Yes, Total Eclipse of the Heart, the Brilliante debut by the Love of Everything, takes its title from Bonnie Tyler's 1983 power ballad, recently immortalized in the film Old School. Yes, by any traditional measure the vocals of Bobby Burg, the band's mastermind, totally fucking suck.
Still with me? Good. As Madame Tyler said, "Turn around". Because the man with that nasally whine just cut an album not likely to be surpassed this year for its catchy guitars, asymmetrical percussion, and wide-eyed emotion. Total Eclipse of the Heart is a check-your-cynicism-at-the-door exploration of love and, ultimately, lovelessness, with Burg's voice providing a veneer of childlike earnestness that both masks and amplifies the agony beneath.
Despite the challenging facade, the Chicago singer-songwriter's latest is refreshingly unpretentious. Its theme, in plain English: Once upon a time, Burg was falling in love, but now he's only falling apart.
Vocally, of course, Burg is falling apart from the start. The artlessness of Daniel Johnston? The laconic flatness of Stephen Malkmus? The tuneless sprechstimme of Lou Reed or Jonathan Richman? Oh, he's got it all. At times Burg even verges on the shrill catharsis of Conor Oberst ("Turn around, bright eyes", Tyler intoned... mere coincidence?). Of course, as Malkmus associate David Berman asserted with the Silver Jews, "All my favorite singers couldn't sing".
In the first few lines of the first song, "The Race", Burg frightens off the faint-of-heart with an ear-splitting high note: "Architects are building our family treeeeeeeeeeeeeee". Like Canadian rockers the Constantines on their 2003 opus Shine A Light, Burg starts the album at his least accessible.
From there, either you're popping in your new Clay Aiken CD, or you're rooting for this flawed man to succeed. The difference between the Love of Everything and most other pop, mainstream, or indie, is the difference between watching a movie about sports and watching sports; with the real thing, you never know which team is going to pull out the victory.
Fortunately, Burg's starting lineup is a winning one. Though the Love of Everything is essentially a solo project, Matt Clark of Pinebender and Joan of Arc adds fractured, melodic arrangements reminiscent of his work in those experimental Chicago outfits. The thinking man's approach those bands brought to music otherwise perilously close to fitting the "emo" tag strengthens Total Eclipse of the Heart as well.
Credit should also go to engineer Bob Weston, whose resume includes albums by Sebadoh and Archers of Loaf as well as charter membership in Steve Albini's seminal band Shellac (he's also a new member of the reunited Mission of Burma). Hired with Burg's funds from a painting fellowship, Weston turned these home recordings from the Chicago suburbs into deceptively complex works of art. Hey, the painting fellowship paid off! Drums rumble impressionistically, as far from your standard rock 'n' roll beats as Burg's voice is from, say, Chris Martin's. Though the songs are short, Weston makes sure that not a note goes wasted. He captures each piano or guitar line in its stark beauty, making for the rare lo-fi experience that sounds even better on headphones.
The result sounds a little like an artier Bright Eyes, though Burg yells less and employs more obtuse lyrics. His delight in puns is, like his voice, at first off-putting... and then transcendent. A discordant one-minute, 18-second musing is called "Blooming A Ton"; "Failures with mine / Fail yours with mine", Burg sings over two simple guitars and chirping ambient noise on "Little Bit of Good". The best tracks combine the deliberate pacing of Pedro the Lion with Burg's equally deliberate naivete. The Pavement-like "Mary My Wife", for example, portrays two star-crossed lovers, who based on "Beddowframe" may both be men ("a cast iron frame that became / both mine and his"), before the loping "Prize Is Surprise" illustrates the distance between them. The always-elaborate figurative language occasionally strains ("Paris tongue" for "French kiss" in "Porch-Sleeping"), but Burg somehow makes it work.
For all Burg's charming innocence, sunnier lines like "You are perfect in every way" turn out to be just wishful thinking. Burg is a weirder Lou Barlow, believing in love even as his songs chronicle failures to attain it. "Dear Gravity Fills" presages the record's duality in its perfect closing lines: "The kiss is short / The night is long / The guilt goes on and on". Total Eclipse of the Heart climaxes with "My Heroes Are Lacy", an upbeat pop tune about a lover's spat. Its coda captures the conflict between love and the grimmer realities beneath Burg's romantic optimism: "Forget about the nights like this / I never remembered nights like this / Tonight life is 'Come back / the bed's made up / Come back and pillow fight'".
Then Burg really plummets into despair on "Last First Half". Here he delivers the most moribund lyric about suicide since Jets to Brazil's "Sea Anemone": "Hope the sidewalk's hard enough to stop my head".
By the album's final fade-out, the music has totally eclipsed (sorry!) Burg's singing voice. At its final fade-out, all the heartache can't prevent an overwhelming fullness of emotion: that is, a love of everything, including Burg's squeaky pipes -- which, I might add, did belt out a warped cover version of the Bonnie Tyler hit on his hard-to-find 2002 release, Piano.Bedroom.Florida.
Total Eclipse of the Heart teaches a few lessons: Guys with bad voices don't suck. '80s power ballads (almost) don't suck. And love, for all the trauma its pursuit incurs, doesn't suck, either. Perhaps the overcooked wedding singer in Old School best described why we need this album: "Every fucking now and then I fall apart". Turn around, indeed.