By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Uplifting tunes for the aspiring curmudgeon you didn’t know you’d already become.
In his song “Bird On The Wire,” Leonard Cohen lamented: “I have tried in my way to be free.” Of course, the tune itself was a kind of “bird on a wire,” precariously seated between overstatement and understatement, or between “asking for more” and “not asking for so much.” Attempting to dramatize that (in his own way) over 30 years later, Dan Reeder sings “Love and pain / go together like thunder and rain / like bitch and complain / like choo choo and train.” No, not so subtle. Neither are Reeder’s paintings, which include Buddhas who “just sit there” and a prophet so self-satisfied that he declares “It’s great. I talk, they listen.” If Cohen fashioned piercing beauty out of the futile balancing of existential alternatives, then singer, songwriter, and visual artist Reeder sees a cosmic farce instead, drawing on his dry wit and cynicism to dismiss the illusion of choice with a childish playfulness.
Born in Louisiana’s Cajun Country in 1954, the California-raised artist has been a resident of Nuremburg, Germany, for over three decades. There he had already established himself as a visual artist before he sent a copy of some of his musical work to John Prine, whose Nashville-based Oh Boy Records would release his debut album in 2004. Embracing the expressive autonomy and stylistic simplicity associated with an “outsider artist,” Reeder has graced his releases with his own cover art, played all of his compositions himself, and designed and built many of his instruments and recording equipment. His website describes him as “self-made.” Self-made, but not unapproachable. His songs blend elements of folk, blues, and roots; they exude the innocent naivety of Daniel Johnston and the comic charisma of Flight of the Conchords. He’s a folk-singing boomer with a surreal sense of irony that fits the millennial age. His appeal mixes today’s antihumor with a suspiciously overt sincerity (à la Tim Heidecker’s Heartland rock).
Reeder’s music has been featured on TV shows SMILF and Weeds, and Swiss musician Stephan Eicher recently covered Reeder’s “Born a Worm” (“Né un ver” in French) on his Homeless Songs album this past September. Though Reeder’s debut album is set for vinyl release this year, he has lately focused on individual releases through social media and streaming platforms. His last multitrack release was 2017’s “Nobody Wants to Be You,” which featured only five songs. It was described as a “precursor” to another, longer 2018 release which, unfortunately, never came. The fact that his new works are being released individually, each with their own artwork as well, suggests that he is finding the album-length format restrictive. Aside from that, however, there is a distinct difference in tone between “Nobody Wants to Be You” and his latest songs.
The 2017 release “Kung Fu Is My Fighting Style” told us, with a rollicking piano melody, to “back off, bitch.” In contrast to that are two numbers from this year: “Stay Down, Man” and “Jail Time.” The former tells a touching story of defeat; the latter offers a sinister and realistic reflection on the consequences of our violent impulses. 2017’s Reeder indulged in the kind of violent camp inspired by the antics of Ron “The Black Dragon” Van Clief. However humorous these cinematic fantasies may be, 2020’s Reeder assumes a much less arrogant fighting stance, beginning with a memory (autobiographical?) of receiving a beating in “nightclub parking lot south of L.A.” at the “end of a long night at the end of a long day.” Featuring realistic dialogue, “Stay Down, Man” refuses to indulge in the sentimental. We are convinced that, like the song’s interlocutor, begging the fighter to throw in the towel, Reeder is issuing a warning: he does not want to have to scrape us off the concrete. “Jail Time” also asserts the virtues of giving up; surrender means curbing injury. Reeder isn’t preaching; he tells it like it is. When there are no real choices available, pick survival. Here the childlike Reeder meets the stoic Reeder, and the result is sublime.
His other recent releases provide further insight into Reeder’s reductionist stoicism. The piano and guitar composition “Love & Hate” (2020) laments life’s interlocking pairing of pleasure and pain. The song bounces from the initial cliché of the title to an allusion to “Amazing Grace” and ends on “bitch and complain.” Finishing on a minor chord, the tragic is reduced to the mundane. We are told “man, you should have seen her face / when she thought I had misplaced / those insurance papers.” We don’t need any great adventure in life to make us see how fragile it is to sit on the wire. “Young at Heart” (2019) spells out this revelation, the singer announcing that he has come to “hate disruption” and “fear change.” A lack of faith, cynicism about democracy, complications with sex, and a general hardening-of-heart — all come at the price of accepting our fate as something less than romantic or heroic… as something that “just feels sorta natural.”
In a separate but related vein, Reeder’s 30-second composition “Sock puppet self portrait as John Lennon” idealistically ruminates: “What if you could say whatever you want to without everybody getting all up in your shit about it?” You may say that Reeder is a dreamer, but let’s be honest — he’s not the only one. Think of the tune as a critique of “call-out culture,” or simply imagine our sock serenader as an Everyman … a Larry David squawking out our common cultural discomfort. Or could the song be blowing the whistle on the self-interested motives of moral crusaders? Or could it be an ironic manifesto aimed at our social media narcissism? Or all of the above. It’s a petty fantasy about honesty and power, but can we deny its personal appeal? Or its universal applicability?
So much of Reeder’s fascination comes from his blunt yet ambiguous observations of familiar realities. Another untitled sock puppet piece reflects: “I’m just a sock puppet, baby, ain’t got no will of my own.” How often do our folk singer-songwriter heroes confess to such haplessness? Reeder is undoubtedly satirizing “woke” celebrity here, but he is also tapping into a truth about the mundanity that claims us all. He is aware that, no matter how often artists egotistically proclaim their independence and novelty, they are as woefully restricted to preexisting conditions as the rest of us.
We (or most of us, anyhow) have the weight of the world on our shoulders. Reeder feels the tonnage as well. But he pays homage to its weighty normality in a way that is poetic because he figures nothing can be transcended, certainly not by art. His work encourages us to stand our ground (or not stand our ground, on occasion). To do so without fearing that we will be condemned by society or our superegos. To not be concerned that we have somehow dropped the ball and betrayed our better selves. In a painting dated 2002 featuring a blue cup, Reeder quotes from Cohen’s “Bird On The Wire”: “I have tried in my way to be free.” Is that cup half empty or half full? A silly question, and one that Reeder might be asking to get a chuckle out of us. Or maybe not. Either way, we certainly don’t need everybody getting all up in our shit about it.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.