While he may look like a zombie on the new record cover and be best known for that wicked right hook he leveled on a “fan,” Jay Reatard‘s new record Watch Me Fall isn’t nearly as pummeling or abrasive as one might expect. Before I’d heard Reatard’s music, I’d imagined a whirlwind of spit and hair – something of a Tazmanian Devil who leaves behind wreckage and a prodigious number of garage punk releases lying in his path. Watch Me Fall is pop-friendlier than this image (or the cover) would suggest. That’s not to say that Reatard’s gone soft or has suddenly started writing Miley Cyrus songs, as some internet furor might suggest. The new record is just a little less punk. The rock is still there, the howling flying-v guitar, the equally howling vocals, and thundering rhythm section, the sharp, pouncing hooks, but sometimes they’re a little slower, a little cleaner, maybe even a little more nice. Which, however reasonable or unreasonable, seems like an “Et tu…” moment to some hardcore Reatard fans.
Album opener “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me” is far from the lightest jam on the album, but there’s a clear change from the start. The vocals are clear, up in the front of the mix. But, in traditional Reatard fashion, the song would rock the roof off of any suburban garage show and keep the hyper kids in the crowd freaking out. And the lyrics work perfectly for this end too. The song uses the proven punk tropes: talking about how tough things are, how the world is pretty shitty. “All is lost, I can’t go home” he sings(!), over rapid-fire snare rim-clicking at the song’s conclusion. This is exactly the sort of thing that gets people on your side when combined with the clambering drums and full-speed-ahead guitar work.
After a few middling, mid-tempo (well, low tempo for Reatard) songs, “Can’t Do It Anymore” finds Reatard in a weird place. The bulk of the song may be played on an acoustic guitar, pulsing along lightly, but to balance this out, the song concludes with a screeching feedback solo. The sub-two minute “Faking It” seems strangely epic, mixing the destructive punk of the old material with a simple, airy pop chorus with harmonies reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney.
But “I’m Watching You” may be the most un-Reatard song on the album. From the intro, its clear this is going to be something completely different. Clean strumming acoustic guitar, harmonium-y synths, friendly sounding slapped drumming? None of it sounds remotely Reatard; in the end, the track is rather good. The sunny, clean vocals are engaging, the perfectly nod-able rhythym, the glowing synth, the reverbed sing-a-long chorus. It’s a great pop song, through and through. This song perfectly shows the dude’s strength as a songwriter, which, to some degree, was fuzzed over in earlier releases, and “Wounded” follows this with a fun wordless vocal intro and breezy guitar line. The vocals are kind of shouted; the chorus harmonies are just a little off in the best possible way which is to say, “See Reatard fans? He’s not given up on you! He’s just pushing off into other sounds, trying other things.”
Still, not everything is shiny and pretty, as “Nothing Now” clearly suggests. The hyper-speed-picked and completely ominous, horror-movie guitar line combines with scattered drum splashes before the vocals come in, confirming the doom: “Stay away from me” his yowl croons. (It’s weird, but think about.)
The last two songs of the album follow the new formulas. “Hang Them All” is a thrashing, power-punk jam. Maybe the guitars are a little cleaner than the old days, but it should please old fans. “There Is No Sun” keeps the synth, adds whirring UFO electronic sound, drenches the vocals in reverb, but still has the pessimistic, angsty lyrics that the chorus would suggest.
After Watch Me Fall, we don’t have to rely on the fact that he’s put out so many effing records to know that Reatard is a master songwriter: There were some great songs on the old records, but it wasn’t always clear through the speed and the fuzz. This album, however, makes it perfectly clear.
Watch Me Fall