Let me put it like this. From the time I heard Engine in 1988 to 1995, when they finally split, worn down, you’d be right to think, and disillusioned by their failure to translate critical euphoria into hard sales, American Music Club meant more to me than any other American band, apart from The Replacements.
Like Paul Westerberg’s rowdy Minneapolis rock’n’roll upstarts, there was always something about American Music Club that cast them as eternal outsiders, and it wasn’t just the way Mark Eitzel’s songs, like Westerberg’s, spoke for the disenfranchised, the bereft and lonely, people out there on the margin of things where it’s messy and it hurts. It was an attitude, really. Some vague intransigence, a scruffy unpredictability, a feeling of imminent derailment that made it difficult for even their most ardent fans to truly believe the band would ever occupy the same stratospheres of commercial success as R.E.M., say, or Pearl Jam, whose Eddie Vedder more than once heaped voluminous praise on them, singling out charismatic frontman Eitzel for particular congratulation. As did, famously, Rolling Stone, who in 1991 voted Mark their Songwriter Of The Year, an award that at the time of records like California, United Kingdom, Everclear, San Francisco and Mercury he probably deserved annually. Eitzel’s songs on those albums charted territories of terrible worry. They described a cracked and murmuring world?an unwholesome place, by and large, where things are likely to go wrong in unsettling ways? populated by the iconic lost, everyday martyrs, the kind of people whose daily torments are in themselves no big deal, merely incidental calamities, small unravellings on the bruised extremities of larger disasters.
Eitzel has released seven solo albums since AMC split, and everything he’s done has been at least worth listening to?even The Ugly American, on which, for reasons I have never fully understood he revisited his AMC back catalogue, accompanied by a group of Greek folk musicians. Like Elvis Costello these last few years, however, Eitzel’s recent career has tended towards drift and irresolution, as if it has not always been clear to him what it was that he used to be so good at that it made people want to cheer his name in public. You would, in other words, be hard-pressed to find a fan of his still considerable songwriting skills who didn’t more often that not wish him back in harness with AMC.
And here, fuck me, they are?Eitzel flanked again by genius guitarist Vudi, stalwart bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney and new recruit Marc Capelle on all manner of keyboards, synthesisers and flugelhorn?reunited for Love Songs For Patriots, their first album in 10 years. What’s it like? Absolutely fucking brilliant, since you ask, AMC going about their work with the determined air of people with unfinished business, points to prove to the world and each other, utterly inspired.
As anyone who saw their recent reunion show at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall will loudly testify, Eitzel these days is greatly appalled by the Bush administration and what it is doing in the world?and the wryly titled Love Songs For Patriots is partially inspired by the same anger that is said also to fuel R.E.M.’s forthcoming new album. Eitzel hasn’t suddenly turned into Phil Ochs or Billy Bragg?but there’s an extent to which it wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe Love Songs… as a protest album. There’s certainly no denying the livid impatience, disgust and outrage that informs several key tracks here, which make me think of other one-off albums of scorching discontent, like John Cale’s Honi Soit and Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate.
I’m thinking here of cuts like the hugely declamatory opener “Ladies And Gentlemen”, a startling call to arms, musically abrasive, with discordant guitars and Jason Borger going somewhat demented on a piano part that recalls the nerve-jangling pianistics of Mike Garson on Aladdin Sane, or Steve Nieve’s dramatic interventions on something like “Clubland”.
Anyone coming to Love Songs For Patriots expecting something sedate, a cosy echo of bygone woes, AMC in middle age smoothing over the turmoil of yore, may well be shocked at this brutal exercise in sonic violence?and will doubtless be taken further aback by the sheer malevolence, three songs in, of “Patriot’s Heart”, which has the relentless, disturbed momentum of Costello’s “Tokyo Storm Warning”, Eitzel piling on a ton of mordant disdain over the band’s woozy lurch. Like the astonishing “Job To Do”?whose cunnilingual suck and slurp recalls Honi Soit’s “Strange Times In Casablanca”?and the shattering juggernaut that is “America Loves The Minstrel Show”, the long, tense, occasionally rabid “Patriot’s Heart” describes a maggoty political universe, ghastly in its corrupt duplicity, rotten to its miserable fucking core, much given to pageant, oppression, gaudy violence. The latter’s vaudevillian darkness similarly invades the sarcastic lounge-room vamp of “Mantovani The Mind Reader” (“And at the end of his show he has a marvellous goodbye/A shot-glass melody for a tympani sky”) and the rickety comedy of “The Horseshoe Wreath In Bloom”.
It’s ironic that what the Bush government is doing in America’s name has provoked some of Eitzel’s most furious songs at what is otherwise, from what people close to him tell you, a happy time in a personal life more typically characterised by ongoing turmoil. Mark, in other words, may feel at war with the people who run his country, but has reached an apparent amnesty with the many demons that previously assailed him?as evidenced here on the lovely “Another Morning” (which was featured on Uncut’s recent Americana 2004 CD), “Love Is” and “Only Love Can Set You Free”.
He can still, better than anyone, write the kind of songs that capture with sad perfection the disintegration of relationships that have soured beyond recognition?here, specifically, we have the wry, downbeat “Myopic Books”, which marks the first time Dinosaur Jr and Saul Bellow have appeared in the same song, and the resigned, world-weary, seen-it-all-before “Song Of The Rats Leaving The Sinking Ship” (“I swear you want to say goodbye even more than you want to breathe”). But even on the similarly downcast “The Devil Needs You”, with its long instrumental coda?a swirling mist of skittish drums, bleary horns, guitar feedback and ominous keyboards?the desolation is less complete than previously might have been the case.
For all its fear and loathing, Love Songs For Patriots is finally uplifting, and the track I keep coming back to here is the troubled but eventually optimistic “Home”, which has the epic humanity that defined AMC’s earlier masterpiece, 1990’s Everclear. Vudi’s guitars carry the thing on clouds of six-string glory, while Eitzel gives passionate voice to the best thing anyone can hope for, which is to somehow belong?to someone, something, somewhere. “I hope I make it to a warm heart,” Eitzel sings. “I hope I don’t end up wherever the washed-up are hung,” he goes on, a troubled voice in a universal gloaming, giving light to a saddening dark. Believe me, a brilliant record.