Like his previous releases The Novelist and Walking
Without Effort, Richard Swift's latest album Dressed
Up For The Letdown is a short-and-sweet offering of rainy-day
jazz ballads and catchy 60's folk recollections. Each of these
ten songs comes to life with the honest, bare-bones poetry their
creator so wonderfully pens. Furthermore, by giving the lyrics
a more personal touch and adding a few more players to his rag-tag
orchestra (there's even the occasional synthesizer), Swift's Letdown
slips onto paths that his earlier albums dared not venture. The
result is a bold and subtle step forward, taken by a young songwriter
who's maturing well beyond his years.
The album starts off with the title track. Imagine this peculiar
opener is set in an extravagant concert hall, where the evening's
performer waits with his guitar in the shadow of a red stage curtain.
The band is ready, the well-dressed audience eager, and "it's
time for the show." A gentle finger-plucked melody eases
its way through the house speakers, setting the music off with
a jaunt as the audience claps along. Suddenly the curtain is lifted
and the audience gasps. Excitement turns to disappointment when
the spotlight falls on the shopworn Richard Swift, who sits plucking
away and groaning the opening lines into the microphone. "Dressed
up for the letdown/write songs for the wrong crowd," he murmurs.
But regardless of what the title and lyrics suggest (or even expect),
the album is certainly no letdown.
This title track downer is eventually budged off the stage by
an upbeat toe-tapper titled "The Songs of National Freedom."
Swift bounces the song forward with the kind of rag-time piano
jive that made Randy Newman an original soundtrack celebrity.
And with vocals packing a nice rhythmic punch, Swift colors the
opening lyrics with perhaps his catchiest melodies yet, as he
sings, "We've seen the rain we've seen the sunshine/And darling
you and I could never be wrong/I try to hide away for sometime/It
seems like all I had was you and a song." These lyrics promise
the song won't be without Swift's trademark gloom. But with an
oddly positive mood and a chorus that joyfully springs to life,
"National Freedom" proves even a cynic like Swift can't
deny how good it feels to have a song in your heart. Here, Swift
sings of his past opportunities for fame and fortune; chances
he's quite passionately considered taking. As the marvelous chorus
proclaims, "I feel alive, I feel alive/ like I could try
for the first time at getting it all." Swift sings this with
such passion that listeners can't help but believe every word.
Still, his reckless abandon is interrupted by the revealing second
verse. Here he sings, "I've made my way into the spotlight/just
to realize it's not what I want." And on the song's bridge,
Swift crosses over into memories that remind him of what does
make him feel truly alive: singing for the pure joy of it. "I'm
moving along at the speed of sound/remembering the songs of National
Freedom" (by the way, Swift's touring band is named the Sons
Of National Freedom). It's an unforgettable song, perhaps
the best of his career thus far.
Another fine track with a message treading hopefully between
pleasure and pain is the quick-strummed acoustic rocker "Most
of What I Know." Though at times quite heartwarming, this
song is not ignorant to the violence and indifference characterizing
the present times. The first verse itself saves the track from
such naiveté, opening with the lines, "Sad to hear
the world collapsing/All inventions made to trap me." The
narrator longs "to find some place of silence/far from all
their tongues and violence." Luckily, the chorus, with its
warm "friends-first" mantra reminiscent of Carol
King, gives Swift a safe haven from the mess around him. Here
the narrator finds he can face the doubtful days of an unstable
world only by depending on those whose love empowers him. As he
sings, "Everybody wants for me to see/that most of what I
know I can't believe/but your love will keep my heart alive."
Lines like this demonstrate Swift's uncanny ability to brew together
his outright cynicism towards much of contemporary culture with
a genuine optimism towards humanity that never ceases to grace
even his bleakest of songs. "Most of What I Know" picks
up a pleasing pace as tom-tom rolls thicken the background. And
as the conclusion nears, a trumpet bounces out a golden melody
while Swift's raspy vocals soar to the forefront, repeatedly proclaiming,
"Your love will keep my heart alive." The next track,
"Buildings in America," has a similar theme.
The album's most honest and direct song is the spooky "Artists
and Repertoire." It begins with dark and brooding piano chords
that create quite a frightening atmosphere. Swift, playing the
role of an unnamed music industry representative, haunts the air
with his sinister vocal melodies. The shady character sings, "Sorry
Mr. Swift, but there's no radio/that likes to play the songs of
your loveless sorrow/Just sing us a jingle and we'll float you
some bread/and all it will cost you is your heart and your head."
This track isn't some "damn the man" rant of an underappreciated
artist. Rather, it illustrates a very personal experience that
apparently has marked the singer with a still-healing scar. As
a result, he's become rightfully jaded towards a mainstream music
industry that all too often demands artists sacrifice their sincerity,
not to mention their intelligence, for the sake of monetary gain.
As the somber pianos continue, trumpets bleed even darker colors
into the picture. The sound emerging from the brass bells sound
like the kind of music that would accompany someone home after
they've lost their job, a family member, a lover, or all the above.
Now, "Artists" doesn't place the blame solely on the
business side of things. Instead, through its sound and words,
the song portrays a common tragedy so many musicians face when
commerce overshadows art. The closing line especially nails this,
as he sings, "Sorry everybody for the things I've said/got
a wife and kids and a gun to my head." But even in this dark
narrative, there's a glimmer of light catching listeners by surprise.
It's heard when Swift, now singing as himself, recognizes, "My
name will go missing, but the songs will be here."
The final song on the album, a short and bluesy track titled
"The Opening Band", is like gospel music for the mocked
and ignored. It begins its clever biblical allusions singing,
"John the Baptist was the opening band/that no one paid to
see, except you and me." The next verse speaks with a similar
tone, this time presenting a direct challenge to the culture's
oft-preached image of a "militant messiah." Swift sings,
"His cousin Christ, he was strange but he was nice/They tried
to kick his ass, he didn't fight back."
And so concludes Richard Swift's latest addition to his small
but stellar discography. With that rare ability to make simple
lyrics the most poetic, not to mention a keen eye for social commentary
and honest cultural musings, Swift is proving to be one of the
most promising of today's emerging songwriters. So no matter how
weary of fame he may be, Dressed Up For The Letdown is
hopefully the album that wins him the wider audience he deserves.
1. Dressed Up For The Letdown
2. The Songs Of National Freedom
3. Most Of What I Know
4. Buildings In America
5. Artists & Repertoire
6. Kisses For The Misses
7. P.S. It All Falls Down
8. Ballad Of You Know Who
9. The Million Dollar Baby
10. The Opening Band
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