by Jason Hillenberg
Near the opening of Philip Roth's 1979 novella The Ghost Writer, the aging E.I. Lonoff tells the younger author Nathan Zuckerman, "I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write a new sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around... then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning... I ask myself, Why is there no way but this to fill my hours?"
David Baerwald is far from pursuing his craft in a secluded Northeastern hermitage, but probably recognizes something of himself in the above lines. Lean economy is a defining quality in his lyrics from his debut as one-half of David + David onward. The debut, 1986's Boomtown from A&M Records, enjoyed significant sales success on the back of the album's nominal title cut, "Welcome to the Boomtown." Baerwald's talents were evident from the outset and this surprising radio hit remains an evocative work not entirely constrained by its historical context.
Instead of burdening the backing track with an assortment of broad-brushed lyrical conceits, Baerwald's surgical focus fixes its concerns on narrative specifics. He draws characters, but never belabors them. Hemingway's Iceberg Theory for writing fiction applies here and Ms. Cristina and Handsome Kevin leap into vivid life thanks to Baerwald's instinct for significant detail. The lyrics likewise reject ornamentation, theatrics, and poetic flourishes in favor of a realistic approach.
His partnership with David Ricketts produced a scathing and intelligent examination of American culture in the 1980's, but it's likewise an album of uneasy marriages. Baerwald's gritty first person narratives are forever butting heads with the glossy production. It isn't merely a matter of time dating what was once a vibrant soundscape for the album's songs. It's an unworkable contrast often leaving otherwise fine songs half-obscured in the sonic murk. As well, the realism of Baerwald's first person narratives is often butting aesthetic heads with the outsized choruses and other limitations of the form. Conforming to marketplace and genre conventions while still pursuing your personal vision is a careful balancing act between pandering and obscurity. David + David's Boomtown manages to keep its equilibrium as well, if not better, than many of their peers, but it isn't without struggle. The strongest songwriting overcomes these retrospective barriers and still wields considerable magic.
The duo's partnership dissolved after aborting plans for a second album, blank page blues. Baerwald's first solo album, Bedtime Stories, emerged in 1990 and demonstrated the hiatus between albums hadn't been a creatively fallow time. Instead, the narratives have richer depths than ever before and escape sharing space with the same dubious production decisions heard on its predecessor. It's impressive to hear how Baerwald expanded his canvas lyrically without ever sacrificing his style. This release marks a point of demarcation with the past where he fleshes out inklings of greatness on Boomtown into full-bodied, entertaining works of emotional complexity. Highlights include the opener "All for You" with its memorable characterizations and rousing chorus, the biting social criticism of "Liberty Lies," "Walk Through Fire" and the stark empathy of the album's closer, 'Stranger."
Baerwald's ascending critical reputation and frequent live work propelled him on to his sophomore solo release, Triage. The 1992 work is, arguably, his artistic peak as a recording artist and songwriter. Its conception as a multi-media endeavor with a musical recording and accompanying short film has become a bit more common, perhaps, since the early nineties, but at the time, Baerwald's bold vision reflected not just his growing ambition, but evolving confidence in his art.
In the two plus decades since its release, critics have often cited it as a forgotten or otherwise neglected gem. Such plaudits are usually self-congratulatory nonsense intended to burning journalistic reputations. Triage, however, carries its age and respect well. Some of the album’s then-topical references, particularly on "The Got No Shotgun Hydra Head Octopus Blues," practically require annotations for younger audiences.
Triage continues overcoming flaws like this thanks to it representing the full flowering of Baerwald’s talents. Perhaps his greatest gift as a writer, a ventriloquist-like talent for credibly invoking an array of different voices, drives the material. Vitriol, sharpened to a monopoint, dominates Triage’s first half. The opener, "A Secret Silken World," glides past full of understated predatory menace, but the darkness soon boils over. It fuels the guitar-driven fury of "The Got No Shotgun Hydra Head Octopus Blues," the relentlessly inhuman pulse of "Nobody," an ever-timely examination of institutionalized cruelty delivered from an urban police officer’s point of view. Baerwald’s nuanced songwriting in this song finds his character totally complicit in a fallen world. The seething narrator goes out to meet the public with more than contempt prior to investigation; he sees himself as an inoculating agent standing in way of a plague. Fierce percussion and fragmented instruments propel Baerwald’s lung-draining verbal gymnastics in "The Waiter" and the first half culminates the apocalyptic funk of "AIDS and Armageddon," a Hunter S. Thompson-esque romp into blackly-comic corners of American life.
Four of five songs on the album’s first half are, in essence, dramatic monologues set to music. The final two, "The Waiter and "AIDS and Armageddon," are highlights and take two distinctly different approaches to this idea. The former is a claustrophobic tour de force with improbable, but shockingly precise, rhymes tumbling from Baerwald at a frantic clip. The minimalist chorus, oddly, might be the song’s canniest passage. Its wide-eyed plea for connection tempers the wordplay in the verses and emotionally deepens the song.
The album’s second half takes a distinct turn in mood and character, but the darkness doesn’t immediately relent. Baerwald foregoes the musical belligerence of the album’s first half for a more muted approach on the second. "The Postman," an enigmatic lyric open to a variety of interpretations, doesn’t flirt with any sort of specificity until its concluding verse. The spoken word intonation of his delivery near the end pulls the passage perilously close to authorial intrusion. The high caliber writing, so often with Baerwald, renders questionable judgments like this moot.
Triage’s final masterpiece in miniature, "A Bitter Tree," owes much of its audible strengths to deceptively basic fundamentals. The juxtaposition of moody, but unquestionably radiant, guitar work set against Baerwald’s pitch-black lyric creates a compelling dynamic. The three line verses adopt the traditional blues rhyme scheme culminating in a couplet long chorus. It’s an ideal structure for many reasons, but prominent among them is the additional concision it demands from songwriters. Baerwald limits his tools to further clarify his thoughts so he might drive deeper into the heart of dramatized experience.
Triage’s final trio of tracks is the sonic equivalent of leaves wafting to the ground after a storm. "China Lake" shares some tenuous spiritual ties to "A Bitter Tree" but its ultimate effect is elegiac, pastoral, and free from recrimination. Its muted acoustic strains and hushed intimacy couldn’t strike a stronger contrast with the dense production applied to "Brand New Morning" and"Born For Love". These final songs are cautiously optimistic pieces straddling an interesting dichotomy between our knowledge that the world is a difficult, violent place while still possessing the ability and desire to reaffirm our most human of qualities.
Following Triage’s release, Baerwald found himself increasingly in demand for soundtrack work for television and film. He co-scored notable films like Hurlyburly and received a Golden Globe nomination for his song "Come What May" from the 2001 hit Moulin Rouge. His independently released 1999 collection A Fine Mess is a mammoth 28 song outing featuring Baerwald in his latest incarnation as bandleader of the New Folk Underground. As with any project of such scale, there is a risk of diffusion and A Fine Mess, as its title concedes, shamelessly sprawls with unruly creativity.
However, A Fine Mess contains some of Baerwald’s finest songs. Writing like "The Toughest Whore in Babylon," "Paddy Chayefsky’s Dead" and "The Crash" demonstrates Baerwald’s continued evolution since Triage. Baerwald returned to the public eye fronting the New Folk Underground on 2002’s Here Comes the New Folk Underground.
A number of songs that first appeared on A Fine Mess returned, in slightly altered form, for the new album. His cover of "Hellbound Train" (the spiritual, not Savoy Brown) highlighted A Fine Mess and Baerwald positioned it as one of the new album’s key moments. "Bozo Weirdo Wacko Creep" reappears and shows how Baerwald has recast his savage, Triage-like satire into subtler and stripped-down musical vehicles. "The Crash" retains every not of its painful, understated power from its earlier version. Baerwald’s songwriting collaborators on the album, among them famed American poet Wyn Cooper, further show Baerwald’s commitment to working with strong artistic partners. On Here Comes the New Folk Underground, his commitment results in a solid effort and reaffirmation of Baerwald’s talents.
The years following its release have been fruitful. Baerwald has continued his work as a respected composer for film and television. In 2015, Baerwald announced plans to crowd source funding for his next fifth solo album. The planning stages for the project reunited Baerwald with former songwriting partner David Ricketts and the pair soon decided to renew their collaboration for the new work.
Some legacies cannot be measured in cents and column inches. Baerwald came of age in an era when the imprimatur of songwriter carried a different weight. It isn’t starry-eyed romanticism to claim so, but a clear-eyed recognition of where we have traveled as a culture since 1986. Baerwald has traveled with us and turned his keen, encompassing eye towards chronicling our modern Infernos, joys, and the heart’s secret chambers where all illusions fade out.
Also see our David Baerwald interview
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