In ¡Three Amigos!, it falls to a character played by Steve Martin, America’s most underrated philosopher, to rally the townspeople against the approaching villain, El Guapo. “I suppose you could say that everyone has an El Guapo,” he says. “For some, shyness may be an El Guapo. For others, lack of education may be an El Guapo. But for us, El Guapo is a large ugly man who wants to kill us.” For American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, love is El Guapo: an enemy he didn’t choose but can’t resist, who he knows damn well is gonna kick his ass.
This is not a new theme for the Walnut Creek, Calif., native and his storied Club, which re-formed this year after a decadelong breakup. What it did before is, of course, indie-rock history: construct baronial soundscapes for Eitzel’s gruffly voiced bar-stool apostrophes, most notably in a trio of near-perfect breakup albums, 1991’s Everclear, 1993’s Mercury, and 1994’s San Francisco. But unlike, say, the Divine Comedy, American Music Club never let its songs get swamped by orchestration. And though Eitzel may have been singing about Johnny Mathis’ teaching him to “disappear in the silk and amphetamine” while strings swirled and steel guitars whined, his sincerity was never in question, even as he cultivated a persona onstage and off- that leaned heavily on a porkpie hat, complicated facial hair, and snazzy vintage duds.
See, those affectations were necessary for Eitzel’s self-directed role as the outsider looking in on love, on pathos, on the rest of us who may or may not be having the same nasty luck he was—and who may or may not have been paying close enough attention to the man’s heroic and hopeless struggle in between our precious Polvo discs. Ten years later, with AMC’s audience finally grown into slow tempos and mordant wordplay, the question—besides whether the new album is any good or not, of course—is whether the band makes any sense as the adult-alternative act it always sounded like when it was playing in front of jaded indie rockers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time/For all the good that’s in you to shine,” Eitzel announces as the curtain opens on Love Songs for Patriots, sounding for all the world like the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town one suspects is about to go horribly off the rails. Any suggestion that he has mellowed, however, is immediately dispelled by the wicked fuzz bass, the way the piano piles noisily up on itself about two minutes in, and the line about how some mysterious bartender is waiting to “replace all your weak blood with wine.” If all that’s not proof enough, try “Ladies and Gentlemen”’s follow-up, “Another Morning,” a sweet little acid-dipped dart aimed at a stalled relationship. “Are you miserable, babe,” Eitzel asks over the strummy acoustic-guitar backing, “or are you just plain mean?”
The closest Love Songs gets to a title track is “Patriot’s Heart,” a music-hall-tinted portrait of an aging male stripper. “He don’t look that good,” Eitzel sings bemusedly, “but he’s got an all-American smile that fills his underwear/With all the lonely dollars from all the lonely men who no one ever suffers.” From there, it gets kind of grim: Eitzel’s theory is that the polemeister’s sale of embraces—“the undertaker’s art”—is analogous to modern politics’ reliance on big spenders and shady dealings. “Aw, come on, grandpa, remind me what we’re celebrating!” Eitzel shouts in character, noting approvingly later on that the song’s subject “does it for the money but gives more than he’s given.” “The Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom” is similarly bleak, foretelling an alcoholic’s inevitable early funeral with the contempt only a fellow rummy can affect: “For most of us, love is only a part in a cartoon,” Eitzel exclaims in a soliloquy that also touches on Ed McMahon, Baptists, and heroin.
Love Songs for Patriots proves once and for all that when it comes to the politics of loneliness, Eitzel is the closest thing pop music has to Karl Rove. He may be manipulating his shadow puppets on a stage of bars with “sweating mirrors”—and to be sure, there’s an unsavory whiff to the way AMC’s songs are supposed to feel devastating, with their red-velvet pomp and over-the-top emotion. But there’s no denying that Eitzel usually gets the job done, or that he has as much affection as disdain for his characters. After all, they usually tend to sound suspiciously like someone he knows.
Or someone we think we know. Eitzel clearly understands that the Barfly thing gets you only so far. And if the title of the embittered “America Loves the Minstrel Show” is any indication, he understands that theatricality has its limits, too. For Love Songs for Patriots’ most self-aware (and self-empowering) number, the gently swelling “Home,” he puts aside the mask completely, admitting, “I’m afraid of my own shadow ’cause it’s what I’ve become.” The Big Message couldn’t be plainer: “I started hating my own skin/…I hope I make it home.” Eitzel doesn’t just do misery, either: “Only Love Can Set You Free,” for example, is completely sarcasm-free, the narrator counting himself “so lucky” that “once I was loved by someone like you/That once I loved someone like you.” And the folklike “Song of the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship” sounds nice, at least, with Eitzel’s baritone rising into a convincing Elliott Smith impression as he empathizes with someone “trapped with your first-class papers on a lonely dock/Where the future is a luxury to mock.”
Is he singing about someone about to embark on another doomed romance? A soldier? Smith himself? It doesn’t matter: Adult alternative has rarely sounded so tender or so angry, and Eitzel connects with his listener the way only a true showman can. To quote an 11-year-old American Music Club song, he’s someone who knows “how to disappear in the spotlight.” Or, better yet, he’s a true Amigo: someone who will fight like a lion even though he knows he’s bound to die like a dog.CP