Bret McKenzie's Soulful Transition to Songs Without Jokes Cascades Vulnerability
4.7 out of 5 stars
Bret McKenzie has been known to be a very funny man for most of his professional career. However, even in times of peak silliness such as his role in the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords AND in their HBO TV series of the same name, I always felt like there was a soulful, serious side longing to escape from McKenzie.
He always seemed vulnerable in those songs that were meant to be jokes. As if he was writing them KNOWING that other people would laugh at his misfortune, but it still felt like he was writing from a point of some personal pain and laughter was the best medicine.
Well, after 20 or so years in the music business, McKenzie has finally gotten his moment to dig a bit deeper into his own music vision, and it is as sweepingly emotional as it is musically intricate.
Being a multi-instrumentalist, McKenzie naturally flows from guitar to bass to keys, but on this album, he got a big boost of confidence and a lot of musical experience from some legendary studio musicians such as Dean Parks (guitar), Lee Sklar (bass), Drew Erickson (piano/producer) and Joey Waronker (drums).
Noted influences of Steely Dan and Randy Newman are part of the sound on this album, but if you ask me, the end result came out more Billy Joel, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen.
The arrangement of the keys is really a journey throughout transitioning from that Newman-esque sound in songs like “A Little Tune” to the bar-room piano on songs like “If You Wanna Go” and then to a more classical sound in “Up In Smoke.”
The songs range in concepts from climate change to personal relationships being broken to the downsides of living alone in the crowd in Los Angeles where the “Hollywood lifestyle” is much more like a suburban nightmare.
The songs “This World,” “Tomorrow Today,” and “Carry On” are a few examples of the heavy conscience McKenzie has for his role in the ever-warming of the globe, and how he hopes to fix or escape the problem. The idea is we need to find solutions now, but how and where do these solutions come from, and will people want to change their ways in order to help save the planet anyway?
I think my favorite song on the album is “If You Wanna Go” as it is such a great homage to the piano kings of the 1970’s and 1980’s like Elton John, Billy Joel, and Randy Newman that it is hard not to immediately feel like the song is both a tip of the cap to these icons but also a meaningful, personal song about coming to terms with letting someone go.
“Here For You” is much more like a good Leonard Cohen song mixed with a little Bruce Springstein (the best at dramatic builds in songs). This song is definitely one of the songs on the album that I could see being as good today as it will be in 20 or 30 years from now or 20 or 30 years in the past. It’s the type of song that is timeless yet a perfect example of a specific period of time.
“Crazy Times” is a song that is seemingly inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic and McKenzie’s own lockdown in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. It would definitely be odd after having traveling constantly for work for about 15 years or so to suddenly being in the same place for multiple years. I know it was definitely strange for me, and I traveled probably half or a quarter as much as McKenzie did during the last 10 years or so.
“Tonight, I am staying home,” croons McKenzie. I think we all know how that felt for far too long.
For me personally, I know that I find an album like this one to be extremely well done and a great listen, because while it is natural for McKenzie to put out another comedy album, it might not push him to really grow as an artist, and from what I can see in this album, McKenzie has not only grown as a musician but as a composer, performer and creative thinker.
I am sure there will be some backlash in the vein of “why make a serious album?” I can tell you that most performers make people laugh to help them deal with their own pain or trauma, and often times when there is no laughter to help them heal, it can be a dark world.
Whether or not that describes McKenzie’s experience, I can absolutely feel the intention behind this album more than I ever have with any of his past projects (and, mind you, I am a huge fan of Flight of the Conchords).
I remember an episode of the Netflix show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee starring Jerry Seinfeld where Zach Galifinakis was talking about how no one ever took him seriously including when he was giving a heartfelt speech at his sister’s wedding and trying to be sincere and serious. But the 500 people in attendance started laughing, because they thought he was doing a bit.
Galifinakis saw it as a bit of a burden, and I could see how that may apply to McKenzie at times as most people will laugh as soon as they see or hear him.
What really resonated about that Galifinakis story was that Jerry Seinfeld said this:
“This is part of your great talent. As soon as you walk onto the set, it’s funny. The fact that you’re there. It’s funny. You’re one of those guys. Not everybody has that.”
So, Bret, if you ever read this, just know that you are a VERY funny person. I also know that you are incredibly sincere. It’s your great talent.
You can tip-toe the line between the two, and while we may start to smirk at what you are singing about, or whether we laugh out loud from the darkness of the songs you sing, please understand that we are not laughing at you or at the music.
We are smiling, grinning, and chuckling BECAUSE OF YOU. Even in the somber tones and sincerest moments, we laugh, because in those vulnerable times, it helps to heal us too.