Sean Nicholas Savage Other Life

[Arbutus; 2013]

Styles: outsider pop
Others: Majical Cloudz, Ariel Pink

“For it is doubling that elicits the notion that to an original has been added its copy. The double is the simulacrum, the second, the representative of the original. It comes after the first, and in this following, it can only exist as figure, or image. But in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first. Through duplication, it opens the original to the effect of difference, of deferral, of one-thing-after-another, or within another: of multiples burgeoning within the same.”
– Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism”

Sean Nicholas Savage is haunted by himself. He begins: “Look in the mirror/ What do I see?/ I’m just a circumstance/ Wearing a mask.” And then moments later: “These days I feel like I’m somebody else/ Who looks just like me, but he’s not me.” He looks in the mirror, gazes at himself, but can’t make sense of what’s in front of him; the face that he sees is recognizably his own, yet it seems to be a duplication, an exact reproduction of some unseen original. In the songs on Other Life, Savage looks not only at his own reflection, but also peers beyond the vertical plane of the mirror, gazes into something deeper, something more complex, more fundamental. Indeed, through its extended exploration of the double, Other Life functions as an album-length interrogation of the existential despair that can result from the self-reflexivity inherent to our culture.

Multiple facets of this album confront the listener with the notion of the double. Visually — and perhaps most immediately — the cover of Other Life consists of two Sean Nicholas Savages, one ominously lurking behind the other. The frontmost Savage gazes out at the viewer, incognizant of the looming presence of his double. Here, one is presented with a visual analogue for the conceptual conceit that forms the backbone for many of the album’s lyrical explorations: it’s unclear which Savage is the original and which one is the duplicate — or, for that matter, whether there was ever an original at all. This simulacral uncertainty — a quality that pervades the entirety of Other Life — is manifested in both the album’s lyrical content and its specific musical properties.

At times, Savage’s words probe this idea quite explicitly. For an example, one might examine those aforementioned lyrics from album opener “She Looks Like You,” lines that serve as a sort of thesis statement for the rest of Other Life. Immediately thereafter, Savage continues his flirtation with his double on the album’s title track, singing “I’m gonna live my other life/ Take a chance on the other side/ Maybe I’ll give my other life a try tonight.” Here, Savage is no longer passively observing the double, but dynamically engaging with it, recognizing the transformative, escapist possibilities that result from the death of his original self: why can’t every waking moment yield a new, entirely unique Savage, a Savage that can revel in life itself without the burdens inherent to the possession of a static, defined identity?

However, Other Life also engages with the double in a broader, somewhat more abstract sense. By appropriating sounds and ideas of music of the past, the album itself exists as a sort of duplicate sans original: cultural artifacts are resurrected, animated, and deftly wielded by Savage in order to construct a new work of art that truly seems to be the product of past years. This project is large — and nearly every moment on the album engages with it in one way or another — but there are definitely specific passages that exemplify this inherent doubleness that Other Life possesses. The kitschy keyboards and percussive timbres of “Lonely Woman” suggest another time; the aching, almost hyperbolically heartfelt vocal turn that is “Bygone Summer” sounds like it could be an abandoned demo by a long-forgotten 80s pop star.

On almost every level, then, Other Life is meant to evoke the double, whether through the highly personal crises of identity that play out in Savage’s lyrics or through the timbral and stylistic appropriations of the music itself. One vital question remains to be answered, however: why does this doubleness matter? In order to answer this, I might suggest reading Arbutus’ own description of Other Life, which lauds the music’s “pervasive and magnificent irony.” I don’t disagree with this characterization, but I believe that it must be qualified, for often when one discusses irony in music, he or she is referring to an insincere, mocking use of “uncool” sounds from the past. Savage is not interested in this. The irony of Savage’s music instead derives from the fact that the musician employs outdated, kitschy instrumental and stylistic choices — musical qualities that would normally herald a sort of winking, Urban Outfitters-ready irony — to an enormously potent, emotionally communicative, and undeniably sincere effect.

This sincerity is what makes Other Life so incredibly compelling. On song after song, Savage pours himself out for the listener; often, he sounds like he’s on the verge of tears, his voice quavering with unbridled emotion. While the entire album possesses this sense of urgency and immediacy, certain songs are simply indelible, incredibly intense to behold. When Savage sings “It’s true that I always loved you more than I love myself” on “More Than I Love Myself,” it’s impossible not to be moved by the directness of his words and vocal delivery. By a similar token, the elegant melodic arc of the first few lines of “You Changed Me” perfectly mirrors the nostalgic yearning of Savage’s lyrics. This opening then dramatically leads into the song’s stunning chorus — one of the most unshakable moments on the entire album — where Savage passionately sings “Showed me through your life what it means to die/ Marrying the two is the answer to you,” beautifully accompanied by nebulous, vaguely pentatonic ascending vocal harmonies.

Because of moments like these, Other Life is able to achieve a level of emotional clarity and communicativity that is at once absolutely disarming and utterly thrilling. But this quality of the music isn’t completely removed from the explorations of the double that Savage’s project explicitly engages with. Rather, the most genius aspect of Savage’s work here is a fundamental doubleness that the album itself possesses: on the most basic level, Other Life is a collection of poignant, emotionally powerful pop songs; but on a more conceptual plane, this album is a self-referential commentary on music itself, an intense examination — and, ultimately, an extremely heartfelt refutation — of the hollow, ironic appropriation that defines much of contemporary music.

Links: Sean Nicholas Savage - Arbutus

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