It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side.
Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.
It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.
Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”
Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”
Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints
Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:
Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown
Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.
With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:
Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years
White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.
Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe
Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:
Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way
White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal
The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:
Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done
You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.