I’ll be the first to begrudgingly admit that I can be quite an ignorant son of a bitch. I camouflage that ignorance with a projection of complete understanding of cultures apart from my (underwhelming) own, even though on the inside I harbor my own ideas of a culture’s signs and signifiers. For example, if somebody tells me that they’re going to be vacationing in Utah, I’ll probably say something like, “Oooh, what a beautiful state!” even though my only experience with Utah involved eating at a Denny’s in Beaver, where the hashbrowns I ordered were overcooked. Otherwise, to me, Utah may as well be another planet. I mean, what the fuck do I know about Utah beyond Mormons, mountains, the Jazz, Brigham Young, The Osmonds, Milo T. Farnsworth, Joe Smith, Mormons, the 2002 Winter Olympics, nature, Sally Ann Cavanaugh, Wasatch Brewery, and Mormons? See what I mean? My ignorance is astounding.
And, holy shit, that ignorance was put to the test when a CD from Utah arrived in my mailbox: the artist, The Rose Phantom, the album, Abandon. Whatever little I knew about Utah, I never would have equated that knowledge with music outside of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Let alone, I never would have thought the cover photo of Abandon would feature The Rose Phantom as a figure who initially came across to me as a hybrid of Mr. MacPhisto and Peter Murhpy. What is this? It must be from another planet. But no, it’s just from Utah.
Full disclosure: The Rose Phantom is the musical alter-ego of artist Ted Newsom, who contacted me some time after my piece on Tears For Fears’ Everybody Loves a Happy Ending got noticed by an online community of Curt Smith fans. Per his request, I agreed to review his album for Optimism Vaccine. I lived with it for the past 3 months as he waited patiently for me to finish up whatever grad school papers I was freaking out about.
Initially, this was a dicey undertaking for me. Considering the album art alone, The Rose Phantom, on the surface, is a Goth act. I have an exceptional lack of experience with Goth outside of possessing two best-of compilations from The Cure and a few latter-period songs from The Damned. There was also that one time I bought a Beatles t-shirt at a Hot Topic (again, my ignorance has few boundaries). Without having even started to listen to Abandon, I was already a little freaked out. How will I be able to sound like I know what the fuck I’m talking about?
But at this point, this is acting more as an essay of my own anxiety of reviewing an album by an independent artist half the country away. So, I’ll take this opportunity to shut the hell up about ME and actually talk about Abandon. The album opens with “All I Want,” which is dark and brooding, but poignant and thoughtful. Some nice twinkly synth sounds and studio effects fill a wall of sound that almost drowns out the guitar. Newsom’s voice is extremely malleable and his singing style is in tribute, though not derivative, of his musical heroes. First song in, The Rose Phantom has established a rather unique sound that transcends the Goth label.
“All I Want” aside, my initial, gut reaction to listening to Abandon the first time all the way through was that The Rose Phantom conjures up an image of a sonic orgy between Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and The National. And no, I don’t mean Matt Berninger copulating with Trent Reznor, while David Gahan watches them as he eats grapes on a chaise lounge (although, try getting THAT picture out of your mind, now). Simply put, it is the best way I can describe the sound and style of The Rose Phantom: dark, moody, emotional, gothic, electronic and, well, I’m out of adjectives at the moment. But the combination works, even though I doubt Newsom intended that specific combination. Still, The Rose Phantom’s Abandon manages to be wholly unique in this current era of independent music and lot of that has to do with the disc’s sonic qualities.
A lot of the success of the record comes down to the production. Now, I understand that modern technology in home recording software has enabled even the most rudimentary musicians to record albums that sound like Rumors in their bathrooms. However, as Newsom himself puts it:
Yes, it was a hard album to make...very complicated and technical compared to my previous works. Most of the songs on Abandon were written a year or two beforehand. Abandon took over one year to complete. The usual sessions were around 20 hours long. Most of the songs took weeks to mix..."Here It Is" took over one month! Why? Because "Dangerous" Dane Morrow and I were being very meticulous during mixing.
The great attention to detail is obvious. Abandon sounds really impressive and it is clearly produced in a very classic manner. When listening, you can almost imagine Newsom working his ass off in the recording booth of some hip Southern California studio while some big-shot producer snorts a line a of coke off of Stevie Nicks’ ass, giving Newsom a thumbs up whenever appropriate. In other words, the recording sounds absolutely flawless. And what a treat that is, for this is a recording that is not meant to be lo-fi and under-produced. There’s real, un-contrived drama amongst a collages of meandering synths and heart-wrenching vocal wailing. Songs such as “Emotional Closet” and “Destiny Wants My Heart” are epic and highly experimental, but ultimately successful in execution. However, they would have suffered had they been handled with less care and precision.
Abandon hearkens back to certain sounds of the 1980s, but it is certainly not a one-way ticket to Nostalgia World. For example, “River Runs Wild” would have fit well on just about any John Hughes film soundtrack, except for its complete lack of schmaltz. The twinkly keys and propulsive beat bring to mind the sounds of the Brat Pack era, but fortunately, it’s far more substantive and lyrically contemplative than, say, late-period OMD or Simple Minds.
Whether it’s intentional or not, Abandon celebrates a bygone era of music where an artists persona amplifies the message in the music. While most independent artists of today masquerade in thrift store shirts, skinny jeans, and sensible shoes (I am just as guilty of this as anybody else), The Rose Phantom is a full-blown artist in an era that is very light on full-blown artists in music.*
Around the same time that Abandon came into my world, David Bowie released The Next Day to a resounding chorus of cheers from critics. Some of that acclaim can no doubt be attributed to the fact that Bowie had not released any new material in nearly a full decade and, well, he’s David Fucking Bowie. Who else sounds like him? Who else does what he does? In a sense, many critics seemed to be praising Bowie simply for recording and releasing The Next Day, regardless of its artistic merit. It’s unlike anything else in the contemporary music market, and therefore, it must be good. And, no, I’m not suggesting that Rose Phantom is a modern David Bowie. I’m sure Newsom himself would consider such a claim to be extremely hyperbolic. But I worried about feeling the same about Abandon as the same way the overly-positive discourse surrounds The Next Day. I was concerned that my positive feelings toward a record like Abandon would simply be a reflection of it being a work that sets itself apart from much of the contemporary music scene. And much like The Next Day, Abandon is not trendy, but it’s very admirable in that it is totally uncompromising in its ambition. But in the end, The Next Day is still a good album with very few shortcomings. And so is Abandon. I think it’s time I went to Utah.
* If you’re interested in exploring The Rose Phantom’s world, along with Newsom’s other art projects, be sure to check out his impressively elaborate web site: www.therosephantom.com