Ward White‘s Bob was the best album of 2013. Set to a cinematically shapeshifting pastiche of classic powerpop and art-rock, White’s harrowing, cynical, often brutally hilarious nonlinear narrative about unneighborly suburbanites, a plane crash, narcoterrorism, possible cannibalism and at least one murder was like no other album ever made. Attempting to unravel the mystery required multiple listening and a heavy finger on the rewind button, yet that only made the ride more entertaining. It compares more closely with literary than with musical works: Russell Banks’ surreal 1995 novel Hamilton Stark is a good one.
Maybe because a follow-up to such an individualistic, strangely brilliant album would have been impossible, White’s new one, Ward White Is the Matador (streaming at Bandcamp) goes back to the encyclopedically tuneful, wickedly lyrical songwriting he’s made a name for himself with since the late 90s. It validates all the comparisons to David Bowie, Scott Walker, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson that White’s drawn over the years. In this case, the allusively menacing narratives don’t segue into each other as they do on Bob, and the music is louder, the guitars crunchier than anything White has done before. Is there a central theme? Possibly.
And maybe to shake things up somewhat, this is the first album that White didn’t produce himself: Bryan Scary (who plays keys) and Graham Norwood (who plays bass and adds guitar) take over the chores behind the board this time out. White’s playing the album release show on one of the year’s best triplebills on Nov 11 at Bowery Electric: the night begins with folk noir songwriter Jessie Kilguss (who’s also releasing a darkly brilliant new album) at 8, then White at 9, then similarly tuneful, disquieting retro soul/Americana songwriter Matt Keating at around 10. Cover is an absurdly cheap $10.
There’s a lot to sink your ears into here, fourteen tracks, the last one a VU White Light/White Heat style mystery that clocks in at over 20 minutes. Lou Reed is a recurrent reference point; there are also a handful of amped-up takes on Burt Bacharach-style latin-tinged pop, lots of glammy guitars, retro 60s keyboards, a devious Pink Floyd quote at the precisely perfect moment and a long instrumental break at the end of the first track that sounds like the Alan Parsons Project taking a stab at a noise jam. And lots of guitars, jangling and roaring and resonating.
Lyrically, it’s the same kind of allusive ominous storytelling that White worked so memorably on Bob, but within a three to four-minute verse/chorus/bridge rock framework. People may be horribly tortured here – or those grisly images may simply be a metaphor for an inner torment that’s just as painful. And pain is everywhere, from the guy who can’t see his hands in front of his face, to the drunk stumbling home, the guy kicking the hooker out of his place, the girl from the street gang, the killer “sweeping up the shards and embers scattered in the tub” and the 5 AM subway rider on the Brooklyn-bound L train platform watching a menacing pair of figures close in on him.
And for all the pain, White never loses his sense of humor, bleak as it may be. “What of all these women? They like to come and go, but mostly go: when they come, believe me, I’m the last to know,” one guy reflects. “Well, I guess that I will live to see tomorrow/I hope you got a toothbrush I can borrow,” another muses after his brush with death. “Throwing all my pills away was a bit premature,” admits another doomed character. As noir songwriting goes, it doesn’t get any better than this. At the end of the year, there will be a new Best Albums of the Year page for 2014 here and this one will be on it.