I should make something clear: I really, really love Titus Andronicus. The band is like an emotional, no-bullshit refuge in a world of, as front man Patrick Stickles might say, worthless buzz bands. A great thing about Titus is the perpetual turnover of band members — new and individually talented musicians come and go, each adding something to the band while giving fans both casual and obsessive the opportunity to access whole new discographies: Sarim Al-Rawi now fronts Liquor Store, a lovably raw (and hilarious) punk rock band; Andrew Cedermark has released two unbelievably underappreciated indie rock albums; and here we are with Liam Betson, who, as Liam The Younger, has released several indie folk records that fall somewhere between Conor Oberst and Justin Vollmar. His albums have always been promising, but each felt, in some way, incomplete or premature. The Cover of Hunter, however, released as Liam Betson — as if subtly readying listeners for a less “younger” Liam — strikes me as a step in the right direction: a document of an artist who’s on the way to discovering a singular approach that’s still rooted in community.
In a press release describing the circumstances under which The Cover of Hunter was written, a listed influence that particularly caught my attention (alongside usual “omg huge influence” names like Lou Reed and The Germs) was postmodern novelist William Gaddis. I would never have thought to think of Gaddis in this context, but Betson’s name-drop made something about the album click: the lyrics, the landscapes therein, the dialectic of claustrophobia and agoraphobia inherent in the postmodern novel, and, yes, the postmodern living that the album constantly evokes. Like Stickles’ endlessly referential existentialist punk rock, Betson seems to be drawing the marrow of his music’s life from the skeletons of the concerns of great thinkers who have, in some corners of culture, gone misunderstood or misread by many.
But I think Betson gets it, gets us, and gets our waterlogged info-gluttony. In eight-minute opening track “I Can’t Tell if You’re Looking at Me” (the title bringing to mind the embarrassing, baffling Google Glass expansion of the already infuriating Bluetooth headset ailment, “I Can’t Tell if You’re Talking to Me”), we’re lulled into a sort of trance by Betson’s charming monotone until, around halfway through, the band comes in and his heretofore quiet mumble transforms into a double-tracked, fistlike moan. Betson’s lyrics in this song vary from the realist-literalist micro (watching a robin eat a worm; getting up out of bed so that he too can eat) to the dizzyingly macro (imagining the world as a giant painting), something the album as a whole plays often and well with. The band drives the song out to its full length and into an awkwardly misplaced sound clip from Streetwise which, haha, also appears in a How To Dress Well song. Liam and Tom wore the same dress to prom. It’s whatever.
I should mention Julian Lynch’s clarinet, which weaves in and out of focus throughout the album. Lynch gives some of Betson’s songs the glistening nuance necessary to push them over the edge from okay to good, or sometimes from good to great. The first track utilizes the clarinet as a bridge, stabilizing the listener as they cross over from the quiet into the loud. On “Cop Car,” Lynch’s presence completes an already beautiful song with a touch of melancholic ghostliness.
Another necessary connection: Betson can write intelligent lyrics and small, simple, but pretty melodies. When these two talents coincide, the resultant song is always penetrating. “The Lace Collar” is short, poetic, and beautiful in its modesty; “Pocket Knife” is aggressive where it needs to be and hopeful everywhere else (it also contains the album’s strongest guitar hook); “Rapture in Heat” feels like the brief, clean sequel that we didn’t know “I Can’t Tell If You’re Looking at Me” needed so soon; and “X” is a character study that builds upon itself until the only reasonable conclusion is a chaos of guitaring. But the components don’t always come together: “The Primordial Will” lacks the melodic energy of the surrounding songs, and the otherwise solid “Featureless Interior” finds a botched crescendo in which Betson stretches his voice to a quivering yell reminiscent of Bright Eyes’s more grating moments.
So, William Gaddis wrote several of the 20th century’s most prohibitively dense, but rewardingly masterful, novels — his impact on literature has been slow but immense. Does the inclusion of such a figure in this review do either Betson or Gaddis justice? Looking at The Cover of Hunter, I see an album full of descriptions and ideas. That there is sometimes failure in such a work is only to be expected; the successes are what need the attention. While Liam Betson has created his best album yet, it still somehow feels like a debut. But maybe this is appropriate: Gaddis had certainly written lots before his own debut was published (to much critical derision, I might add). And look where that book is today.