When I was sixteen years old I discovered the music of Nick Drake. Nick sounded suicidal (a sound that was, alas, eventually borne out in his personal life) even when he was at his most upbeat, and his albums were the perfect soundtrack to the kind of hypercharged, hormonally-driven angst I was experiencing in the wake of my first serious adolescent love and the dashed hopes of said love. It didn’t matter that I lacked the courage to actually speak to the object of my affection. It was enough to bask in the utter, inconsolable pain of it all. She didn’t even know I existed (an almost inevitable consequence when you don’t speak, but I preferred to take a more tragic view), and Nick’s songs provided comfort and solace during those dire days. Since then I have been drawn to a succession of musical mopesters. I listen, feel the pain all over again, tell my wife that it hardly seems worth going on, and she tells me to buck up and mow the lawn.
Elliott Smith was a favorite, and lived up (died up?) to his image by plunging a steak knife into his chest a few years ago, the ultimate mopester death. These days, nobody carries on the tradition better than Mark Kozelek, head whiner for Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. But there are numerous contenders in the Quiet is the New Loud Mopester Movement: Iron and Wine, Kings of Convenience, Sondre Lerche, Belle and Sebastian, Low, Badly Drawn Boy, Turin Brakes, Bonnie Prince Billy, South San Gabriel. They’re all worthwhile, but these four guys do it better than anybody but Kozelek, in my opinion, and give me hope that despair still hurts so good.
Archer Prewitt – Wilderness (2005)
Prewitt is the guitarist and sometime vocalist for Chicago indie rockers The Sea and Cake, but his solo albums are much more subdued and depressive affairs. Wilderness is my favorite out of several good ones, and features Prewitt’s downcast, lovely melodies set off against sweeping, romantic strings. The overall effect is similar to Nick Drake’s Bryter Later – beautifully melancholic music, suitable for the bedroom, or for when there’s nobody in the bedroom but you. Don’t even think of reading more into that. I’m talking loneliness. Loneliness.
Denison Witmer – Philadelphia Songs (2002)
It’s a Coming of Age album. It’s a Rite of Passage album. It’s both. Witmer has yet to make the masterpiece I believe he has in him, but this one comes the closest because of its profound sense of place. I don’t know Philadelphia all that well, but I can smell the cheesesteak dives on Passyunk, and catch fleeting glimpses of the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin when I listen to this album. More importantly, I can remember back to what it was like to be 23, 24 years old, with a head full of plans and a heart full of dreams, and not knowing how to make them come true other than to get the hell out of Dodge. Witmer captures that moment perfectly in these songs, which time and again hone in on the essence of sadness, and loneliness, and the restless desire to move on.
Jose Gonzalez – Veneer (2005)
One of my favorite albums from last year. Jose is the Swedish born and raised son of Argentinian parents. Never mind. He still sounds like Nick Drake. He has Nick’s sweet fingerpicking and alternate tunings down pat, and there’s the same thread of melancholic wistfulness traced through every song. His new EP Stay in the Shade is just as rewarding, and accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of making a Kylie Minogue cover sound good.
Gus Black – Autumn Days (2006)
Hushed vocals, gentle acoustic guitars, and songs of good love gone bad. Yes, it’s formulaic, but Black makes it work because he sounds like Matt Beckler. Who is Matt Beckler? A guy in my church who does hushed vocals and gentle acoustic guitars as background music for various WB and MTV shows featuring nubile women and their suntanned, buff fratboy lovers. Hey, a guy’s gotta make a living. But I really like Matt Beckler’s music, and I really like Gus Black’s music, too. There are lush string arrangements here, which Matt Beckler does not do. But it’s all lovely, sad, and hopeless, mopery taken to dizzying new lows.