Brooks Nielsen: One Match Left
Brooks Nielsen has put himself in a vulnerable position. Doing music without Matt Taylor, the guitarist of his long-time band The Growlers, is like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin doing a record without orchestrator Nelson Riddle. The results are his album One Match Left and they are admirable. He achieves a sound that is a departure from The Growlers vibe, still sounds new, and has made a step forward musically and maturity-wise.
From Jim Morrison to Iggy Pop, Brooks Nielsen is the next singer in that line of being the Frank Sinatra of his generation, except without the self-absorbed egomania of Sinatra and more of the Dean Martin vibe – the guy you’d want to have a drink with. His strong tenor range has always been envious, but it is also a voice that evokes sadness, which for all us lonely desperate souls out there is comforting to hear. It is a voice that is as expressive as it is sonorous. And it does the most difficult job – it connects. In his new album, the voice connects as strongly as ever. And it does an even more difficult trick – it gets both the men and the women. It is more often that a male voice will connect to males, and a female voice will connect with females. But it is rare that a voice connects to both genders the way Nielsen’s does. For I have seen the multitudes of girls singing his lyrics to him.
In the song “Virgin Lady Luck” Nielsen lays out the options in front of him. The Growlers, from what I’ve heard, are taking a break for a bit. The first option is for him to sell his soul. One wonders what that would look like. Perhaps hocking Gatorade? Second, he could lie and be someone he’s not. The fourth and final choice is to hold onto his chance in hell, seeing as though “the last did so well.” Starting a band in today’s climate, or any venture for that matter which is not aimed solely at greed such as Kung Fu Panda whatever number they’re up to now, is as long a shot as it could possibly be. Before there at least used to be careers to aspire towards. Now there doesn’t seem to be any. Writers aren’t even called writers anymore. They’re called “content creators.” Marc Ribot echoes these sentiments in the Ceramic Dog record “Masters of The Internet” off the album Your Turn: “Content is our name.” Nielsen sings that he is “hoping luck doesn’t dry up.” Endeavors such as making an album are a throw of the dice. It could work out; it could blow up in your face. At least he has the cajones to try it. This sentiment is echoed in the track “How Do You Like It so far (This Life)? with the lyrics: “Is it hard to rise and realize / You’re in charge holding the dice / Roll / Let it roll.” This track is an absolute standout, and Nielsen’s off-kilter vocal phrasing on it gives Dylan a run for his money.
In the title track, “One Match Left,” Nielsen surrounds himself in a noir-like setting and it is one that suits him very well. It is a sophisticated sound that he adopts convincingly. And he is on point as ever lyrically: “Let the fools cut and fade / Then we’ll have our turn / Only one match left / In the whole world to burn.” Who the heck are we as a people, with great exception (Brooks being one, your author not) then fools? As people run like chickens with their heads cut off in insanity towards nothing, or talk maniacally without substance, blind to the world going on around them, so absorbed in god knows what that they don’t even remember to push the correct button on the elevator to their floor. Nielsen understands that true wisdom and self-contentment comes through stillness: “Let’s wait a little while, like we’ve only one match left / Let them cry out loud, let them waste their breathe.”
This last line recalls The Growlers tune “Change In Your Veins” when Nielsen sings: “I had a little bit of pity then I stopped myself / kinda sucks that they’ll never know / I felt bad for my brothers sleepwalking going nowhere / ‘Cuz they’re so afraid to grow.” What can be said of the sleepwalking herd at this point other than what Nielsen says to let them do in “One Match Left”: let them waste their breathe. Fuck pity. There’s no growth coming for them. They’re so far gone and lost in their own insanity that it’s a lost cause. All one can and should do is what Nielsen does: wait a little while.
Let the fools pass by. Let them run towards that phone call, that text, that tweet or whatever the latest thing is, run out into traffic against the light to cross the street in a hurry to go nowhere; to the next Mickey Mouse holiday attraction during their obligatory self-mandated fun travel time with their brood. Hurry to write a review of an album that is fifteen hundred words. At least my motivations are pure and honest – that is – money (although I didn’t find any outfit that would pay me, or at least not sell my email to a goddamn flack). As Samuel Johnson said: “no one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Don’t join in, for goodness sakes. Don’t be a fool like yours truly has been time and time again. Aspire to be like Nielsen. It’s the only true path towards salvation.
The song “One Match Left” also alludes to Nielsen’s hard work and the leap of faith that it will yield fruit. The tune’s opening line is: Making so much fruit / every branch will bend. This recalls The Growlers song “Going Gets Tough” where Nielsen sings: Still always remembering, when the going gets tough / that the labor of our love will reward us soon enough. It also touches upon a theme that arises in The Growlers record “Try Hard Fool”: without danger there ain’t no style / but you can only try so hard.
The idea of having one match left fits nicely into the idea of having a little danger. With one match left, there is no safety net, no luxury of a second chance. You better get it right, no redoes. That approach was certainly true of The Growlers, who attacked the music business with gusto and fearlessness, or at least strength in the face of fear. Nielsen sings of the “fear of going back to find all the nothingness we’ve left behind,” in the song “Orgasm of Death” from one of the band’s best albums, Casual Acquaintances. He puts it all on the line again with One Match Left. For to ever have the chance of exorcism for oneself and connection with others, there can be no other approach.
In the track “Life Ain’t A Riddle” Nielsen sings that, “Life ain’t a fuckin’ riddle, unless you are living for somebody else. Nothing more needs to be said on the matter but I am in a loquacious mood so I’ll yap a little bit. This line recalls the under-looked Growlers track “Nobody Owns You” off the further under-appreciated masterful album Gilded Pleasures. As George Orwell articulated almost eighty years ago, we are our own oppressors. We enslave ourselves to live lives of entrapment based on expectations of others or self-imposed restraints. Nielsen knows this to be true as he sings on this track: there ain’t no box or chains that can keep beating hearts from playing wild.” For those interested in hearing thoughts on this subject expressed more eloquently than I could, I suggest reading Brian von Ancken’s article on the “Should Life” (https://medium.com/@bvonancken/https-medium-com-bvonancken-leaving-the-should-life-2238806d0820).
One can feel envious of Nielsen in the song “Oh Melisa” that he has found the magical, special woman that he wants not just to be her love “but best friend.” Though if anyone is deserving of having such good fortune in that department it is he. As he sings, she is “the reason for believing there’s something more to life.” A magical, special woman can do that. So can a magical, special drug. But a woman is better.
Not to be overlooked is the track “This Old World Was Always Broken.” It is sonically as big a leap forward as any in this collection. Like a good old R&B record that King Records might have put out, it hits the spot that makes you want to play it twice, thrice and more. While he sings, “No rope around your throat,” the line is delivered with his heart in his throat. On this track his voice whelms up from that mommy-sized hole in one’s stomach. Nielsen sings: “You’re my wine, getting better with time.” I believe the same will be said of this track when all is through.
Simply put, it is a better world with Nielsen’s voice in it. He tells it like it is. Doesn’t pussy foot around. Doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. Those are the only voices you can trust. For instance when he sings in “Life Ain’t A Riddle”: Only you know what you mean / Please don’t care if life’s unfair.” You want fair, that’s where they have the ponies. The only knock there is on Nielsen is that, for being one of the sharpest dressed cats out there, he’s never seen wearing pants that aren’t three inches too short. But it’s an easy fix. Go to O’Connell’s of Buffalo, NY and get one of their well made pants that come unfitted, go to a tailor and ask for a quarter inch break and he’s all set – and if they don’t know what a quarter inch break means then they’re jokers.
Lastly, going back to Nielsen’s song “Virgin Lady Luck,” he sings: I don’t want to be blurred no more / I want this to be as real as pain. This species has made the determination that they’d rather blur themselves from life than live it. Every moment they give away to a phone or electronic gizmo is a moment taken away from living. You want to really live, then you’re gonna really feel pain. Because to really live is to know that you are alone. You are born alone and you die alone. But only then do you see the value in giving something of yourself to others. The light in this life, if it comes at all, comes from other people – and you won’t get anything back without giving something first. It is commonplace for people to say, “have a good day.” That is what is wrong with the world. Everyone wants to take, nobody wants to give. I say: “give a good day.”