?Oh when I?m in my cave/It?s true I can?t get out/But also, they can?t get in?
? Jandek, ?What Things Are?
I can remember quite distinctly the first time I ever heard mention of Jandek. It was the mid 1980?s, I was in college, and my music nerd friends and I had just met this dude who had a (primarily) free-jazz show on late nights at the campus radio station where we all had shows. The thing I recall the most about the introduction was that before there was ever a word said about Jandek?s music, there was a lengthy description of the mysterious cloud with which he surrounded himself (the blurry LP cover photos, the fiercely guarded privacy, the anonymous P.O. box as the only point of contact). As the stories went on it was clear that Jandek had obtained his near mythic status in part by rigorously maintaining that veil of secrecy. There were rumors of what his real name was (Sterling Smith was the most common), what he did for a day job (speculation so boring it?s hardly worth a mention), and the like. Finally, someone asked what this Jandek character sounded like. And free-jazz man was speechless; he claimed he could not put it into words.
Long after I?d finally heard Jandek, it was this prelude that struck me the most; even someone who was obviously genuinely and deeply affected by Jandek?s music found it easiest to introduce him via his ?public? image. In the years since, I?ve heard him called a charlatan, a manipulator, a hack, a hermit (this one was really amusing; hermits don?t start independent record labels and sell their product to the world), and far worse. What has always struck me about the criticism of Jandek?s music is that not only did it never completely divorce itself from the fog that hovered around him, but also time and time again, it seemed the myth was privileged over the product. Perhaps in choosing the route that he did (self-release of his records initially only through mail order, no information on his records except the label address), Jandek opened himself up to this type of criticism, but I always thought after some time, people should be able to see past this aspect of his work. Sure enough, as the world became accustomed (resigned?) to Jandek?s modus operandi, it was possible to hear him introduced based on his artistic qualities first and not merely the means by which he brought them to market.
Jandek was hardly the first artist with a commercially ?difficult? vision to take the route of self-releasing his material (see Abner Jay, Sun Ra, et al. - though self-determination of a different sort probably was a bigger reason for those folks to start their own labels). But for the first 25 years of his musical career, he might have been the most well known recluse since Howard Hughes (in some circles). About a year ago, when the ?legendary? figure emerged from his self-imposed sequestration to play a gig at the 2004 Instal Festival in Glasgow there were many crying, ?sell out!? This may say more about the critics? own need for constancy from their heroes than anything Jandek had (or hadn?t) done. We may never know his reasons for his change of heart, but for better or worse he?s taken the irrevocable step out of the shadows now. Which is not to downplay the significance of the events of the last year in Jandekland; it blew a lot of people?s minds, mine included. For me, Jandek?s music has always been deeply personal and specific yet is concerned with themes that resonate universally (e.g. alienation, rejection, solitude). The ability to exist in both spaces has been his greatest asset as a songwriter and has contributed more to his lasting relevance than any myth could have alone. So how does someone whose experience of the last year can only be referred to as unique write about those events in a way that does not diminish their universal appeal?
?Raining Down Diamonds? wastes no time on this score. The opening track ?What Things Are? is a candid acknowledgement of just how much has happened in the last year. Rather than appearing empowered by his new position in relation to his audience, there is a resigned fatalism at work. The opening line ?I don?t know where things are? is indicative of the confusion and ambiguity that permeates most of the early part of the disc. It?s as if Jandek is saying that staying hidden away in ?my cave? or out in the ?blinding dazzle? of the spotlight both have their moments though neither is any better than the other. It is difficult to determine when this uneasy epiphany happened (i.e. before or after the ?first public appearance?), but that only makes the song more intriguing. The musical accompaniment for this track (as it is for everything on ?Raining Down Diamonds?) consists of rumbling bass strumming, plucking and picking. Combined with Jandek?s cracked and slurred vocal delivery, this stark, narcotized backdrop can make you feel like you are a part of a Nyquil overdose induced crawl along the floor. Is it the disease or the cure that makes you feel this way? You may never know, but you sure feel low.
?I Stared? and ?It?s Forever? do little to disturb the murk started in the opening track and it?s only with the new reworking of ?Take My Will? that the bass overcomes its addiction to the lower register and stands in for Jandek?s signature slashing outburst of guitar clang. Lyrically ?Take My Will? also ushers in a more open attitude towards escaping the ?cave? and ?New Rendezvous? manages to capture the excitement inherent in a new interaction that earlier might only have been met with extreme trepidation. Stasis is comfortable but it appears that Jandek has embraced the novel experience as a way to keep his heart young.
With an artist as prolific as Jandek, the question I ask myself when encountering a new offering is ?Is this release essential?? The answer here is ?no? if you are just trying to figure out what he?s about; try one of the old-skool classics (e.g. ?Six on Six?, ?Lost Cause?) or even the recent ?Glasgow Sunday? instead. But if you are interested in deciphering the man?s motives for his abrupt change of heart in recent years, or if you are just hooked on the Corwood Saga (of which this is episode 0780 for those keeping score), then pull the trigger with confidence. 7/10 -- Steve Rybicki (28 June, 2006)