Vulnerable and Volatile: Mark Eitzel

Songwriters, being a restless breed, often look in odd corners of the human condition to find their muse. There are those who seek no further than the headlong rush of falling in love with love for their inspiration. Others look with humor at the idiosyncrasies in everyday life. And there are others still who idealize the surfaces of emotions as the stuff of which art -- or at least "artistic" commerce -- is made. But there is another sort, too, the songwriter who looks long and hard into the shadows to find the sweetness life has to offer there and reports back from the murk.Mark Eitzel is one of the latter. Since 1985, with his former band the American Music Club -- with whom he recorded nine albums -- and as a solo artist who has recently released his second outing, West, Eitzel has spoken from a terrain marked by characters for whom loneliness, brokenness, substance abuse, melancholy, loss, dark humor and hopelessness are the fabric of everyday life. But he has never been content to wallow there needlessly. Eitzel's particular gift lies in finding and celebrating the tenderness and redemption in such states, and in citing the changes he finds there, no matter how small they appear, as significant and life-altering. It's a particular kind of gift, one that has been celebrated by critics and cherished by a small but growing number of fans since the beginning of his career. But Eitzel's subjects are not ones that necessarily generate widespread sales or mass audiences who may like their music a bit less, well, loaded."I have tried to be accessible, though not to a fault. It's just that I like music that is going to change your life," he has said. "Things like soul music, which nobody seems to listen to anymore. They'd rather smile at the TV than understand their lover is crying. I can't accept that. I write songs because I want to change my life."Eitzel has been well aware of music's life-changing power from the beginning. On his solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining, he always seemed to go deeper and deeper with his idiosyncratic method of writing (he seldom repeated choruses and chose off-metered phrasings) and his emotionally volatile lyrical content. So deep, in fact, that he sometimes left the listener at the margins of his narratives and their uncompromising bleakness.After the critical acceptance and commercial failure of 60 Watt Silver Lining, Eitzel was looking around for a new musical language. He sought one that would not sacrifice his particular vision, but would nonetheless open up his melodic and compositional palette to engender some new listeners.On West, the first fruit of that search, Eitzel teamed up with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck after a chance meeting in Seattle. The pair wrote West's 12 songs in just three days and then called in a band Buck had been working with called Tuatara and a few other guests to help with the recording. The result is an album of buoyant melodies, chock-full of rock sophistication, with a touch of West Coast jazz and an almost (Burt) Bacharachian sense of pop elegance.It is also balanced. While the music seems more welcoming, Eitzel's lyrical bent remains unchanged. He still sings -- with greater empathy and gentleness than most -- from the place where the long shadows fall. He may sing a chorus like "I'm gonna move myself ahead" over and over in a sweeping crescendo of jangly accessibility, but he closes the refrain with, "I don't know how." And in his quest to tell stories that are authentic, he reveals not only himself but perhaps the unspeakable sentiments that exist inside us as well. On "Three Inches Of Wall" (with an organ line and chord changes that resemble, for a moment, the Allman Brothers classic "Whipping Post" accented by marimbas and a killer sax solo), Eitzel sings without irony: "There is a song in the next room that we can't quite hear/and only three inches of wall that separates us from our fear/There is a love in the next room that I can't quite hear/and only three inches of wall separates me from my fear." It is a moment fraught with honesty, one that reveals with nearly embarrassing vulnerability the inability to take the step that, to paraphrase James Wright, could make us "break into blossom." West treats all of its protagonists, and therefore us as listeners, in that manner. We may be able to warm to the tune quicker because of an overall friendlier melodic structure, but we still need to allow Eitzel's lyrics inside us and let them do their work.Those who have seen Eitzel solo, accompanied only by his guitar, know how tense these shows can be as he confronts his songs one by one for all to see. He performs without a net or an excuse. This Friday's show is a rare chance to encounter, in a live setting, Eitzel's singular gift for reporting from the murkier rooms inside the heart's own palace.(Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor.)

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