The weird and wonderful Jim White is as much a performance artist as he is a musician. He deftly combines different pop styles in juxtaposition with each other. Then White mixes these products with a plethora of noises: snippets of conversation, strained vocals, sound effects, and such. He delivers a layer of verbal commentary (frequently over a bullhorn) on the top. The results on his eighth studio album, Misfit’s Jubilee, are Rube Goldberg-type constructions. One waits for songs to fall apart, but they keep going on and on like a magic trick to pre-ordained conclusions.
Let’s start with the last cut on the record because it is the timeliest. “The Divided States of America” relates directly to the US Election Day. As Paul Simon would say, it’s a modern desultory philippic about the state of the nation. America is an empty place where no one is at home anymore. The song begins with acoustic folk revival affectations, and then the music gets electric and funky, the sound of television news floats in and out, and confusion begins to reign. And then from leftfield, White starts to preach in a dignified, quiet voice, citing the words of George Washington, Emma Lazarus, and Jesus Christ over a harmonica softly blowing “America the Beautiful” in the background.
White’s earnestly looking for the “lost America of love” as Allen Ginsberg once named it, where terms like “God Bless America” and “E Pluribus Unum” were meant literally. White’s sympathy for the poor immigrant in this trilogy is clear. His idea of making America great again stands in contrast to Trump’s. White ends his sermon with the question, “So what happened to that America?” But the track isn’t over. A drum machine starts to thump mechanically. The sound of a fast-food restaurant order is heard as if from an empty parking lot. The last words are “fries and a Big Mac”. White implies that modern capitalism is at the heart of the problem. Or perhaps the record has just been a road trip, and we are at the end of the journey.
The first song, “Monkey in a Silo”, begins with the sound of the loudspeaker in a bus station. An air-conditioned Continental Trailways vehicle is headed out to what seems like various stops across the South. The instrumentation mixes a horn section, a children’s xylophone, a plucked guitar, and other odds and ends in the mind of a person “buzzing like a beehive” pondering everything from “Walt Disney, Sigmund Freud and that kid named Beaver”.
However, while that guy is on the bus, this is not a concept record. Many songs were written at different times over the years but never fit with the other material on the records White released back then. White recorded these tracks at Studio Caporal in Antwerp. Belgium with drummer Marlon Patton, Geert Hellings on banjo and guitar, and Nicolas Rombouts on bass and keyboards. The ten songs share an absurdist sensibility as well as an instrumental continuity.
As such, there is often something funny going on. Tracks such as “Highway of Lost Hats”, “Fighting My Ghosts Again”, and especially “My Life’s a Stolen Picture”, with its long soliloquy about Sasquatch, use pathos and humor to make their points about contemporary civilization. Even the more serious tunes such as “Sum of What We’ve Been” and “Wonders Never Cease” have moments of mirth. The word “mirth” seems an appropriate term because White’s constructions seem purposely antiquated to show the shallowness of contemporary life.
The album’s title Misfit’s Jubilee suggests it’s time for us weirdos to get together and party. Of course, this can’t be the case due to the coronavirus pandemic. “But we can dance around in our brain,” White notes. That seems like a good idea with this album as a soundtrack.