There’s a lot of anger on this, the former Hold Steady man’s fourth album proper as a solo artist. Anger at the terrorists who cowardly and falsely hide behind religion as justification for their despicable acts. Anger at those folk who turn against the most peaceful followers of the same faith as though they somehow had something to do with it. And anger at a paranoid society which continues to fuel the flames of a bitter, raging holy war, the hostilities of which, here in Franz Nicolay‘s world, are played out as a Shakespearean tragi-comedy, albeit a supremely bleak one.
If that sounds unfathomable, think again, for there are ghostly echoes of the Bard dripping rabidly from this impassioned affair throughout, whether unsubtle (‘Marfa Lights’ references “a pound of flesh“), historical (Achilles and Hector make an appearance in ‘Bright White’) or ambiguous/accidental (‘Bring Me A Mirror’ is perhaps a nod towards The Tempest’s chief antagonist, Caliban, so appalled at his own reflection that the looking glass is smashed in repulsion).
That’s not to say this album is morose or wallows in self pity; far from it, in fact. Let’s not forget, after all, that this is the man who gave The Hold Steady the lion’s share of their most euphoric hooks, and ‘To Us, The Beautiful’ is every bit as exhilarating.
‘To Us, The Beautiful’ makes a somewhat theatrical, showstopping entrance in the shape of the title track, allegedly taking its lead from the amusingly bizarre Ukrainian toast of “To us the beautiful, and to those who disagree, may their eyes fall out” before borrowing a line from Counting Crows and subsequently delivering some of the finest lyrics I’ve heard this decade. Nicolay has clearly paid attention to the prose of certain former sparring partners; you could easily envisage Craig Finn, for example, singing/growling the song’s closing couplet of “We all want something meaningful, but casual and sensual and juvenile, but actually valuable, fanatical, palpable and tangible and tragic. We just want to be magic“.
‘Marfa Lights’, referring to the spooky appearance of Texas’ route 67 landmark, is a triumphant romp when it begins but becomes a different beast altogether with its pounding, unsettling urgency. With a rhythm section made up of Against Me!‘s Andrew Seward and Leftover Crack‘s Ara Babajian. The whole thing takes a surreal turn later with a decidedly odd narrative about a white rat donning a black T-shirt and performing as Chaplin for his fellow vermin.
‘Talk To Him In Shallow Water‘ is a splendid highlight, a far more restrained number featuring a picked banjo line not unlike Steve Earle’s mandolin on his Pogues collaboration ‘Johnny Come Lately’. Our main man sounds uncannily like Kitchens Of Distinction’s Patrick Fitzgerald on ‘Bright White’ and ‘Imperfect Rhyme’, in turn, seems to have been inhabited by a riff not dissimilar to Josh Homne’s on QOTSA‘s ‘Little Sister’.
The striking ‘Everything Is Going According To Plan’ is a stripped to the bones swell of effects pedals and maudlin vocal which lands somewhere between Neil Young‘s Le Noise album and The Replacements‘ Answering Machine, and acts as a bridge to the second half of the album, or Act Two, if you will.
The songs from here on sound rather more irate. ‘Open With The Wrestlers’, for example, is positively seething (“and if you’re wondering how this skinhead got in, someone let him, and he’s circling the stadium with his Nazi friend and they’re radiant, and everyone stares straight ahead and just lets them”), before ‘The Pilot Inside’ brings to mind Modest Mouse and perhaps a touch of Interpol.
‘Bring Me A Mirror’ is the ultimate in high drama, being beautiful and disturbing in equal measure, and then we’re hit with the irresistible jerky, quirky groove of ‘Jerusalem Against Athens’, which really encapsulates the whole theme of the album with its pleas for a more tolerant civilisation and accepting attitude (“Let the eyes hold what the lids can contain from the overflow of the world”).
‘Your Body And The Borderline’ follows in a similar vein, containing possibly the best line yet in “The only thing sadder than an old hippie is a young hippie”, and then the stunning ‘Porta Fenestella’ closes proceedings with a strong anti-war message (“I was too old for this when I was too young for this, I was too young to quit when I was too old for this“) and an apocalyptic caveat in “It’ll take an earthquake to remake this landscape”.
It’s a staggering album, maybe the first truly great release of 2015, and by far Franz Nicolay’s best effort yet. Throughout the album’s finale, the resident New Yorker makes the recurring demand “What is the name of this river?” Well, I don’t know the answer to that question, Franz, but the view is magnificent.