One of the funnier conversations I’ve had recently:
Me, to Corvus: I have to play my brother’s new album for you, you’ll appreciate it.
Keith (overhearing): Wait, back up–brother? Album? What’s this?
Me: Oh–my step-brother is a nerdcore rapper out in New York.
Lee: What’s his name?
Me: Schaffer the Darklord.
Lee: Your BROTHER is SCHAFFER THE DARKLORD?! How did I not know this?!
Lee: I just saw him! On “Oddities”!
Me: Demon baby or monkey brains?
Lee: Monkey brains!
Me: Yeah, that was a good one.
I don’t bring up my STD connection much–it’s weird to name-drop your family, and I don’t want to seem like a coattail-jumper, because his talent and success have nothing to do with me. Our parents have been married for 28 years, but we didn’t grow up together; we’re cordial, but not close. Basically, he’s a rock star who has to talk to me, or I’ll tell Dad.
I might have taken the discretion thing too far, though, if I haven’t even mentioned to you that he’s out there making filthy, funny, catchy, perverted, geeky, clever records that you should TOTALLY be listening to, if you aren’t of a delicate nature. I know cussing and drugs and sex are big barriers for some people, and if that’s you, disregard this recommendation–his records will melt your ears. But if you can take the grit, there’s a lot of good stuff in there.
With clever wordplay, deeply nerdy obsessions (“Nerd Lust” and “Battlefont” are personal favorites), an appealing habit of undercutting braggadocio with self-deprecation, and a talent for crafting short stories in song form (“The Invisible Man” is a three-minute morality tale worthy of O. Henry), STD’s early catalog is good, dirty fun. His work has always had brains and heart; now, with Sick Passenger, it has guts, too.
The conceit of the album is that we’re listening to STD’s introductory session with an acerbic therapist; the songs are linked by interstitial discussions between the two. Our brash anti-hero has been through the wringer, and seeks professional help with his issues, not entirely voluntarily. The narrative arc begins with him in defiant denial, explores his anxieties and addictions, and brings him, at last, to making amends.
Which all sounds pretty heavy, but it’s leavened with a lot of humor and catchy tunes. As many times as I’ve listened to them, “Do Sex” and “Giant Iron Snake” still make me laugh. (Erm…those two aren’t about the same thing, whatever their titles might suggest.) I love the gender politics of the “Boys” and “Tomgirl” diptych; it’s the perfect snippet to play for new listeners. Even the anxiety songs (“Mice”, “Afraid of Everything”, “The City”) have a sharp, dark wit that keeps them from being morose. (“Empty”, on the other hand, is just plain disturbing. As it’s meant to be.)
One of the major themes of the work is identity confusion, as Mark Schaffer, performer, struggles to draw the line between himself and Schaffer the Darklord, character. As he talks about the excesses the role draws him into, the listener starts wondering where exactly that line is, too. The laundry list of drugs sampled, the sexual promiscuity–how much is he exaggerating the sins of his past, and how much does he genuinely have to regret? It was a hard listen, the first time through; I was nervous about where he was taking us.
Whatever the magnitude, it’s clear he’s talking about real problems that he wrestles with. It’s hard enough to put any creative work out into the public sphere, let alone one focused on your own fears and failures. Sick Passenger is a really brave, honest piece of work. I like it as entertainment, and I love it as a statement of where my “little bro” is in his journey.