Only your first tattoo has to mean something / you can get something dumb to fill the rest in / it’s only skin
To Franz Nicolay, the Dependable!
Dependability, consistency, reliability aren’t always the sexiest qualities of songwriters. I can recall only one tune from the heard of Justin Townes Earle’s last three albums, but I couldn’t say those aren’t consistently fine albums. However, when it comes to Franz Nicolay albums, his dependability carries tons of excitement. I depend on him to try something new, to not phone it in, to collaborate with awesome people, and if all else fails, to write the ever-loving shit out of every single song. There’s only a few artists like that at a given time. Neko Case. Jeff Rosenstock. Blake Schwarzenbach. They’re only going to put out an album if they have something to say or a new way to say it. It’ll be challenging, it’ll be rewarding.
To Us, The Beautiful!, which is official studio album 4-and-a-half or something, fulfills my lofty expectations. The rap on this one seems to be that it’s more straightforward than 2012’s Do the Struggle. That’s true to an extent. Even without the noise interludes of Do the Struggle, To Us survives less on banjo and accordion and more on guitars. He’s recorded guitar rockers since the beginning–the first song on the first LP, “Jeff Penalty,” “Rock, Rinse, Repeat,” etc.–but the album’s worth of them is a great addition to the discography.
It’s not necessarily a themed record like Do the Struggle or Luck & Courage. Though the instrumentation is streamlined, the lyrics are as acrobatic and acerbic as ever. He’s a versatile lyricist. He’s a “literary” writer–which just means he uses things like wit and interesting images and history–but that style can lead to poetic heaps of word overload like early Decemberists or Bruce Springsteen songs (which I love). Nicolay has covered Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma,” a song my calloused ear considers a prime sinner of overindulgent bullshit lyrics. But Nicolay’s lyrics are teeming with fun and sense, too active to be oppressive. He tells us not to trust sweeping generalizations, but his own are always so good. Most people have a price / I’ve got mine / But the stars in their eyes are for the uniform, not the pilot inside, he sings on “The Pilot Inside.” He speaks often in “we”s and “our”s, but his “I”s are as compelling, as in “Bring Me a Mirror”:
I know we should lead with the truth
But I’d say anything just to please you.
When you’re like this, I know
No one looks upon your face and lives
So give me a mirror that I might still see you.
He’s writing observations that are never platitudes, stories that are never retreads (not recent ones, at least), and simply making performative rock and roll that gets naked and rolls around in art.
And not that Nicolay’s awesome choruses have ever been obscured by verses, but they’re lifted up on this album. We’ve seen “Marfa Lights” coming for a long time (it’s part of the live set and it was recorded last year on a live album with English punk band The Cut-Ups) and its infectious chorus was already a minor legend in my brain before the album even came. It’s one of many. “Imperfect Rhyme” and “Jerusalem Against Athens” are two more enduring accomplishments.
As expected, Essential Listening. When Nicolay first defected from The Hold Steady, he claimed his solo project was a chance stretch himself as a performer, to see if he could entertain rooms of people with whatever he had at his disposal–which at the time was a rotation of unpopular acoustic instruments and charismatic banter. His shows were great then and they still are and he’s been an incredible recording artist the whole time, too, but as he amasses one badass album after another, it becomes more exciting to see what the heights of his writing and performing will be. He’s assembling a body of work to rival any songwriter I can think of, friends. If you haven’t started listening yet, correct yourself.
a song’s a waste of your time / if no one notices or minds