Monday, February 5, 2018

album review: 'full circle nightmare' by kyle craft

So I may have mentioned this on Twitter, but the lineup of records released in February that don't just seem good but damn near great or better... well, at last count I was up to at least ten, and that's damn near unprecedented for this time of year, especially when you consider they span a half dozen different genres and styles. In other words, if you start seeing me give out high scores like candy... again, this much quality concentrated this early in a year is rare, but pretty damn thrilling all the same.

And we're starting out with one of the big ones, one of my most hotly anticipated records of 2018 - and if you heard his star-making debut in 2016 with Dolls Of Highland, you'll understand why. Kyle Craft was the sort of talent that came out of nowhere: a singer-songwriter-producer from the Deep South who moved to Portland, signed to Sub Pop, and recorded the sort of awe-inspiring debut that floored nearly everyone who heard it. A huge, theatrical voice and bountiful personality that recalled Meat Loaf in his prime, production that took 70s glam and fused it with southern-fried gothic rock - emphasis on goth - and writing that was impeccably detailed, wonderfully textured, and yet framed with a modern eye for progressive melodrama so he never felt like a throwback, he was the sort of talent where critics started making unprompted comparisons to Dylan and Bowie - all the more stunning considering that debut was recorded with DIY equipment in his laundry room! Hell, I found the record pretty much by accident browsing Pitchfork and it rapidly became one of my favourites of 2016 - hell, it could have topped that list had Lydia Loveless not blown in with her own genre fusion and those two other two albums to which I gave perfect scores! 

And it wasn't just me, as Kyle Craft's cult following starting blowing up fast, and he signed on as an opener for the Drive-By Truckers all the while dropping a few sly but heartfelt political tracks and an album of covers last year, all of which I've really liked but I did find some of the covers a tad too restrained, even if it wasn't every day you get Craft covering TLC, Sharon Van Etten, Hurray For The Riff Raff, St. Vincent and Blondie! No, I was excited for his true sophomore project, which gave him a full backing band, Chris Funk of The Decemberists on production, and an actual studio. Now naturally I was a bit reticent - many an indie act has stumbled towards indulgence in going bigger, and I loved the rich textured atmosphere of Dolls Of Highland so much that I was concerned it'd be compromised here... but hey, the guy has great instincts and he's a tremendous talent, if anyone could stick the landing, it'd be him. So, what did we get on Full Circle Nightmare?

Okay, here's the thing: if you like Kyle Craft as a lyricist and personality, Full Circle Nightmare will definitely satiate you - this guy is a tremendous talent with a huge voice and personality that bleeds through songs that are so damn well-written it almost doesn't seem fair. And on a technical level, it seems like he took the right steps to iron out the few missteps on his debut: it's a more streamlined and polished project that better handles its ballads and flies into even wilder parties. And up until today I was going to frame this review as a question whether it's better than Dolls Of Highland... mostly because it's one of those projects that shows more refinement but doesn't quite hit the ramshackle individual heights of that debut. But then Pitchfork put out their review, and while every critic is entitled to their opinion, I don't think they could have missed the point harder if they tried, and thus there's a whole load of thematic contextualization that needs to be rebuilt to go against some wildly wrong-headed assertions. And yeah, the album is fucking excellent, getting better with every damn listen and will likely wind up as one of the best of 2018, hands down.

And thus by necessity we have to start with the content, most of which is a natural outgrowth of themes and character sketches built on Dolls Of Highland - and it's also where I'm going to give the aforementioned critic the benefit of the doubt here, because it's not like Kyle Craft's style of southern blues-inflected glam rock is known for its subtlety or progressive politics - although anyone following this slice of the indie scene knows this has been changing for years, but I can understand the misconception. And hell, for as much as Craft is pulling from Exile On Main Street-era Rolling Stones and Bat Out Of Hell-era Meat Loaf and the other classic rock icons of that era, it would be all too easy to just hear the aesthetic and then pigeonhole how every single song focuses on women in glamorous exquisite detail, or to quote Pitchfork, 'there to be lusted after and then blamed when they don't fit into his fantasy'. And again, on the surface that might seem true... until you actually look at the actual text and realize not just the more complicated emotional dynamic beneath Craft's relationships with these women, but also where and how he's framed himself and any other guy on this record - it's almost like the folks who heard the high camp and satire of Bat Out Of Hell and assumed it was just straightforward hard rock excess, when Steinman was doing far more. Expanding off of Dolls Of Highland, which really played closer to soaring pseudo-gothic vignettes, Full Circle Nightmare is more grounded and directly autobiographical - as he described it, a snapshot of his recent life, who he is and coming to an acceptance of what that lane is as the consequences whirl back around on him; he doesn't really change on this record even as the world and women around him do, and while his heart is certainly taking a while to catch up, he's in the right headspace - that's why him being cool with the breakup is established in the first lines of 'Heartbreak Junky', which is far more about him rebuilding from his emotional damage than pointing a finger at her.

So for example, if you get a song like the opening track called 'Fever Dream Girl', which is an extended list of questions about this woman and everything she could have been to him, and yet the first line of the hook is that she's 'whatever she wants to be', and while it's clear she doesn't quite know what she wants, she certainly isn't everything you're feverishly projecting onto her or, to quote him, 'the glue that just won't hold your shit together'. And it helps matters that Craft is upfront about everyone's flaws and framing that abstains from any flimsy moralism - he might have venom towards how plastic the girl might seem on 'Fake Magic Angel' and how he's trying to avoid that toxic presence, but the song is just as plain in its implication that it stings him because he's not totally over his attraction - it's like 'The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment', and it should be no surprise that Craft cites Father John Misty as an influence. Or take 'The Rager', where it's clear that this girl is spiraling hard as much as anyone - Craft included, more as an observer in this tune than anything - but at the end of the track, she's quietly laughing in the morning and asking if they can do it all again. That's why I find the assertion that these women don't have autonomy in their own stories or are just objects of Craft's affection so utterly wrong-headed, not supported by text or subtext especially when it's clear they're making far more moves in their own life than Craft is in his. 'Exile Rag' knows this girl is capricious, but it's more judgmental of the asshole venting about something that was never going to work - something Craft himself has experienced with the same woman, but that's her path and it's not for him to bitch about it otherwise. And it gets even more confrontational on 'Gold Calf Moan', more addressed to the guy who was trying to hold her down even as she went right back to Craft - he was placing her on a pedestal and trying to lock her down into what he wanted, analogous to some of the projection on 'Fever Dream Girl'... but Craft is also smart enough to know they have a real relationship based on love and he knows he'll be cast aside when she goes back - he's the other man on James McMurtry's 'She Loves Me', if McMurtry was a selfish dick to further intensify the tragedy for which she's chosing to settle. But then you get tunes where the tragedy has personal weight for Craft - 'Bridge City Rose' is a fleeting connection where he's the one who can't stick the landing for her and there's still wistful admiration and hope her heart lands more, and 'Slick & Delta Queen' is damn near tragic, as he reconnects with an old flame who is settling down with a more 'conventional' guy because Craft never gave her what she needed, and if she's ever available he'd be willing to try again... but also with the acceptance that that's probably never going to happen. If that's not the sort of nuanced, mature, and pretty damn progressive songwriting that certain critical establishments want in the grand tradition of subverting and refining glam rock, I don't know what the hell is!

So okay, with all of that established, why am I a little more reticent about saying this is better than Dolls Of Highland? Well for me I'd argue it comes more to production and instrumentation, where it seems like the adage was 'more is better'. As a whole it seems like a lot of this production is more dense and layered than many of the rougher, yet more pronounced melodic grooves on Dolls Of Highland, which means the hooks on that record punch a little harder. Now this isn't always true: the huge keening riff on the title track, the sleazy Muscle Shoals horns on 'Exile Rag' build a great hook, some wonderful interplay between the fiddle and harmonica on 'Bridge Lily Rose', the reverse warping guitar riff and gleaming piano builds to a remarkably propulsive chugging bass, and the more acoustic leanings of 'The Rager' and the jangling 'Slick & Delta Queen' show the sort of refined restraint that was only hinted on Dolls Of Highland - seriously, the ballads on this record are absolute knockouts. And 'Gold Calf Moan' with its seedy pianos and organ might as well be one of the best songs Meat Loaf or Queen never recorded in the late 70s, especially with the melodic transitions, it's a challenging but hugely rewarding tune. And the more I go through this record the more I struggle to find things to criticize - yes, it's garish and a little overlayered, but it fits the huge personality Craft delivers vocally and he does show more restraint when required. I guess if I were to nitpick I'd say I'd like if a few tracks showed a little more development - 'Fever Dream Girl' and 'Belmont (One Trick Pony)' both feel a shade short - and I do wish the production felt a little rougher overall - there's more noisy guitars here, but without the slightly more burnished and thick production of his debut, it can feel a tad overwhelming.

But at the same time, it looks like 2018 is going to be another year where Kyle Craft remains perennially unappreciated and misunderstood, because this is his second home run in a row. The writing is overloaded with the sort of insane detail that makes every scene and character feel distinctive and three-dimensional, the hooks are as huge as ever, and while I'm not sure this record has the same smash as 'Lady Of The Ark', Craft is comfortably at home among songwriters like Alex Cameron and Josh Tillman pushing the sound forward, knowing and paying tribute to the past but bringing the modern edge to make the sounds feel fiercely relevant all the same. In other words, this is a 9/10 and my God it's recommended. Folks, it's already been proven that a record like this will be misconstrued and misinterpreted, but don't let that deflate the hype - it'll be among the best of 2018, and just like Dolls Of Highland, you're going to want to check this out!

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