The Chicago-native offers a collection of songs that shine and perplex, with lush arrangements and lyrics constantly on the edge of breaking.
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It really does feel like that time of year. As is often the case, the end of a year signals a thin sense of conclusion. One may feel inclined to think optimistically about what the new year can bring: Prospects! Goals! Dreams! Endless! There is not too much consideration, however, about what has been left behind, or rather what is about to be. It is this important, vastly-underappreciated outlook that lurks in the abyss of the music of Daniel Knox. His fourth collection of songs is deeply unsettling, humourous and utterly perplexing – it is also his most dazzling to date.
Knox’s songs hibernate in the cracks and in the cold away from the bright idyllic visions of Chicago – his hometown. Through his quietly distinct dour vocal technique, he casts tales of seedy nightlife and uncomfortably personal encounters. ‘Chasescene’, Knox’s latest, is an album that lingers close to the end – lyrics about the dissolution of relationships and bitter conversations between lovers dominate.
The project operates in a world unlike most: one of intellectual unease. Daniel Knox, whether it is portrayed through his morose attitude or bursts of surprising wit (“I’m getting tired of this music-less dance. Why don’t you put your hand down my pants?”), is a convincing architect of characters you do not know whether to like or not.
‘Chasescene’ is a carefully varied album. While his ability on the piano is unquestionable, his willingness to apply it to different tones is an impressive feat. ‘Anna14’ is a gentle rest, with the track consisting mostly of Knox and his piano. The lyrics speak of a couple safe in their company, unaware of the rest of the world: “Let’s put the couch on the stairs, let someone else come and drag it away”.
On the other hand, ‘Leftovers’ is a break from the traditional arrangements that make up most of the record. An influence of Americana is present, and Knox’s vocals are more so. His confession of, “I’m not pretty”, opens the song and the rest only grows in absurdity. In a similar candour, ‘Man Is An Animal’ plonks around, with a charismatic walk that would feel at home as the soundtrack to a Disney villain. It is spry, energetic, silly at that. As the piano takes over the melody, you’ll find yourself whistling along to its infectious charm. Daniel Knox is a rare talent that can win you over without even realising it – there is something that can draw you in and before you know it, you are persuaded.
Daniel Knox operates as a narrator throughout ‘Chasescene’. He sings with the wisdom of someone who has walked the streets countless times. Yet on occasion, he lends the mantle to another voice to pry. Single ‘Capitol’ features a show-stealing performance from Jarvis Cocker, who prowls in his trademark voice. Knox and Cocker have collaborated on numerous occasions, and it shows. Jarvis Cocker near-whispers Knox’s words with a hint of spell-binding seduction. The chemistry is mesmirising and Daniel Knox’s knack for writing a melody to sweep you off your feet has never been more prominent than here.
Elsewhere Nina Nastasia materialises at a clinical point for the desperate plea of ‘The Poisoner’. Recalling Björk’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, Nastasia throws herself into the arms of someone she used to love as strings, horns and marching drums swirl in the forefront. As she reaches a breaking point (“It’s easy to love what you don’t know”), the choir swoops in and raises the song out of her hands. It is unusually desolate and a vocal performance that makes you feel like you have known the characters for years.
Some moments do not quite hold up to the heights of the record – at no fault of their own. The aforementioned ‘Anna14’ and ‘Leftovers’ are contrasting cuts but they simply underwhelm in the context of the record. In addition there are times where Daniel Knox’s vocals fail to reach the grandeur of his own arrangements.
However for the most part, ‘Chasescene’ is a tremendous and baffling record. Most of the twelve tracks clock in at a tidy three minutes yet are crammed with instrumental delights and lyrical punches guaranteed to impress old and new fans alike. The closer ‘Me and My Wife’ breaks from tradition. At over six minutes, it pauses and ponders while still leaving the listener entranced in its poetry. It is a grand conclusion: while the lush orchestral aura builds, the piano chords are low and stationary, an anchor. Towards the back-end the arrangement builds up to heights unmatched before simmering away as if nothing happened. You are left with ten seconds of silence to reminisce. It is an oddly warming experience.
Daniel Knox sings about topics like he has lived ten lifetimes. The album’s arrangements only further intensify this spectacle. As he sings about stealing a child, to his wife dying before revealing his own impending death on the album’s closer, you still feel in awe of the tale told despite its ludicrous nature. ‘Chasescene’ is a wind-down, a last breath of air. As the year draws to a close, there could not be a more fitting album to live with and by.
‘Chasescene’ by Daniel Knox is out 7th December via HP Johnson Presents