It’s always tricky when an artist gets kicks the hard stuff. Of course it’s a great thing that said artist has found, if not happiness and tranquility, then at least a sense of stability and footing against whatever forces had been dragging them toward The Great Abyss. But when it comes to their art, well, unfortunately it often takes a bit of a dive in the cold, harsh light of newfound sobriety. Perhaps the headlong careen toward that Great Abyss was informing and coloring their output in profound ways. Perhaps it dulled their weaker artistic impulses and cut down the inhibitions and self doubt that cause the artist to freeze up and question their instincts. Perhaps they were simply having more fun on that downward slide than they are with the new struggles of the upswing, with their art taking on some of the ensuing awkward weight. For some reason this phenomenon is the most surface level in music, that bastion of dissolute youth, and from Eric Clapton to Gucci Mane to Aerosmith to Steve Earl, you can draw a distinct border between “the old stuff” and “the new stuff”, with “the old stuff” always carrying the larger cult.
And then there’s Anton Newcombe.
Essentially a one-man-band, Newcombe has been keeping The Brian Jonestown Massacre alive and rollicking for well over 20 years at this point, growing the BJM brand into a psychedelic institution that can sell out large venues across the planet and has arguably spawned today’s rich tapestry of neo-psych bands and trippy vape-and-mushroom psych festivals from Austin to Liverpool. A highly charismatic, yet exceedingly productive, train wreck in the BJM early years (chances are if you’re reading this you already know all the stories, so we’ll leave those silent), Anton has spent the past half-dozen-or-so years dead sober in Berlin with his own studio and has, through a singular dogged work ethic and a viciously guarded inspirational reserve, managed to beat the odds and produce a run of terrific post-sobriety albums. These aren’t just “Well, they don’t hurt the legacy” albums. They are a bonafide career peak that, from 2014’s solid and confident Revelation through the sprawling, synth-laced Third World Pyramid and Don’t Get Lost to last year’s back-to-basics Something Else, has matched the legendary late-’90s run that solidified Newcombe’s legacy.
This new self-titled record is yet another winner. One of the many golden lessons Anton seems to have learned as a sober individual is the essential element of conciseness. Like Something Else, this one is only nine tracks deep, with its taut design maximizing its impact, and the immaculate song sequencing certainly underwent a heavy study. There’s a scene in the infamous DIG! documentary where Anton, standing shirtless in the golden LA sunshine outside some studio, expounds on the importance of song sequencing on albums. “We have to put this one as the next track,” he says. “That opening riff will blow up their speakers!” Listening to this new offering proves that Mr. Newcombe still subscribes to this methodology, gleefully sabotaging peaceful, trance-like moments with explosions of those trademark BJM lurching riffs that threaten any set of earbuds, or eardrums, that stand in their way.
Also like Something Else, this is a bringin’ it all back home album of that delicious old school prophetic BJM psych rock that filled …And This Is Our Music and other Jonestown staples, but there’s a focus and maturity on display here that give these nine bangers a gloss and sheen missing from the swinging-for-the-fences “go for it”-isms of the early records. “Drained” kicks things off with a playful, almost New Order melody line of ringing acoustic major chords and a propulsive tempo that works to mask painful pronouncements such as the “I want love, but I can’t stand pain” of the chorus. While he was mostly content to strum on the early BJM albums, Anton has become something of an unlikely guitar god, and the off-kilter, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it solo on this track is all the proof you need. “Tombes Oubliées” is the kind of tranced-out sway that has minted the BJM legacy, and “My Mind Is Full Of Stuff” continues Newcombe’s intriguing late-period tradition of utilizing well-placed instrumental tracks to set an album’s pace. Things really kick into gear with “Cannot Be Saved”, an instant BJM classic with a circular guitar line that could be a contender for the Top Ten Anton Riffs list. The man may be a clear-headed working father these days, but in lyrics such as “Up all night, cannot go to sleep, cuz’ when I close my eyes, they’re watching me” lies proof that paranoia is a living, breathing entity which may be enhanced by certain substances but never truly dies after they’re no longer in the bloodstream.
A cacophony of what sounds like 35 guitars stacked right on top of one another, “A Word” lurches and kicks in a time signature all its own. This is the type of track that would have been lost in the muck and sprawl of the early records, but here in the newfound economical light of the late BJM era it becomes the chaotic centerpiece/vortex of the album. “We Never Had A Chance” rises up as a grand, sweeping monolith, its lush settings offset with bummer in the summer lyricism such as “Don’t be surprised when you wake up and they tell you you’re dead” and “The motherfuckers never stop drilling holes in your head”.
Something Else contained, with its first track “Hold That Thought”, one of Anton Newcombe’s best ever songs, which is quite an accomplishment 17 records into a career. Here on Self Titled he manages to pull off another one in “To Sad To Tell You”, a stomping and defiant, yet exceedingly sad, blues stormer that any aging scenester will instantly take to heart. “Remember when life was fun, and you could still hang out, and people would buy what you had to sell?” Why yes, Anton, a legion of us do recall that very fondly, and not a single one of us could have expressed it any better than that. A signature of Newcombe’s songwriting is that he never seems to wallow in self pity, in this case kicking out against the constraints of age and life circumstance and dimming horizons with the colossal and all-encompassing confidence of an artist who knows he’s operating at the peak of his powers.
Long live The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and we shall wear out this exceedingly rich and expertly executed new offering until the next one which, knowing Anton as well as we do, should be out by next week.