Album review ↓
A Fine Mess’s liner notes by Jeff Giles
Midnight In The Garden of the Zen of Iniquity
Some artists make it easy to love them. You know the ones — the ones who, in the old days, were all over MTV and on the covers of your favorite rock mags (and who, in the 21st century, are all up in your social media feeds), always out in the open and impossible to ignore. The guys and gals who bask in the warmth of the spotlight and always seem to have the right quote, chord, or couplet for the occasion (at least until the record deals run out and they end up forced to choose between making a mortgage payment or saying no to a retro revival cruise). It’s the pop life, and it can be a good one, but there’s a lot of shucking and jiving, and not everyone is cut out for it.
David Baerwald, to his everlasting credit and the listener’s occasional chagrin, falls into that latter camp: A brilliant melodist, insightful lyricist, and underrated singer whose music’s essential honesty sounds a piercing bell of recognition in the attentive listener while simultaneously reflecting the essential qualities that have always made him such a terrible pop star. Far from basking in the spotlight, Baerwald was all but allergic to it; depending on how you view his early career trajectory, it either sent him wobbling off his axis or it damn near killed him.
As everyone reading this recalls, the story started — for our purposes here, anyway — with 1986’s Welcome to the Boomtown, the utterly unlikely hit debut LP from David & David, a.k.a. Baerwald and his creative partner David Ricketts. Arising from the synthy clatter of the era’s boy-girl bromides through sheer luck and tuneful determination, the record offered a foxhole view of life in the voodoo economics ‘80s, slyly poking the seedy underbelly of a culture drunk on consumption (and other controlled substances). Baerwald’s bruised howl sounded a Cassandra’s call warning against stuff that wasn’t really part of the pop culture dialogue yet: economic inequality, loss of opportunity, a nation’s decaying infrastructure. But unlike some of the other serious-minded songwriters of the era, many of whom had an unfortunate tendency toward didacticism, David & David dispensed street poetry suffused with humanist warmth. They didn’t cast judgment, they told stories, and their stories were our own.
And then, just as quickly as they appeared, the duo dissolved in the midst of recording their Boomtown follow-up, leaving Ricketts to focus on production and Baerwald to pursue a solo career. Well, wait, no — “pursue” is too strong a word. “Sporadically attempt”? “Be led reluctantly into”? You get the idea. Shelving the band after its first and only big hit is the knucklehead’s way of building a career, but in this case, it’s fitting; the discography that’s slowly coalesced in the years since Boomtown is full of false starts, left turns, lost momentum, and missed opportunities, each of them just as enthralling as the next.
He’s made a habit of confounding expectations along the way, beginning with 1990’s Bedtime Stories, which wrapped some of his keenest insights and most fully realized characters in a tasteful sonic cloak that might be described by a less charitable writer as “adult contemporary” — and was followed by 1993’s Triage, a blood-curdling scream of a record that hurtled listeners into the bleak darkness between the first Bush administration’s thousand points of light and set the whole thing to a sonic collage of serrated noise and acoustic brushstrokes.
And then — remember that thing about how some artists make it easy to love them? Here’s where our man Baerwald started making it truly difficult to remain a completist, or even an informed fan. His last years as a major label artist offered a master class in how to pay the bills (and even make brilliant art) while gnawing on the hand that feeds, and even though he and Ricketts were integral to the creation of Sheryl Crow’s massively successful Tuesday Night Music Club LP — and attempted a second David & David record whose sole surviving track, “Free At Last,” turned up on the soundtrack to Mario Van Peebles’ Posse, of all goddamn places — he found himself persona non grata by the mid-’90s. Blacklisted.
All of this threatens to cast Mr. Baerwald in a tragic light, which is likely the last thing he’d want — and since this is, after all, being written in service of the man and his work, this seems like an appropriate time to stop and take pains to point out that whatever happened with his solo recording career, he flourished outside the spotlight, branching out into songwriting, production, and soundtrack work that kept his name popping up in liner notes on a regular basis throughout the balance of the ‘90s. From a fan’s perspective, it’s just that all this was something of a pain in the ass: You never knew when you were going to pick up, say, a Susanna Hoffs solo album and find Baerwald’s name staring back at you from the production credits on the back cover, or when some weird little indie flick starring Sean Penn might sneak a couple of new Baerwald tunes onto its soundtrack. You never knew when, where, or how you might hear the man.
All of which leads us to A Fine Mess, which surfaced unexpectedly in 1999 after a delightfully silly series of events that started with the creation of an online David Baerwald fan community and evolved to include some nudging from Baerwald’s mother. You have to remember that these were the days before Facebook, the days before Twitter, the days before receiving the answer to your celebrity question involved nothing more than finding them online and asking them yourself; today, the idea of a recording artist interacting with his fans is so commonplace as to be banal, but back then, it was something special.
“Something special” is as good a place as any to begin when describing A Fine Mess, a sprawling double disc of beautiful left turns from a guy who’d long since seemed content to be silent. For those of us who are old enough to remember the days when rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to sound like people making noise together in the same room, this album — let’s call it AFM for short — lived marvelously up to that ideal, offering track after track of what sounded for all the world like live performances from the world’s most talented pickup band. From a guy who’d always seemed to approach the studio like a potter’s wheel, here was a burst of joyous, unexpectedly unvarnished noise.
You knew something was different as soon as the first track, “Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down,” started up — with a roundelay of shimmering electric keys that sounded like they were rising off the L.A. pavement, then a horn section, and then our dear friend Mr. Baerwald coolly describing an unflappable afternoon in his urban playground. After Triage, no one could be blamed for reading a title like “Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down” and assuming he was joking, but he meant it: “How about faith? How about hope?” he asks us in the bridge. “It’s time to tease the dogs a bit / It’s time to pull the rope / It’s cleanup time.”
You didn’t need to know the story of Triage and its fallout to hear the sound of a man shaking off the darkness, and speaking as someone who’s listened to this song hundreds of times, it’s undeniably infectious; for a guy who’s tended to open his records with some pretty harrowing stuff over the years — seriously, don’t listen to Triage opener “A Secret Silken World” late at night when you’re alone in the house — “Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down” was another tasty left turn that served as a mission statement of sorts for a record with a relatively un-Baerwaldian quotient of unabashedly positive songs.
Which is not to say that AFM is all happy, all the time. The great thing about a double album is that it gives the artist room to stretch out, and that’s exactly what Baerwald does here — after opening the record with the finger-snapping 1-2-3 punch of “Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down,” “Compassion,” and “Bozo Weirdo Wacko Creep,” the record settles into its woolly patchwork groove, weaving between the bruised (and bruising) cynicism of “Love #29” to the courtesan’s lament of “If Ever I Thought” to the haunting DUI ballad “The Crash” to...well, you get the idea. This is a record that never sits still for very long, and employs a broader sonic palette than he’d ever brought to bear on one of his own albums, and yet it all comes together into a single beautiful piece before thundering to a gleefully profane conclusion with “The Church of No Religion,” an unrepentant atheist’s manifesto that ends things on an up note and a pair of raised middle fingers.
Of course, as Baerwald fans have long instinctively understood, there’s a thin line between joy and heartbreak in his songs, and as much as moments of AFM might have sounded like a musician’s party, there was a lot of pain behind those tracks, and the sessions behind them were born of an unexpected and unjust death. We mention this here not to stir up fresh misery or invite some sort of ghoulish reading between the lines, but to point out, again, the essential honesty in Baerwald’s work. Out of a record contract, out of the spotlight, years removed from the business of making music under his own name for commerce’s sake, he responded to tragedy by doing what every artist is always doing at a gut level: Making art. Was it ever supposed to see the light of day? Only he knows, but it seems somewhat unlikely.
And yet it did — albeit in exceedingly limited form, bundled into a short run of handmade, numbered copies that quickly sold out and ended up fetching absurd prices on eBay. Why go the limited-edition route during the post-Napster era, when any artist who stands on a rock and proclaims “I am a label” can be his own imprint? Why, more than 15 years later, does this collection of songs remain, for all intents and purposes, David Baerwald’s most recent solo album? Again, only Mr. Baerwald knows, and by way of explanation, I can only point you back toward the many false starts, left turns, lost momentum, and missed opportunities referenced above, and point out that music, unlike information, does not want to be free; rather, it wants to be wanted, and as such, requires a diaphanous, nagging divide between the musician and the listener. We want to get next to it, we want to get inside it — and yet, when it comes to the real stuff, the true stuff, we cannot. We can only listen when it speaks to us.
A Fine Mess, like the best and brightest of David Baerwald’s work, still speaks, loud and clear. Like the man who led the sessions that produced it, it speaks the truth, if only because it doesn’t know how to do anything else. Would we be living in a fairer world if this album were recognized as a multiplatinum masterpiece rather than a cult classic receiving its second (and presumably final) pressing? We’ll never know. But whereas some artists make it easy to love them, the David Baerwalds of our world make it richly rewarding, and A Fine Mess is a reward to cherish.
Read more about David Baerwald on Wikipedia