Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Free Doom

My official function here is not music critic, but I'd like to try on the mantle for an evening, and tell you about the unequivocal Album of 2009: the new 9-song record from onetime Chicagoan Spencer Kingman, on loan from my upstairs neighbor, John Bellows.

Full disclosure, I'm a rabid partisan. John gave me Spencer's first album several years ago. I'd met Spencer in a kitchen once, when he lived in Chicago, and we had a conversation I barely remembered, about the desert. I listened to the album while painting a mural in my bedroom, in a dilapidated Wicker Park two-flat, and it had this alarming effect: on my first lazy listen, it was effete folky garbage, not at all the wild stuff I generally preferred, but on second listen a radiant otherworldliness began to emerge, and I was completely mesmerized. Singing in an angelic surfer-soprano, Kingman and his nylon-string guitar married devastating melodies with the lushest and most obtuse lyrics, rendered in a sort of Dada collage of transcendent imagery, tossing off delightful non-sequitors like, "Ooh, with a amazing grace/paint your face for the empire/Oh, and I can't remember what I just said on my deathbed." Like a young and hungry Beck Hansen, or even an acid-era Leonard Cohen, he romped around in wild pastures of language, plucking spiky little word-flowers with total abandon. I wore the record out.

The next time I heard from Spencer Kingman, his musical career had taken a surprising turn. I saw him playing at the Hideout with the not-yet-hyped Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors; he and bandleader Dave Longstreth were a brilliant pair of guitar foils, like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, egging each other on to ever-greater heights of Afro-Martian rhapsodising. The cherubic Kingman was, it turned out, a fully-fledged guitar hero. The Dirty Projectors would go on, after Kingman's departure, to re-interpret Black Flag's Rise Above, the album earning them a pile of Pitchfork-induced hype.

From there, my knowledge of Kingman's musical biography is quite sketchy, based on rumor and speculation. Friends said, though they didn't sound quite sure, that he'd moved back to his native Utah, married a young Mormon woman and settled down to a life of religious domesticity. I even heard the somewhat far-fetched claim that his wife wouldn't allow him to play music, for religious reasons; I liked to imagine that while his wife was off at the Women's Bible Study class, or out running errands, Spencer would sneak down to the basement, fetch his guitar out of hiding, and dash off a few tunes. Whether there was any truth in any of this I haven't the faintest idea.

Then this album appeared. Apparently titled Free Doom--the words are scrawled on my CD-R--it doesn't seem to have been properly released, but is traveling via elicit dubs; it doesn't feel like an album so much as a hallucinogenic treatise, smuggled out of Provo on golden tablets. It's clear from the opening lyrics that Kingman's been doing some heavy musing. I was in the brotherhood of man, he sighs. Don't remind me. Interspersed with existential sloganeering--I'm out of glory, could you smoke me out?--are weird thickets of imagery that resist untangling but are sonically mesmerizing: But then she was alive/to swing her surgery around/and wave it like a partisan for the Lord. The songs, while steeped in this sort of religious idiom, radiate doubt and confusion--a sort of queasy rapture, as if someone had dosed the sacramental wine. Who brought the bad blood?, Kingman ponders cryptically. I want some good blood.

And if you're not in a mood to puzzle out the dense symbolism, there's the simple gorgeousness of the music, which lilts along with all the youthful melodicism of Belle and Sebastian but none of the twee. A lazy musicologist might slander Kingman's music, spartanly arranged with just guitar and voice, as folk--or worse yet, 'freak-folk' --but it is in fact nothing of the kind. Defying reduction, the music is pure emanation from whatever weird, luminous corner of the spiritual map Spencer has been holing up in, a world entirely his own.

I don't imagine I've sold the record particularly well; I'd beg you to simply take my word for it, but I'll go one better and offer to mail any reader of this site a burned copy of the album--a rudimentary form of music-sharing in this bit-torrent age, but all I'm technologically equipped for. I'll send it free-just let me know. Set aside a late-night hour, dim the lights, and go voyaging with young Spencer Kingman. As an authority on modern music, I insist upon it.


  1. will you still mail a copy of "free doom" to any reader? i'm any reader! please contact me

  2. please can you e-mail the album to me at khazalid@hotmail.com

    thanks a bunch :)