Pinback's Rob Crow returns to releasing music with a new band, a new album and questions of worth and faith.
What’s the worth of a song? In the weeks before the release of You’re Doomed. Be Nice. by Rob Crow's Gloomy Place, disparate voices appear in the media to raise that question. One is an executive, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, speaking onstage at the Grammy Awards. "When you stream a song, all the people that created that music receive a fraction of a penny. Isn't a song worth more than a penny?"
Another is celebrity Kanye West, promoting his new album with a statement of the financial effects of his various “art” projects (“I write this to you my brothers while still 53 million dollars in personal debt”) and a request (“Mark Zuckerberg invest 1 billion dollars into Kanye West ideas”). Then an article appears in The Stranger detailing a number of complaints by artists associated with K Records. The independent music label is known for its artistic influence, not rapaciousness. Yet Kimya Dawson, a high-profile former signee, is now alleging that the label owes her an amount in the six-figure range.
Rob Crow, newly of Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place and past master of Pinback, Optiganally Yours, Heavy Vegetable, and Thingy, among others, contributes a distinct perspective to the conversation. In March of last year, Crow communicated through social media that he was getting out of the music machine. He was forthright, citing family dynamics and his need to give up drinking and make other lifestyle changes. But the quotation that circulated in the music press and music tabloids was “I have just come to the realization that making music in this climate is financially irresponsible to my family and ultimately humiliating to my psyche.” While other artists seem focused on what the music itself is worth, Crow stands out for asking a bigger question: Could his life as a working musician sustain the toll of combined negative effects?
A year later, Crow is back. He quit drinking, quit consuming caffeine, began to exercise, and assembled a group of musicians and a producer/engineer (Ben Moore) to make You’re Doomed. Be Nice.. The press release for the album describes it as a new beginning or a final act, but nothing about the sound, music or lyrics of the album commands such a dramatic entry/exit. On the surface, the album is nothing more or less than a well-produced collection of songs in the “prog-pop” style listeners have come to expect from Crow.
But Crow’s declarations during the past year do shape the album’s existence as the product of a person whose private circumstances and subsequent lifestyle changes are public knowledge. The selection of “Business Interruptus” as the first single underscores that context. The rhythm and melody of the song are deceivingly upbeat. And the wordless chorus sounds jubilant, perhaps a sly comment on the folk-rock anthems that have been commercial hits in recent years. Yet this most hummable tune features lyrics that concern corporate overlords and a rigged game. Crow repeats the questions “How much anybody worth? What is anybody worth?” So while the tune is easy to digest, the questions are existential whoppers.
Crow’s skill for broaching the aesthetics of more commercial forms is also evident on “This Distance", a song similar to Tantric’s hit “Breakdown", but with none of that song’s yarls. The conclusion of “Paper Doll Parts” incorporates phrasing lifted from Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf". This versatility of styles is nothing new for Crow. But the production values of this album, and his decision to involve others rather than do everything himself, allows the various styles to cohere more than they have in some of his former solo releases. Likewise, the sketch-song style that is present throughout his discography is present here, but as part of the larger design rather than in isolation. The metallic interludes of “Oh, the Sadmakers” are one such example. Only one songwriting feature begins to wear from overuse, and that is the tendency to end songs with a vocal round or pile-up.
Nevertheless You’re Doomed. Be Nice is ultimately significant for what Crow is saying rather than the way he sings it. By focusing his lyrics on a couple of identifiable themes, Crow caps his year of transformation with an artistic statement. And his wrestling with problems of “worth” and “faith” signifies a continuance of questions whose answers remain unsettled.
Many of these songs involve dormition. Sleeping, depression and death commingle in a kind of cloud. “Quit Being Dicks", despite a title that might have been more humorously explored on albums past, contains heavyweight lyrics on the subject of faith: “I'm always depressed / I'm burnt of the soul. Bereft of another one to talk away from home. I'm jealous of faith / I know that I'm right, but that doesn't help me to get to sleep at night.”
The narrator of the song has lost faith but can’t shake the mindset of belief, which is not unlike the person of Muse’s “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist”. This is a big idea, not often covered in pop songs, and Crow bares his soul by sharing here the thoughts that keep him up at night. For listeners who don’t share this perspective, who believe we aren’t doomed, or who believe there’s a way to avoid eternal doom, there is value in the album title's other half: Be Nice. As a starting point for deep conversations of big ideas, that’s an excellent prescription.