Lasting and Lethal: On Making Sense of Thomas Anderson

I originally wrote the interview piece below to celebrate the release of the Oklahoma rocker Thomas Anderson’s 2018 album, Analog Summer, for a web publication that never quite got rolling. I’m rolling out this new version to celebrate the latest Thomas Anderson album, Ladies and Germs, which may be an even better record, and which demands and deserves attention it seems doomed not to receive.

Maybe we, on this mighty little Substack, can help remedy that. At the beginning, I’m appending a mini-review of Ladies and Germs. At the end, I’ve placed some links to hear and buy the music.

Hope the words— his and mine— spur you to seek out this sui generis artist’s deep catalog, or maybe enjoy it more if you’ve already done so…

On Ladies and Germs:

It’s a Thomas Anderson sort of irony, really, that he comes up with maybe the most approachable album of his long, accomplished, largely ignored career as the world ricochets past out-of-control toward chaos. The spark in his combustion engine has always come from the collision of sarcasm and heartbreak. There are times on Ladies and Germs where he sets that firing in a single couplet (“I can’t watch tv anymore/body counts rise like baseball scores”), but there’s always a twist in the tail (and tale), and nothing is ever as direct as it seems. Except these tunes, which are aching, autumnal, full of jangled, surprisingly gentle beauty. Here’s my current fave, which in tone makes “American Pie” feel like a club banger, in tunefulness matches it phrase for phrase, and in language twists the nostalgia into something much more permanent, poignant, lasting, and lethal.

Now here’s the interview piece:

The Lasting, Lethal Art of Thomas Anderson

Even Googling him is problematic. Try it, and you’ll get IMDb pages and listings for the director Paul Thomas Anderson, a politician from New Mexico, a judge, and almost 4000 LinkedIn profiles. Add “musician”, and you’ll score a country-rock singer from Texas, a lead vocalist for the German duo Modern Talking who isn’t even named Thomas Anderson, and a fictional character.

            To find this Thomas Anderson—for thirty years, one of the most literate, committed, and singular rock music talents ever not to find a substantial audience—try hunting Images for the guy in the do-rag. Or add the phrase “Angry Young Grad Student”, which Anderson named his BMI Publishing Company way back in the 80s, and which still suits him, somehow, even though (or because) the name was a joke. “I’m probably much angrier now than I was then”, he told me recently, “but anger can fuel a lot of great art. Think about John Lennon, Joe Strummer…think about Etta James.”

            Me, I’m thinking about Thomas Anderson. I’m trying to decide if it’s more terrifying or inspiring that he’s not only still out there hammering away but accelerating his rate of production. Analog Summer, just out, is at least his sixth new disc since he hit AARP-qualifying age. Technically, it’s a collection of reworked odds and ends, or at least it started that way. But what he wound up with sounds a whole lot like every other Thomas Anderson album: rooted in riff-based rock-and-roll and balladic blues/folk that sound less from another time than out of it entirely , distinguished as much by that dust-dry voice as the guitars, and most of all, yes, by the words, which seem infused by everything and roam everywhere. “Anything can trigger a song”, Anderson says. “’Classic Gemini’”—one of Analog Summer’s more brooding, memorably melodic tracks—“is something an ex-girlfriend of mine was called by her hippie roommate” (like most great songwriters, he gets a lot of mileage out of his exes, though he takes even those tales to wilder, stranger places). Another standout, “The Lonesome Dead”, evolved from a Louis L’amour book title. “After you do this for a while, everything that you encounter—there’s something in you that asks, ‘Is this something that can be used in a song?’”

            A troll through that vast prairie of a back catalog certainly bares out the claim. He has written about pretentious former professors and unearthed Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, dead friends and political refugees, theremins and the Up With People people, tornados and strippers. If there’s a binding thread—other than the quality of the storytelling—it’s the uneasy collision of bemused cynicism and rueful affection. Different songs can cut either or both ways. On the new record, “Like the Snow” devotes almost its entire duration to a barbed but quietly lyrical portrait of a Plains-state town after a major storm (“A humpbacked landscape, silent and pure/Like a page out of some cheap calendar”) only to reveal itself, in the very last line, as a kiss-off (“Yeah it was wonderful but now it’s forgotten/And you, my dear, are like the snow”). “The Wrong Tornado”—homespun and epic, bitterly funny-- is about a father (his?) whose farm gets destroyed in the titular event, and who can’t collect insurance because this one happened “A year to the day since the big one came and wrecked/the county seat and the Sheffield Train”, siphoning off all the available money.

            If there’s a criticism that has been leveled at Anderson, it’s that his beats are still pretty foursquare, his songs primarily vehicles for the lyrics. The first part is probably fair, although now that he is mostly doing everything himself, his discs have definitely gotten rangier. Interspersed amid all those stories are surprisingly textured, atmospheric instrumentals and—even more impressive—an expanding series of short spoken-word segments. The five miniatures on 2018’s Beyond That Point about the crackpot theories that serious scientists and desperate dreamers alike have cooked up, right into the present day, concerning Mars and its twin misbehaving moons are classic examples of his art: funny and absurdist, biting and mournful, laughing at the dreams but at least a little in love with the dreamers.

            I want to stand up for the music, though. It’s probably true that most Thomas Anderson songs are better for swaying than dancing, and the hooks in them don’t always get repeated or come in the places you expect or want them. That doesn’t mean they won’t hook you, though. I’ve been humming “Here’s to you Tyrant Lizard King/ you could knock the shit out of every livin’ thing” (from “Vaudeville”, a buzzing, minimalist ballad from 1993’s Alright, It Was Frank…and He’s Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck) since the day I first heard it. So has my wife. There’s at least a scattering of perfect words-in-tunes-in-that-voice moments like that on every record he’s ever made: “Every kid on the block’s got that Switched on Bach, but I’ve got nothing without you” (from “Theremin Cider” on 1997’s hypnotic, mostly acoustic Bolide); “In the new dispensation, the morning is breaking” (from “Alias McDaniel”, his epic ode to the complicated overlapping of the myth and reality of B.B. King on 2013’s Becoming Human). They’re good words. But they’re great lyrics, because you wind up singing them.

            Anderson may be on his own these days both in terms of musical partners and label help, but he sounds more committed than ever, not just to making records but getting them out there. “I’ve talked with some musicians who for one reason or another don’t promote their work,” he says, “and their reasons pretty much all seemed like bullshit. Especially today when there’s so much music being released independently, the only way people are going to find your stuff is if someone in the media is talking about it. And it’s really not difficult to mail some …to journalists, radio, etc.” 

            There was a time when recognition seemed right around the corner and inevitable for Anderson. He has been championed at various points by Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, since way back when Anderson was on a label and Christgau wrote for the Village Voice instead of his own subscriber-only Substack list. But doing it all himself from Oklahoma doesn’t seem to be impeding Anderson much. I asked him last week—filching the title of a recent Christgau book—if the music was still good to him.

            “I don’t understand people for whom it isn’t good,” he said. “I talk to them, live with them, etc. But they’re like a different species to me.”

Interested? Go exploring! Here are some better ways than Googling to get Thomas Anderson music. Just click on the titles:

Ladies and Germs

Analog Summer

Three more of my faves from his back catalog:

Beyond That Point

On Becoming Human

Bolide

Happy hunting. Let me know what you think. First fiction going up here week after next. Please consider subscribing if you’d like to see that.

And PLEASE help me spread the word.

Thanks for being part of this. Couldn’t and wouldn’t do it without you.