I first heard Mark Eitzel’s voice when I was 14 years old, on the Homestead “Human Music” tape comp I bought at Tunerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The song was from Eitzel’s then-band, American Music Club, and it had a line about “Michael Jackson’s on his knees…I’m in heaven now…Am I drunk enough yet?” and, with the fragile tenor singing, it was easily the saddest and greatest thing of my month. I’m trying to be honest here—I was 14; the sad and the great were coming swift and endless. So it was just one high point in the long woosh of tears and erections that is adolescence. But it made me a fan for life.
Mark Eitzel is playing solo now and his voice is not what it was; it’s better. He says that, back then, he wanted to be the “fucked up voice of destiny,” but as he’s gotten older, he just wants to hit the notes. Like every other sentence that comes out his mouth, he’s selling himself short. The man’s self-effacement is straight out of a Saul Bellow (without the weird racism) and as I spoke to him, I felt an urge to compete with him. It’s not an easy chat with two dudes who just want to run themselves down. I’m glad his boyfriend and my girlfriend weren’t listening in; the collective eye-rolling would have brought down the moon. As this was mid-Palmer/Albini-gate, I have to say Eitzel was far kinder about every minor celebrity I tried to get him to shit talk. I really dug his tendency to use “Oh, God bless her/him” as interchangeable shorthand for either insult or compliment. I think I’m going to affect it; “Seth MacFarlane? Oh, God bless him!” See? It’s completely darling.
Eitzel has a new record coming out October 2nd on Merge called Don’t Be A Stranger. It’s a quieter work than his songs with American Music Club, with hints of Nick Drake, Antony, and Bill Fay, and yet much more tuneful than his ‘90s solo records. It’s almost a continuation of his early/mid-career cover of "There Is No Easy Way Down," which is to say it is melancholy but not so off putting-ly depressive that it’s exclusively for cutters. It’s a record for the early morning—either waking up to it or going to bed.
Don’t Be a Stranger isn’t overtly political, and far be it from me to dip my toe into the “personal is political so good for you and your fucking bike” miasma, but I do see meaning in many of the songs where Eitzel’s alienation is as much from his country as those immediately around him. In songs like “Oh Mercy,” the narrator is clearly the crank at the party, ranting about fascism when everyone just wants to do shots. Mark told me that, yeah, his guy, Jeremy, has more than once had to drag him away from a full-on rant. As with everything else, Eitzel told me this like it was an apology, but I fucking LOVE that guy at the party. Growing up surrounded by communists and ex-communists has given me the strong belief that parties are where you go to fight, so the undercurrent of romantic disillusionment on a national scale that runs through the entire record is a good thing.
And romantic as hell is what the new record is. Even when he wonders, repeatedly, “Why are you with me?” it’s not really that much of a mystery. My mom told me years ago, during some usual bullshit with broken furniture, that guys and girls have always been drawn to a damaged sad dude who can say it clever. (My mom is a bit clever herself.) But there are few lyricists around, living or dead, who can match Mark Eitzel for clever words on love and its discontents. “Clever” can be a mixed bag, and he himself calls his old songs “manipulation” and “bits of fakery,” but that’s a con itself. You can’t trust a singer to know when he’s telling the truth. The darkness of the songs is softened by the sweetness of the singing and the warmth of the production. There’s almost a Bill Withers vibe to how, while love’s pitfalls are never far from view, you know that when you pass out, you’re going to wake up in the right person’s arms. Someone just needs to make coffee and say they’re sorry. Anyway, I couldn’t care less if the new songs are “true” or not. They get to a truth about love and they express a truth about love and they are great goddamned love songs. Like he told me, while talking about getting over the “long view of humanity” and trying to keep the music down to earth and lovely: “If it’s gonna be sad anyway, make it soulful.”
Mark Eitzel is going on tour in November. In the meantime, here’s a song off the new record for download!
Mark Eitzel - "I Love You But You're Dead"
Oh yeah, and it was determined Eitzel should get some advice from friends concerning the new album. Check out these super helpful clips…