Close Calls With Brick Walls
Released in 2006, Close Calls With Brick Walls is actually Andrew W.K.’s most recent solo album of original songs. He’s had several releases since – a couple of bizarre cover albums aimed at the Japanese market, a solo piano album in 2009, and an EP in 2011. But despite the man’s reputation as the god of party music, he hasn’t really written a whole lot of it lately.
Not that this has affected his career much. Andrew W.K. will likely always be known as a guy who got it right on the first account; his debut album I Get Wet was about as perfect as it gets. That’s not a comment on the quality of the music, but rather how hard it hits its aim. Regardless of your opinion of the music, you can’t deny that they missed the mark. At its core, the songs on the album are rather simple; energetic hard rock party anthems with big, dumb, catchy guitar riffs and shouty vocals. But it’s the production on the thing that really stands out; every song on I Get Wet (as interchangeable as they all are) sounds like it’s being played by three bands at once – it’s clean, but unnaturally heavy. For all the talk about how dumb the album was, it certainly didn’t sound like anything else.
This is why the Andrew W.K. identity is so fascinating. On I Get Wet it never sounds like there’s just one of him. Even the live tracks that have been released of these songs are overdubbed, with two performances of the songs at the same time. The way he introduces the band is rather odd as well – he says “We are Andrew W.K.”, implying that Andrew W.K. is the band name and not anyone in particular. Certainly there’s a bit of performance art to what the guy does but with that has come the rumors. If you’ve followed the guy you know what I’m talking about – rumors that Andrew W.K. was a manufactured pop star (probably true to some degree), that all of the music was written by a guy named “Steev Mike”, and most interestingly that the guy ‘playing’ Andrew W.K. was swapped out with another guy some time around 2006. I even remember the various pictures comparing the “pre-2006” AWK with the new one (to me it just looks like he lost weight and shaved, but what do I know) with the implication that “clearly” they were different people. All this would sound ridiculous if you were talking about, say, John Mayer, but Andrew W.K. has always felt a little unreal.
Real or fake, this “controversy” (in quotes because who knows how much of it was manufactured) was clearly taking some toll on the man’s publishing deal, as Close Calls With Brick Walls was not released stateside until 2010. Whether it’s literally a different person or not, clearly this is not the same Andrew W.K. Opener “I Came For You” is a strained, desperate ballad – little more than minor chords, big guitar runs, and one strung out vocal. It segues into “Close Calls With Bal Harbour”, a minute-long ambient piece where AWK wails over atmospheric keyboard noise. What exactly is going on here? The party anthems are here, but they’re murkier and a little freakier than the ones that marked his first two albums. Look at the songs that follow; “Not Going to Bed” about never sleeping ever again (until you’re dead, that is), or “You Will Remember Tonight”, which implies something a bit harsher than “Party Till You Puke” (“the face that you see when you look in the mirror/it won’t be the same shape/when you look at it hours from now”). “Pushing Drugs”, with that “nature does a favor and puts your body in a hearse/is what I’m doing any worse?” line. “I Want to See You Go Wild” which straight up says “sometimes you need to get arrested” (and my favorite, “I’ll push you off the roof if you’re too afraid to jump”). There’s a rather prominent theme of self-immolation here; this is miles from the “power of positive partying” message that I Get Wet pedalled so heavily. Perhaps a theme of letting yourself go to let another identity free; “I don’t want to be me anymore” on “Into the Clear”, or a song like “Don’t Call Me Andy”.
This of course ties into the bizarre controversy that had been following Andrew W.K., not to mention the guy’s rather two-faced persona. On one hand you have Andrew W.K., the man who’s become something of a living meme, a guy who’s so focused on having fun and staying positive that he managed to make a second career as a motivational speaker out of it. Most of his public front relates to this; his numerous TV appearances, his advice column, his Twitter account, his stint as a kid’s show host, and so on. On the other hand you have Andrew W.K., the man with the twisted backstory, a guy whose work has some rather elaborate psychotic overtones to it, leading you to wonder what exactly is holding his brain together. This is the guy whose videos imply someone desperately in need of help; one video shows him answering questions asked by an off-camera female interviewer over unsettling ambient noise, which at one point devolves into him laughing uncomfortably for nearly a minute. Sometimes he addresses this directly (“There is nothing else I can do but fight against all odds/against the deadly soul that’s living in my heart”); the AWK on Close Calls clearly sounds like a man in pain, a man willing to give himself up at a moment’s notice. He’s impossible to figure out; his interviews paint him as a master of saying so much without actually saying anything at all. He’s even given lengthy screeds addressing the “Steev Mike” controversy directly, but they clear up nothing (“Of course I’m literally a different person than I was 5 years ago. Aren’t we all?”). You just have to strap in and go for the ride; you don’t draw the messiah comparisons by being straightforward.
Still, for all the shit Andrew W.K.’s been taking about being so one-tracked (how many I Get Wet reviews spent a paragraph making light of how many songs had the word “party” in the title?), there’s something here that goes beyond that. AWK’s basic message of “live each day to the absolute fullest” feels like fortune-cookie philosophy, but “Party Till You Puke” is not exactly great life advice. Of course, those who truly live life to the fullest are likely to find themselves in the hospital, but AWK doesn’t seem to mind; for him, partying is an escape from the shadows that would take him over otherwise, and he encourages everyone to join him (hence why I love the “I’ll push you off the roof if you are too afraid to jump” line so much – you have to fall, as staying safe just isn’t an option). Years of nightly abuse have taken their toll on his voice, giving him a raspiness that his older records didn’t have. How much of a front is this really?
Musically, Close Calls is quite an eclectic mix; it’s experimental, though not overwhelmingly so (all the stranger tracks are brief). The party anthems are still there, but they’re different; no crazy wall of overdubs, but there is an overarching sonic weirdness above it all. The music is often unsettling; there are weird bits of orchestration, odd twists and turns that feel off, and production values that seem to intentionally undermix or overmix some elements to throw the listeners. His guitar and piano are there (and often are playing rather intricate passages; that is, intricate for Andrew W.K.), but they get layered in strange ways, making this an album that really requires some repeat listenings to grasp. Those expecting the same brand of big dumb party anthems will be disappointed; “I Want to See You Go Wild” and “Not Going to Bed” mine that space, but there’s way more diversity. “Pushing Drugs” features a wonky, Devo-like guitar riff (think “Girl U Want”); on other tunes he ups the hard rock heaviness (“Mark My Grace”) or the showstopping drama (“Hand on the Place”). It’s certainly not without its flaws; often the murky production masks the inherent catchiness many of these songs could’ve had, and it could’ve been trimmed; “Las Vegas, Nevada” feels superfluous, as there’s a very similar (and better) song later on (“The Background”). But I still come back to this more than his other albums; it’s just as pummeling, but not quite as overwhelmingly visceral. It’s more of a “very good” album than a “great” one, but even still it has got to be one of 2006’s most intriguing releases.
Mother of Mankind
To make reprimands for taking so long to release Close Calls in the U.S., copies of the 2010 edition of the album were packaged with this, a 21-track collection of unreleased (or rare) tracks. Considering how one-tracked two out of his three studio albums are, Mother of Mankind is rather fascinating, as you get to hear AWK try out the sort of things you wouldn’t normally hear him do. My copy has no information as to where any of this is from; some of these are obviously demos from his early days (with him doing his own pitch-shifted backing vocals), while others are more fully-fledged tracks with different production values than other AWK material (maybe intended for single release?). There’s one song that was almost certainly recorded for I Get Wet but was cut for inexplicable reasons (“Kicks and Bricks” – it really does sound like a different person here). There are tributes to Stevie Wonder (“Big Party”, which is the same sort of harpsichord funk as “Superstition”), Meatloaf (“Coming Bad”, with an overblown, showtuney ending), and Sparks (okay, it’s possible that Andrew W.K. doesn’t know who Sparks are, but “I Want Your Face” is exactly the sort of song that the Maels have spent so long perfecting). There are a number of songs that initially sound upbeat but have some real stalkerish vibes (from “Let’s Go On a Date”: “Even though you don’t know me/I know you live alone/Because I listen to you cry”). Actually, a lot of this is unsettling – instrumentals like “AWK”, “Who Knows?” or the first part of “I’ve Got Know Fear” feel downright sinister. “Young Lord” is probably the worst of them all, with Andrew putting his voice and piano through a wringer of effects, creating somehing that creeps me out more than anything by say, Boards of Canada (to name a group that basically traffics in this feeling). One song is called “Kill Yourself” with rather straightforward lyrics which tell you do to exactly that.
So what does it all amount to? For most, a severe case of overload; Mother of Mankind brings the entire package up to 39 songs, and I would imagine for most listeners it will be something of a slog listening to this much Andrew W.K. at once. Taken on its own, it can be wonderful, if you can trim the fat a bit – I never remember anything about the last few tracks, but there are a remarkable amount of highlights here. In particular, the power-pop gems “I Want Your Face”, “This is My World”, and “Let’s Go On a Date” are among the best, along with the stupidly addictive drum-machine reggae of “We Got a Groove” (a promo track for AWK’s New York nightclub, perhaps?). Far more diverse than anything he’s ever put out, it’s at least a great cross-section of everything that the man is capable of; the “disturbed factor” is turned way up, but he certainly knows how to write a good tune.
So here we are in the year 2014. I Get Wet is still a big-ticket album; its 10th anniversary recently came and went, with an expanded double-disc edition, a vinyl release, a 33 1/3 book, and a big tour that played the album front-to-back. The man has his hands in so many different things; even if I Get Wet is still the only album people know by him, he remains this sort of all-encompassing cultural presence, thanks to some rather brilliant marketing skills; he’s willing to associate himself with anything that could bring him a new fanbase. Can you even call him a musician anymore? He’s a motivational speaker, a writer (The Party Bible, due later this year) a record producer, a TV host, a nightclub owner, an advice columnist, a brony, a world record holder (longest non-stop drum session), a failed US Cultural Ambassador (sadly, the US pulled the plug), and a guest on any show that’ll have him. There’s not exactly a common thread here. But what of his music career? Though Andrew W.K. remains a cultural force, Close Calls With Brick Walls was mostly forgotten – come to think of it, The Wolf was too. It’s hard to imagine his next album having much of an impact, though his talent is undeniable. The fact that neither Andrew W.K. nor his audience seem to mind is just part of what makes the man’s career so unique.