"The allurements of decadence, though less well publicized than those of progress, are more urbane, subtle, and philosophical," Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote. "Doubt, pleasure, melancholy, despair, remembrance, nostalgia. Progress is brutal and insensitive, has no notion of nuance and irony, speaks in proclamations and watchwords, is forever in a hurry... Decadence commingles the sigh and the smile, the cry of pain and the moan of pleasure... it is an art of dying, or, better put, of living while dying."
One would be hard-pressed to find a better epitaph for Mark Eitzel, whose album Sixty Watt Silver Lining follows the amicable dissolution of his critically lauded (and otherwise mostly ignored) American Music Club. Backed by supple rhythmic tracks and shimmering sheets of guitar and pedal steel, Eitzel's songs with AMC could be raucous, melodic, wry, and wrenching, as palpable and mysterious as a piss shiver.
"I could be incredibly bitter about the fact that AMC was never successful," Eitzel says on the phone from his San Francisco apartment, "but on the other hand, there's no rhyme or rule... We were always almost too smart for our own good. There's a law in rock music: Check your brain at the door. Well, we never did."
In a burst of self-deprecation, he adds, "Having an incredibly ugly lead singer doesn't help a band either."
Shed of the responsibility of writing with his old band in mind, 60 Watt Silver Lining has Eitzel using piano and trumpet in place of guitars. To this end, musician and soundtrack composer Mark Isham has been recruited as a surrogate Chet Baker, while AMC multi-instrumentalist Bruce Kaphan and bassist Daniel Pearson remain on board. "I wanted to make an album that was more appropriate to how I really felt about music," Eitzel explains. "I was listening to an album, Here's to Life by Shirley Horne. It also came from Chet Baker, and from Jimmy Scott--just crooners in general." If the resulting sound isn't exactly jazz, it certainly is jazzy. No longer must Eitzel sneak sentimentality between the Marshall stacks.
Writing in Spin, Ann Powers observed that Eitzel "started as a drunk with a poet's ear and evolved into a dramatist with a drunk's cosmology." Indeed, like the bleak stories of author Raymond Carver, Eitzel's recent songs seek the possibilities for grace in bars and drink and the lonely lost--the same disconsolate cast that so often turn up in great songwriting. "The people I was with said you were nothing but a fag hag and a dope fiend," the song "Cleopatra Jones" begins, "but the song of your eyes was of the loneliest woman I've ever seen/We talked drunkenly at the bar, I thought there's a sweetness here the world is missing." And this is an up-beat number.
But the songwriter refutes the notion that his approach is that of a professional scab-picker. "I'm trying to see things that are beautiful," Eitzel says, "beautiful in a sense that's not pretty. There is a redemptive thing in what I do." He checks himself again, imagining the way this might look in print: "It's all about salvation, says the pompous ass," he deadpans.
Eitzel likes to insist that what he does "is just entertainment. Bourgeois music, for the bourgeoisie." The songs, by his account, emerge unpremeditated (though he confesses he writes with a software package that includes a thesaurus and and a rhyming program). Asked what separates his sorrowful songcraft from the cash-friendly teen angst of Billy Corrigan and the Whimpering Pumpkins (the cadre Eitzel terms sadcore), Eitzel acts his age. "I know I'm not writing the ultimate teen album like Nevermind," he says. "I can't get behind that mindset; I just don't have it. I'm an over-intellectualized guy, trying to make the most honest music I can about my life."
So while the songwriter might fear sounding grandiloquent in interviews, it seems salvation is indeed what's at stake in his music. As explained in the liner notes, "Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon" is an elegy to a "big smiling guy holding court in a graveyard of dreams, conducting a seance for all these Lears and Ophelias," a character ultimately lost in "an accidental shipwreck/ dreaming he was still at the bar counting sheep, [when] the cold ocean threw its chains around his neck."
It's easy to see at least a bit of Eitzel in the character. In fact, the sea seems to be on his mind a lot this time around: It turns up in all the songs, and the cover art, too. "I got a car two years ago," Eitzel explains, "and I can go to the ocean more. I'd never gone to Big Sur before last year." But while Eitzel-watchers once waited for him to go under the surf--something the press has made much of--one senses a strength and assurance in both him and his music. His search for beauty seems to be a sustaining one.
"California is an absolutely wonderful place," he enthuses. "It's beautiful here. When you don't leave San Francisco you never really know that."