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Likewise, Messersmith approached his latest record with an emphasis on teamwork, inviting longtime collaborator Thompson, along with Tighe (who plays in the Starfolk and has fronted popular local bands like the Owls and the Hang Ups) and cellist Dan Lawonn, to write their own parts and help steer the direction of the record. But unlike his sophomore album, The Silver City, which embraced the quirky blips and bloops of tiny Casio keyboards, looping pedals, and laptop beats, Messersmith opted to work within a decidedly vintage framework for the Graveyard sessions.
"I'd been sending mixtapes to Andy and Brian, like, hey, I really like these, we should do something like this," Messersmith explains. "Basically we wanted to focus on a '60s sound. Like using ProTools but trying to incorporate as much of a recording mindset and methodology of the '60s as possible."
"When you're recording in ProTools or any digital studio now, you have limitless tracks and limitless takes, so you end up playing something, and you play it like 10 times, and you splice together micro-takes in order to get one master, awesome take," he says. "And it also tends to be very additive, and it turns into a lot of monotony and over-produced stuff. So we kind of wanted to do the opposite."
"He was adhering to 'dude theory,'" Thompson explains. "Which is what Mike Doughty calls it—if it can't be played by the four dudes in the room, then it's not on the record. And we didn't use any instruments that were made after 1970."
Ever the studious musician, Messersmith spent a lot of time leading up to the recording sessions researching classic '60s recording techniques, specifically those employed by Beatles producer George Martin. As if to throw himself into the new role, he even revamped his appearance, trading in a folkie beard and giant vintage '70s eyeglasses for a coiffed James Dean 'do and black-rimmed Mad Men-era frames that seemed to symbolize his next artistic reinvention.
"Jeremy has enjoyed comparisons to the Beach Boys and the Beatles for a while, and this record capitalizes on that sonic potential," remarks Lawonn. "Besides the deliberate references to '60s pop and rock music, the greatest difference in this record is the collaborative effort involved. Rather than tracking all sorts of musical components separately, we tracked a lot of things live, together. I think that that adds a certain amount of energy to the record."
Lawonn says one of the more surprising decisions made in the studio was to leave in the mistakes, no matter how glaring they may have seemed at the time. "He gave us the freedom to not have to fix all of the little mistakes in the recording process, which was interesting and odd. I'm not a very good keyboardist, so there were a lot—seriously, a lot—of flubs on my part throughout tracks such as 'Violet!' and 'Deathbed Salesman.' He let those stay in."
"There's mistakes all over the record," Messersmith agrees, and adds with a smirk, "but it's the only thing that separates us from robots, the mistakes we make."
WHEN A PERSON DIES, his or her entire life is summarized in a 10-minute eulogy. When one of Jeremy Messersmith's characters dies, that life gets wrapped up in a song—and though the narratives are mostly fictional, each of Messersmith's heroes is memorialized over the course of three verses or three minutes in a more complete and heartfelt way than most us of could ever hope to be remembered at our funerals.
On The Reluctant Graveyard, not every character is dead—yet—but death is certainly on the minds of each of these distinct and poetic protagonists.
"Life's a game we're meant to lose, but stick by me and I will stick by you," a young woman muses to her lover and a row of cold, stark cemetery stones in "A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard," while a sympathetic criminal tells the tale of his demise on "Dillinger Eyes," and a young child on "Toussaint Gray, First in Life and Death" may or may not have died on the way home from school in an effort to not be the last kid home.
"I'm the repo man and nobody weeps for me," another already-dead character laments, his whole sad life trod from beginning to end in nine sparse lines, and "John the Determinist" gleefully brags, "Oh, you silly things, I've got you figured out!" before plunging to his own death.
If it sounds depressing, rest assured, it is—but it is a comforting devastation, stretched over 11 tracks that seem to ponder the tragic nature of humanity with a slightly removed, philosophical bent.
"His lyrics are really personal, but you are kept slightly at a distance," says Dan Wilson, a well-known local songwriter who produced Messersmith's second album. "Partly because he seems really smart, and partly because he doesn't use the standard emotional trickery that is the Hollywood norm... Jeremy just avoids all those tricks, either for other tricks that we don't know as well or his own tricks that we don't know at all. I mean, he stabs you often enough through the heart, but it's never at the moment when the strings have all suddenly disappeared except for the high violins. It's always something un-cliché."