1) True Love Cast Out All Evil, by Roky Erickson
Sometimes you are crazy and nobody knows it. Roky Erickson did enough LSD as a member of The 13th Floor Elevators that the transition to full-blown schizophrenia was missed by most or passed over as “freak” behavoir. It took Erickson’s documented onstage breakdown, slobber and jibberish and all, to convince his peers that he was more than high. This theme of high-not-crazy continued when, after being sentanced to ten years of prison for the posession of a single joint, Roky pleaded insanity and landed himself in state-run mental institution. It took the intervention of his brother in 2001 to successfully get Roky proper help and social, financial, and professional stability. From the sixties to the present day, regardless of his status and stability, Roky made music with bands, made solo works, and was the subject of various musical tributes.
But, history and context non withstanding, what do you think “crazy” music sounds like? The most prominent barometers are Syd Barrett and Wesley Willis, the former making disjointed music on The Madcap Laughs that had to be “sanely” produced by Roger Waters and weirded up by The Soft Machine, the latter making boringly simple music that is recorded with an exploitative feel that brings on an unease every time I hear one of his songs(it is not lost on me that white-trash Okies that I knew loved Wesley Willis almost as much as they loved Kid Rock, who is “The R Word” in the colloquial sense). These albums fall in line with the stigma of people who suffer mental or emotional problems: an aural record of instability or medicated dulling.
You don’t get that with Roky Erickson’s music. His big hit with the 13th Floor Elevators, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, is no weirder than a Vanilla Fudge track, and his work after his stays in the mental institutions, especially The Evil One, sound like straight-ahead garage rock. His delivery of lyrics(rushed through and talk-y at times) and the lyrics themselves(zombies, aliens, werewolves, demons) seem more stylistic than “crazy”. His story of mental anguish is terrible, but I feel like the aural record doesn’t paint him as out of control or simple; or, maybe better put, no more so than we expect from all of our rock-and-rollers.
It is said that a sign of lunacy is doing something over and over. And this is where Okkervil River and Will Scheff come in, and here is where True Love Cast Out All Evil was made, an album different but brilliant.
I think it’s fair to say that Okkervil River’s leader, Will Sheff, has two musical obstacles that he gets better and better at overcoming as you listen cronologically to their albums: the over-emotive climax in some of his vocal deliveries, and the fact that he’s just not that good of a singer. Songs from early albums, like “Kansas City” and “For The Enemy”, have a blunt, unearned climax at their ends(still good songs, but would be excellent ones otherwise), but hearing the thematic closers “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”, from later albums, let you know that he understands better the need for an organic rise. The poor singing? It tends to sink into the narrative and become excusable, mainly because that’s where Will Sheff exceeds above most: his use of theme in the lyrics and instrumentation to create a real album experience, a true beginning and end, and a compelling arc in the musical and lyrical storytelling.
Will Sheff and Roky Erickson are both from Austin, but if Sheff was from Shitsburg he would still be the perfect choice as producer. True Love Cast Out All Evil is masterfully produced. Sandwiched between songs written by Erickson during his times in mental hospitals that seem to rise like fog from a feedback ether, Roky Erickson’s songs are painted carefully with the palette from Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy(organ, vibes, strings, trumpet, feedback) without taking away from the natural garage-rock feel of the music. Much like Sheff would want for his own often brilliant lyrics, the instrumentation perfectly compliments the lyrical theme of permanent love, difficult love, and spiritual connection. When the mood gets cleansed with the raucous “John Lawman”, the music follows suit with delayed and destroyed guitar riffs. How this album got less press than Jeff Tweedy producing Mavis Staples, for basically the same reason, on You Are Not Alone, is crazy to me.
Does True Love Cast Out All Evil sound “crazy”? Maybe a little, compared to the production value of Erickson’s other works, but no more so than Black Sheep Boy, certainly Okkervill River’s “craziest” album. The album experience ends with “God Is Everywhere”, a song recorded on a tape recorder in a mental hospital in the Seventies, with post-production strings decaying at the end. Crazy and beautiful; the combination of Roky’s straight-ahead rock singing with Sheff’s music stylings are a perfect match.
2) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, by Kanye West
Sometimes you are crazy and nobody knows it. Kanye West’s own identity gets mixed in with the ego- and megalomania that keeps both a rapper’s confidence in order and a rapper’s peers in check. Somewhere though, like a worked shoot in a Japanese wrestling circuit, West started doing things that seemed more than self promotion and beyond bravado and boasting; rushing stages, sending sexts of his wiener(decent-looking, but don’t stop the presses),and writing self-stylized philosophies handed out like a Hari Krishna in pamphlet form. I’m glad that West didn’t decide to pretend he was a street gangster(are we there yet, O’Shea?) which was his main stumbling block getting out of the gate in the rapper-not-producer part of his career, but maybe deciding to me the most self-centered of a profession that dares it’s workers to bring self centeredness to its most high, ballin’ conclusion was a poor choice.
But, is Kanye a rapper or a producer? His albums before Fantasy are decent, with a couple of hits a piece and a solid enough feel, but he is a producer by trade, and he made his fame that way first. This is the root of the “crazy” diagnosis, here: producers are back-of-the-house guys, realizing the difference between importance and prominence, like a good bass clarinetist, and being satisfied with a good beat and not the spotlight. Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin are great examples of the producer mentality. Rick Rubin did give Run-DMC their raw sound, but is as content to not be in the “rap” game(he truly saved Tom Petty’s life and career by producing Wildflowers beautifully, instead of Jeff Lynne producing it… um… Jeff-Lynnishly). Even if The Cronic was brilliant, it was more a branding venture for Dr. Dre than a career change; he is truly content to produce people like Snoop, Eminem, and Burt Bacharach. Kanye was unable to stay out of the spotlight though. His egomania was too much He did Dr. Dre in reverse, abandoning producing for the most part to promote himself as a rapper. Also, he got so jealous of the acclaim that John Brion got for his near solo co-production of Late Registration that Kanye never relied heavily on one co-producer ever again. Each album had a big enough hit to keep him going, but each album got progressively worse and worse, looser and looser, with worse and worse production value. Finally, after the public backlash of his escalating antics, Kanye West went to Hawaii to get away from the public and try a new angle.
It is said that a sign of lunacy is doing something over and over. And this is where The RZA and Justin Vernon come in, and here is where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was made, an album different but brilliant.
Ok, that last sentence is a bit romantic on my part. The truth is that the resulting brilliance of this album is that EVERYONE was there at one point or another, smoking Kona weed and validating Kanye’s vision of a sound collage. Q Tip, Madlib, Pete Rock, Kid Cudi, and Raekwon were all there, like professors at Hip Hop College. Kanye put his ego aside, however, and he treated everyone like peers. He took advise. He edited ideas that others thought were weak. Then, he was able to take those beats and ideas and really produce them. And Justin Vernon played the biggest part, dollars to doughnuts.
So important was Justin Vernon to Kanye West’s plan that he was going to leave the spliff-tastic island of Hip Hop Leauge and join Vernon in Wisconsin; only a serious snowstorm kept this from happening. Eventually Justin joined the group; I can only imagine what it was like for him; my immediate parallel is Quentin Tarrantino bringing in, as artistic consultant for the Kill Bill series, The RZA.
Pete Rock said in an interview during the making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that Kanye had musicians that took his “raggady beats” and turned them into full-fledged music segments; from the sound of the album and the lengts that West to make him a part, Justin Vernon’s role as one of those musicians was key to its success: Justin Vernon had already used Autotune unobtrusively in his albums; Kanye takes his singing, too raw and unabashed in 808’s and Heartaches, and transforms it electronically to match the backing digital filters. Vernon understands texture and layering as it applies to instrumentation; West allowed voices to come and go as they were impactful, not the constant hammering of an effect that we are used to(The first time you hear the Joni Mitchell slow-down sample on “Crazy”[or B.O.B.’s “Fuck The Money”, which is the same track]? Awesome. The twentieth time in the same song? I’m already annoyed before the song is over).
Where Justin Vernon added curvy flesh to the album, The RZA is the surly the one most responsible for how the bones were put together. If West needed permission, encouragement, or validation for the collage-type sound of the tracks, who better to give it to him? Already a supporter of West(once going so far as to call him his heir apparent), The RZA has produced the greatest barometers of the style Kanye aimed for: Enter The Wu-Tang, ODB’s Return To The 36 Chambers, and Iron Flag.
A song like “POWER” couldn’t work any other way. Piano comes and goes. The fuzzed-out octave bass is occasionally doubled my a low organ keyboard. Synth and strings added at the end, with a surprising “C” section of lyrics added. This followed by a live strings/piano/horn intro to “All of the Lights”. Without the cleverness of a compelling collage of music, it would be just a boring King Crimson sample and some clapping. The album even ends with a bizarrely placed tag of Gil Scott Heron reconstituting the beat from the previous song, “Lost In the World”, sampled from, and sung by, “Woods” from Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver ep, Blood Bank, a song comprised of Wilson’s voice Autotuned into a recursive haunt.
“Fine”, you might be saying, “but how does this make Kanye West ‘crazy’?” Oh, just you wait. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is brilliant, if you didn’t know(so good that you can forgive the silliness Chris Rock brings toward the end). All the critical acclaim is correct, and even well deserved. Kanye humbled himself to make it, though. Soon, Kanye will be releasing Watch The Throne, a collaboration album with Jay-Z. This album will be horrible. All the things that made Fantasy stylistically great will be missing. Jay-Z doesn’t know when enough is enough, as he has already proven(the barf-out Blueprint 3, pissing on his cred with sensitive screamers Linkin Park), and Kanye has already opened his mouth in old-fashioned self promotion. When he’s not the critical darling after this release, he’ll do something monumentally and publicly stupid. And that shit’s crazy.