ALBUM REVIEW: Bret McKenzie - Songs Without Jokes


Bret McKenzie - Songs Without Jokes

After finding fame and success as one-half of the Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, writer, actor, comedian and musician Bret McKenzie attempts to shed the irony and comedy that he’s known for on his latest aptly named solo album, Songs Without Jokes.

Going from creating amusing material to genuine material is an interesting arc that a satirist may go through, as the making of satirical art can often be just as laborious and deliberating as the making of sincere art. The former always gets far less respect and recognition than the latter, so why not attempt to use your talents to make something with a sincere attempt at resonance?

The commitment to the more serious subject matter is shown from the get-go, as the opening track, “This World,” is a Randy Newman-esque ditty with an earnest anti-corporate message on climate change and inaction in altering the course of imminent disaster, with the repeated hook, “This world is broken/Nobody’s coping/It’s the only one we’ve got/Don’t act now, we’re going to lose it all.”

This is followed by “If You Wanna Go,” a single that feels like a lost ‘80s gem, as can be seen in the song’s music video, which mocks the style of videos created by the likes of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel at that time. From its funky, upbeat bass and glimmering keys, it’s amazing how closely the song resembles a Harry Nilsson or Billy Joel song from the era it is emulating.

This sets the trend for the album’s intent: it’s an album of revere for the music that would have been around while McKenzie was growing up. From there, we go to “Dave’s Place,” a disco-infused soft rock song, to “Here for You,” a slow-tempo piano track á la Bryan Adams, to “That’s L.A.,” a chill-wave doused, tongue-in-cheek yacht rock number, to “Carry On,” a John Lennon-inspired folky piano tune, to “America Goodbye,” an upbeat but melancholic play on break-up songs, to “Tomorrow Today,” a slightly chiptuned synth-pop strain, to “Crazy Times,” an acoustic guitar and piano focused, wistful air, that is reminiscent of Elton John.

The album has some particular highlights. Its lead single, “A Little Tune,” is a swinging multi-instrumental song which features one hell of a catchy melody. The stand-out song, though, is “Up in Smoke,” which is a haunting piano track with a dreamlike (or maybe nightmarish would be more apropos) haziness surrounding it. The narration and accompanying music feel like a grim and hopeless but simultaneously confused and undefined stream of consciousness. Just wonderful.

Unfortunately, most of Songs Without Jokes’ best tracks are front-loaded on the record. Once we get past the album’s fourth-from-final song, “A Little Tune,” the remaining three songs, “America Goodbye,” “Tomorrow Today”, and “Crazy Times,” fail to leave any significant resonance and just meet the mark of serviceable if forgettable enders.

McKenzie is a provably talented musician who can make a whole album’s worth of catchy tracks. The issue with Songs Without Jokes is that while McKenzie proves that he can make an album that apes popular ‘80s styles of music - and this entire record wouldn’t feel out of place as a radio station in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - what we get is a record that just feels like an imitation of various songs and styles of music that are pushing forty-years-old now.

They’re very good imitations, of course, and none of the songs stick out as bad, necessarily, and some even stand out as great. However, McKenzie is an Academy Award-winning musician with decades worth of experience in various bands (some comedic, some not), so the high competency of songwriting and instrumental and vocal skills on display on Songs Without Jokes is not surprising in and of itself. It’s not like when an actor like, say, David Duchovny or Maya Hawke suddenly does music after only acting, and there is an initial uncertainty as to whether they can pull it off. Of course, someone as skilled as McKenzie could pull this off. There was never any doubt about that. But they are so successful that the impressiveness of the accuracy of the replication can overshadow the songs themselves.

If XS Noize did half-ratings, this would be a perfect 7.5 record, but alas, we don’t, so it’s between either a seven or an eight, and this reviewer feels that they could be swayed either way. There’s a lot to like here; through songs like “That’s L.A.,” “America Goodbye”, and “Crazy Times,” the album paints a little side-narrative of McKenzie going to a place that he initially thought would be kind of corny and perfunctory like the United States (or, more specifically, Los Angeles) and the hesitance with having to go there for work, but sort of getting absorbed by the atmosphere of the place, only to accidentally and unknowingly fall in love with it and then being sad when one day you have to leave it.

Songs Without Jokes sets a good precedent for McKenzie to continue making non-comedic records (if that is a route he would like to go down), as this album shows he has the chops to make fantastic music, and maybe next time, he can even drop the qualifier that the album is not intended to be funny. It would also be nice if, next time, he would combine his musical scholarship and influence, his instrumental versatility and his euphonic songwriting abilities to create something that uses his love of music in an attempt to elevate and expand the parameters of music - such as the musicians that McKenzie is paying due respects to here did in their era - rather than simply emulate those sources of inspiration.

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