Album review: Charlie Parr contains multitudes
Charlie Parr's been doing the promotional rounds, recently, talking up his new album "Dog." A September cover story on him in the Minneapolis-based City Pages focused heavily on Parr's struggles with mental illness, and its title, "Man of Constant Sorrow" turned the piece into a bit of a branding exercise, one that we've seen so many times in music history: artist as tortured victim of their own mind. That stuff can be catnip for writers and readers alike.
But what this sort of journalism does is it marginalizes the artist's work to some degree, making it the subheadline to their suffering, turning personal pain into the stuff of tabloids. No one's questioning the impact of one's brain chemistry on their artistic output, here, make no mistake. It can, and often does, inform every note of a musician's songs, every brushstroke on an artist's painting, every word on a writer's page. But the internal, churning agony of musicians isn't what people want to listen to when they push "play" on a song. People want to hear truth.
This is what Parr has got a lock on. It doesn't matter if he's in more or less pain than a locksmith, a professional bowler, or a fourth-grade teacher. The question is: is his music truthful? Can you hear him in it? Are his songs memorable? Does his singing and playing set a hook into your soul and reel you in?
All of these things are things Parr seems to effortlessly do. His songs just unfurl, and they are undeniable. It's the difference between eating a well-done steak slathered in ketchup and savoring a good, rare cut that's just got enough sear on it. One thing is tolerable on some level, the other is the way it's supposed to be. Charlie Parr makes his music his way, and that's the only way it should be.
A reason people should be careful not to put Parr in the suffering sin-bin is because he's not some kind of Morrissey wallower who wants to pull everyone around him down to his level (sorry, Morrissey fans, but dude's been a bit of a drag, lately). Parr paints pictures with his words, or he sometimes takes snapshots, and there are certainly elements of dark emotions in there, but there is plenty of humor, cleverness, and writerly attention to detail that makes the case that Parr is a human of many dimensions, and lingering on only one of them too much means you miss the whole picture.
"Peaceful Valley" from "Dog" is a good example of this. He's talking about himself as a hoarder over a jaunty slide-guitar backing, and it's pretty funny. "I signed a lease on a place near the bus stop / but then I haven't left the place, since," Parr sings, adding later: "I'm never gonna throw anything away again / time'll come when I'm gonna need all of it."
The song touches on OCD, sure, and there are several times where Parr vows to not leave his bed for the whole day, so there's some depression in there. There's also a moment when Parr sings about the county coming by and confiscating all his stuff and taking him to live somewhere with a roommate, a kicker that speaks to the fear that we all feel of our lives amounting to nothing in the end and us sitting in a stuff-less room waiting to die. This is existentialism, even.
Parr's not a poet, probably, but he's poetic. There's certainly a reason he's been able to make a life out of roaming around the globe playing ramshackle country-blues that mostly sounds like it's coming off an old 78, it's because he's doing Charlie Parr better than anyone, and it turns out there's value in that. Turns out, there's a market for his truth.
"Dog" is nothing that's going to surprise existing Parr fans, and it doesn't seem like it's markedly different from the rest of his discography. So, the recommendation is: If you like Charlie Parr, this album will not do anything to change your mind. It just adds layers and depth to what already exists. It does sound depressed and a bit deflated in spots, but that's some of the beauty of music: not every album gets recorded when the sun is shining. Not every lyric is meant to make the Top 40 radio playlist. Some of us need to see our own struggles reflected in art. It helps us feel less alone.
Charlie Parr, like so many artists, suffers. It's true. His suffering is present in "Dog." But let's not forget that he shouldn't be defined by that primarily, because that diminishes him as a human and as a gifted performer and writer. What he is is one of the better musicians Duluth has produced, and his new album is filled with humanity, true humanity. That truth is the thing that we should focus on. Long live Charlie Parr.
Artist: Charlie Parr
Recorded at: Creation Audio
Produced by: Charlie Parr
Personnel: Charlie Parr (vocals, guitar), other guests
Listen to "Peaceful Valley" at duluthnewstribune.com.