Mark Eitzel’s position as the lounge bard of sadcore is unassailable. Despite the lashings of pathos throughout his oeuvre, the one-time American Music Club man seems forever destined to soundtrack a stubborn heart, remaining broken forever. On the surface, Don’t Be A Stranger, his sixth solo album, doesn’t alter this dramatically; but peer between the lines and Eitzel has lifted off some of the weight to create his most redemptive, mature work yet.
Eitzel suffered a heart attack in 2011 and while most of these songs were recorded prior to his health woes, there is a sense of the convalescence to the album’s sonic palette. Eitzel’s soaring, warbling roar – once described as a ‘cow bellowing’ – is now more of a hushed croon. The often abrasive guitars which dissected American Music Club’s lush veneer are replaced by an altogether more slick, elegant, mainly acoustic shuffle. And even the lyrics, while still surreal and self-lacerating no longer overtake themselves in sheer despair; instead, humour and misery share equal billing.
The sad clown persona favoured by Eitzel is out in full force on Don’t Be A Stranger. The album as a whole could be subtitled The Death Of A Clown – “I know its my job to smile and wave… can you tell me my crime? It drains my soul to be the focus of your fake good time” pleads Eitzel on Costume Characters Face Dangers In The Workplace – as this image of the broken entertainer, at the mercy of his audience pervades pretty much every lyric. But there’s a beauty in this. On the shuffling Oh Mercy Eitzel relates his “party talk for all your party guests, my topics include fascism and rising crime and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, that’ll ensure anyone’s good time”.
But unlike before, there’s no sense of vulnerability; the arrangements, bolstered by unobtrusive drumming from The Attractions’ Pete Thomas and long-term American Music Club guitar man Vudi, are warm and inviting. The Bill Is Due might be one of the most beautiful songs Eitzel has recorded; the debt to Nick Drake and, most notably, Robert Kirby’s string arrangements is paid out in handsome terms, Eitzel’s voice gently confiding “your life stumbles on, I love you even then.
All My Love appeared on American Music Club’s final album but reappears here in jazzier style, the gently swelling crescendoes are given room to breathe by the tinkling piano notes skipping around Eitzel’s languid delivery. In fact, producer Sheldon Gomberg does a fine job of providing the space for Eitzel to deliver his routine; in this respect, the album is mostly reminiscent of 1996’s solo debut 60 Watt Silver Lining and shuns the later electronic diversions of 2001’s The Invisible Man and abstract experimentalism of 2005’s Candy Ass.
For a man who is so frighteningly adept at evoking the existential anguish wavering from the bottom of a glass, it’s both striking and relieving to hear Eitzel find some repose from the storm. The previous dissonance has been filtered down into a more sophisticated reflection. Eitzel as storyteller has never been in better form – hear about the glory days of punk on I Love You But You’re Dead, Disneyland characters on the aforementioned Costume Characters… and the album’s sonic subtleties serve to emphasise Eitzel as a unique songwriter, of style, craft and no little humour. The life of the clown may be sad and fractured but there’s no denying style and charm, on and off the stage.