Goddamned

Jay Brannan

Great Depression Records, 2008

http://www.jaybrannan.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/01/2009

I debated for a good half an hour whether to review this one myself or send it on to one of our staff writers.  When new music comes in over the DV transom, I always try to match it with the person on our staff who I think is best equipped to appreciate it -- and the gulf between middle-aged, suburban-dad me and twentysomething, gay, New York City singer-songwriter Jay Brannan is considerable.

But to employ the obvious pun, Goddamned if these songs didn’t capture my attention.  (I mean, let’s face it -- is there a more on-the-nose rhyme in the English language than “suicidal” and “American Idol”?)

Imagine a musical mind-meld of David Wilcox, John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams and you’ve got a clue as to what Jay Brannan sounds like.  Always sharply witty, often achingly poignant and at times laugh-out-loud funny, Brannan’s songs capture moment after moment that feels devastatingly real.  The instrumentation is basic folk, acoustic guitars and fiddle and the occasional piano and percussion, and Brannan’s vocals have a clarity and richness that reminds me a lot of Wilcox.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The quality of the songs is what makes this album special, though.  Songs like “Can’t Have It All” and “Half-Boyfriend” present emotional dilemmas anyone can recognize -- wanting more than you can have, and living through a torturous relationship limbo between friend and lover -- from a perspective that’s unfamiliar to many.  But the perspective isn’t what brings these songs to life -- it’s the richness of Brannan’s storytelling and the sharp-eyed observations he delivers.

“A Death Waltz” is sort of a portrait of the artist as a young death-obsessed neurotic, full of wonderfully acerbic lines like “it's 12 years later / I'm more of a child than I was back then.”  Things take a turn for the sunny with the sweet, rather James-Taylor-ish “At First Sight,” and even moreso -- for awhile -- in the gorgeous “Housewife.”  The latter song feels like a solid nominee for a gay marriage anthem right up until the twist Brannan throws in at the end.

The title track is a song that’s unlikely to win Brannan any friends in the religious community -- an artful broadside against belief -- but it’s compellingly rendered and at its core at least as anti-war as it is anti-faith.  A couple of other songs here -- I’m thinking particularly of “Bowlegged And Starving” and “On All Fours” -- will similarly test their audiences’ limits, but all three share a bracing, fearless honesty, and Brannan’s acoustic leads on the latter tune are nothing short of superb.

Goddamned closes on a snarky note with the “String-A-Long Song,” a winding narrative full of sharp turns of phrase and self-lacerating commentary.  Ouch, that hurt.  But that seems to be somewhat of Brannan’s point with this album: life is messy and painful and full of longing and absurdity, and part of the way you get through it is by laughing in the right places -- and maybe crying in a few, too.

Rating: A-

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