Though you wouldn’t know it by the jangly melodies and gorgeous harmonies, a wry fatalism pervades the songbook of the Posies; examples are abundant, but I’d suggest any given track off 1997’s Amazing Disgrace, one of the most unfairly overlooked major-label albums of the 1990s, which shifts from blissful to blistering the instant you pay attention to the lyrics beneath the pretty sounds.
It’s no surprise, then, that Posies co-leader Jon Auer’s solo debut is suffused with bleak intimations of mortality; granted, a title like Songs from the Year of Our Demise gives a hint, but the lyrics drive it home: “It’s OK, yeah it’s all right / We can dig our graves tonight”, goes the album’s first chorus, and later on the album Auer vents more spleen, with a rousing verse of, “Together you and I / We could watch each other die / And be happy, truly happy”. Clearly someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or perhaps in the wrong bed entirely.
But if the bitterness brings little shock to the initiated, the album’s stunning quality might, as Auer rides his juxtaposition of soaring form and searing content into pop transcendence. The past few years have witnessed something of a slump for the Posie posse: last year’s Posies comeback album Every Kind of Light felt a bit perfunctory, while Auer and partner Ken Stringfellow’s efforts as sidemen in the reunited Big Star also resulted in the lackluster (but better than some reviews would acknowledge) In Space. For his part, Stringfellow followed his wonderful 2001 solo album Touched with the less invigorating Soft Commands in 2004, while Auer’s more meager solo output until now consisted only of a few EPs, the highlight of which may be his cover of Ween’s “Baby Bitch”. The flavor of the month has long since melted in his mouth.
It’s thus into a context of both heightened and diminished expectations that Songs from the Year of Our Demise is thrown: the former because Auer’s been working on it for so long, the latter because recent releases have not set the bar high, though his “Lady Sweet” gave the Big Star album a pleasant highlight. It also anticipated Songs in its fragile midtempo yearning, and Songs largely forgoes the buzzsaw guitar snarl that often punctuates Posies albums. No matter: Auer’s mellifluous voice sounds as delectable over a gentle strum as it does resting on a bed of distortion. Besides, Songs hardly relies on formula — though it’s got a folky acoustic side, Auer keeps things varied. The first track, after all, is led by insistent chimes, to wonderful effect. “Six Feet Under” opens the album on a desolate note, as Auer bids reluctant farewell to a relationship with a mournful parting glance of, “I’ll call you when we’re six feet underground”.
Emotions do not exactly perk up after that, though Auer never wallows in self-pity as he explores the fallout of what seems to be his marriage’s disintegration; he’s too busy oscillating between recriminations and apologies, instead. Thus Songs shifts rapidly from the “I’m not ashamed that I treat your name like a four letter word now” of “Four Letter Word” to an acknowledgment of “all the hell I put you through” on the very next track, “Angelita”. Throughout, each song carries a strong, distinct melody, as if someone built an entire Brill Building in Auer’s head.
The care Auer put into Songs is audible for the entire disc. “Ba ba ba” backing vocals pop up on “Daytime Lullaby”, but he smartly resists the temptation to over-deploy them as an artificial sweetener, thus giving the song more lift when they do pipe in. “You Used to Drive Me Around” spans seven and a half experientially brief minutes, carried along by an entrancing organ line, while “Cemetery Song” dishes out a soft slice of vagabond folk. “Sundown” succeeds even after the disappointment that it’s not a Gordon Lightfoot cover registers, and “Wicked World” walks the tightrope of simplicity without even wavering — it would be easy to tumble with lyrics like “You’re all I want in this wicked world”, but what reads as hoary on the page comes across as straightforward and sincere in Auer’s delicate handling.
Only on the concluding “The Year of Our Demise” does Auer stumble; even his most plaintive voice can’t redeem the repeated couplet “And I want you to know / That I loved you so”. It barely dents the album, though; Songs relies on cumulative effect, not closing bombast, to convey its moving tale. The relationship meltdown narrative is oft-told, but for a reason: it’s close to universal. Done right, it communicates the acrimony laced with affection that characterizes the most deeply-felt breakups; from Shoot Out the Lights to Shoot the Moon, or from Cursive’s Domestica to the Mountain Goats’ Alpha Couple song-cycle, moments of vindictive rage segue seamlessly into moments of heartfelt tenderness. Jon Auer evidently knows the transition well, and he articulates it effectively enough to join that canon. This Demise is about as far from le petit mort as deaths come, but it captures the aftermath of the afterglow as well as any.