Release Date: Oct 2, 2012
Record label: Merge
“Who needs the past? It just sticks to your shoe.” That’s Mark Eitzel singing on “The Bill Is Due,” from his solo album, Don’t Be a Stranger. He definitely has a lot of history caked on his soles: An Army brat who moved often during his childhood, Eitzel started making music in the early 1980s, then hit it kinda big in the early 1990s with American Music Club, where he developed a wry alt-crooner persona and trafficked in strange songs about Godzilla in heaven and Johnny Mathis’ feet. When the Club disbanded in 1994, Eitzel went solo and settled into a career as a songwriter’s songwriter: someone championed by his peers but with only a cult following.
There's something fascinating about how singers' voices change as they come to terms with their innate gifts and limits, honing in on whatever is essential about themselves. Sometimes it happens by slow erosion, like Leonard Cohen's voice growing less beautiful and more wise, or the brass leaching off Richard Buckner's to reveal a deeper layer. Sometimes it happens through trauma, as when Levon Helm lost his voice to throat cancer and then miraculously got it back, intact but scarred, giving his old songs a second life.
Don't Be a Stranger appeared after a difficult period for the eternally gloomy Mark Eitzel -- following the release of American Music Club's fine but overlooked 2008 album The Golden Age, the band fell apart, presumably for the last time, and after Eitzel's solo album Klamath was (barely) released in 2009, little was heard from him until the spring of 2011, when it was revealed he'd suffered a severe heart attack. So the mere fact that Eitzel is alive, well, and recording is encouraging news, and though Don't Be a Stranger is a few steps short of a triumphant return to form, it's easily Eitzel's strongest solo effort since 2001's The Invisible Man. Time has begun working some changes on Eitzel's voice, smoothing out the grain of his instrument, easing up on its physical force, and suggesting a bit less control on numbers like "The Bill Is Due," "I Love You But You're Dead," and "Nowhere to Run.
Mark Eitzel has long been one of the great sardonic, bittersweet voices in American songwriting. He crafts intricate narratives of desperation, of the heartbroken and the down and out, of people at both the end of their wits and the end of their funds. Eitzel himself has seen his share of setbacks recently, as he saw American Music Club—who reunited in 2004 for two great albums on Merge—fall apart again and, more alarmingly, Eitzel suffered a heart attack that put a hold on any musical projects so he could recover.
Mark Eitzel played slow, sad love songs, and people booed him. They wanted to rock, and Eitzel wasn’t a rocker. This happened to him on multiple occasions with his band, American Music Club. Angry audience members would heckle the broken-hearted man emoting on stage. The anecdote also functions ….
Considering what Mark Eitzel has been through in the past couple of years, it's remarkable that Don't Be a Stranger isn't bleaker. Back in May of last year, Eitzel had a serious heart attack, which took him out of circulation for six months, plus the revived American Music Club also came to an end, leading to the resurrection of his on-again-off-again solo career. This latest collection of songs is surprisingly low-key despite some lush arrangements and his trademark droll lyrics adding some meat to the bones of the songs.