I am afraid of everything. I am scared of not getting what I want as much as I’m scared of getting it; I’m scared of dying as much as I’m scared of living or doing anything — change as much as stagnation. But this isn’t about death — or, I guess it isn’t. That would be too obvious. I suppose it has something to do with change: growing versus mutating, dealing or not dealing.
I like scaring people, probably because I’m easily scared. Lately, I find myself watching a lot of Scare Tactics, a TV show where people are set up by their friends in elaborate pranks that lead them to believe they’re going to be murdered or poisoned or kidnapped or tortured. It’s hysterical and usually ends with people saying that they really enjoyed it, now that they know they’re safe. I get that; as much as I hate being frightened, I seek it out, often. I think T.J. Cowgill, the songwriter behind King Dude, gets all of this, too; in his press release for Fear, he writes, “I had one crystal clear intention — to make the most horrifying music that I could.”
Fear, according to Cowgill, is about adolescence, but it all seems vague to me — scenes filmed with Vaseline smeared across the lens, obscuring everything. There’s something about mirrors and telephones, and a lot to do with demons, maybe as a force for good, maybe as the only thing that’s present — the only option becoming the best option, as in Stockholm Syndrome or something else macabre.
Horror is a genre of diminishing returns; Cowgill seems to want to make a record that scares him along with everyone else, which is impossible. Repeat listens — a wearing down of mysteries — would prove less and less fruitful, less and less frightening. Music as a means of creating fear itself seems almost foolish; the medium is appropriate for atmosphere, but it doesn’t lend itself to preying on specific anxieties.
Fear reminds me of No by Old Man Gloom; it starts with an ominous, avant introduction of hissing and scraping before falling back on old patterns and genre expectations. Folk rock is one of the least scary styles I can think of, anyway, and Cowgill’s self-conscious Nick Cave growl does little to leave an impression. “Never Run” sounds more like Bright Eyes or Okkervil River than anything else, and the album’s lyrics range from simple and sing-songy to bizarre (as on “Devil Eyes”: “I found out where heaven lies/ Right between my baby’s thighs” or on the opener, “Fear Is All You Know,” where Cowgill tries to sound menacing while rhyming “Brigitte Bardot” with “Marilyn Monroe”). A comparison to Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga — what with all the Book of Revelations imagery — actually seems apt.
There’s nothing dangerous or anything even visceral about Fear; when Cowgill is most on with his adolescent thread, as on “Miss September,” it all comes out wrong, like teenage poetry pulled from a drawer: “She can’t remember/ What we did in December/ She crawled inside my loving arms/ And she can’t recall/ If she loved me at all/ She’ll be my girl again next fall.” It’s aching in a way that’s so raw and young and embarrassing that it becomes unpleasant. And “Bloody Mirror,” maybe the album’s strongest, sounds like King Dude gone Syd Barrett, all paisley and false British accent, but when he says “Listen to the beating sounds of a drum,” the bass drum comes in, on cue — too obvious.
Fear has a lot to do with dying and living and choosing not to live and all of it, even if it is trying not to; it says little by talking a lot. Its intentions are good, but it’s stuck in trying to make itself into something that it is not: frightening or bold or looming. I am afraid of all the same things — of everything — and it isn’t affecting. It is pushing against its own comfortable voice, growling like a cub pretending to be a bear, proclaiming, “Be scared!” while doing nothing scary.