By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Fugawee Bird Records
"What you see in the mirror is not what everyone else sees," sings the husky, cigarettes-and-whiskey voice of Ben Weaver on Paper Sky, the 27-year-old St. Paul songwriter's fifth album. It's a voice that rarely aims for notes higher than those made by freight elevators, so when Weaver strains his vocal chords for a particular word—"mirror," in this case—you know he means it: Here's a man who struggles with the image he cultivates.
"There's this idea of me as this country guy with severed hands in jars of formaldehyde in his apartment," says Weaver, describing his characterization by many reviewers as a backwater "Midwestern Gothic" figure. To be fair, the reports weren't entirely unfounded: Weaver cuts a rugged profile, with thick hands, a furry face, and small, thoughtful eyes. Stories Under Nails, his last record, was full of dark, lo-fi country tunes written while Weaver was working as a logger and running sled dogs in northern Minnesota. Also, he's explaining all of this to me at a renovated casket factory. (It's his practice space, but still.) He tries to play it down. "People like to write that stuff, but it isn't relevant to what I do," he says, as a Siberian husky named Lucky yawns in the corner.
Well, true enough. Weaver isn't a lumberjack anymore; he's a fulltime musician, living in the city, spending his days running a small record label (Fugawee Bird) and touring throughout Europe and Australia, where his popularity exceeds his local renown. Similarly, Paper Sky is a sharp departure for Weaver, thanks in part to the magic touch of Chicago producer Brian Deck, best known for his work with Modest Mouse, Califone, and Iron and Wine. Deck helped Weaver flesh out his rustic sound with some high-tech atmospherics, then added additional layers of keys, cellos, and synths, all in an effort to modernize the wind-through-the-pines flavor that runs through Weaver's veins—urban zip code and all.
Almost more than being a musician, Weaver is a writer, a man who carries a tiny Moleskine journal in his back pocket everywhere he goes. At home, he transfers his jottings into a folder labeled "New Words." He buys 15 books per week, and when asked about his influences, he mentions Townes van Zandt and Leonard Cohen, then moves right along to Tennessee Williams, Charles Bukowski, and the late Mississippi writer Larry Brown, whom Weaver calls "kind of a stepfather." At first it sounds like he's being rhetorical, a bookish loner who swaps authors for flesh-and-blood companions. But he's not: He was introduced to Brown in 2000. Weaver likes to quote Brown when his work isn't received as well as he'd like.
"Larry always said he didn't care what people thought of his writing, as long as they admitted it was honest," he says. "His writing was so honest. It was dark, too, but there was a lightness to it."
William Faulkner once warned against writing "not of the heart but of the glands," and Brown, who was the fire chief in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, paid heed. His literary world came to be known as the "Rough South," and it was populated by characters so human their hearts continue to beat long after Brown's quit on him in 2004, when he was 53. It was a world eerily similar to the one Weaver created in his own songs, and he related to Brown's stories instantly. The admiration was mutual: Brown once called Weaver's work "an incredible, haunting gift of music."
After exchanging letters for a while, the two finally met when Weaver swung through Oxford on tour. From then on, whenever Weaver was in the neighborhood, Brown took him driving through the Mississippi countryside while they smoked cigarettes and talked about writing.
"He was the kind of guy who could talk your ear off," Weaver says, "and you could just listen to him all day long." In March, Weaver returned to Oxford to play a concert honoring Brown, where he shared the stage with many of the writer's favorite artists, including Alejandro Escovedo and Vic Chestnutt. (Later this month, Bloodshot Records will release Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown, with tracks by Escovedo, Chestnutt, Greg Brown, and one from Weaver, titled "Here's to My Disgrace.")
Like Brown, Weaver favors stark words, powerful in their nakedness. There's little in Paper Sky that will make listeners scramble for their dictionaries (though that happens, as we'll see), and the new album's appeal is less dependant on literary flourishes than Weaver's earlier work was.
"I used so much metaphor—simile, actually—before," he says. "This time, I wanted to use fewer words to get more. I wanted more imagery." He points to a line in the song "Plastic Bag" that describes a child "trailing a finger in the water over the edge of a boat." "I hear that, and I just feel something," he says. "Everyone can relate to that image."
But try as he might to stay his pen, Weaver's writerly impulses prevailed, and bore some fantastic fruit. Check out this zinger of a metaphor, from "Whatever You Want to Haunt You":
"Time moves by/Like a dead fish floats to shore."
Or this one, from the same song: "You marked a place in my life/Like a smear of blood on the page/Where a mosquito was smashed/When the lights went out."
Or maybe they're similes—point is, holy humanity! And that second one, it just keeps coming. Academics—people who love words for the opposite reason Weaver does—call this kind of ever-unfolding structure "recursion," and they claim it's proof of "universal grammar." Everyone else in the world hears the words "you," "blood," "smashed," and "out" and conjures more human truths: despair, heartache, anger, loneliness. That's writing of the heart, the glands, the entire gastro-intestinal system. That's Ben Weaver's Midwestern Gothic.
Weaver's dark tales are also capable of a certain grace, albeit a dark one: "Darling you owe me nothing/Except those abattoir eyes," goes one line from "Like a Vine After the Sun," and the listener is momentarily stunned by the loveliness of the image, and the way the French chases through Weaver's husky growl. And then the listener grabs his tattered, coffee-ringed Webster's Collegiate Dictionary from a dusty shelf, its red cover bleached pink by that dead fish, time (for the listener has learned a thing or two about imagery from this wonderful album, and also he wants to know what "abattoir" means, because it is such a lovely word, and besides the listener has a job to do). And so we learn that the object of his desire translates as "slaughterhouse."
Which is all just another way of saying that expectations are nothing to get attached to. Weaver might do well to remember that next time he worries about the image he's projecting, or what kind of building he practices in ('cause casket factories are cool, and good luck trying to keep them out of articles.) It's like something Brown once told Weaver about the characters in his stories: Sometimes, all of a sudden, they'll surprise you. "There's something sacred in that," Weaver says. "The more open you are to having faith and trusting your writing—you just know that it'll all be okay."
Well, listeners are like characters, and they'll surprise you, too. This listener's final thoughts: Ben Weaver has rare talent. He doesn't keep severed hands in jars. Paper Sky is his best record. And he's right; it'll all be okay.