In an old interview for Salon.com from 1997, Mark Eitzel said he wrote songs about love, disconnected from external events. This is certainly true of his latest album, Don’t Be A Stranger, his first since 2009’s Klamath and the ill-fated reunion of American Music Club, Eitzel’s old band. There is no mention of the heart attack Eitzel suffered in spring 2011 and just about the only political reference, to “the coming doom of the USA,” is immediately skewered as a topic Eitzel promises he will talk about to ensure a good time at a party.
The album starts out very strong with “I Love You But You’re Dead,” a narrative about seeing a singer in a dingy rock club. Eitzel’s gives a sharply drawn sketch of Leadpipe the concert promoter, with the music swelling then breaking during the chorus when the beautiful singer gives Eitzel the cryptic titular message. The song establishes a pattern that Eitzel follows on a number of other tracks of an abrupt ending, in this case on a non-sequitur about “holding a gun in a video game.” Even “Why Are You With Me,” which ends with a repeated chorus of “I’ve never been loved/the way that you love” feels like it’s got a couple of more verses in it but runs out of steam.
Most of the songs on the album have lush, complex arrangements, anchored by piano, drums, and acoustic guitars and complimented by strings, found sound, female backing vocals and zither on “Break the Champagne.” “All My Love” and closer “Nowhere to Run” feature Eitzel backed by just an acoustic guitar and strings that crescendo as the song progresses and “We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out” is just piano and vocal. On these three, Eitzel’s voice reaches for a confessional style similar to Nick Drake.
Overall, Don’t Be A Stranger has a loungey feel to it, and not necessarily in a bad way, making it reminiscent of Lambchop or even Morphine in the darker songs. Eitzel’s lyrics are complimented by the arrangements – he’s not saying something concrete in a lot of these songs but more musing on a few subjects: loneliness, inadequacy, despair. On “Oh, Mercy” he begs to be invited to a party and brings “imported beer,” in the next line commenting that “it’s far too easy to be alone/it’s far too easy to disappear.” This is one of the strengths of Eitzel’s lyric writing: switching back and forth between the personal narrative and the more general.
The fact that a lot of the songs end abruptly fits this approach quite well, giving the album a stream of consciousness quality that feels very intimate. The music helps with this: deceptively upbeat in its lounginess with darkness haunting underneath, not unlike Scott Walker’s work on the Scott 1-4 albums. Things aren’t outright terrible as they were in American Musical Club days but neither are they as rosy as they seem as Eitzel’s costumed Disney character “waves and smiles but looks no one in the eye.” In “We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out” he asks “you talk of suicide, well hooray/and yeah that used to be me but now what do I say?” It is the sound of someone who has pulled himself from the edge only to realize he is not sure where to walk back to.
If there’s any problem at all with the 11 songs on the album, it is that they could benefit from some of the muscle found in the American Music Club material. The loungey vibe starts to grow old when it feels like Eitzel is merely musing rather than giving us a strong story to hang onto. If the songs progressed a bit more in terms of dynamics, they might give a good sense of contrast to the static plane Eitzel seems to inhabit these days. This is a minor criticism however. Don’t Be A Stranger is an incredibly well written and produced album full of songs that reveal more and more on each listen.