Frank Black's eighth album, his most heartfelt and concrete to date, puts me in mind of my favorite quote about getting older, from Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch
. He says, "The truth is that after forty years of age, we have our real face on the back of our heads, looking desperately backwards...the past becomes present and the present is a strange and confused future..." Show Me Your Tears
comes from that kind of space, where love and life lies in some unreachable past and the present is just a place where you smoke dope with the VCR on. It's a world where all your missed connections seem sweet with might-have-beens, infecting even pure sex songs -- "Nadine", for instance -- with melancholy. And when things get really grim -- check the bluesy "New House of the Pope" for the nadir -- you fall into a bottomless spiral. This is not a happy album, but it might be a great one, taking the Western swagger of Dog in the Sand
into bleak and stunning territory.
Lyrically, Black has always been a trickster, slapping image on image in contradictory piles that sometimes collapse beneath their own weight. Show Me Your Tears offers lyrics that are more straightforward than ever before, with hardly a one evoking those "what the?" moments of early solo or Pixies material. The songs are more like stories than a series of disconnected thoughts, more narrative than pure vision. There's nothing as gloriously surreal as "Fields of Marigolds" or "Kingly Cave" here, but the tunes are lit from within by emotions that seem as real as they are intense. There's no way to capture the bitterness, the bone-dry pathos of a line like "Hiram said to John have you met my wife? / one day she'll be yours when I lose my life," without hearing it next to the twang of steel guitar and in Black's own voice.
Musically, Show Me Your Tears continues in the Exile-era Stones vein of Dog in the Sand, leaning heavily on bluesy slide and barroom piano. "Horrible Day" is maybe the most down-home of the thirteen songs, with Black doing a passable Jagger imitation and the gentle rollick of keyboards playing tag with some excellent guitar work. But for sheer dark impact, I'll go with "New House of the Pope", slinking in on shimmering minor piano chords and blue, blue guitar picking. It's about what all blues songs are about -- love betrayed, dope and liquor -- and it wrings cool despair out of the instrumental break mid-song.
The Catholics are the same band as before -- guitarists David Phillips and Rich Gilbert (who also plays piano), bassist David McCaffrey and drummer Scott Boutier (supplemented at times by "Rock Me" Joe Santiago and Eric Drew Feldman), and they continue to be a very strong band, putting the guts behind simple, traditional rock and blues forms. The bass line under "Everything Is New"'s verse is as critical to the song as Black's falsetto vocals, and the crash of guitars that breaks the lines of the chorus lifts the song into another dimension. Similarly, you cannot imagine the excellent "Nadine" without the straight-backed interplay of bass, guitar and drums, the band's restraint -- and eventual release -- putting the sex into the cut.
The best track, however, is the monumental "Massif Centrale", with Black crooning falsetto over an avalanche-like riff in a crazy, defiant stab at making sense of life. It balances the very sad with an embattled sense of hope, love with isolation, ballad with rock anthem. The lyric, "That's the sign ... of your love behavior" seems a little forced, but there's no arguing with the guitar that rips right out of it.
Show Me Your Tears comes out of personal trouble. It's a mature album that reflects a lifetime's work in music. Lots of people won't like it for just those reasons. It is as good, in its way, as any Pixies album, though you may have to grow up a little to appreciate it.