“I want to drift away from this brutal town/ let it sink into the ground with no story to tell/ a dying thunder in the darkness/ rattling in its mouth”
Hamilton Ulmer has felt like a stranger for almost as long as he can remember. The son of two “unorthodox” parents from rural northern California, Ulmer spent most of his childhood in San Antonio, Texas after his family relocated there for work when he was just two years old. Though he lived there for the majority of his formative years, he and his eccentric family struggled to find their place, leaving Ulmer with a nagging sense of alienation that followed him even after he moved back to California in his adulthood. When his father died of lung cancer in 2011, these complex emotions and unanswered questions compounded into something that needed an outlet. The result, for Ulmer, was the 2015 Makeunder EP Great Headless Blank which wrestled not only with the death of his father, but all of the things that went with him: memories, a cohesive narrative of Ulmer’s youth, and the homes their family had inhabited. Great Headless Blank was a series of grief vignettes; potent, melancholy songs that earned the critical praise of NPR’s Bob Boilen among others. Immediate and powerful, those songs were an exercise in grieving and left many questions to be answered later.
Four years after the fact, Ulmer and Makeunder have returned with a true master work, their first proper LP, the three act concept piece Pale Cicada. Thematically, Pale Cicada picks up where Great Headless Blank left off, piecing together what life is for a poor man who has always felt out of step even as he deals with the residual grief of his father’s passing. “I know that I can’t help myself/ how do I live with this sadness?/ Give me something real/ before I sink into the ground/ with no story to tell” goes the hook of the opener and title track Pale Cicada, the closest thing to a mission statement on the album. As he writes he delves succinctly and capably into just about every angle he can find of his situation, dealing with poverty on the psych-funk In Between My Dead End Jobs, taking an esoteric side glance at marriage on Ringing Chord, reclaiming childhood on Ain’t That a Trip, and exploring his father’s death with added perspective on Begin in the Middle. For most of the album Ulmer’s lyrics are sharp and frank in their heaviness, but if you were listening casually you would never know. Each line is delivered in Ulmer’s smooth Soul/RnB voice, through acrobatic runs, complex harmony chords, and often staggered staccato melodies.
Sonically, Pale Cicada also diverts some attention from the weight of the words: it is largely up-tempo from track one and at points even danceable. The second track and first single In Between My Dead End Jobs might even be considered poppy, leaving aside a sudden dark turn into Tom Waits territory for a portion of the bridge. Describing the complex, often dense arrangements as a whole however, feels impossible. One could call it RnB or Funk, but neither term does any justice to the highly creative, genre-bending sounds that Makeunder accomplish on this record. Opening track Pale Cicada veers into art-rock territory with heavy distorted guitars and blaring trumpet sounds before swinging into a soulful, almost anthemic chorus. Begin in the Middle sounds like Prince succumbing to the dark side with its haunting harmonies, vocal slap-back, and heavy drum groove. Ringing Chord seems to reference Justin Vernon with subtle vocoder layering on the lead vocal and an ambient arrangement, while I’m Still Living Wrongly goes from RnB, to folk, to a swelling string crescendo, to a sinister noise rock break, before landing a triumphant guitar solo and going back to folk. Pulling off genre fusion at this level is extremely difficult, but Makeunder make it look easy each and every song, creating one of the most instrumentally interesting albums of the year to date with little real competition in sight.
Inevitably though, not every experiment on such an experiment heavy album can land. Though second single Promothean Heat succeeds in its off-kilter verses and it’s unexpected, Kendrick Lamar-esque harmony walls, it’s ascending refrain feels done just to prove it can be done. It’s nonetheless still incredibly impressive, but doesn’t seem to line up with the line that sits on it, one of the less chaotic lines on the album. In that regard the album’s biggest strength is in one way also its biggest weakness, it’s experimentation at once makes it one of, if not THE most interesting album of the year, but for more casual listeners the sheer amount of things happening at any given time could be easily overwhelming, even despite the clear pop sensibility Ulmer shows throughout with his melodies.
If you are willing to dive into Pale Cicada though, it is an incredibly rewarding listen; a truly master class album both lyrically and instrumentally. It is definitely dense, however. Even after several repeat listens you will still be picking out things you hadn’t heard before in the mix: overlapping guitar lines, backing vocals, metaphors, and lyrical tie-ins between tracks. For Ulmer it is the culmination of a life of personal struggle, and here he makes his statement emphatically and in the grandest possible fashion. His work of self-processing is complete, but for us listeners the processing has only just begun: it could take a lifetime to milk from this all that it has to offer.
8.5 (Best New Music)
Released: June 28, 2019
Label: Good Eye Records