Beautiful Mistakes

A review of "Songs for When You Think You Made a Mistake" by R.M. Slinky:

In 1994, Russell David completed and released his first homespun album for Simple Music--a little low-fi classic he called "Homeade." Those of us who were around in those days remember the energy, the magic, the impressive insanity, of writing and recording such inconsequential songs; let alone actually expecting that other people would listen and care. But David didn't stop. Year after year, cassette after cassette, cd after cd, we marveled at the naivete, the arrogance, the singlemindedness, of this nobody, with his little 4-track and guitar, who just wouldn't give up.

For these reasons, and others, I've been a fan of David for most of the ten years he's been doing music. I've watched as he's hammered and tinkered and prodded his unique vision. I've watched him grow as a musician. I've watched him struggle, and hurt, and work toward his conceptual ideal, always succeeding in part, always remaining miles off, taking on water with land just in sight. And like the eye of a storm, "Songs for when you think you made a mistake," David's ninth album, finally gets it right--a treasure of longing, sung with a heavy heart and wide eyes.

This is the best album Russell David has ever made, and from the sound of things, he's paid for it with his own flesh and heart and emotional well-being; the collective weight of years of seemingly endless failure finally giving birth. But for an album written beneath the shroud of undisclosed personal turmoil and life disruption, these songs, strangely, are not nearly as dark or as hopeless as David himself describes them to be. Surely, there are familiar themes: loss, regret, isolation; all expressed in various modes and methods of undress. But there's something new breathing in these songs, something complete, something whole, a synthesis, the distillation of personal gesamtkunstwerk.

In reality, the album is not an abstract expression of such academic artistic defintions. "Songs for When you Make a Mistake," from beginning to end, is a about a feeling. It has an immediate connection, a familiarity, which is not per se, something new for David. Arguably some of his most impressive songs have been mined from similar pits of alienation, hurt, loneliness, and rage. Such evocative songwriting, is, indeed, his forte, so it's unsurprising to hear similar things rise again in new form. Nor is it hard to conjure a list full of emotional beauties from the Russell David canon: from 1997's beautiful ode to loss "I'm so Glad (I never made a firm decision)," off the tragically misunderstood "You Me We" disc, to the cold surrender of "Breathe Deep," on 1999's "I wish I was Beautiful." David has always written powerful and emotional songs, but never before has he sustained such a level of emotional intimacy for such an extended period. Never before has he been so effortlessly relevant. This prolonged moment, this cohesion, is the true achievement of of the album.

From the haunting humility of the opening track, "How to Survive the Bad Times Ahead," we know we're in a new world. The earnest sweetness of the song seems to linger over the entire cd as a prayer, a meditation, washing us with knowledge, responsibility, and compassion. "I don't always know how to navigate all these strategies and plans / and maintain goodness on the other hand." This profoundly simple desire to do (and be) good seeps into every corner and crevice and quiet moment. "It's hard to be alive" David seems to say. A childish idea that could easily be made trivial in the hands of others, is here magnified, crystallized, and made human. And we believe. This theme returns blatantly throughout the cd, most notably in "Sometimes," a religious song in the Russell David tradition, a sort of humanistic manifesto that bleeds with the desire to understand, to transcend, to connect. The thrust is interestingly not against traditionalism, instead focusing on individual action and self-awareness. David looks at his own motives, his own desires, and leads by example: "if you live in love then you know god / and I do sometimes / and other times, well you know" powerfully admitting to his own fallen humanity despite the best of intentions.

Throughout the disc, the songs are simple, uncluttered, with space to breathe and stretch and feel. There's a fresh clarity and power, almost surely the result of the sheer nakedness of David's vocal performance. Unlike anything he's ever done before, David let's go on these songs. We hear his voice anew, as if the cerebral weight and poignancy, always present in his writing, has been set free, sprouted wings, and lifted itself from the bonds of gravity. Throughout so much of this record we hear a man singing to himself, banging on the walls around him, screaming to be let out, heart in his throat, unconcerned with who hears. The contrast is amazing. For a low-fi geek who started his musical life as a thin-voiced, talk-singing, Bob Dylan/Lou Reed wannabe, this is no small transformation. David is resolute, alive, reborn. A "Brand New Man" indeed.

The stripped down Mario Yee mix seems to be aware of this, drawing David's voice to the front of each song, accentuating the personal character, humanizing, letting David's new-found ferocity drip from our eardrums. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on "Parable of the Talents," the pounding, emotional, highpoint of the album, a resolute declaration of self-motivation and purpose, a fierce, don't-you-dare-tell-me-I-can't message to a doubting world: "the price of change / some say aint worth the pain / but I guess it depends on how much you want what you want / like me I cannot play / and like me I cannot sing / but see how I still do my thing / here it goes again" David tells us hes free, he can see, and the ghosts (presumably of self doubt and fear) will not stop him. I, for one, am supremely glad to hear it.

R.M. Slinky is a free-lance journalist and long-time friend of Simple Music. He can be regularly found as a contributor, and musical editor, for the bi-monthly publication, "Marxist Revolt Today."