Paul Curreri‘s latest album might take a playground punchline for its title (Q: Where do hipster houseflies socialise?) but The Big Shitty is bristling, bold and baffling; a black-and-bluesy melange of the bullish, the buckled and the broken. This shift in sound – together with Curreri’s darkly lyrical imagery – makes an impact more redolent of the opening track from 2007′s The Velvet Rut (titled for his former hometown’s nickname) than to anything on his more recent release, California. Here, Curreri maintains the habit of placing his music but whereas California was premised on the promise of a fabled land, The Big Shitty is more congruent to the likely reality, where aspiration and goodwill are dampened in the doubt and darkness of the undertow.
Unlike angrier albums depicting dissolution and dereliction in a zeitgeist-tapping way, however, The Big Shitty – a land alive but unwell, populated by dying dreams and faltering relations – feels more timeless than timely. Nor need this dwelling of lost souls and ne’er-do-wells be anywhere in particular but even without calling on his flare for autobiographically-informed songwriting – at least, not overtly – Curreri is far from disconnected from this work. His writing is sharper than ever and the lyrical juxtaposition of poetic locution with unvarnished vernacular helps to spark each song, while dashes of droll wit also poke through, mostly in passing observations. In the off-its-face romp ‘Are You There Anymore’, for example, he offers an altogether rather curious comment on the subject of iconic folk revivalist Pete Seeger: “I was never fond of his music but the kids who were are better people”.
The fusion of fractured narrative and uneasy detail makes these stories murky, yet consistently imaginative with depth to each visceral vignette. Many of the songs are set to an upbeat tempo but etched in a dirty blues groove, including ‘The Water Tower (Kill My Teacher)’ which is dense, intense and needs only one listen to feel a classic of its kind. Generally, however, Curreri adopts a bluesy insouciance to peer through dark crevices at the lives of others. When the urgency sets in, it stands out, and even though the casual listener might struggle with lines like “Hacket was happy till a bug hatched inside him / Its chemical guano set to shorting his penchants”, they should be satisfied with the general ambience of impending threat.
It’s all compellingly fragmented and sometimes slightly out of focus, which works for better and worse. Closing track ‘Who Got Gang’, the most personal of the collection, rather meanders to its (and the album’s) ultimate conclusion, with inevitable anticlimax, though this is appropriate both for the song (about a friend’s decline) and for a record that chars and churns without boiling over. If many of the characters are misfits, then some of the tracks also make intriguing bedfellows, Curreri’s African influences coming through on the splendid ‘Juju’ and ‘The South Tip’ (to predictable Paul Simon comparisons). As a collective, the result is replete with scene changes and mood swings but is held together by its impression of deterioration and the consistent craft of its creator. Heady but hospitable, The Big Shitty is an album with some brighter sounds, despite its dark soul.
While this needn’t be Curreri’s career peak, it does affirm every exciting revelation from the past two records in particular. Curreri, together with wife Devon Sproule (who cameos on clarinet) has now relocated to Berlin, bringing them closer to their European fanbase and the English rhythm section who add effective support to this disc. As a lyricist, vocalist, virtuoso guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and producer too, Paul Curreri is one of the good guys – and on this evidence, America’s loss is Europe’s gain.