Earlier this year, two of the three members of Harvey Milk reviewed their entire discography to date with an unabashedly negative slant. Taken at face value, Stephen Tanner and Kyle Spence, Harvey Milk’s bassist and drummer, respectively, seem barely able to hide their disgust for their own work; but as a bit of caustic self-deprecation, their anti-humorous ravings succeed as uncharacteristically canny self-promotion. Although musically versatile, Harvey Milk have developed into a one-joke act, that joke being their perpetual inability to crack a smile. Elevating grimness to a knowing — but never winking — formula, Harvey Milk have managed to give voice to their frustrations while consistently taking the piss out of themselves.
A Small Turn of Human Kindness, Harvey Milk’s newest album — the second since their 2006 reunion — embodies this aggressive-passive dichotomy. Superficially, the record makes a relentlessly dreadful impression. Opening with “*,” a brief, cyclically defeatist instrumental, the band gestures towards its own resigned irrelevance by refusing to so much as grant the song a title. “*” rumbles and repeats itself, before slouching into the even more despairing “I Just Want To Go Home.” For less familiar audiences, “I Just Want To Go Home” provides the first hints of Harvey Milk’s insincerity. Moaning about “one more fish stick night,” Creston Spiers breaks the fourth wall, asking — either his audience or himself, the target of his disdain is uncertain — “What’s so fucking funny?” Spiers’ pained singing often appears to dare listeners into taking him seriously, but his dry, dire tone reveals the death in his deadpan delivery.
A quick glance at the tracklist hints at the bleak, Beckett-ian gallows humor of this particular enterprise. Pushing this aesthetic to its limits, without overplaying it, Harvey Milk use the album’s title as an inversion of its intent. There’s no kindness, no human connection or affiliation here, just a groaning, churning sense of alienation. “What kind of father will I be?” Spiers asks on “I Know This Is No Place For You,” as if his torturous disposition didn’t preemptively answer that rhetorical question. In the context of A Small Turn of Human Kindness’s sequencing, “I Know This Is No Place For You” offers a respite from the thrumming, doom-y drone of the album’s first arc. Its guitars rise before collapsing in defeat. Instrumentally, it sounds like a no-wave impression of a glam-rock ballad. Spiers rouses himself briefly, even if only to bark more non-mots like “Can’t you see I’m through/ Trying to get to you.” Culminating in a moment that approaches catharsis, Spiers pulls back for the last minute, retreating once again into terminal dourness. It’s a terrible, crumpled gesture on an album compromised of little else; that it’s also one of the finest, most distinctive moments on A Small Turn of Human Kindness goes without saying. For Harvey Milk, success and failure are correlatives; they are at their most triumphant when languishing in the aftermath of crippling defeat.
The album’s final two songs broaden the central conceit, musically and thematically. “I Know This Is All My Fault” begins with a flimsy, cheap Herrmann synth ripoff; the song meanders until joined by a stormy, searching guitar riff. Halfway through, that riff gives way to a tender, haunting piano rendition of the same searching progression. Stripped of all other instrumentation, Spiers’ vocals are nonetheless buried in murk, almost imperceivable. “I still have to say/ That it’s not all bad,” he admits, his tail for a moment visible between his bitter, unforgiving legs. But “I Know This Is All My Fault” ends abruptly, leading directly into “I Did Not Call Out,” which repeats the same ascending riff, but finally in a glorious, gratifying and harmonized form. Rather than end with an identifiably southern metal solo, that motif again crumples under its own weight, and the album limps to a wounded finish, one worthy of the band’s wittily and deliberately composed self-loathing.
The rarely remitting tone, coupled with a too-brief length, perhaps lends A Small Turn of Human Kindness a deliberate slightness. They’ve dubbed it a work of “complete and total creative bankruptcy,” but that’s plainly more of the same old deprecation. Harvey Milk never quite match the achievement of their canonical works, but, nevertheless, they’ve succeeded in stretching the running joke without dissolving into self-parody. Or perhaps more aptly, they’ve delivered on the promise of self-parody with a record of genuine insecurity, unsettling pessimism and inherent, indisguisable humanity.