By Daniel Garrett
Daniel Knox, Evryman for Himself
Webb Whale Music, 2011
La Société Expéditionnaire
The voice of a vengeful ghost, melodramatically authoritative, almost not a musical voice, is the first telling thing in composer Daniel Knox’s song collection, Evryman for Himself, apart from its idiosyncratic spelling of everyman: even death will not still the narrator’s anger. Knox, a singer-songwriter, who grew up in Illinois, moved to Chicago for film school, and began to spend time playing piano, has developed very independent musical tastes and talents, leading him to being featured in a festival that also presented Damon Albarn and Rufus Wainwright. Daniel Knox is a bit of a paradox, presenting to the world songs that speak of the hopelessness of self and society. “Ghostsong,” with its old-fashion masculine voice, is a hateful tribute. The attitude is one that recurs throughout the album. One imagines that there must be some truth to the attitude, but, also, that the attitude is heightened for dramatic effect. “I make enemies everywhere I go” and “it’s human to feel cheated” and “I leave victims in my path” are some of the assertions in the song “I Make Enemies,” which is given a jaunty rhythm, akin to a brassy anthem from a theater musical. The narrator of the song feels crowded, inconvenienced by other people. His attitude may be a desperate attempt at control, at repudiating what is otherwise overwhelming; and he says, “Everybody’s got a little shit to throw” and “I make dirty faces at the women and the kids.”
There is tawdry exposition, mentioning the discovery of pornography, in the song “…Etc…” and, while it reminds me a little of an Italian street song, what is most interesting are the structural shifts over a heavy beat. (“I like music from all different ends of the spectrum,” Daniel Knox told Matt Conner of StereoSubversion.com, June 6th, 2011.) You could call this one kind of chamber music for a new century, a century full of knowledge, without illusion. A cello opens “Slowly” and a solitary male voice, Knox’s voice, dramatically, solemnly, declares that a “stupid heart is breaking” and “all of this broken man is yours for the taking.” Is Daniel Knox a satirist, or a tragic artist? What is the root of his vision? Daniel Knox told Jay Ruttenberg of Time Out/New York (May 31st, 2011), “I’m fine being in the same immature, hateful, spiteful, angry place that I’ve always been.” In the song “Evryman for Himself,” with its merry-go-round melody, Knox sings that “hopes and dreams will end up killing you.”
Love and betrayal is a classical subject, but Knox’s attitude is bracing. “Tried to blind my wandering eye,” Knox sings amid strings in the heavily downbeat ballad “Fightscene,” and later says, “Thought your love would bleed me dry.” What kind of love is this? A love of sex and violence. “Felt the love between your legs, the kind of love that moans and begs,” he sings. One hears the words throughout the album—then wonders if one has heard right. Such a sensibility is intelligent and amusing—and clarifying, but it can be jaded and confirm one’s own cynicism. “I told you your eyes look like the stars, but people say stupid things in bars,” sings Knox in the mid-tempo song “#2,” a sensibility that can make the sentimentality in the songs of other writers sound like weak lies. (The song can be read in more than way—not only as a superior view but as an inferior view. Knox has said it is a deliberately stupid song, and then affirmed there must be a place for stupidity.) However, it is important to wonder whether such an astringent text can work as anything other than a rebuttal to something larger and more conventional: is there enough here to sustain a man, a writer, a listener, a culture? Is there enough substance, or truth, in criticism, to make it the central thing, the main focus? Or is such work inevitably, merely, commentary and footnote?
“When you owe me, you owe me, you don’t want to know me,” sings Knox, taking on the persona of a debt collector, full of threat (“see how far the finger bends”). There is violent imagery in “Debt Collector,” in which a debt collector is presented as a zealous serial killer. It is the kind of subject that can be found in Bertolt Brecht and rock music. “I still live at my parents’ house” and “take my medication twice” and “never think before I speak” the narrator sings in “Chores,” the evocation of a repellent character. “Get Out,” of course, is threatening. The pleasant music is counterpoint to sharp words in “Yet Another One for You,” in which heresy is embraced: “god is a prankster, a low-down dirty gangster” and “god is trying to cure his boredom by leading you to whoredom.” What else could Know possibly claim? “I got rid of my best friends just for fun,” sings Knox in “Smartass.” He also can appear more pragmatic than cynical, but that may be a ruse. “Use your own two hands to climb, knock yourself down every time,” he sings in the quiet ballad “You Win Some, You Tie Some,” a piece that sounds as if it contains a duckbill; concluding, “I guarantee my ugliness is real.” Does Knox or his narrators fear anything? “The sun will crash into the moon, but we will still have breakfast,” Knox sings in “Armageddonsong.” Yet it is important to recall that Knox (to StereoSubversion) did say, “I’m a grudge-holder and I hold on to them lifelong, just like I have friends who will be friends for the rest of my life.”
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.