Time goes by, but Spider Bags persist. Dan McGee’s band has come to a point of crystallization, a point toward which they’ve strived through a deluge of seven inches (all collected on 2013’s Singles) following the messy classics A Celebration of Hunger and Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World, and perfected on 2012’s revelatory Shake My Head. It isn’t exactly that they’ve cleaned up their act — they still spew LSD and malt liquor from every hole — but the difference lies somewhere between the band’s core songwriting habits and their, forgive the Music Writing 101 term, chemistry. But despite the band having reached a crystallized incarnation of itself, it’s a particularly dynamic one. Spider Bags have not plateaued; experimentation with and perversion of pop, country, and rock music has been and still is the band’s modus operandi.
Frozen Letter, the band’s Merge debut, is a small album. At eight songs in 34 minutes, it’s the band’s shortest, but it’s also perhaps the best distillation and presentation of their sound, coming off like a stranger, dreamier sister album to Shake My Head. Like all Spider Bags albums, it feels instantly familiar, like it has always been in your head waiting to hear itself played back to your ears. McGee’s voice continues to do that thing it does both so well and so distinctly, a crooning drawl. The album is noticeably bisected: the first four tracks are short, catchy and driving; the latter four tracks are longer, all exceeding five minutes, and tend toward a more psychedelic energy, both musically and lyrically. Two equally worthwhile attributes of Spider Bags are expressed here, each composed of warring multiplicities of unmapped selves and images.
I’ve always thought Spider Bags’ lyrics were underrated; McGee’s hallucinatory, broken, and tearful poetry has often made more universally recognized lyricists seem tame and tired in comparison. The first lyric of the album — “You know I’ll always be honest in everything that I do/ You know I’ll always be honest with you” (“Back With You Again In The World”) — feels like a sentiment both sincere and duplicitous, especially when compared to the ensuing half hour of baked, manic word puzzles that serve as McGee’s drawl-and-shout material. The Walserian images setting the scene for album highlight “Coffin Car” are strange but just physical enough to produce an exact image in the listener’s mind’s eye: “I found a frozen letter poking from the ground/ Bent and tried to touch it, but I fell down.”
“Summer of ‘79,” a catchy, bitter declaration of rock & roll’s past-tense fixity and the naïveté of the fans who ignore this, was written not by McGee, but by John Wesley Coleman, a singer-songwriter and “trash poet” of some underground renown. Is the song’s sentiment, here sung by someone seemingly very much in love with rock & roll, an admission of irrelevance or a knowing, ironic wink? (The song’s lyric, “Why’d you wanna be a Rolling Stone?” calls to mind Titus Andronicus’ relevant name drop in their “A Pot in Which To Piss”: “Dan McGee tried to tell me there ain’t no more Rolling Stones.”) In any case, Frozen Letter at least gives us another look into Spider Bags. Each time this band opens their druggy gates, it feels like a holiday that celebrates neither hunger nor comfort. “Walking Bubble,” fittingly both the most country song on the record and the most lyrically potent, sums up the goddamn lovely life of this necessary and singular band: “In the town I live the Lord is risen/ There aren’t any jobs unless you’re working at the prison/ Although I’m certain that I shouldn’t, I feel as though I should/ There aren’t enough words in the day for a man like me.”