The average listener can’t, I have to imagine, want to be recommended a Blue October album on purpose. After all: no one but a connoisseur of angst (and, maybe, guyliner) is scouring the ‘net for Blue October reviews. But stranger things have happened than Blue October turning into a sorta-artistically viable band, right? Right?
Regardless, Blue October’s new record, Any Man in America, is a late-career upswing in quality for this band. For once, lead singer Justin Furstenfeld sings and writes with purpose; his new album is, after all, created in the name of his daughter, and as Furstenfeld finds himself embroiled in a bitter and ugly custody battle, he writes songs that are often angrier than the norm, but are often much more reflective and tender, too. In short, Furstenfeld is following in the footsteps of great musicians who spun their personal pain into high art – we don’t want Justin to have to fight tooth and nail for custody, but, well, the music is better.
There’s something refreshing about how uncomfortably honest Mr. Furstenfeld is willing to be on wax. Not since Eminem have we seen an artist so willing to air all his dirty laundry, and in such blunt form; in some of the record’s more brutally forthcoming moments, that feels a touch like the guy at the bar who tells you about losing his job while you’re just trying to watch the game, but for the most part, Furstenfeld is so raw about things (and so game to dish out his version of the truth) that you can’t help but feel for the guy.
And as a result, the record sounds… well, pretty great. Furstenfeld’s gritty baritone is the sort of vocal instrument that doesn’t work without a healthy dose of passion, and Any Man in America has that in spades; the lyrical content lends itself to it, really, and Furstenfeld sings like a dynamo on this album. Compositionally, Blue October have subscribed to the U2-chic that most modern rock bands are trading in these days – shades of the Great Springsteen Revival of 2006 – but they manage to make it work for the precise reasons that U2 themselves make it work; namely, huge hooks decorated with gorgeously shimmering guitar work, draped with expansive, passionate vocals. That the band that’s cranked out a billion angst anthems could be responsible for “The Feel Again (Stay),” one of the most heart-stoppingly soulful rock anthems anybody’s bothered to compose in the past decade, is exciting; by the time the record dovetails with “The Worry List,” there’ve been dozens of Edge-y guitar lines and feverishly wailed refrains, most of ’em winners. Still, “Worry List” catches the ear – it’s intense, sure, as is most of the album, but it’s also so clearly the work of a broken man that it’s hard not to feel for him. It’s raw, it’s wrenching, but it’s resilient.
Now to the elephant in the room: the record’s lyrical content has been hotly contested among Blue October superfans (yep, there’re a bunch of them). To break it down into Nielsen-style demographic nonsense, the essence is this: women, quite frankly, don’t seem to care for it. And, yeah, it’s a little problematic: Justin has stated that the purpose of this album is both to enlighten listeners to the plight of fathers’ rights and to provide a concrete musical document of this tumultuous period for his daughter to listen to, which would ring a lot truer if he didn’t spend the entire record seething at his ex-wife. Many of the female fans who dry-hump Furstenfeld at shows feel betrayed, feel unnecessarily caught up in the collateral damage of his less-than-desirable feelings towards women, feel that the entire enterprise smacks of misogyny. The title track (which charmingly features rapper Ray C inviting a female adversary to kiss his scrotum) calls for “every man in America” to “take back [their] control,” but seems to ignore the fact that, while the legal system is irrefutably skewed towards the woman in matters of custody, deadbeat dads do exist. In telling his story, Furstenfeld acquits himself by painting his wife as a vindictive gold-digger, but in his few attempts at universality paints things as too black-and-white.
Fortunately, Furstenfeld keeps things wisely inward for the most part, preferring to write in the micro. And that’s what justifies the harrowing lyrical content here: it’s so focused on one individual that it’s impossible to paint the entire enterprise as baseless, wanton misogyny. Kanye never claimed that all women are gold diggers; he was claiming that gold diggers are gold diggers. Specificity is a virtue here, although, naturally, having such a narrow lyrical target serves the unfortunate side effect of alienating longtime fans by shifting the focus from the universal to the personal. Unless you’re in the situation Justin Furstenfeld is in, it’s a difficult album to relate to.
Any Man in America is a thorny, complicated record, sometimes problematic, sometimes wearying. It’s also Blue October’s best record by a yard, an uncomfortably personal opus of righteous rage, tempered by some really, really beautiful music. For sheer audacity and musical scope, Any Man in America admirably overcomes any potential offense. It’s the soul-bearing of a broken man saying exactly what he feels; and that can be dangerous sometimes (ask Kanye, who, by the way, we’ve been lauding for his unbridled honesty tempered by unbridled artistry for years), but it often yields results. It sure does here.
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