Here he is in earthly form, the flannel clad sprite of modern malaise. Clad in the requisite thick acrylic glasses, and stood scruffily beatific behind a meagre stage set up, Owen Ashworth is ready to break our hearts and heal fresh wounds once more. As he tells his stories, we shuffle forward, beer bottles clinking and conversation muting. The spartan tinned drum track of Dolores & Kimberly, from last year’s Animal Companionship fires up and the number is a crystalline distillation of what Ashworth has to offer his fans. It’s lyric a humbling tale of two middle aged characters, coming together to spend an uncertain future together, each one broken from past grievances but willing to give love another shot. The song references the old classic Moon River and could quite easily be a McSweeneys article, John Cheever novella or mumblecore film from the early noughties. Its wayward charm belittles its rancorous context.
“Are you lonesome…?” he poignantly asks during the second number Calloused Fingers Won’t Make You Strong, Edith Wong. It’s a number from his former group Casiotone For The Painfully Alone and the literary allusions persist. Ok, it’s a bit sombre but hardly filled with loathing. There are semblances of digital orchestration that rise up, as with all his mournful ditties, but little in the way of variation, be it in tempo or instrumentation; there are no big choruses or beat drop moments, only transcendent proof that the melancholy facts of existence can be surpassed through perseverance.
We are given two covers tonight, the first from Lucinda Williams and the other from The Magnetic Fields. There is no hiding that Ashworth and Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields are walking similar paths. Both use liberal peppering of pop culture references to place their songs within a specific time and place. The song tonight references Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, Pendleton shirts and Vine Street in Los Angeles. Ashworth sings of Vine in another of his songs tonight, the lament Rabbits. But whereas Merritt’s work is defiantly queer in tone, Ashworth is brutishly masculine. He sings paeans to Dolores, Kimberly, Edith, Tricia, Pamela and Kitty. Names that are pulled directly from the 1950’s, from an era of teenage rebellion, cotillion dances and romance periodicals. This is not music for woke souls or the tech savvy teens of the modern world. This is music for people who are prone to fail, to be denied and try again regardless. The characters are foolish, they summon demons and inhabit Nightmare City and it is this naivety, this irrationality, the glue that cements their charm.
The final number tonight is the recent True Love Death Dream, a song about, what else, but dead lovers and obscure locations in Midwest towns. It’s lo-fi in its staging and proudly so. An underachieving triumph with universal themes of memory and regret, we find it lingering in the dark environs of our minds as Ashworth takes his leave to the side of the stage.