What is it about the mystique of guns? The boringly phallic power they allow one to feel over others? The sense of security they seem to offer, in a postmodernity in which both dominance (in entrepreneurial self-assertion) and submission (to the ever-changing whims of neoliberal flexibility and the irrefutable dictates of the market) make for an unmanageable sense of chaos? Where we are faced with the anxiety-inducing paradigm of a rhetoric of unlimited choice and self-determination, but are always lacking the information (we should say, omnipotence) that would allow us to predict the consequences of our actions? Is it the desperate illogic of this omnipresent circumstance that bleeds into that around the use and ownership of the weapons themselves?
Or is it, at least occasionally, the transgressive element inherent in violence and unequal power — the association with criminality, danger, and drugs, with the Romanticism of the low and the outlaw life — that lends guns their discursive power? Thinking of musical associations, hip-hop might be the stereotypical genre that springs to mind, but we should also think of what we might broadly and revoltingly call alternative rock, particularly that which finds its roots in blues, country, folk, and swamp (“A gun is not a weapon, Marge, it’s a tool. Like a butcher’s knife or a harpoon, or… or an alligator”). That is to say, unsurprisingly, Americana and most particularly the American gothic have also fallen sway to that glamour, from Nick Cave’s various Smith & Wesson T’s (“happiness is a warm gun”) to Lydia Lunch’s, ahem, intimate relationship with firearms from pistols to shotguns. And these, along with an inevitable reference to Gun Club, are deeply relevant points of reference for the extraordinary piece that is Gun Outfit’s Hard Coming Down.
The album creates a distinct atmosphere, one that mingles the begrimed boondocks (“Chop wood and choke on pipe smoke/ As the tears well up inside”) with a city-bred nihilism, accompanied by occasional tumbleweeds of tattered romance and dustballs of Biblicism. Yet the music itself is chameleonic (sometimes within the same song), from mournful balladeering to slacker punk, from 90s lo-fi jangle to psyched-out tabla-isms, from the nasal-backwoods sneer of Violent Femmes circa Country Death Songs to Mazzy Star’s dusty melancholy. But because of that kudzuesque coherence, the last thing this feels like is an exercise in genremashing for its own sake or in the increasingly desperate quest for originality.
The pace of the piece continues and extends the brake-footing trend Gun Outfit have developed over the course of a three-LP trajectory, and it lends Hard Coming Down a sense of solemnity tempered by wryness. Lyrically, the album frequently has a way of taking a sentiment that in its emotional content is hackneyed or obvious (most obviously on bitter, slightly-too-meta closer “Songwriter”), and casting it as something that we look on with eyes bedewed with dawn and hair mussed and straw-covered (“Another Human Being”):
Nothing is more serious than another human being
Put two together, it’s a wild scene
Which of us is brave enough to look love in the face?
Image on my eyes nothing can erase
Oh, I’m always gonna be your man
And that’s a responsibility I am yet to understand…
Hard Coming Down finds us on a roadtrip somewhere between the nihilistic melancholy of the eponymous Freudian death drive and the pop-culture spangled, brightly-burning joie de vivre (de mort) and twisted love of a cross-country, boy-girl vocalled Bonnie and Clyde. That’s a trip that takes us from Thelma and Louise, through Mickey and Mallory, and on ad infinitum… not a star-crossed moment too long.