One of the musical gems of 2016 is an Americana album recorded by a Nashville-based musician with a glam-rock background; a songwriter with stints in a proto-punk band and a sparkly, yet subdued, hipster-cowboy look.
Intrigued yet? You should be. Because Aaron Lee Tasjan knows how to draw fully from his musical background. ‘Silver Tears’ is both diverse and cohesive, disruptive and reverent, brimful of catchy hooks and sizzling with social commentary.
Produced by Father John Misty bassist Eli Thomson and partially written while microdosing on LSD (a way of using psychedelics that consists in taking small hits throughout the day without getting properly high), ‘Silver Tears’ is a celebration of both musical syncretism and human diversity—an all-encompassing hymn to inclusion. “The idea was staying true to something that is very well-rooted and recognised as such,” Aaron Lee Tasjan says, talking about Americana, “figuring out a way to take that and just move it around a little bit.” The result is an album that is true to tradition, but not hindered by it.
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If every good songwriter has his own signature feature, then Tasjan‘s trademark is his writing style, with a Randy Newman-esque vibe and a penchant for satire. The first track, ‘Hard Life’, brings to mind Leon Russell and Harry Nilsson, while plunging us into Tasjan‘s disillusioned yet resilient outlook on life. “It’s a hard life, so people get ready / They’ll give you loose gravel and call it rock steady.”
Musically, ‘Silver Tears‘ is as varied as cohesive. ‘Till The Town Goes Dark’ calls to mind Tom Petty while also being heavy with Elliot Smith‘s influences. The gorgeous ‘Memphis Rain’ sounds like an homage to Roy Orbinson; ‘Dime’ evokes Travelling Wilburys, while ‘Out of My Mind’ sparkles with echoes of Highway 61. And what about ’12 Bar Blues’, a funny, Arlo Guthrie-reminiscent, talking blues about a character wandering from bar to bar?
Yet, Tasjan doesn’t use humour to lighten reality as much as to shine a light on it. “I’m trying to write in such a way, someone who feels like they don’t have so much self-worth, they can see themselves, can sense their value,” he says. “If there is a theme to the record, it’s just having something to say. These things that are happening in America right now aren’t just fantastical, strange surreal things, they’re things people are really going through and people are connecting with them in a big way. That’s certainly part of the development of society.”
This concern imbues the entire album. The dreamy, pop-fueled ‘Little Movies’ – a dark ballad which evokes Elliot Smith, Jeff Lynne, and the Beatles of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s –’ reflects on how we fictionalise ourselves on social media, acting a part, “watching our days unfolding in little movies”, oversharing yet feeling disconnected. ‘Ready To Die’ narrows on both the intentions behind fighting for a cause and how one’s life might be perceived as so sinful that only self-immolation is seen as able redeem it. But then, would that still be an altruistic gesture? And would self-sacrifice on those terms have any value? “I’m ready to die / For a worthy cause / It’s ’cause I’m tired / Of living bad.”
Authenticity seems something on which Aaron Lee Tasjan muses on a lot. Back in 2015, his song ‘E.N.S.A.A.T’ (East Nashville Song About a Train) poked fun at the posturing in the folk revival scene. Yet, Tasjan is self-aware about his own position on the scene. “Look, I’m talking about myself as much as anyone,” he says in an interview for The East Nashvillian. “I’m pointing out my own hypocrisy. The idea of moving here and writing a song about trains! It seemed a lot of people might be doing that, so it was interesting to comment on. … But it’s me, you know, taking that stance with myself as much as anyone.”
Americana is an earnest genre and that’s why Tasjan likes to make fun of it: imitating sincerity of feeling instead of embodying it will turn it into its opposite. “Not everybody is Jason Isbell,” he says. “That works for him, because that’s who he really is, and that’s why it’s good. But I see people mimicking that who aren’t really that. And you sort of want to go, ‘Man, just go up there and be yourself and be a little weirder, and people will probably be more into it.'”
Aaron Lee Tasjan doesn’t fail to follow his own advice. The cover of ‘Silver Tears’, his first album for New West Records, sees him flaunting a 7 dollar suit covered in sequins—and every single sequin, he cares to point out, has been hand-glued. That’s his mission statement in visual form: it is possible to create something beautiful out of nothing, and if you put the work in, you can never go astray.
‘Silver Tears’, at least, seems to prove him right. It is an original spin on Americana, an album that is true to tradition while being open to the future, that celebrates diversity in all its nuances – musically, socially, humanly – and offers understanding.
“Everybody has some member of their family that has to deal with gay and straight issues we face in America; they might have a family member that is transgender. I really love people and feel very vested in humanity, I believe in people a great deal.”
Yet, self-awareness is Aaron Lee Tasjan’s strength, and he knows that there is no answer he can provide. ‘Silver Tears’ is as critical towards the world as self–critical; it doesn’t shy away from the harshness of life, it doesn’t sugarcoat reality, it doesn’t provide solutions and, especially, doesn’t oversimplify complex emotions. “When you get out into the world and figure out that you don’t have all answers,” Tasjan writes on his website, “feel free to tune into my record, ‘Silver Tears’, where I will tell you that I don’t have them either BUT with a capo.”
Aaron Lee Tasjan merges past and present into a kaleidoscope of musical influences—and his last release sounds like a classic.
‘Silver Tears’ is available now via New West Records.