by Matt Meade
I have been trying to write this review for weeks now. It’s been difficult because the Christian imagery of this week’s artist forces me to overthink every reaction I have to every part of the music. Someday I’ll write about my complex relationship with Christianity and how I am simultaneously drawn to and repelled by artists who struggle with the concepts of heaven and hell, faith and atheism, belief and doubt. I am putting it off because I know that once I get started it will turn into some Book of Kells length document that no one will want to read.
Until that day, I’ll just listen to Youngest Son.
Youngest Son is the passion (in more ways than one) project of Steve Slagg, a Chicago musician who moonlights with a very good Chicago Indie band called Mooner, (stay tuned for that Never Heard of Em…). Slagg has two releases under the Youngest Son name so far.
All Saints’ Day, released in 2012, is his first full length and it is a traditional, big splash of a debut in a lot of ways.
It is lyrically and musically ambitious, but it is measured in its approach and the songs are presented in a neat and accessible way. A host of talented musicians, banjo players, cellists, drummers, and vocalists, traipse through the studio on the carefully planned out record and they are used to great effect. The record was well received by press outlets and Slagg has used the impact to begin carving out a following.
I prefer the
2010 (2011) EP Pigshit and Glowing to the more polished All Saints Day. The EP is a little informal (how could it not be with a title like that) and on it Slagg’s voice cracks, his piano groans, and he feels free to take chances. The songs are amalgams of stories about people he knows mashed together out of context. There is urgency present in these songs, like he didn’t plan to write them, like they just came out fully formed.
Slagg’s lyrics aspire to convention, but they often spiral into a conversational style. The juxtaposition of these two constructions creates a fascinating tone, and incidentally one that would have been unheard of a decade ago. Because of Sufjan Stevens and The Mountain Goats, you can do stuff like this now. You can juxtapose song lyricy lyrics like, “And the confessions we make / We make them together / And when our bodies change / We’re all changed together,” and almost prose like lyrics like,
I used to write lesbian bookworm erotica
and no one bothered me then
in fact, I got 500 hits a day
marched in the Annapolis Pride Parade
where we handed out rosaries
These lines come from a song Slagg wrote about a gay, female, chaste, Christian apologist. This is the kind of lyrical territory most writers never map out and to which even the most daring writers only allude. The rest of the song describes even more highly specific episodes in the life of this female character who Slagg is temporarily embodying. The song is a web of contradictions more difficult to untangle than your iPhone earbuds after they’ve been in the pocket of your sweatshirt all day.
The defiantly prose-like lyrics touch on well-worn topics, such as the death of a loved one, like in “Craters of the Moon,” but do so in a way that is unique. Slagg unpacks the loss of his father through the memory of a car trip they took together when the man was alive.
Yeah, I was horny, lost and self-effacing
You just stared, slack-jawed at God’s creation
We didn’t know. Lord, how could we have known?
That death was bubbling up from underneath your skin …
And now I drive West to Portland, Oregon
Cuz there are things you just beat up until they’re gone
Like how you went home to Heaven without me
And how I’m driving in a car that is empty
In these songs God comes up in unexpected places, the way he does when you believe. It seems to surprise even Slagg when God makes himself known in the landscape, or when he ends up in Portland, while his father takes up residence in Heaven.
But it’s not just his lyrics. There is something about the arrangements and his tone of voice that push any song he sings into a territory between catharsis and orgasm.
His most transcendent song is a cover of a little known song by sulky indie darlings The National, called “Baby, We’ll be Fine.” It almost sounds like the song starts with the same non-diegetic MOOG synth that Kanye West uses to open My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s like the song has to come into focus for us and for Slagg. When the piano chords begin, organic and real, rescuing us from pop-music’s disaffectedness, they resonate in a more profound way than most songs ever come close to achieving.
Slagg is able to simultaneously elevate this cover, and pull it down to his intimate level. He is having fun, almost winking when he sings the borrowed line, “say something perfect, something I can steal.” He is more present than the lead singer of The National, Matt Berninger, whose style is built around a cool and removed baritone. Slagg uses his own vibrant and joyful voice to breathe life into the infamous monotone of Berningner’s lyrics, adding an excitement where for Berninger there is only malaise. Berninger is bored when he says, “Baby, come over, I need entertaining,” but when Slagg says, “I pull off your jeans, and you spill jack and coke in my collar,” it is colored by the excitement of young person still thrilled by the transgression and novelty of a drunken sexual experience.
When Slagg gets to the end of the song he screams in a theatrical way, but not in a fake way. He screams in a dramatically heightened way, the way you might see in a Broadway play. The scream is like the screamed apology of Mark Wahlberg’s character from Fear, if Fear were adapted as a musical.
It’s the kind of scream that would unnerve you and make you glad when it’s over, but glad you heard it. Glad that unnamable thing was tugged out of you.
It’s the scream that tells you everything you need to know about this artist. That scream is his Christianity, his sexuality, his theatricality and his intimacy all at odds with one another. He is neurotic, repressed, aching to explode. I have a lot of other things I could say about this artist. Instead I’ll end by offering the following vastly unhelpful, yet obligatory comparisons to other artists:
Like Lady Gaga if she were at all conflicted about her sexuality (like even a little).
Like Perfume Genius but happier… which makes it more sad somehow.
Like Tom Waits if he used recording equipment from this century, and took a throat lozenge every once in a while.
Label: I don’t know. Who even cares anyway?
Upcoming Show: River City Roasters in Wheaton on Friday, May 9th.
Best Track: (and by best track I mean, the track I can’t stop listening to) “Craters of the Moon”