Advance Base – Nephew in the Wild
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts – Manhattan
Owen Ashworth (Advance Base) and Jeffrey Lewis (Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts) have a lot in common as songwriters and artists. Their expansive and lyric-driven discographies use simple chord progressions to support wide-ranging meditations on loss, aging, change, and unstable relationships; combining cynicism with an underlying sense of humanism and hope. In interviews, social media output, and sometimes songs, they are both openly frustrated and baffled by what it means to be a moderately successful ‘indie’ musician relying on jerry-rigged tours to support their art and livelihoods. And in their late-2015 releases, Nephew in the Wild and Manhattan respectively, Owen and Jeff have each managed to create albums that build on decades of songwriting craft to hone in on what makes each of them really singular artists, despite the diverging life-paths they seem to be taking.
For a lot of my life I thought the trajectory of an artistic career should be a constant/ongoing evolution toward experimentation and new types of sound (Bob Dylan going Electric, Green Day going Acoustic…Bieber going EDM), but both of these artists have shown the wonderful returns that come from figuring out what you do best, and just continually getting better at it. In their early work, Owen (as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone) and Jeff (with various “& the” bands) leaned heavily into DIY aesthetics, with unapologetic tape clicks, room noise, and blown out speakers making appearances in most releases. Though they continue as primarily self-produced artists, their rough (and sometimes downright abrasive) edges have been polished. Owen’s piercing Casio keyboards and glitched-out pre-programmed beats have evolved into a warm Fender Rhodes electric piano, autoharp, and organic-feeling drum samples. Jeff continues to pack his albums full of distorted acoustic guitar, but has fleshed out instrumentation to create soothing, melancholic, jam-pieces (like “Thunderstorm”). Even when he calls back to the punk roots of his anti-folk sound (on “Avenue A, Shanghai, Hollywood”), the instruments and vocals are balanced much more agreeably than previous releases. While I’ve mostly enjoyed past albums alone with headphones, obsessing over the minutiae of their lyricism, both Nephew and Manhattan are albums I happily play in my living room when friends are over.
Another thing that really ties these albums together is that they’re both firmly rooted in a sense of place and in strong ideas. Put simply, Nephew in the Wild is a concept horror album; Owen takes us through the birth of the Antichrist, an undead moose, demonic possession, a burned-down school, and casual murder, all in “pre-cellphones-times Michigan.” As gimmicky as that might sound, the album itself uses this conceit effectively as a jumping-off point for songs with incredibly poignant insight into interpersonal relationships and the pains of maturing. It reminds me of 2015’s similarly Michigan-set It Follows, where explicit gore and horror are overshadowed by a vivid sense of tone, time, and emotion, resonating all the more deeply because it’s not what the piece is ostensibly ‘about’.
Manhattan opens up with “Scowling Crackhead Ian,” in which Lewis talks about a childhood bully who mugged him with a switchblade in sixth grade, and who is the only other kid he grew up with that still lives in their Lower East Side neighborhood, “… two tribesmen of a vanished clan.” As much as there’s been globally popular and influential music emanating from Downtown Manhattan over the last half-century, Lewis’s album gives us a rat’s-eye perspective on what it’s been like to spend most of a life there and reckon with the unbelievable changes that have taken place. The relaxed jam-session of “Back to Manhattan” perfectly interweaves place and human emotion by describing a walk across the Williamsburg Bridge with a girlfriend he intends to break up with on the other side, “but I haven’t told you, ‘cos the walk’s 40 minutes…the air’s so romantic, but the big graffiti says Suck Dick.”
Other songs on Manhattan continue Jeff’s tradition of exploring the failures and foibles of the human brain. “Outta Town” chronicles his inability to function as a human being when his girlfriend visits her mother for a day and a half, and “It Only Takes a Moment,” compares his mind to a mischievous puppy: “I can’t expect it to respond when I’m the one who let it wander, so it’s up to me to train it where to go.”
What captures me most about these albums is the way that each artist uses their songwriting to take existential and earnest stock of their lives as artists and members of society. Jeffrey, having just entered his 40s, and having broken off a relationship earlier in the album, confronts his fears of growing old, alone and neglected, in “Sad Screaming Old Man”:
Well you know Jeffrey it’s true what you say,
I once was like you but then I turned out this way.
I lived my own life complaining love wasn’t there,
it was never enough to sacrifice for or care.
In “Support Tours,” he chronicles the compromises and humiliations of trying to eke out a living as a touring musician:
“I don’t want to leave my home to do a tour with crummy pay,
but if they make an offer to you what you really gonna say?
It’s hard to play an empty room, it’s hard to book a tour,
so you pray some bigger band might say that you can come support”
In stark contrast, Ashworth (now 38 years old) in Nephew in the Wild is coming to terms with having begun a new stage of life. Whereas in a previous album, Vs. Children, he transitioned from fear to acceptance at the idea of becoming a parent, in Nephew, family life is no longer a looming prospect, but a day-to-day presence. In a song written from the perspective of a new father writing to his brother, Owen writes:
Troubled water, I got six feet in my house,
Baby daughter, with a goldfish in her mouth,
I read your letter, you want Christmas in Milwaukee?
I got trouble enough.
In direct contrast to Lewis’s “Support Tours,” the song “Kitty Win” talks about moving on from his life of constant touring toward an uncertain future, while finding comfort in the close presence of family:
We got married in September, the baby came the next December,
so I got off the road, it’s the longest I’ve been home since I remember.
I wake up earlier these days, to dress the kid and fix her eggs,
Then we walk down to the park, if it’s nice out there’s a swing-set where she plays.
I’m not out looking for something, I haven’t found,
You won’t see me around, I’ve got a family now.
More than anything, these albums let Jeff and Owen reflect on where their lives are after nearly two decades of playing simple songs with insightful lyrics and finding themselves in 2015’s preposterous excuse for a music industry, despite being on different paths. In contrast to Ashworth’s domestic contentment, Lewis half-sarcastically mocks how people’s priorities change upon parenthood with a series of principled rants, each followed by a refrain of: “That stuff’s important to me, at least until I throw that bullshit out and have a baby.”
While Owen openly questions whether music-making will become more hobby than livelihood, Jeff is off on tour to support Manhattan with yet “another new drummer.” Whatever paths these songsmiths take in the years to come, both Nephew in the Wild and Manhattan stand as some of their most impressive work. To someone on the other side of their 30s, it’s deeply reassuring and inspiring to see these artists at their best at this point in their lives, having matured in sound, content, and rarely paralleled abilities to craft coherent and poignantly powerful songs and albums.
Jay Ackley is a Minnesotan in Brooklyn by way of London. He plays music around town with friends and can be found at JayAckley.com! Catch his Solo Set at the Deadshirt Christmas Party, 12/20/2015.