Album Review: Withered Hand – New Gods

withered_hand_new_godsLooking at the expansive horizon of electronic music that dominates popular music with seemingly endless references to decades and trends that spiral into a feedback loop of self-referential bologna, artists like Withered Hand, aka Dan Willson, are refreshing reminders that singers still care about the well-being of our collective spirits.  We may not believe it, or rather, want to express it, but we carry and hold emotions close to our hearts, and these feelings tell us something about ourselves and each other.  Withered Hand wants to remind us that this still rings true.

The lyrics to Withered Hand’s second full-length New Gods are the album’s strongest point.  The musicianship is just fine with production from Scottish producer Tony Doogan (Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, Mountain Goats), and the proper studio quality of the performances help the album jump into the pop-rock kingdom, but the lyrics delivered from Willson’s earnestly aching warble are what give this album a shot at competing with other singer-songwriters.

Alienation, betrayal, and love are all worldly themes that dominate the eleven tracks: “I’m older now/but I feel the same,” rings true for this early 30-something singer as it does for me and others in our age group of post-college, post-thrill of it alland I’m over it folk who are looking for answers in the broken record dictation of who we are supposed to be versus what we have made for ourselves in our post-9/11 pop culture.  We have been rebuilding our identity and everything and everyone is up for debate: “absolute truths” are absolutely dissolving in favor of personalized interpretations of our “unique” feelings.  In short, it’s tough growing up!

But Withered Hand knows the pain: “keeping myself alive/facing down the fear…when you tell me you’re lonely/isn’t everyone lonely?” Willson sings in the second and most radio-ready track.  We’re all in this together; we’re special, but not as special in individual accounts as much as a collective force of spirit that moves together like the swarm of bats streaming out from under the S. Congress bridge in downtown Austin.  It wouldn’t be nearly as cool if one really awesome bat left each night to get some food.  All those bats together is something really special to see, smell, and hear.  When we come together, unexpected phenomenon occur that are only possible through collaboration.  New Gods is a record written by Dan Willson, but he performs under the Withered Hand pseudonym to show the listener that he is not alone with this undertaking.  It took many people to come together in order to produce a body of work that when finished, has withered hands to show for it.

My favorite track is the first minor key-dominated tune, “California.”  It’s the obligatory nod to America’s land of sunshine, stardom and drugs that leaves its visitors disenchanted with the vapid waste of energy: “California/I keep sipping on the ‘Tussin like I’m sick again.”  Simultaneously criticizing the life-suck of California and our desire to over-medicate, Willson builds emotion and suspense with a hypnotic “Robo-tripped” delivery: “Sweating like the winter on a hot day/Sinners say, ‘what say you nothing if you’re nothing to sell/Everytime I open up my mealy mouth this tiny sound comes out and I’m spitting it out into the doubt.”  We get the feeling he’s done it before.  He’s put in his time and has seen rejection, but when all that’s out there is rejection, how can one really get ahead?  You’re nothing if you’re nothing to sell, which brings me back to the beginning; it’s refreshing to hear a singer who relays his personal views that touch on the human condition.  He’s alienated, betrayed and alone, but so are we, and there’s comfort in knowing that.  So, why don’t we “Throw our tarot cards in the air and watch them fall right down,” as Willson sings in “King of Hollywood”?  We can always predict the future but we live through the dreams that are dreamt for us.  The deck is rigged, so let’s shuffle them up and use our anxieties to find our ace in the hole that can’t be programmed or doubted.

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