erasing clouds

LD & the New Criticism, Tragic Realism

reviewed by dave heaton

"I wouldn't cry if you were run over by a train," the first line of the album goes. Cold as ice, right? But wait a second, listen to what follows: "But I might just laugh / if a train cut you in half / and smashed your cello / and spread your brains like Jell-O".Ouch! This is way beyond cruel, this"Elegy for an Ex-", even if it's sung in the friendly, matter-of-fact tone of a pop crooner. It's also hilarious, in a dark way of course...and melodic, a short, catchy song quickly introducing us to the world of LD and the New Criticism's Tragic Realism, where death and love go hand in hand, and outragous humor thinly covers up genuine hurt.

The 'LD' in question is of course LD Beghtol, whose voice you'll at least recognize from his contributions to the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, if not from his own groups Flare and the Moth Wranglers. He has a remarkable sense for melody, and on Tragic Realism those memorable tunes are dressed to the nines, stylish and quite lovely sounding. A sticker on the CD encourages record stores to file it under "experimental countrypolitan deathpop", and I'm willing to let that description stand. I'm especially taken with the word "countrypolitan", as it gets at both LD's obvious love for old-time country (themselves often songs about death and infidelity and heartbreak), and the urbane, metropolitan feeling of this New Yorker's songs, which (like Stephin Merritt's) definitely carry a sense of the city's songwriting history, from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building, Broadway and onward.

Sometimes it sounds like we're at a proper hoe-down ("Burn, Burn, Burn in Hell"), other times a classy night on the town ("I've Got One Foot in the Grave and the Other on the Dance Floor"). And most often, somewhere in between. And as novelist Peter Straub rightly notes in the liner notes, if you aren't listening closely - to the lyrics or the unique paths the songs take - you might mistakenly think you're listening to "good-natured, nostalgic country-pop", pleasant pop without an edge. Listen closer, the songs might bite your ear off.

Death comes in many ways on Tragic Realism: Poisoning, hanging, shooting, suffocation, getting smashed in the skull with a hammer, slitting your own wrists ("cause you can't recall the last time you were kissed"), asking your lover to kill you cause you can't pay your medical bills. As the last two cases attest to, the death (and assorted other dramas, involving antidepressants, cheating lovers, etc.) isn't just soap opera played to the hilt for laughs, though it is that as well. Who was it who said comedy always has sadness at its core? It's certainly true here; Tragic Realism is filled with genuine pain. Its inhabitants kill out of anger at life's circumstances, or at what others have done to them; they want to die to escape the hurt of life. The most cheerful song on the album, "When We Dance (At Joe Orton's Wedding)", describes a place where everything's filled with joy, where everyone can be as they are. The place, of course, is the afterlife: "We'll do as we please / be gay as geese / and we'll never even notice that we're dead".

It's to Beghtol and friends' credit that Tragic Realism manages at once to offer such charming and cheeky fun while also being so full of genuine sadness, so marked by the cold hard facts of life. They turn the deepest sadness into a lark, a dance, a game, a celebration even, while singing boldly and beautifully about the darkest of matters.


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