When people ask me what my own music sounds like, I never know what to tell them. I like a lot of bands, but I don't quite sound like any of them. Then one day I realized that there was a man out there doing the same sort of thing I do – only he'd been doing it for about twenty years before I began. He isn't a big name, but he should be. After all, David J has not only had a long solo career with many a collaboration (Alan Moore comes to mind), but he was the bassist of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, two of my favorite bands. (He also sang Bauhaus' "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", wrote many of their songs, wrote and sang about half of L&R's, played bass on a few Jazz Butcher albums, and DJs.)
I love David J's work. Bauhaus is a fantastic goth-rock post-punk band and Love & Rockets is a fantastic psychedelic post-punk, semi-new wave, semi-goth rock band. And then there's his solo music, which tends to be subdued, acoustic or clean electric, with limited accompaniment and clever lyrics. His first album was rather dark and unpolished, but he quickly developed his own style and started releasing albums at the rate of one every four years or so between his other bands. After a long silence from his 1992 album, the breakup of Love & Rockets in 1999, and a brief Bauhaus reunion in the same time frame, J finally released Estranged, written and recorded around 2000 but unreleased due to lack of a label until 2003. It stands as his most complete, lasting, and solid piece of solo work.
Artist: David J
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2003
Producer: David J
01. The Guitar Man [Bread cover]
02. Mess Up
03. Pulling Arrows from Our Heels
04. Ruined Cities
05. Static Cling
06. In the Great Blue Whenever
08. If Anything Should Ever Happen to You
09. The Ballad of August and June
10. Bring in Your Absence
11. Trophy Wife
12. Arc of Return
14. Time in the Sun
Estranged starts with a cover of Bread's 1972 soft-rock hit "The Guitar Man". The song features Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction on lead guitar and several other musicians filling up the space of the song. It's one of the most composed pieces on the album and even has a touch of country. The song works well, in part since the lyrics are right up J's alley, about a rock star who stands as an icon and gradually fades from view, and although "the crowds are gettin' thin / ...he never seems to notice." Also relevant, considering the literate and witty nature of J's own words, is this bit: "You want to squeeze the meaning / Out of each and every song / Then you find yourself a message / And some words to call your own / And take them home."
"The Guitar Man" was released as the title track of an EP, as was the second track of the album, the lilting but catchy "Mess Up". The song pulls along with some swinging drums and a nice jumping bassline. The lyrics seem to be about a relationship that the narrator inevitably will ruin: "I'll mess up your life / Lead your pony astray," and so on. In the final bridge, though, J sings, "The last thing that I want to do / Is mess up your life".
"Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" is a fairly sweet song. A typical J acoustic-guitar-and-obscure-lyrics structure is combined with a fantastic string arrangement. The song sounds somewhat reminiscent or rueful, and I like it a lot. It is followed by "Ruined Cities", which is driven by an electronic drumbeat. The strong chorus melody and string combination work well, much like the subtle overdubbed picking pattern on some of the verses. The lyrics just rattle off cities that apparently have been destroyed in some post-apocalyptic landscape, but then a bridge crops up with a total Beatlesque melody with backing "la la la"s. The beat changes and it sounds like a twisted 60s song for 30 seconds. It's great.
"Static Cling" is somewhat more restrained also, consisting mostly of acoustic rhythm and a pedal steel lead. Somehow the traditionally-country instrument doesn't feel out of place at all, even when an overdriven guitar lead pops in. The lyrics concern a relationship that seems to remain inevitably together despite troubles, sort of like static. "But didn't we start some beautiful fires", J sings while a second vocal track sighs dramatically.
"In the Great Blue Whenever" has some more subtle pedal steel but also has a little shuffling drum sound here and there. Piano bits and wordless vocal overdubs add to the mix. The lyrics mix a bit of military and pilot imagery with the idea of flying off and leaving someone behind. It's sort of dramatic, though, since the chorus is the melodic "And I'll see you sometime in the great blue whenever." "Crashed" also uses some flight imagery about wasting around in motels and cars, presumably presenting a critique of concert tours or something. Hard to tell. The choruses again use backing vocals and extra little guitar parts and sounds, but the whole song is done with a fuller feeling, incorporating bass and restrained drums.
In "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You", J sings about relationship difficulties while accompanied by his acoustic guitar and some great tremolo guitar. The bridges have a great keyboard that's arpeggiated and a bit spacey. The choruses amp up for just a second with J singing the title and then "it would crucify me" while a slightly overdriven guitar chugs three chords. "The Ballad of August and June" doesn't stand out too much, but it's still a good piece. A pedal steel works great as both for small solos and lead parts. J sings about a relationship as it flows through the seasons and months.
"Bright in Your Absence" has much more of a folk-country piece due to the strong pedal steel, the melody and chord structure, the drumbeat, the guitar solo, and the lyrical theme of driving in to the town saloon. However, the lyrics deviate quite a bit. It starts with the weird "I embrace my dysfunction and drive into town" and chorus is equally strange: "You're bright in your absence / You shine in that place / That screams, there's no mercy / For playboys in space / Bright in your absence / You glow in that vacuum / Where no life can exist". It recalls the earlier J song, "Space Cowboy" but remains yet weirder. To top it all, it ends with a three-minute segment featuring weird spacey synthesizers, an electronic drumbeat, and J's repeated delivery of "I embrace my dysfunction".
"Trophy Wife" is also a bit more country-esque, somewhere between "Static Cling" and "Bright in Your Absence". The lyrics are again a sort of subverted country theme: J sings about wooing a girl but uses the metaphor of a trophy wife very literally. It starts with "I placed you on a pedestal / And that's an uncomfortable perch". It's fairly unclear if J is singing more about materialism (the "trophy" part) or an actual relationship (the "wife" part). The juxtaposition drives both in.
"Arc of Return" begins with a pleasant picking pattern and then becomes a sort of 3/4 shuffle until the chorus comes in, a driving 4/4 affair with a rapid strumming pattern, a dramatic piano part, and a dramatic chant under the lyrics. The bridges also change pace into a more straightforward 4/4 bit with a muted trumpet part and a bit of organ. I think the whole thing is something of a metaphor for trying to escape from a relationship but ending up right back where you started. The dynamics of the song keep it moving well.
"Estranged" is perhaps the most straightforward song, just J and his guitar, strumming nice little patterns. The lyrics seem to deal with trying to leave behind a relationship but being unable to: "Every time I turn away from you / I face you". Things can't have gone well, as evinced by the confused chorus: "How can the sea leave the shore? / How can the starts be rearranged? / How can soul mates become estranged?" The bridge is hilarious and beautiful: a warm sort of nature-reminiscent background sample with a full synth flourish welcome the emotion of a metaphor for how J feels about his former lover: "And your world is a green world / With oxygen and water / Suitable for evolution / Of a carbon based life form like me". What? I love J's lyrics (see also: "I am frozen peas / You are the sun". "Time in the Sun" is short conclusion where J sings "Every disease has it's time in the sun".
J (solo) has always liked his acoustic and clean guitars, and he often adds his own basslines and gets friends to add additional guitar parts and drums, but every once in a while in his past you can hear traces of classical, electronic, a little folk, and even a dose of country. Estranged actually takes advantage of the country elements, but does not abuse them at all – pedal steel parts can be found sitting comfortably in a few songs, and only one song has a standard country feel ("Bright in Your Absence") – and it's still done rather tongue-in-cheek.
A lot of sides of J come out on this album, but the common thread is his somewhat morose, thoughtful, and moving sort of ballad thing. Many songs fit into this category, from "Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" to "In the Great Blue Whenever" to "Estranged". Most of the songs can be described as beautiful, melodic, singer-songwriter things (only better than the image that might construct). Most of these more subdued songs seem to focus on relationships and the difficulty of getting past a broken one, making me suspect that J went through such a situation not long before (or while) writing the songs.
J is far from not willing to rock, though. "The Guitar Man" is a full-blown affair, and several others drive along with some electronic bits or stronger guitar or drums. More than straight-up rocking, though, J seems to have enjoyed playing with dynamics and sudden changes in this batch of songs. "Ruined Cities" sounds like a dark semi-electronic piece until the weird Beatlesque bridge crops up, "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You" picks up considerably a few times just for two lines, and even "Estranged" has the sudden romantic vision of a vast-sounding bridge.
Despite the dynamic nature of many of the pieces, I feel like this is J's most consistent record (which really mostly just implies that the songs are all consistently good). His overall sound remains similar, but he has grown with his choices of accompaniment and arrangement since his first solo outings. It's funny to think that someone who contributed so much to the dark, gothic rock feel of Bauhaus and the trippy psychedelia of Love & Rockets could also make such melodic, restrained, largely-acoustic music, but clearly he can. "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", the sole J-sung Bauhaus song, and the folkier tunes of Love & Rockets' Earth.Sun.Moon album help bridge the gaps, though – J has always had an eye for melody and complex, interesting structures. Estranged is probably J's most interesting album, and likely his best.
P.S. Estranged was released with a limited edition bonus album, Embrace Your Dysfunction. After selling them all years ago, J recently found some more, so I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to buy one. I'll probably write a short-ish review of it soon. [Edit 2018.08.30: See here.]