How many artists are there who can truly work across a range of forms? Scarlett Johansson’s Tom Waits covers (I’m not even going to mention Russell Crowe), Leonard Cohen’s poetry, David Bowie’s artworks, Nick Cave’s novels — oh wait, those last are rather good. So how does our Lynchpin (s)tack up? In short, though Crazy Clown Time is an unfortunate title, speaking to the worn cliché of the evil harlequin, in being thus it does the album little justice.
The aesthetic Crazy Clown Time inhabits is one similar to Lynch’s film work: a dark yet down-homey Americana (“I went down the football game”), shot through with surrealism and punctuated by loss and violence — a violence verging on the misogynistic, reminiscent of pieces like Jim Thompson’s pulp novel The Killer Inside Me. Typically, again, themes combine the culturally familiar (particularly the lovelorn and the vagaries of halcyon memory) with classically Lynchian obsessions (birdsong, the color red).
The auteur himself — his unique drawl fed through various effects and filters — provides the chief set of pipes on the piece, though Karen O also contributes to fine effect. The mutations that Lynch’s voice undergoes might in themselves be thought of as the kind of identity-fuck characteristic of films like Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. All of this is more than satisfying from the perspective of aural enjoyment, but where we find originality, it’s lyrical, as on the album’s most bizarre (and oddly funky) piece, “Strange And Unproductive Thinking” (featuring vocodery spoken vocals reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s 1980s work). It opens as a seeming ode to a particular spiritual/psychological worldview — one assumes this emerges from Lynch’s dedication to transcendental meditation — but then takes a quintessentially Lynchian swerve into a forest, zooming in to focus on pine pitch (the sylvan equivalent of Eraserhead’s radiator), before exploring both idyllic childhood and the significance of dental hygiene.
Similarly, the listener is dreamily enticed into following a strange mélange of genres — downtempo electronic tracks, for example, feature fat, creepy beats similar to those of other artists who work with smoky, instrumental hip-hop sounds: Gil Scott-Heron, Clams Casino, or Balam Acab. Elsewhere, as on lead single “Good Day Today,” we are treated to disco synth pop, but filtered through the same crepuscular aesthetic (and, in the lines “So tired of fire/ So tired of smoke,” Lynch echoes, yet also rejects and renews, the rhetoric of the Log Lady). There’s no dreampop here, but a (Julee) Cruise-ian mood is nonetheless evoked in the beautiful, languid, surf/Western guitar lines, and in the sense of listening from an intimate, slow-motion cabaret; it’s hard not to visualize The Man From Another Place slowdancing to tracks like the instrumental “The Night Bell With Lightning.”
Lynch has always had a self-indulgent streak — exhibit A, Inland Empire — and this too is present, in that at 70 minutes (and despite its genre eclecticism), there’s not enough variety to keep the album from outstaying its welcome, although it concludes on a surprisingly moving note: “She Rise Up,” a simple, melancholy farewell to the beloved that also intimates a new dawn. Nonetheless, to extend that welcome, with all its uncertainty and menace, is deeply gratifying in itself. Crazy Clown Time isn’t a groundbreaking work in the way that Lynch’s films are, but that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of darkling pleasure for the intrepid and the curious. Just a few songs before we go to sleep…