There’s Martin Devaney, all twenty-one years of him, with a wry nod to Nashville Skyline — Tony Nelson took this and several other photographs of him for the City Pages‘ first feature (here) on the fella who went on to become the unofficial Mayor of St. Paul and put a half-dozen discs between himself and Whatever that Is. The story was all “new Dylan,” the sort of thing people have been writing about other “new Dylans” since the Boss or before, aptly applied as it is here– find a copy of that debut disc and you’ll hear what I mean. Devaney’s homages to our favorite son from Hibbing are described as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”
Devaney claims his mother once mistook a framed copy of New Morning for a new photograph of him, and I have to admit I myself saw Devaney in this picture inside the latest “Bootleg Series” collection, Another Self Portrait. It’s not just the fuzzy hair, it’s the way he holds himself.
And last month I found myself writing City Pages’ second feature on Devaney (in today’s paper and online here), listening to Another Self Portrait while talking to my old friend about twelve years of making music, and of his desire to leave his latest album, House of Rust, somewhere in the past. Abandoned as it is even on the eve of its release, Devaney’s sixth full-length album is his most individual, singular work yet — the first, he tells me, where you can’t play the “what was Martin listening to” guessing game. It is as distinctly Devaney as Dylan’s enigmatic Self Portrait was entirely his own, though House of Rust is unlikely to be greeted with the same widespread disdain (“What is this shit?” asked Rolling Stone in 1970). In fact, Devaney has never sounded more at ease, turning phrases with a casual confidence, and — as always — “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”
“You Can’t Win”
House of Rust was recorded way out at Rich Mattson’s retreat-like Sparta Sound with, he says, friends and girlfriends and dogs all along for the ride. It was the fall of 2011. The entire project coming together with the ease of a lazy breeze through changing leaves — “My girlfriend asked when I had written all these songs,” he explains, because they seem to have come together suddenly, smoothly, in incidental moments like waiting for her to get dressed for an evening out. Another — which became the album’s closer — started with some chords he’d been strumming for years and a couple lines he sang while waiting for fiddler Jake Hyer to head out to a gig. Short and simple, “Fountain Cave” refers to Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s 1838 settlement on the Mississippi River — yep folks, the founding of the city of St Paul — as much as to the tranquility of Devaney’s life that fall.
Maybe there was a prescience to the album that seemed to flow so naturally — I wrote as much in a passage I ultimately cut from today’s story in the City Pages. House of Rust‘s lazy opening sets a slightly ominous tone. Devaney described the song as a continuation of “Nashville by Nightfall,” which closed his 2010 album The West End. An amalgam of real and fictional settings on either end of I-35, “Magnolia Diner” hints at a “couple in the break-up booth” with, you guessed it, a sweet, familiar clumsiness.
House of Rust may have been his most domestic work to date — distinguished by “Crosby Block,” a Pogues-y paean to the Prior Avenue apartment where his father’s family first lived when they came to America — but the feeling is tenuous, uneasy. Devaney describes the album as “a spiritual sister to West End,” but it’s more of a sequel, a second act that follows storylines to uncertain conclusions. The outlaws of a song like “Wise Blood” have become bitter — “Sometimes you get the feeling that you can’t win,” Devaney snarls in House of Rust‘s sharpest chorus. He takes an even darker tone near the end of the album with “Keep it Dark,” an intense performance where our “familiar, sweet and clumsy” Mayor sounds less like the Dylan of Self Portrait and more like the Dylan of Time Out of Mind.
“Keep it Dark”
Throughout these tracks are tightly constrained in arrangements that — contrary to Devaney’s live performances of the past year — are hardly, if ever, guitar-driven. Despite the excellent musicians contributing to House of Rust (including our favorite fiddler Jake Hyer of Pocahontas County, Ol’ Yeller’s Mattson, and a great piano player I feel like I shouldn’t name) there aren’t any extended solos on the album. Taken as a whole it’s a rich ensemble piece, consistently held together by the rhythm section of Steve Murray (bass) and Mick Wirtz (drums). These guys back Devaney’s rockers with jaunty confidence, and the laid back tracks like “Magnolia Diner” with quiet grandeur. Having a backing band this good is one of the benefits of working in the same city for twelve years.
Elsewhere the restless souls of West End return simply resigned, as in the last track on side one, which pulls the album’s conflicting comfort and unease together. In the City Pages story I compared “Weddings and Funerals” to my personal favorite Dylan song, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” because it captures the very same weariness. Devaney delivers some of his best character descriptions in a third verse, and he parts with the past with peace. “It could be one of us next time around,” he sings in the voice panned by one local critic (I won’t say who because I love his writing) as “flat.” I prefer to think of it as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”
So the short version is that the relationship which had buoyed his life and music two years ago came to an end. I could find you a picture of them singing together at the first Record Store Day we hosted — in the basement of the old Hymie’s. I could write about how worried I was about him the night we ran into each other at the Triple Rock and he said his life was coming apart at the seams, or that it got worse from there. I felt uncomfortable not crediting her performance in the duet “Lowertown,” in the story I wrote about the album, because it was really awesome. There just didn’t seem to be a nice way to say it. It all seems too close to the bone. Devaney says he’s going to release the record and then put it all behind him — but we all know you don’t walk away from the past so easily, especially in St. Paul. House of Rust nearly became Devaney’s own Basement Tapes, and I for one am glad it didn’t. From the first time I heard “Magnolia Diner” in Devaney’s car behind the Turf Club, I argued against shit-canning something so “familiar, sweet and clumsy.” After all, we’d end up visiting it someday in the Martin Devaney “Bootleg Series.”
You can’t just walk away from your past — you’re going to run into it at a funeral, or a wedding, or at the Triple Rock. Somewhere, anyway. If nothing else you’re going to see it every time you look in the mirror — it made you the person you are. This became the unintentional theme of House of Rust, a great album nearly unheard. And since it’s all but certainly never going to be played again, let’s have a listen to “Lowertown.” Thanks for reading — hope to see you at the release show at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday night (Ol’ Yeller and the Cactus Blossoms will open).