(Luaka Bop; 2008)
By Colin McGowan | 8 April 2008
No amount of praise nor casual sex, however bountiful, can help me escape the fact that Jim White has been living inside my head for the past week, wistful lyricism swirling about; I stand outside myself, watching criticisms slosh around inside my translucent skull like laundry, a vague psychedelic haze forming as I realize I can’t make much sense of this. It’s an inadequate feeling, possibly unsatisfying reading as well, but this record confounds like a spontaneous, toothy grin.
It’s not as if Jim White’s latest, Transnormal Skiperoo, is some sprawling magnum opus. In fact, it seems to avoid being tagged as an “important” endeavor through its willfully nonsensical titling, scrawled in playful calligraphy that recalls Daniel Johnston’s eccentric covers. This is a warm, sometimes downright giddy affair, with a prevailing sense of contentment buried at its core. It would be easy to dismiss it as a light-hearted road trip of a record, but there are just enough morbid moments interspersed between the extended periods of breezy non-sentiment (White’s voice catching slightly on “Plywood Superman” or the musings on alienation of “Turquoise House”), to warrant closer inspection. But combing through White’s ambiguous discourse is a damning task, duality discovered in every note. It’s as if White took a blowtorch and permanently fused bitter and sweet.
Perhaps thoughtlessness is the key here. An acquaintance of mine described this album in fractured but affectionate terms: “Summer. Nice.” She’s right because everything here is sun-drenched, whether wearily or in a more celebratory nature. The whispery intonations of “Fruit of the Vine” slide like sweat off the brow of an exhausted farmhand, slowly transforming into a vaguely joyous Kerouac-off. But see, the song is about a dealer. This is the part where I start throwing punches at anything in my immediate area. So yes, “Nice.” and “Summer.” and all that, but such pleasant, simplistic terms don’t render the album any less blurry. There’s too much sincerity behind the whispering bass on “Diamonds To Coal,” too much forlorn fragility present on “Jailbird,” too much fucking weight, or at least illusions of weight, present here to label it an innocuous jam session, relegating it to the shallow end of the pool.
But I can’t tell you whether “Crash Into The Sun” is an overblown, substanceless mess, a wonderfully mindless exercise in simplicity, or false, ironic mirth. “Who do you know / And do they blow minds?” Gun violence reference? Stupid, tossed off one liner? Does it even matter? Context should aid in the decryption of such things, and it does — to an extent. In the context of “Crash Into The Sun”’s vibrant guitars and joyous horns, everything falls nicely into place. It becomes easy to dismiss a clearly jubilant rally cry, but in the context of White’s dense, often existential and, urp, depressing back catalogue, murk obscures even the most obvious connotations. Wrong-Eyed Jesus! (1997) is staring me in the face, warping my interpretations with his biblical superpowers.
I suppose the rating above gives off the impression I come away from this experience baffled, possibly crying, but nonplussed. While the crying may be true, I find Jim White’s effort intriguing on many fronts. The sounds White plays with, both vocally and instrumentally, are varied, often extremely pleasing if rarely striking. The aforementioned “Crash Into The Sun” is a raucous, bombastic number, inciting awkward sing-a-longs and embarrassing dance moves, whereas the plain gorgeous track that precedes it, the understated “Jailbird,” consists of all sorts of muted, silky layers of instrumentation and a resolutely somber White.
All of this frustrated verbiage isn’t an attempt to belittle White’s commendable, if flawed, effort, but rather to apply criticism in a more useful way. “Summery” is a fine adjective, but I feel as if there’s more to Transnormal Skiperoo than indie Jimmy Buffet-isms and colorful beverages. Jim White’s latest collection of songs has a humanity about it that is too multifaceted to categorize in broad terminology or flowery descriptors and is quite possibly beyond adequate summation; overthink or undersell as much as you please. “Sufficiency” would seem to be a concrete term, but in the world White has constructed here, it’s mind-bendingly malleable. And that’s a good thing, right? Right?