Like Tony Soprano’s wild ducks, Chuck Prophet albums arrive seasonally, every two or three years, which reminds me, stealing from Tom Stoppard, that “music when it’s done right affects our nerves, makes us want to say nice, stupid things and to pat the heads of those people who can create such beauty. Although nowadays we can’t pat heads or we’ll get our hands bitten off.”
Regardless, somewhere amongst the fake news and conspiracy theories, trumpets are trumpeting and cowbells are clanging for Prophet and the Mission Express; on the whole, the critics love Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins. Criticism may be boring, irrelevant, dead as the metaphorical ducks in the swimming pool, but this album succeeds, at least artistically, because it creates its’ own world by continuing the examination of the “google-free” zone of Temple Beautiful with an underlying concern for the disparity between fact and fiction. Did Bobby Fuller really die for our sins? Why was his body in an advanced state of rigor mortis when supposedly he had only been dead half an hour? Did Jesus really drink Guinness or was it more likely a gin and tonic? Was 2016 (and now 2017) a bad year for rock and roll, or is rock and roll deification dependent on death, therefore the best thing that could happen to a rock star?
And why has Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins been heralded as “Californian noir” when it’s almost always sunny in California? These are mostly idle questions not necessarily needing an answer. Prophet sings about being Connie Britton and knocking about with Boruch Alan Bermowitz (otherwise known as Alan Vega of Suicide), but you don’t necessarily need to know the facts nor know who these people are; if they are mysterious names holding the key to your heart, all the better as permission for the imagination.
Much of the album was written with Prophet’s long-time co-conspirator, poet klipschutz; it’s possible the dramatic tension created in their songs comes from spending quantity time shouting at each other or at the walls, or whatever they do, in Prophet’s self-described “small shoebox office” in San Francisco. The creative process is puzzling from the outside, and probably from the inside too. In any event, it works for them.
While the energy of the title track and “Bad Year for Rock and Roll” are uplifting and the wit and humour in “Jesus Was a Social Drinker” and “If I Was Connie Britton” are certainly appealing, it is indeed the “noir”, the focus on the downbeat and those on the fringes of society, which distinguishes this record. Although there’s a suggestion in the title track that music beats everything else, and “I ain’t never seen a movie that’s moved me half as much”, this album is rich in film and literary influence, heading towards a rock and roll transposition of a Jim Thompson novel.
Prophet has been previously acclaimed with “noir” accolades (see Robert Palmer’s review of Green on Red’s “The Killer Inside Me” for the New York Times); here however the element of “noir” is both stylistic, through Prophet’s characteristic half-spoken vocals and the gritty musical accompaniment by the Mission Express, as well as thematic, by an emphasis on plot lines with a bleak tone/denouement; the dog-tired travelling musician’s life in “We Got Up and Played”, the murky black and white underground of “Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues”, and the grainy, sexual thrill of “Your Skin”, in which the object of desire is defined through a semi-negative gaze: “it’s not the way you move your hips/ it’s not the clothes you wear/ it’s your skin”. The hard-boiled, hard-luck nature of “Open Up Your Heart” uses dark poetics with its trees that “bend like skeletons”, and subtle references to Buddhist philosophy.
In many senses Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, more fur coat than knickers; underneath all the positive and inspiring rock and roll is a troubled world and a bewilderment at our faith in carrying on with it all – the gun violence of “Killing Machine” (mass murderer Charles Whitman frothing at the mouth under its’ tough gloss), the communication problems of “Coming Out in Code” and the fallen heroes of “Bad Year for Rock and Roll”. America is surely doomed until the false gods of guns and celebrities are abandoned. The most severe music is reserved for “Alex Nieto”, finishing the album like a slammed door, a fierce yelp of a protest song with the requite bite and bark to be sincerely angry.
Protest singers may take us some way to revolution, and Prophet’s vocal phrasing often rivals Bob Dylan’s in crafty idiosyncrasy. In person Prophet is special, and this album gets close to what the talented Mission Express sound like in full flood. In a superficial and dark world this is an album with surprising depth and spirit, and in the era of post-truth Trump-ism, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins is as real as it gets.
Label: Yep Roc
Release Date: 10 FEB 2017
FIRST PUBLISHED ZOUCH MAGAZINE 12 OCT 2017