Roommate Guilty Rainbow

[Antephonic; 2011]

Styles: art-pop, synth-pop
Others: Mark Linkous, Jason Lytle, David Bazan, Matt Riviere

“The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.”

I’m a huge fan of this quotation, not just because I’m a member of the gazillions-strong community that can totally relate to it, but largely because it’s attributed to Mark Twain. Mark Fucking Twain! Who could come off, through works and quips alike, as more comfortable with him- or herself than Mark Twain? And yet he knows about us. In one fell swoop, he gives form and meaning to our neuroses and suffering. This is what great artists do: create a voice for the voiceless, negotiate that line between the keep-on-keeping-on and those pricks who just want to listen to their own ideas all day long. The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself. He said it.

If Kent Lambert — Chicago-based Roommate’s namesake, navigator, and rudder — had sung something close to those words a few years ago, would anyone have cared? 2008’s We Were Enchanted was the sound of a bedroom-recording project equipped with an unfamiliar utility belt of art-pop instruments (banjo, vibes, various woodwinds and strings) wielded bluntly. So much about the overcomposed album felt backwards that even when it hit some paradigm on the head, even that felt backwards. When Lambert sang “We Were Enchanted,” the listener’s frame was limited to his face and the ghostly light reflecting off of it; sifting through the fragments, time and time again, I never learned what it was that enchanted him. But I was still enchanted, vicariously. It was an easy album to blow past, or to stick a fork in and pitch, if you get my drift. The textbook committees decided he should be left out, not even mentioned. And then there are those of us who would defend to the grave that We Were Enchanted was an utterly absorbing meditation on the impossibility of adequately communicating oneself. But the extraordinary, glorious, uplifting thing about Guilty Rainbow is that we no longer have to.

Deliverance! Lambert has delivered on the ever-feinting promises of his previous work. He has built a mountain of something, thoughtfully pouring all of his energy into this single monument. But where to begin? Guilty Rainbow begins in crisis: the minutes before a party, an inarticulable dread, glowering windowside meditations on some cold, suburban landscape. Lambert (and for the purposes of this review, I’mma treat ‘Kent Lambert’ as equivalent to both the musician and the fairly consistent character that he’s developed here; pardon my pejoratives and whatnot) is in a state where he can’t help but lash out with every word he emits. “I don’t believe that you’re really in head-splitting pain,” he hisses, and as he puts his fist down, he is instantly cut off from his fellow humans. Sheer psychological intertia takes it a step further — “When you are wasted, you’ll laugh in my face till I’m numb” — but the cognitive dissonance and forced solipsism is pooling and rising around his ankles in the form of squalling processed feedback. I’d say Guilty Rainbow is produced like a turn-of-the-millennium Radiohead album if I weren’t suspicious that there’s a certain backhandedness to the comparison, like linking a band to Arcade Fire or The Beatles. What I mean, though, beyond the fact that e.g. the zigzagging guitars on “August Song” are spun from the stuff of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” is that the tiniest production decisions — like the aforementioned pool of squall — all feel loaded with portent, heavy somehow. As someone who grew up with the stuff, I love that these millenarian space-age paroxysms are a new kind of retro.

So when Lambert sighs “Mea Culpa”at the end of “My Bad,” the clog of ticker-tape loops transforms the line from a guilty boyfriend’s admission of error into an out-of-date computer crashing and shutting down. He’d sung, “Heaven help this heavy heart […] empty out,” but the deus ex machina here is a problem for everyone. We’re back trying to interpret the light reflecting off Lambert’s face, and there’s no reasonable end in sight — even the earnest “Last Dreams of Summer” on Enchanted literally pitted itself against the freaking wind with its nailbiting morbidity. No listener could expect all that hate to be transformed into useless love. Admittedly, Guilty Rainbow isn’t really a ‘concept album,’ and yet it’s got more of an arc and sense of unspoken redemption than most contemporary albums that parade themselves as such. It’s also one of those rare albums that starts out great and gets better over its 45-minute length.

Lambert’s ability to pour subjective states into his instrument of choice — the keyboard, formerly the keytar —has improved along with his lyrical precision. It’s not until “Flicker Flame” that it becomes completely clear how much narrative he can evoke with chord voicings alone. He runs a line with his finger between the song’s two parts: a dark, jazzy abyss with swelling brass on the horizon, but Lambert’s watching his own life from a cloud above. The shift back into the abyss is signaled with a chunky modular descent: “You got paid, you got paid/ Move on, move on.” The line is cynical, but he sings it like he’s being lassoed back to Earth. Fact, he’s always sung his words like he’s tethering himself to something much greater and more permanent than himself, and the ever-present panic in his eyes and quaver in his voice is that he is still responsible for them. (“Spastic captive: what makes you think you’re not to blame?”). This probably explains why he sounds like he’s meditating inside the Pynchonian lyrics of another extremely talented wordsmith, Ned Collette, on the cover of “Country With a Smile.”

The result of all this is that Lambert has come into his own as a sophisticated and unique songwriter, as visceral as he needs to be to keep the listener alongside him, but also maintaining an extremely nuanced sense of how a slightly askew melody impacts meaning. Witness the difference when he repeats the words “impossibly far away” in “After the Boom”: the first one is pure, dewy-eyed idealism, but the second has a twist of bile in its cadence. The climax of “Snow Globe” sounds climactic, but Lambert is still scrambling to pick everything up and ends up with a rickety adaptation of “I Know It’s Over”: “If you’re somebody nobody wants to be around, where do you go at night?” And later: “If you’re someone who cares a lot about the problems of the world/ What do you say to the other boys and girls?/ Do you try to play it cool? Or,” he seems to wince, “do you dare ask if they care along with you?” Wherein I think he isolates his, mine, and so many others’ issue: we never ask others to care, because we were never ourselves asked to care. Which is probably why Guilty Rainbow feels like one of those foolishly important albums whose meaning both shouldn’t and can only be gauged by the affective exchange rate it demands down the line.

“Soft Eyes” is Lambert’s song about Solutions. In contrast to the molten and/or spitting drum machines throughout most of the album, it’s driven by a refreshingly organic hi-hat which creates a silent momentum, as Lambert shoots off spiraling, alliterative Roman candles: “I played and played and played and played and played”; “I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed”; “I paid and paid and paid and paid and paid,” in turn. Which might seem gimmicky or amateurish or whatever, but it does extraordinary phenomenological work showing that Kent (a) spends that kind of time playing/praying/paying, (b) understands that playing/praying/paying are equivalent, (c) believes in his gut that playing/praying/paying is improving him. Prayer is worth particular attention, because in “My Bad” it was a weapon, a grim fruit of Colorado Springs’ trees — “Everyone is racist here; everyone prays for everyone” — and it pops up occasionally thereafter. The fact that he returns to it here is less a sign of Gnosticism than a need to address something directly, a need, again, to tether himself to something larger. And with the embarrassment of others flying by like beacons, torn abstractly and diametrically between “bring back my vision” and “take me from my vision,” Lambert cracks open like an egg: “Make me someone good.”

That’s all he wrote. The album concludes with a second cover, this time of Guided By Voices’ “Smothered in Hugs.” Fan of the original — and generally suspicious of covers as often more than a nod at influences — though I am, I remain floored every time: you would not believe what Roommate do with this song. It’s so easy to let Pollard’s lyrics slip through one’s fingers while listening to a GBV record. The cover pumps the words full of blood. I practically want to quote them in toto, but do yourself a favor and refresh your memory with a quick Google search. Of particular note, “but I believed you, no need for further questioning” unravels all that Lambert had wound up when he chose not to believe that his partner was in head-splitting pain. The circuit closes around belief, and lord (pardon) knows that believing in people is harder than believing in unseen unity.

Standing on the shoulders of wished-was-giants like a great cover should, “Hugs” seals Guilty Rainbow as a living/breathing entity that by some miracle manages ultimately to make internal peace, to become comfortable with itself. Even though the album reveals a greater amount of sonic detail-work and lyrical depth with each listen, one can’t just listen to it again; after the last track, the first track feels alien, awkward, pointless — not because it is, but because everything it represented has receded (part of the reason I felt I had no choice but to indulge in a blandly chronological analysis; my bad?). As such, how exactly Guilty Rainbow works the way it does will always be just over the crest. All we can see is this guy, Kent Lambert, whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears, asking us to care along with him.

Links: Roommate - Antephonic

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