Ninety seconds into La La La, a track from Jay Brannan’s new album Rob Me Blind, he suddenly veers into something approaching 2000’s college rock, when the lyrics take an aggressive turn. It’s an unexpected development from an artist I had previously almost begged not to change. And yet it works, not least because producer David Kahne integrates such bursts of fireworks into the framework of the singer-songwriter tradition; a tradition Brannan adheres to, to the point of writing a loving thank you note to his main sources of inspiration, in The State of Music: “Thank you Dolores for inspiring me/thank you to Lisa for your pure melody/in awe of Joni for the words she commands/breathtaking fingerwork from both Ani’s hands/Tracy for run run run run running and hope/the Irish goddess whose voice rivaled the pope”). With that, of course, Jay has squared the circle from 2009’s In Living Cover, which featured versions of Ani DiFranco’s Both Hands and Joni Mitchell’s All I Want. In Brannan’s own words, the new album contains “(…) experiment[s] with things I’m fucking terrified of — like drums and rhythm.” La La La goes to those places and more, successfully, and without ever losing the essential qualities of a classic Brannan song; a catchy melody and a contained vocal style that packs rhetorical punch: “Four score and a few more days ago/I asked if you could open me slow/I guess, in a way, you did your part/but bitch, I meant my heart”.
Elsewhere on the album, which includes the single Beautifully, re-recorded with a more expansive sound since the days when it resided as one of two originals on Cover (the other was Drowning), the same gentle experimentation with the boundaries of singer-songwriterdom is evident, making its sound surprisingly unpredictable. In that sense, Rob Me Blind presents a challenge to a writer like me, who only knows how to write about music if I can more or less skip the music altogether, in order to instead focus on the lyrics. This time this critical approach has proven less useful, or at least trickier to pull off. That said, Brannan really knows how to make the meaning of words twist and turn in order to leave you guessing, ambivalent but with a sense of exhiliration from the experience of “getting there”. Greatest Hits, another early single, is a good example. At first glance, a reference to “my greatest hits” will likely lead you to think of songs, as suggested by the line, “If you show me yours, I’ll sing you mine.” In the chorus, however, it is revealed that the “hits” in question are of the violent kind; “a punch in the gut/some black ’round the eye/there’s red from my lips/and I’m asking God why (…)”; and so, “these are my greatest hits” suddenly sounds decidedly ominous. Then, in the final verse (“Would you read a book/if somebody took out all the good pages?/We did some drugs, gave out some hugs/rattled a few cages/Have you made mistakes, let off the brakes?/Confess uncleanliness, not to feel about,/but to embrace your humanness”), the metaphor twists again, as the hits, or the dark secrets, if you will, are held up as what makes people complex and interesting, and that they are thus not something to be hidden. It is a beautiful song, both for the delicate arrangements, Brannan’s delivery, and for how the lyrics jolt me back and forth between different moods throughout the narrative.
Anyone who follows Brannan, the unwavering pessimist (“I am scared, I am insecure, and I only believe in myself on the really good days,” he writes in the booklet) on Twitter, will not be surprised but probably relieved that the songs on this record, as on 2008’s Goddamned, often circle around the infuriating frustrations of relationship dynamics, or even bleaker, the faint search for such an arrangement. The centerpiece of the record in this regard probably is the final number, A Love Story, which through moments of optimism followed by a crushing romantic let-down, brings out resilience, the nuanced position that is everywhere in his writing: “So now I believe in love/yes now I believe in love/I’ll pin love down/I’ll make love see/love better believe in me”. The same trait is discernible in a different way in the passive-aggressive lyrics of Denmark, a straightforward guitar pop song clearly taking the banner from the Goddamned years: “I shoulda strapped you to me with padlocks and glue/so I could have spent the rest of my life wearing nothing but socks and you.”
Although there are some musical flourishes and unexpected u-turns on this album, to the extent that drums and rhythm is able to shake your world like it apparently does Jay’s, this is still – calming my conservative cravings for lyrical transgression – recognizably a Jay Brannan record. It still feels raw and at times unnerving in the way it brings it’s very specific and twisted kind of truth, and Brannan is a gifted singer with a knack for enhancing the experience of the written words by what is best described as comedic timing. Less recognizable, though, is the ending to the opening track, Everywhere There’s Statues. Released to YouTube a couple of years in a version I actually prefer over this one, it’s final words read: “If this craving’s one to ignore/then someone tell me what the fuck a soul is for”. A huge deal it is not, but for a man who once sang that “motherfucking fuck is just another fucking word/the idea a word is dirty is to him fucking absurd“, to replace the original “fuck” with “hell” on the recorded version, is a little, well, tame. Maybe he decided his “fucking foul language was a fucking travesty”?
Rob Me Blind originally came with Live at Eddie’s Attic as a downloadable bonus album, but it has lates been siphoned off for a separate digital release. The live performances are of course indispensable to fans, and showcases a self-deprecating stage presence and his penchant for outside-the-box covers (here: Adele and Nicki Minaj). Brannan is known to experiment with stuff like this during his occasional webcasts, and while not exactly great, it’s good fun. But personally, I was most happy for the inclusion of Ever After Happily, a bonus track from Goddamned.