Album Review: Darren Jessee - Remover
Something that I had a realization about within the last year or so is just how toxic a lot of contemporary popular music can be—specifically w/r/t the idea of “toxic masculinity.”
Sometimes it takes a while to click; it can be a song that is over two decades old1, and you can know all the words to it, and maybe, deep down, genuinely love it, but there will come a moment when you unpack the lyrics, and just how toxic of a song it is will reveal itself.
Maybe it changes how you feel about the song; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t so much change how you feel about the song, or even the artist, but it is something that you then think about when you hear the song again.
I had this kind of a revelation about the song “Brick,” by Ben Folds Five.
Taken from their second album, 1997’s Whatever and Ever, Amen, “Brick” was an unlikely single and an even unlikelier hit, based alone on the song’s slow burning pacing, as well as its meaning. The narrative recalls a young couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy—though it never really comes right out and says it directly; the story itself is pulled from Folds’ own experience with his high school girlfriend.
“Brick”’s refrain, you could argue, is iconic—just a handful of lines that say so much, and lingers within you for a long time after the song is over. Folds, as the frontman for the group, was more or less the principal songwriter and so the narrative, and a bulk of the song’s lyrics come from him. However, the refrain itself is attributed to the band’s drummer, Darren Jessee, who gave Folds the line: “She’s a brick, and I’m drowning slowly—off the coast, and I’m headed nowhere.”
You wouldn’t even have to make a strong argument for the case that Folds, himself, as a songwriter, is toxic. Looking beyond the juvenile “Song For The Dumped,” later on, he did, after all, pen a tune named “Bitch Went Nuts,” dedicated to the dissolution of his second marriage.
But Folds didn’t even come up with the most problematic, unsupportive lyrics in “Brick.”
And this is something that I have been thinking about.
It would have been 16 years ago, almost exactly, in the fall of 2004, that I was introduced to Darren Jessee’s solo project, Hotel Lights, arriving four years after the break up of Ben Folds Five.
This was during my final year in college, and my friend Mike, who was two years younger, was an enormous Ben Folds Five (and Ben Folds solo) fan2, and that fall, he began combing the internet, attempting to discover what the other members of the group—bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, had been up to since the break up.
Jessee’s first album under the Hotel Lights moniker, a self-titled effort, was self-released at some point in 20043, but it arrived in Mike’s campus mailbox in autumn, and he made me a copy of it.
Later ‘officially’ released in 2006 once Jessee linked up with Bar None Records, the label that would issue all of his subsequent full length efforts, Hotel Lights is one of my quintessential autumn records. Maybe it’s the time of year I was introduced to it; maybe it’s the time in my life that I was introduced to it; maybe it’s the music itself—the pensive, bittersweet, melancholia that lingers throughout a bulk of it.
Maybe it’s all of that.
Following a 2005, somewhat obscure and possibly non-canonical EP, Jessee has put out three additional full lengths under the Hotel Lights name, seemingly retiring it as a banner following 2016’s Get Your Hand in My Hand4, the first Hotel Lights release to be pressed onto vinyl.
Two years after that, Jessee released The Jane, Room 217, the first effort put out under his own name—originally recorded as a collection of demos intended for a Hotel Lights album, he determined the songs, incredibly (and intentionally) sparse in arrangement, stood well enough on their own without much, or in some cases, anything, added to them, and released it as “Darren Jessee” as a way to step out from behind the idea of being ‘a band,’ and instead, being a ‘solo troubadour.’
If The Jane saw him walking things back to a skeletal place in terms of instrumentation, and attempting to find the confidence needed to work outside of a group, his latest effort (also released under his own name) is not so much a huge step forward, nor is it a step back.
A digital and vinyl only co-release from Bar None and Turnfables Records, Remover finds Jessee finding his way back into the lush, warm, and somber arranging that is synonymous with his past output and when it works, it really works. There are moments on Remover that call to mind some of the finest Hotel Lights material from his canon and, as one would expect, the album—which sonically bridges the gap between his comfort within a room of regular collaborators, as well as the skeletal, tender troubadour he entertains—the album is structured around the fragmented, personal, melancholic, and reflective lyrics he has been penning since the beginning.
There’s been a very inherent insular, introspective quality to a lot of Jessee’s work, both under his own name, and as Hotel Lights, but what is apparent about Remover, almost immediately, both in its cover art, as well as the album’s first single, the sweeping “Cape Elizabeth,” is that Jessee, as a songwriter, is attempting not so much to ‘get outside,’ in a figurative sense, but the wanting to move away from that insular imagery, and tone, is apparent.
But, rather than setting a tone, Jessee is usually much more interested in capturing very specific moments within his songs.
Sometimes, like in the case of “Cape Elizabeth,” it’s a number of moments, coming together to paint a larger, very vivid portrait that takes you to the shores of Maine; later on, he takes you to New York—specifically Brooklyn, on the reflective, glimmering, infectious “Along The Outskirts”; and by the end, on “Getting Back to It Now,” he heads south, toward Louisiana.
More often than not, though, he works within fracture images that are somewhat restrained through the use of poetic ambiguity, but overall, those fractures are remembrances of a heartbreak—either one that he has recalled from the past, or one that is unfolding in real time within the song itself.
Jessee has always worn his weary heart on his tattered sleeve as the protagonist or at least the narrator in the stories he tells, and there are times when the melancholy, or the heartbreak, is palpable enough you can feel it radiating out of the song. But throughout Remover, there are times when that melancholia, or pervasive sadness, shifts into something surprisingly biting and cutting. But perhaps that was always present, and the borderline mean-spiritedness built into some of Jessee’s tunes was something that didn’t totally register—after all, the tone of a song like “You Come and I Go,” taken from the self-titled album, isn’t exactly fond, and neither is the lyric, “Up on your toes, who was the fool who told you that I won’t let go?”
There are myriad bittersweet moments on Remover, yes, but Jessee steers away from the sweet on the album’s opening track, “Dead Weight,” which I guess by the title alone should tell you the direction the song is going to take—there’s a few of those on here, actually, like “I Don’t Believe in You,” and the shimmering “Letdown.”
“You and I can’t change things,” Jessee sings in his trademark, fragile, sometimes weary sounding voice, on “Dead Weight.” “I used to think we were okay, now you talk the cruelest and you make it your own way. And you leave me to carry the dead weight.” There is some remorse, or at least a little bit of regret, but it’s overshadowed by the kind of resentment that is not healthy to hang onto but is so difficult to let go of.
He does this again shortly thereafter, on “I Don’t Believe in You,” which is perhaps the album’s most cutting and bitter moment—juxtaposed sharply against his tender vocal range and gently plucked acoustic guitar strings, Jessee recalls where a pen knife carved his initials alongside theirs. “Suddenly a thought pierces you, and I get so sad, ‘cause we’re through,” he laments in the song’s final stanza. “I don’t believe in you—some others do.”
While Get Your Hand in My Hand and The Jane, Room 217 challenged Jessee’s instrumentation, with the latter focusing on simplistic, acoustic arrangements, and the former taking things in, at times, a woozy, reserved direction, following Hotel Lights, there have always been familiar, ‘trademark,’ or at least ‘comforting’ elements to Jessee’s music, whether it is under his own name or released as Hotel Lights. Perhaps it, partially, has to do with his voice, but as his lyric writing focuses on specific fragments, or moments, as an arranger, there is a specific musical feeling, or similar dynamics that he strives for, and there are a number of those scattered throughout Remover, where all those elements come tumbling together to create something shimmering and gorgeous.
And what I found after sitting with Remover a number of times is that it doesn’t so much take awhile to ‘warm up,’ or to find its pacing, but it does take Jessee a few songs until he hits that shimmery stride—it first connects on “Letdown,” then later on the grand “Along The Outskirts,” and “Never Gonna Get It”—which, in the way Jessee writes dreamy, gauzy, swooning texture into the music, it is among the album’s finest moments.
Structurally, Remover finds its balance early on with the way Jessee works band and forth, with ease, between songs that include more instrumentation, and more intimate, acoustic tracks—but the more you listen to the album, it does become apparent that it really opens up and comes into its own more within the second half, specifically within the last three songs, beginning with the devastatingly vivid “I’m Your Baby,” which is an outstanding example of just how descriptive and literate Jessee can be, as a lyricist, when he wants to—and for some reason, he often becomes very descriptive when he gets into detailing waitresses, like on the slow simmering “Small Town Shit” from Hotel Lights.
Here, he spends the first two stanzas of “I’m Your Baby” getting incredibly evocative, like the best kind of poetic fiction: “I met her at The Reynard, she was pouring coffees. I’m feeling scarred—red blouse, lipstick to match cold rose glass. Green eyes so deep, I’m blown away. Can hardly breath—sun cast shadows, cold May morning through tall cafe windows.”
And there is, obviously, a lot of sadness that haunts Remover, but never is it more obvious than on “I’m Your Baby,” with the emotionally eviscerating lyrics, “I don’t need to save you—you don’t have to love me. You just have to see me. I’m your baby.” And perhaps the song’s coda is even more difficult to hear, “Sparrow in her mouth—you’re all I think about now.”
Ben Folds didn’t even come up with the most problematic, unsupportive lyrics in “Brick”—and that’s something that I have been thinking about a lot, especially as I have sat down with Remover, and especially as I go back through other albums in Jessee’s body of work, because in the time that I began writing this, until now, autumn quickly (and perhaps temporarily) faded, and there are piles of heavy, already dirty snow everywhere. Autumn slides into winter, and that means for someone like me, it’s time to listen to the self-titled Hotel Lights album, and remember, whether I want to or not, where I was—and who I was—16 years ago.
An excuse you can make is age—Jessee wasn’t even 30 when was in Ben Folds Five, and contributed those lyrics to the song. Now, nearly 50, you’d like to think there has been some maturity, and some growth. But the embitterment of a handful of these songs shows that isn’t entirely the case—the wounded, fragile, toxic male still appears; however, whether Jessee is aware of this or not is a question I cannot answer, and perhaps it is simply just a case of me being too aware.
There are artist who it is impossible to try and reconcile with now—Ryan Adams and Mark Kozelek come to mind immediately, as does someone like Kanye West. And then there are times, when it’s someone who makes statements you find problematic (Nick Cave5) or has written a quintessential but ultimately toxic pop song that hasn’t exactly aged well thematically, it is a little easier, for whatever reasons, to make concessions.
There’s a reason that ‘sensitive,’ male, acoustic singer-songwriters appeal to sensitive men in their early 20s. There’s a reason that when I was in my final year of college, my favorite artists were Damien Rice and Glen Hansard6’s first band, The Frames. But given enough time, I think that kind of sensitivity is, perhaps, maybe not the ‘wrong’ kind of sensitivity, but ill-advised at best.
There is a reason that, ‘sensitive’ or not, we are attracted (or, at least, if you are like me, you are) to acoustic singer-songwriters who are often male7, and it’s because through the pain of someone else you are able to see a part of yourself.
If you can move beyond the smattering of toxic, embittered lyrics from Remover, it is another gorgeous and sweeping, yet introspective and somber collection of tunes from someone who, over the last 16 years, has proven themselves to be an absolute master of walking that emotionally driven tightrope, usually doing so with a gentle grace, and only occasionally toppling over the edge.
1- The songs I’m specifically referencing here are “Barely Breathing” by Duncan Sheik and Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” which both slap (one harder than the other) but they are both so fucking toxic.
2- Shout out to Mike Link. I don’t think I could love anything as much as he loved Ben Folds. Also, for someone who was a pretty close friend for a long time, I will probably never see or talk to him again because dudes don’t stay in touch or whatever.
3- Just a quick point of clarification that the album was reissued by Bar None in 2006, and there is really little information about the self-released version of the album available online, save for the release year being 2004.
4- I went back to re-read the review I had written about Get Your Hand in My Hand and it is so short, which is really funny to me to think about now, four years later, when everything has to be long and complicated.
5- I love Nick Cave but he has some questionable views especially when it comes to the idea of ‘cancel culture.’
6- My wife pointed out how problematic Glen Hansard is, specifically for the way his relationship with Marketa Irglova unfolded in the mid-2000s. The two of them had formed the duo The Swell Season in 2005, and put out a self-titled album of the same name in 2006. The two had known each other since she was, like, 12 years old, and he apparently served as a mentor early in her own career as a pianist. They allegedly fell in love while filming the 2007 motion picture Once, which incorporates a handful of Swell Season tunes, including their iconic ballad “Falling Slowly.” They apparently ended their relationship in 2009, perhaps around the same time The Swell Season released its second and final album. My wife believes there was a good chance for lechery on Hansard’s part, seeing that she was not even 20 years old when they filmed Once, and he was in his late 30s.
7- Just wanted to take a moment to point out that in recent years, my personal shift has been from the sensitive male singer-songwriter to incredibly sad young women.