My first exposure to Copenhagen’s Alcoholic Faith Mission came two years ago when a friend of mine became fairly obsessed with the song “Nut in Your Eye,” the lead single off the band’s sophomore record 421 Wythe Ave. The song’s title, which would have been a perfect fit for some virulently misogynistic slab of gansta rap, seemed hopelessly at odds with the tender, spacious strains of acoustic guitar and piano that introduced the track. That is, until singer Kristine Permild delivers the opening lines: “Harry and Jonas made me fall/ Into your hands/ Made me see all I could have,” she intones in a voice so young yet alarmingly drained of emotion, and then, “Feeling my arms around your back/ Your big in my hands.” Five lines, two grammatically unconnected sentences, but with those meager tools and the cavernous spaces in between, they tell us the young narrator’s entire life story. In half a verse, Alcoholic Faith Mission have created a tableau more heartbreaking and unsettling than lesser artists could construct with an entire album.
There is a coarseness to AFM’s music that should, by all rights, completely obliterate the delicacy of their compositions. I mean, come on, when you have a melody as wispy and ethereal as “Gently,” you don’t get to write lyrics like “Just cause I’m a whore/ Doesn’t mean / I don’t feel it/ When you fuck me/ Gently.” Yet that’s what they did, time and time again. The world of Thorben Seiero Jensen, the band’s principal lyricist and founding member alongside Sune Solund, is one overflowing with drunks, hop-heads, pimps, whores, and losers of every stripe digging through the gutters for love or one of its counterfeits, for transcendence or maybe just another fix.
The squalor of Jensen’s imaginary landscapes certainly has its precedents in the realm of rock ’n’ roll, most obviously in the work of junkie poets like Lou Reed and Jim Carroll, but the artist that seems most closely aligned with the group is author Hubert Selby Jr. Best known for Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby was an unflinching — some would say sensationalist — chronicler of the plight of the urban poor. His fiction depicted human beings at their most depraved, reduced by the poverty of their material and spiritual lives to bestial, predatory grotesqueries. And yet if you sifted through the mounds of shit and refuse, through the beatings and the gang rapes and the SCREAMING COMING FROM THE APARTMENT NEXT DOOR… if you could keep a steady gaze through those soul-deadening visions of the soul in extremis, there were these shining, transcendent moments of beauty so radiant and fleeting that they were capable of shaking you to your core. And that, too, is where Jensen and AFM’s talent lies: in looking life straight in the eye, seeing it for the hateful, vindictive bitch that it is, and still giving us a reason to go on living.
Ask Me This is the group’s fourth album, picking up more or less where 2010’s superb Let This Be the Last Night We Care and the equally dazzling And the Running with Insanity EP left off. The improvised sonic washes of Wythe have been replaced with slicker, more focused studio production. While I mourn the loss of the batshit inventiveness that the group’s shoestring recordings inspired in them (from their website’s bio page: “…everything used to record had to be found in the confines of their dwellings. This is how two dictionaries came to be a kick drum and wailing and screaming came to remedy the lack of synthesizers.”), their more sophisticated digs allow them to do some pretty amazing stuff. How many other indie rock acts could chop up a fragmented vocal sample into a staccato beat and come out with something as lovely and tuneful as the song “Into Pieces”? And what about the brick-thick vocal harmonies of “Down from Here” that veer straight into Gregorian chant territory? These songs are infused with an almost stately grace that belies the corrupt and debauched characters at their center.
But while the themes of Ask will be familiar ones to long-time followers, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the band is holding back a little. Even pronouncements like “You can blow them all if you want to/ As long as you stay my friend” on the coming-out ballad “Reconstruct My Love” feel tame next to the blunt sexuality of “Got Love Got Shellfish!” or the cruelty of “When They Bleed” from their previous records. The rawest offering here might just be the tale of a sweaty post-protest hook-up, “We Need Fear.” Jensen’s ironic, lascivious crooning cuts a stark contrast to Permild’s earnest declarations of love, but seem to find a common ground in mutual desperation at the song’s conclusion. With its blending of civil disobedience and eroticism, it reminds me a little of Lifter Puller’s “Nassau Coliseum” but with a hungry, cynical edge that belongs wholly to AFM.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the group’s penchant for writing songs that build gradually by accretion, ascending to dizzying heights along deceptively linear trajectories. “Throw Us to the Wolves” falters to a near standstill twice in its four-minute run-time, only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes each time, bigger and more majestic. “I’m Not Evil” lumbers resolutely forward as the piano and guitar take turns playing the same melody, until the two come together in a kind of duet in the song’s final moments. Perhaps the finest track on the album, “Alaska,” is also the simplest, its centerpiece a dissonant, seesawing guitar figure that seems to contain only four unique notes.
Ask Me This is another step along AFM’s path of continual refinement, exploring new ways to take melodies apart and reassemble them. It doesn’t hover quite so near rock-bottom as their previous output, but rest assured that rock-bottom is still visible from here. The streets are still mean and the souls that wander them still magnificently broken. With a joyous threnody, this mission calls all into its bosom, the lame and the halt, the liar and the manipulator, the victim and the victimizer, all creatures low and beastly. Yet it is a testament to their compassion that they are able to remind us that there is “no beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.”