Damnit. The indie rock world is full of Wunderkinder. First it was Conor Oberst with Bright Eyes. Then came Zach Condon and Beirut. Now there's John McCauley with his band Deer Tick as the latest entry in the category "Musicians who are WAY more talented and prolific than I could ever hope to be and who add insult to injury by being younger than I am, to boot." Couldn't he have had the decency to put out a bad release, which could at least make me feel the slight, bitter joy of schadenfreude as I grow old and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled? Apparently not. Damnit.
McCauley's 22, and he wrote and recorded this album when he was 20 or 21 (playing all of the instruments himself). And the music is good: save for a few places where the drums might have been a bit too high in the mix (drowning out the vocals, though, admittedly, this may have been the intended effect), the album floats relatively comfortably with lap steel and strings in the waters of indie rock and alt-country, rarely indulging in the more mundane excesses of either genre. And despite the bleak lyrics, it's a surprisingly upbeat record—even some of the sadder songs lope along playfully and avoid anything approaching maudlin. At 22, he has a competent hold on what goes into writing and orchestrating a song compellingly. You wouldn't guess his age to listen to him, though (or at least I didn't at first): his voice is a reverbed Kurt Cobain-cum-alt-country sort of thing, raised on a steady diet of whisky, cigarettes and road grit, and as he admits in the first song on War Elephant, he "murdered [his] throat, screaming bloody all night." The subject matter matches McCauley's voice in feeling similarly older than his chronological age. But first a word about the horrible little arachnid after which McCauley has named his group.
Taxonomists have seen fit to deign the ignoble deer tick Ixodes scapularis. The genus name is derived from Greek: ixos (ιξος) is birdlime—a sticky substance you can spread (illegally in many places, if Wikipedia is to be believed) on a likely perch, with the hope of trapping a bird—and the -odes suffix (-ωδης) means "like." The species name, scapularis, is Latin for "shoulder" or "shovel" (and our shoulderblades being roughly shovel-shaped is why the Romans ended up calling them scapulae, likely derived from the Greek skaptein [σκαπτειν], "to dig"). Also notable is that the deer tick is a hematophage: it lives on a diet of blood. The deer tick, thus, is quite literally a sticky, digging thing that drains its host of small amounts of its heart's output. How country. Fittingly, the folk remedies for tick removal often invoke the liberal application of alcohol; true to form, by the second song in an album that spends most of its time ruminating on love, we get McCauley invoking the trope of drinking someone off one's mind, as he off-handedly declares "I gotta get drunk / I gotta forget about some things."
The majority of the songs on War Elephant are from the first person to a second person: an "I" who is/would like to be/was in love with "you"—and "I" am constantly addressing "you," whether "you" are there or not (hint: for Deer Tick, it's usually not)—and given that it's frequently not, the songs are by turns sad, wistful, and mournful. If there were a third character on the album, it'd be Love, but a Love never seen in clear definition, seeming to be perpetually apart from the first person narrator of the songs, as he attempts to either find it or elude it as the case may be—love as Godot.
"I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet / but I am broken and torn with halos at my feet," McCauley starts off singing on "Ashamed," a song that documents "what a crying shame [...] we became." Shortly thereafter, he sings in "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" that he's "just going through the motions," having "lived in lies all [his] life," and that while "maybe [he]'ll see better days, [he]'s not so sure [he] will." Things turn to desperation in songs like "Not So Dense" where he declares that "There ain't no arrows on the moon / And there ain't no wishes on the stars / And there ain't no hero in the world / We got no reason to feel sure," or the soul-sucking "Christ Jesus," an open and angry plea to a notably absent savior.
The sole song in which love appears to be an immediate possibility, "Spend the Night," has its tongue so firmly in its cheek that as the speaker doles out romantic clichés in an attempt to cajole a woman into bed (e.g. "You're my woman, I'm your man," "Everything will be all right / 'til the end of our lives," "Spend the night in my arms / I'll hold you tight, I'll keep you warm," "Girl you know you stole my heart / I wanna give you all my love," etc.) he lets it slip that he's aware of the hollowness of his words: "You've heard it all before, but not from me." And even when he's in earnest pursuit of love, as in "These Old Shoes," circumstances seem to get the better of him: his plane crashes, so instead he hops a train (which he's booted from), so he buys a car that breaks down and he's fated, as the song closes, to walk Proclaimers-like to his loved one, whom he still has not reached.
McCauley finishes the album with a cover of "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Perhaps as a subtle nod to the vocal shift of Dylan's Nashville Skyline, the characteristic rasp in his voice is (mostly) gone as McCauley croons through lyrics that seem to set the rest of album in relief by setting the blame for lovelessness solely at his own feet: "What kind of fool am I / Who never fell in love? / It seems that I'm the only one / That I have been thinking of."
Released in 2007 in a more limited run, it's being rereleased this fall on Partisan Records, and worth a listen if you're a fan of the broad genre we might label "Americana." Don't let the sadness turn you off: it's as much a trope of the genre as the instrumentation. In all honesty, it's not a depressing album, despite the lyrics. I promise. If anything, it's cathartic in the way that country music used to be back when country music was about alcohol, desolation and heartbreak, rather than jingoism and establishing redneck cred. And unlike other deer ticks, even if this one drains you slightly, there is no risk of Lyme Disease.
Favorite Track: "Long Time"