Let’s talk about a virtual unknown Scot who sings about God and jacking off in a near-falsetto whine that ducks in-and-out of pathos more than occasionally. And who doesn’t always feature a drum, or… anything more than a (probably) beat-up acoustic… usually in a sparse minor key.
In case he reads this, sorry Withered Hand (neé Dan Willson) for shitting all over your method - but I need readers to know it’s shocking you’ve written a handful of this decade’s best songs in an era of all-loud-always contemporary pop. Wub wub.
Just why is simple - his (very) small portfolio features the finest, or at least most literate, writing around. This lapsed Christian draws on the best aspects of European modernity (subtle allusion, religious and institutional skepticism, dick jokes) and American postmodernity (fascination with high-low brow form, dick jokes) to work into song the kind of genuine poetry canonites shoot their loads to attribute to Dylan and Cohen. Here’s a smattering of this in his only LP to date, Good News:
“So I broke another of the Ten Commandments
John Havery Kellogg doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.”
(An Exodus lie, historical onansim, Nellie Talbot, Nirvana)
“I’m not standing here for a lack of moral fiber…
Won’t someone help me roll away the stone?”
(Kellogg cereal pun, Mott the Hoople)
"Love In The Time Of Ecstacy"
“There’s a crack
In the handle of a coronation cup”
(Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” linked brilliantly with Handel’s “Coronation Anthem”)
“And what is love
What is love in the time of ecstasy”
(Haddaway, SNL, Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Lord, won’t you deliver me
From the wave machine
And the transpearent bikini
(Matthew 6:13, Timothy 4:18 reconstituted for a hyperreality)
Conselor forgive me for I knew not
What I vandalized
(Luke 23:34 and high school)
Take me down to the paradise club
Where the girls are drunk and oversized
(Guns’N’Roses and some more hyperreality)
You must be joking I’d deny
Tears are forming in my eyes
(The Crying of Lot 49, Chapter 1)
I saw you at the embassy
We wrote Pavement on my shoes
We stole our biro when we paid our dues
We paid our respects
We wrote “Confusion is Sexy”
And on your shoulder bag I wrote “The Silver Jews”
(Embassy [Row], Pavement, Silver Jews - everything Stephen Malkmus)
(Confusion is Sex, paid our respects - Kill Yr Sonic Youth idols)
I could go on - and I may in the future by close-reading “Religious Songs” - which gives us at least two-dozen such lines. But I qualify that promise and this post with an apology - that yanking allusions from these songs does nothing to celebrate (and may even detract from) the affectation of Willson’s delivery. That he tempers joy with fear in “Joy,” and fear with joy in “No Cigarettes”; or that “Big Ten Four (Paul’s Song)” is the saddest eulogy I’ve ever heard; or that “Oldsmobile Car” pretends to invent Linkin Park by crafting an prauto-tune rocker with “old Apple Mac Computer II” synth coconut clacks; that he’s capable of real heavy rock too, but just in a song about hearts and existential anxiety; that Withered Hand says everything you need to know about his sad and deeply informed relationship with Jesus. And books. And his guitar playing skills. And his listeners.
He deserves more. Listen.