Songs of alienation and madness from reclusive Chicago genius

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The Demon King

Five years ago, Uncut was sent a tape of a dreamy song full of dark, lacerating wit called “Lose That Dress”, the first dispatch from Chicago-based singer-songwriter Kevin Tihista. Since then, his career has encompassed two fine albums, one on a major label (Don’t Breathe A Word) and one on a tiny indie (Judo). His British debut gig remains one of the most painfully shy, wish-I-wasn’t-here performances we’ve ever seen. At one point, Kevin produced a box of chocolates and passed them around the audience to break the tension. There were so few of us, there were still several left after the box had been round twice.

Six months ago another Tihista album turned up, without any track listing or title. Just a home-burned disc of 17 skewed pop masterpieces on which Tihista tests his fragile state of equilibrium to its limit. This, it turned out, was Wake Up Captain.

In effect, it’s a song cycle that charts Tihista’s struggle to keep on an even keel. “I have finally hit the ocean floor,” he sings on “Real Life”. By “Oh”, he’s still “drowning in the ocean”, wondering if his life is worth saving. Briefly, he gets his head above water, only to go under again on “Godsend” and “Family Curse”, a devastating observation of teenage anxiety. Alienation then gives way to madness. “Goodwings” sounds whimsical, almost like a nursery rhyme. But despite the levity of the tune, the subject matter is dark as hell as he jumps off a building expecting to fly, only to find “when I woke up in the hospital, the doctor said I shoulda been dead”. Then there’s “Freakshow”, a brilliant Smile-style mad-as-Brian pastiche, and “Yummy”, an even more bizarre Ohio Express parody (“yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got drugs in my tummy”). But they seem to work.

By “This Is An Offering”, at the end of the cycle, he’s promising, “Nothing on earth is gonna tear us apart, we’ll make a brand new start”. Typically, though, the lyric is juxtaposed against doom-laden piano that suggests the demons that inspired this beautiful and disturbed record are still lurking in the shadows.