Like Rodney Dangerfield, Samuel Beckett, and the ’62 Mets, I hold firmly to the belief that nothing succeeds like failure. I’ve harbored an innate distrust of winners—people who know their own minds and stride through life sure of what they want and confident in their ability to get it.
Miserabilists; three-time losers and last-place finishers; washouts, fuckups, and no-accounts—all of the fumbling, feckless, lonely souls sitting out bright summer afternoons in dark small-town barrooms—these are my brethren. Call it defeatism if you will, but there’s a kind of purity in surrender. And though the myth of the beautiful loser may be so much romantic bullshit—I’ve yet to meet one in this life—there’s something undeniably seductive about the idea of giving up, throwing it all away, and wallowing in the gutter with one bleary eye still turned to the stars.
Rarely has a musician tapped into the seductive power of loserhood as strongly as Crooked Fingers’ mastermind and sole permanent member, Eric Bachmann. Bachmann, who formerly fronted Chapel Hill, N.C.’s, slack-rock coulda-been-champeens Archers of Loaf, is a bearded, balding fellow with an exceptionally high forehead and the voice of a cigarette-and-whiskey-ravaged Neil Diamond. A kind of poet laureate of burned bridges, Bachmann sounds like a man who has just emerged from a bad case of the DTs knowing damn well he’ll soon do it all over again. Indeed, “New Drink for the Old Drunk,” off Crooked Fingers’ eponymous 2000 debut, is the blackest (albeit rabble-rousingest) salute to misery and booze this side of Shane MacGowan’s teeth.
One of my favorite discs of 2001, Crooked Fingers’ sophomore full-length, Bring On the Snakes, is a virtually flawless meditation on failure. Bachmann’s gravelly voice, backed for the most part by only fingerpicked acoustic guitars, electrochime, and sampler, is mesmerizing—you’ll want to follow it right to the bottom of the bottle. An album-length tone poem, Bring On the Snakes evokes a desolate twilight place where the ache of memory and the fear of tomorrow sink gently in a tide of alcoholic forgetfulness.
The new Red Devil Dawn picks up where Bring On the Snakes blacked out, with Bachmann crooning lullabies for down-and-outers whose sweet dreams are all they have left. Bachmann has always had one foot in Springsteen country—he covers “The River” on his 2002 Reservoir Songs EP—and Red Devil Dawn looks to an unlikely pair of the Boss’ masterworks for inspiration. Songs such as “Sweet Marie” and “Angelina” evoke the go-for-broke energy of Springsteen’s classic “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, whereas the stripped-down ‘n’ hopeless sound of “Boy With (100) Hands” and “Bad Man Coming” brings to mind such bare-bones Nebraska odes as “Atlantic City” and “Highway Patrolman.”
Overall, Red Devil Dawn is a more varied affair than Bring On the Snakes. Part of this has to do with instrumentation: Bachmann has supplemented his usual spare sound with trumpets, violin, and cello. More important, though, Bachmann has done the unthinkable and written a few almost-upbeat tunes—that Red Devil Dawn should recall The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, even for a second, indicates that Bachmann’s generally morose mood has lifted, at least a trifle. Still, an album whose perkiest song begins with the lines “Drinking sparkling wine and sniffing glue/I’ve been looking for some soft abuse” is hardly a stroll down the sunny side of the street.
Album opener “Big Darkness” is Bachmann at his best, mixing dour lyrics and sweeping melodicism to magick up a potion as sweet as it is poisonous. A backhanded salute to a “town where nothing moves,” the track features a big, insistent chorus that’s sure to get your fist pumping—that is, until you begin to make out the words: “I saw a vulture swarming up above a dying crowd/Above the villains and the heroes and the down and out/To snag the carrion and leeches up to stake their claim/Before the darkness has a chance to wash it all away.” Fist-pumper, hell: Vein-opener is more like it.
But I’m willing to forgive Bachmann his lapses into carrion-worship, if only because he has the uncanny ability to write songs that make your heart beat a little faster and ache at the same time. So it goes with “You Can Never Leave,” whose refrain is as unabashedly romantic as it is hopeless: “With thirty years of hopes and fears breathing down my neck/Such a sad sad thing I set you free cause I can’t get you back/You are fire you are water and when you dance it is torture.” Ditto for “Disappear,” another beautiful spanner in the works of romantic love. Featuring some tasty if minimal electric guitar and a chorus so string-swept you’ll have to recomb your hair after each listen, “Disappear” is about doing just that: “Cary don’t cry I’m gonna disappear/And take this sorrow far away/So you can live your life.”
“Sweet Marie” shows off the Fingers’ newfound pop sensibility even more, opening with a fluttery acoustic guitar line and some sunny horns swiped directly from the Tijuana Brass. “So you and I can meet now while your other love’s away,” sings Bachmann, “I know you would never cheat with anyone but me,” before the whole thing fades away like a pleasant dream of dirt-floored bars, cheap whores, and free-flowing tequila. “You Threw a Spark” features some perky trumpets, too, as well as some jauntier-than-jaunty strings, but all the upbeat instrumentation in the world can’t disguise the fact that the song is a Dylanesque J’accuse, in the great tradition of “Positively 4th Street.”
Unlike Bobby Zimmerman, however, Bachmann is something of a hit-or-really-miss wordsmith. “I lifted you up you pulled me down/You turned into some sacred cow” may just be the worst lyric to appear in a good song since David Bowie sang “Time takes a cigarette/And puts it in your mouth.” As for “You cleaned my shambles out with bleach,” well, your guess is as good as mine. Bad lyrics also threaten to stink up the slow and mournful “Boy With (100) Hands”—really, does this guy have no friends to tell him that “Trapped in your ghetto gardening/With no helping hand to grow” is so much verbal mulch? At least Bachmann never gives you the emo-scribe sense that he considers himself the reincarnation of T.S. Eliot: He sings ’em as he sees ’em, and his unpretentious delivery almost always makes up for any poetic shortcomings. Besides, with melodies as tender as the one that drives “Boy With (100) Hands,” who cares what the man’s saying anyway?
Speaking of tenderness, “Dont Say a Word” is as moving a hymn to loss as you’re likely to hear this year. Propelled by some muted drumming, a gently plucked guitar, and yet another shimmering string arrangement, the track builds ever so slowly to a big ol’ crescendo before Bachmann declares, “Don’t make a move/ There’s nothing now you can do/Those tears in the wine/Have burrowed down in her spine.” Sure, it’s all so much maudlin hokum, but Bachmann’s croak brings it right down to earth, especially when he delivers the song’s beautifully defeated final couplet: “No there ain’t no easy way to make you feel okay/’Cause baby you’re all that you own.”
That’s what Red Devil Dawn is all about: hunkering down, owning up to the fact that you can never escape your shit-busted life, and waiting for darkness to cover you like a blanket. The dawn promises nothing, but what else are you gonna do? This is the music of my people, all right—and let me tell you, losers have rarely sounded more beautiful. CP