LA Weekly - September 1991
No More Sinatras
Publication: LA Weekly
Author: Ann Powers
Date: September 1991
Edging drink by drink toward closing time, we sit in the dank of a North Mission District bar's back room listening to some alcoholic washout punk strum "The Weight" on an acoustic guitar. The bar allows us to narrow our emotional lives to a constant nervousness, a series of glances over the shoulder at the next chance to walk in the door. Like all good addicts, we feel the disconnection as intensity; we think we're special.
But tonight - maybe it's the lousy music - I realize that what we really share is fear: fear of waking up with a clear head and seeing an ordinary person in the mirror, of taking on an unspectacular life. Alcohol lets us see ourselves as giants or dwarves and we cling to it, terrified of being only human.
If Mark Eitzel had held the stage this evening, the tenor of the barflies might have seemed more meaningful.
Eitzel's long been considered the empath of San Francisco's crashed bohemians; famous for a life overflowing with lost nights and regrets, he's transformed the role of the sad sack into high tragedy. Eitzel ransacks the soul's garbage in search of grace; he approaches degradation slowly, lovingly, and aims to slice at its core.
On Everclear, the fourth domestic release for the singer-songwriter and his faithful American Music Club, he provides the most forthright view yet of a world that believes it can't save itself, where love means never having to say you're in control. It's the dark night of the slacker, in which Eitzel finally admits the uselessness of fatalism while holding on tenaciously to its voluptuous beauty.
American Music Club's subcultural landscape, like the hangover scenes in After Dark, My Sweet, belongs to this country's western edge. In their early days, AMC failed miserably as mock-Joy Division gloomsters; Eitzel's fixation on despair was firmly in place, but it hadn't found its ticket to transcendence. That came with Vudi, the wandering honky-tonk guitarist who signed on for the first album and gave AMC's music the spring of a weekend saloon brawl. The band never devolved into roots-happy conservatism - the physicality of Eitzel's self examination destroyed any chance at mere sentimentality - but Vudi's playing added a sense of lineage, a connection with all the other drifters' songs that make up a part of our shared consciousness.
At the core of Eitzel's America is a dream of too many choices. "Tired of hopes that I just can't run from." he sings in "[[The Confidential Agent", "I travel in secret and know they're pursuing me." Failure becomes horror in America because of the cruel terms of success; the criminal, the rogue and the drunk all must account for their deeds and, in refusing, damn themselves.
Other times and places might have given these hunted characters a god or a government to blame. But we only have ourselves; and so we manufacture excuses, get more reckless every day, and eventually figure ourselves for lost.
Chronicling this process makes for music that teeters constantly on the precipice of the banal. Eitzel's been praised as a writer of depth and honesty, but mostly he's just relentless in his accounts of people's pain. Revealing his friends' secrets in his writing has resulted in the loss of more than one of them. The onslaught of secrets would get as dull as a bad paperback if not for Eitzel's singing. He nurses these tales with whispers and gut-drawn cries, dragging a crooner's sentimental phrasing through punk's mud puddle and coming up with a style that's as evocative of other eras, as it is unmistakably drawn from our own. (Fans of Eitzel's vocal prowess will want to pick up Songs Of Love Live, a live solo CD recorded in England and released on Demon.)
Eitzel's no Sinatra - that old advocate of barstool existentialism may live through some desolate hours, but he always knows his place in the world, as a man and an American. Eitzel, like the rest of his generation, tries to find comfort in ambiguity. And that's how he sings: as if he's making something up to save his life.
Everclear's polished production (which comes via the addition of pedal-steel wielding pro Bruce Kaphan) makes these stories seem more like carefully fashioned fictions than the death-row confessions Eitzel's fans would like them to be.
On songs such as "Sick Of Food" and "The Dead Part Of You", Eitzel seems to be doubting the validity of his own histrionics, and on the tricky modern rock anthem "Rise", a belligerent friendship song to a friend dying of AIDS, he snaps into a sense of affirmation that previously seemed beyond him.
Lately, I've been hearing rumours that Eitzel's gotten sober. A lot of us are doing that, trying on a clear-head and finding a very mixed up world to contend with. Everclear seems to indicate that American Music Club will be there to give witness as we try to secure ourselves within an uncertain future.