Human is a solid return to form(lessness).