Reviewing records comes easily for me a lot of the time. The best way, I’ve found, is to tackle every record from an emotional and personal angle, and then see where that takes you. Every record tells a story, and if you’re good at what you do, it’s easy to pull that story out, and that ultimately informs how you feel about a record. But then, other times, I end up feeling like a heel, because I try my hardest to talk about an album, often a really great one, and I may end up writing four different variations of the same thing, just trying to get my words right. This is why I find it impossible to review The Mountain Goats at length, for instance; I almost always draft several versions of the truth I pull from John Darnielle’s work, only to never finish, and leave the bones in my drafts folder, to taunt me the next time I try and feel out something that is beyond me.
To date, I have started to write about Michael The Blind’s Are’s & Els three times, and though each one starts pretty much the same, the rest of each one follows a different train of thought. The first one uses the notion of how Michael Levasseur is an incredibly underwhelming musician, but adopts the notion that “underwhelming” is not necessarily a bad thing. The second runs with an over-the-top analysis of the tremendously entertaining “Another Circle of Fifths,” and the incredibly pessimistic relationship with optimism the song has, and how “Metaphor Life” would be a yawn-inducing songwriting exercise, but is made to sound fantastic in the hands of such an accomplished songwriter.
The story goes like this: the first time I heard Michael The Blind, I was incredibly underwhelmed. Again, do not take this to be a bad thing. It was around noon on a Sunday, the third day of Portland’s all-ages local music festival, PDX Pop Now!, and Levasseur was onstage with nothing but a guitar and a chair. To this day, it remains to be some of the best music I’ve ever heard so early in the day, and it was the first time I ever really felt compelled to go up to a musician and tell them that they put on an excellent show. Even inside, the harsh light of late July flooded the venue, and cast a strange light on the performance. It was a performance that was, while fantastic, was meant for somewhere far away from where I watched him. And while he may not be alone anymore (on Are’s & Els he plays with a fabulous backup band he calls The Els), that comfortably alienating feeling still persists.
So, what can I bring to the table when talking about this record? The first thing that comes to mind is that, at times, it’s pretty loud, at least louder than I was expecting. This, too, is a good thing: the guitar squalls of “Instead,” and the cacophony that makes up a significant chunk of “Have It Out” are incredibly far removed from the sound mentioned before, but it elevates the lyrics in a way that makes the album feel as earnest as you would want from a songwriter. Levasseur’s voice, while Dylanesque upon first inspection, actually become Oberstian the more you pay attention: his tone is frantic and worried a lot of the time, and at times it feels like, from the way he’s singing, the act of spitting these words out is the only way to exorcise some untold demons.
I could babble on about the meaning behind the lyrics, but I’m not going to bore you with that. Mr. The Blind’s words speak for themselves at all times on Are’s & Els, something that is incredibly rare these days. It feels rewarding to dig through the multiple layers of a songwriter’s meaning most of the time, certainly, but there is something to be said for a record where everything feels so deliberate: there is deeper hidden meaning to every song, but those meanings are the ones that stare you straight in the face while you search for them. That level of minimalism is truly comforting, and makes each and every repeated listen as much of a treat as the last.
It should be clear that I really enjoy the record. Really, I love the thing, which is what made it so difficult to piece together what I wanted to say about it. To Levasseur’s credit, this is something to be proud of, because I am not a man who is known for his loss of words. If asked to sum it up in one short sentence, I’d say this: Are’s & Els is an astounding record, and you’re gonna love it.