Why does Rick Alverson make such sad music? Why does he make music so sad that the press called his last album too depressing and refused to review it?
"That's the thing we get a lot, and it makes me angry," Alverson responds. "It's the easiest way out, to just call it depressing."
Alverson, 29, talks about his band, Spokane, at his kitchen table in the small and tidy Oregon Hill apartment he shares with his girlfriend and bandmate, Courtney Bowles. Alverson plays guitar, Bowles plays drums, and Karl Runge plays violin.
He's aware that people are often drawn to less difficult and more upbeat music. "People coin something difficult to deal with as depressing," Alverson says, "so they don't have to deal with it."
"There's no battle with me against sadness," Alverson says as he describes the intent of the majority of his work. (Alverson's work includes a 17-minute film, five albums and three EPs, including the new "Close Quarters" EP, one documentary CD with poet Robert Creely and two 45s. Spokane's second full-length album is due in September.) It's work, he says, which attempts to "take things that are painful and elevate them into something that's beautiful."
Alverson's music has always had the same basic sound: slow movements, a quiet tone and his Tom Petty-on-Quaaludes vocal style. His last album, "Leisure & Other Songs," is complex and difficult. It lacks recognizable song structures and easily accessible melodies. It is a big change from "Tableside Manners," the last album by Alverson's previous band, Drunk.
"'Tableside Manners' is Rick Alverson's mildly implausible attempt at an upbeat record," the British magazine NME wrote in a glowing review. CMJ called the "gentle, languid melodies" on the record "softly intoxicating." The album got Alverson and the rest of Drunk the greatest amount of press and the best they had ever received.
"When we were making ["Tableside Manners"] I knew what it was going to do," he says. "I knew what kind of reviews it was going to get. But at the end of the day I don't find that rewarding." Even though, he notes with a wry smile, Drunk sure sold a lot of T-shirts to frat boys who may or may not have appreciated the music.
Instead of basking in great press and pushing forward with a successful formula, Drunk's members separated to concentrate on other projects. Spokane's first album has gone unnoticed compared to Drunk's last record. Alverson isn't surprised. "['Tableside Manners'] participated in a manipulative process as all pop music does," he says. "Spokane was made in opposition to those objectives."
"Leisure" lacks the hooks that drew critics into "Tableside Manners." What's left are strewn bits of piano and guitar, a sparse rhythm section and Alverson's poetic verse. The lyrics and music provide an overall tone reminiscent of a walk through the rubble of memory. It's the soundtrack for nostalgia.
Critics ignored it. American magazines like CMJ, Magnet and a list of others, Alverson says, sent word to Alverson's label Jagjaguwar that they refused to review the album because it was too depressing.
So why make an album most people aren't going to bother with? What about the pop record, the one for the fame and the royalty checks? "It's just not as rewarding to me, I guess," Alverson says. "I don't know if there's much new to do in rock 'n' roll."
But there's plenty of upbeat artistic music out there. Why does he want to make it so sad? "When everything is quiet and cleared away, that's when I feel secure," Alverson explains. "[Sadness] is just a part of life, and I love it.
"I can listen to Van Halen as much as anybody else," he adds with a laugh, "but at the end of the day I just feel distracted."
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