New Gods, New Sound, Same Old Withered Hand

Now that a spike in press coverage confirms Scot Dan Willson has landed to the States safely ashore, please grant me a paragraph to brag. In the years since I first heard Withered Hand’s LP debut, the deceptively heavy Good News, I’ve unloaded most of his wee catalogue on all the friends of mine who know not what they do. Is that a Facebook thread about John Darnielle? Maybe Conor Oberst? Let me intervene. “Hey, hey! Everyone, here’s a YouTube link to ‘No Cigarettes.’ Listen to it, OK? This guy’s smarter, stranger, more emotionally incisive…” My mission saved just about one unbeliever: fellow blogger Ryan Maffei, who shares with our subject tendencies for weird, lateral thinking and songcraft.

Still, try to rest absolved of your ignorance: you either hadn’t heard this guy at all or, if you had, the first record’s sparse arrangements failed to carry its ten natural melodies or its chapbook of highly literate, eternally confounding lyrics.

But you have no excuse now. After three years, he’s returned with a proper band - one that showed last week at Brooklyn’s Bell House that the twee bard is making his rock move.

Which is why I resisted New Gods right off - with its inverse title and likewise its reformed sonic creed. It was too much, too soon: brass and reverb threaten throughout to drown Dan’s slight croon, and an admittedly subtle drummer nevertheless beats the snot out of the storyteller’s oddball humanism. But chalk these misgivings up to reactionary schmaltz. After no more than four listens, I started to wish his debut, probably my third favorite album… ever, had had so much room for a melody to breathe.

This revelation was sanctified exactly a week ago in Brooklyn - when what I feared might be a hot spotlit strum before a "dance floor filled with expectations [he] can never meet" was instead an electric moshfest alongside Cam Bell and a crowd of the newly converted. With a rasp much deeper than usual, a powerful lead guitarist who politely defers when he should, a lady companion with a lovely coo, a probably drunk (and all the funnier for it) accordionist, and a joke about Tamagotchi Pets so blue your host turned a little red - Withered Hand held dominion for about an hour. A trusted friend, who'll remain nameless until he weighs in, couldn't help but declare just seconds after the encore, "That was the best concert I've seen in several years." No one disagreed. Check the video above if you know what's good. 

As these developments might suggest, his proven touch for chord progression is deeply enriched in New Gods. Musically, “Between True Love and Ruin” is 2011’s “Hard On” with a little less hitch in its gittyup. Both songs are marvelously pretty - so no complaints about some copy-paste - but tell me which one was written with more in mind than a beat up six-string. After that, play the triumphant finale, “Not Alone,” which segues from a sad barstool acoustic to a mess of strums, chants, and some kind of fucking trumpet solo - and in so doing channels every last-track orgasm from this rock historian's favorite Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Dylan records. 

Actually, because Dan Willson wears Big Rock influences so proudly on his withered little sleeve, I should’ve known a louder band was inevitable. By my reckoning, Good News alludes - in addition to the above-cited Sonic Youth and Pavement - to the Silver Jews, Nirvana, Leonard Cohen, Mott the Hoople, and Guns’N’Roses. There’re are many more, I’m sure. I tell myself I'm noticing a new one every time I play it.

The stronger band in New Gods permits a more sophisticated display of this low modernism. Sure, he’s again whispering his debts - this time to Alex Chilton (“Tonight I can feel the big stars / through the souls in my shoes,”) Nina Simone (“please let me be misunderstood”), Neil Young (“this is nowhere, nowhere”), The Flying Burrito Bros. (“the gilded palace of sin”), Stevie Salas (“strung out like some powder in a bag of skin”), the Velvets ("white light, white heat all night"), and - maybe - Todd Snider (“the devil you know”). But he’s also snatching whole compositions up - and spitting them out all his own.

Take his mandolin-tinged Robotrip nightmare “California” - which noises up the drumbeat from EMA’s hit by the same name, and noises down the, uh, noize in favor of a sombre melody and creepy girl harmony. And on “Love Over Desire,” he interjects pop’s most idealized hymn, from “All You Need Is Love,” to confess: Yeah OK - but sometimes you want a little “travel pussy,” too.

Which brings me to my last point: in large part, it’s travel pussy and all the queer minutiae like it squirted liberally about this album (and his whole catalogue) that give nearly every song he’s ever recorded impossible staying power. Conceptually, Willson's songs are intellectual fulfillment enough, with bible verse inflected by rock’s patois of self-reference. But, add to that a human vocabulary equal parts sweet and profane, and all parts unpredictable - you’re left with a genuine Other as chaotic as he is revelatory.

Like... what the hell kind of emotional dialectic is erected with “I was thinking of sex / and you were dreaming of freedom”? Tell me, what has boxing got to do with a friend’s lung x-ray in “Horseshoe,” and why would I want to kill my friends? Or, in “Black Tambourine,” when the singer asks “Isn’t everyone lonely?” - does his double shout back “No!” or “No?”? Realize the answer to this question changes the meaning of the song. 

And what’s so special about the line at In-N-Out Burger that it should reveal prophecy to a tussin wastrel? Wanna clue me in on how Dan’s aroused by signs of his own death in “Heart Heart,” or why the most depressing lyrics on the album are retrofitted into its neo-rockabilly banger? Who has the guts to sing of “dead bugs on the windscreen” in an obituary to a living friend?

Who wants to dance on the light of a dying star when there's a perfectly good floor over there? Why is everything dead, perverted and gross? What is this shit? And why the hell am I asking you?

Because this weirdness overlays another handful of melodies so easy and familiar, it's like they were plucked from history - I tend to zone out when I listen, just to sing along absentminded to all the tracks I've memorized without first understanding. Sometimes, I'll catch myself doing this, and replay the song - determined to hear it again and again until I come away with some satisfactory conclusions. 

Since it’s my job to be much clearer than Withered Hand: that’s another way of saying I won't ever stop playing this record.