by Tom Noonan
The goal of this column, to “uncover” some brilliant yet fleetingly acknowledged artistic moment that’s been forgotten or temporarily misplaced, is a common cultural trope, like making end of the year lists or crying during Parenthood. It’s also, inherently, a working commentary on how the memory of a culture works in real time. To put that another way, columns like this one exist as reactions to the relentlessly commercialized reality of pop-culture consumption. They’re a way of acknowledging the bedrock beneath the Megamalls. History may be written by the victors, but culture, it turns out, is transcribed in double platinum. Columns like this one are graffiti carved along those polished grooves.
That being said, the first thing I did after being given this assignment was cheat. A crucial stipulation of this column is that the writer must find something that he or she has lost. I did not meet this requirement, which is actually more of a prerequisite, because I haven’t really lost anything yet. At 23, the most I can say is that some songs from Punk in Drublic (an album that went Gold) have gone hazy, and that I don’t really connect with Bleach (though I don’t think I’m supposed to connect with Bleach, but that’s a different article). It’s not that I have an impeccable memory, far from it; it’s just that I haven’t quite reached my carrying capacity. That’s more of a goal than anything at this point. Some albums seem like they’d be better if you forgot about them first (this is where I mention Bleach again).
But that wasn’t the assignment. The assignment was to find something, not intentionally lose it, so that’s exactly what I did: I found something that someone else had lost.
Like many people, I have an uncle. I have a number of uncles, actually, but just one that’s relevant to the column. His name’s Robert, but everyone calls him Trip. He’s [enough] years old. He was the first person to ever play “Bastards of Young” for me, and he was the one who gave me The Monitor for both my birthday and Christmas the year it came out (I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t know this). Over the past decade, he’s put more life-redirecting albums in my hand than any one artist, or label, or tastemaker. So when I got this assignment, the embryonic cultural critic that I am, I immediately reached out to him and asked for something he’d stored away, a record that was gathering dust in the attic of his taste, hoping I could dust off whatever he pulled out and figure out why it was there in the first place. Why he’d kept it.
A couple of days after I asked for his suggestion, Trip e-mailed me back with the names of 40 records, each followed by a brief, catalogued summary – my personal favorite remains his concise poetry describing Material Issue’s International Pop Overthrow: “Chicago power pop trio, lead singer committed suicide”. Out of necessity, I narrowed my choices quickly, ultimately landing on what I took to be the most obscure and insular choice: Jack Logan’s unwitting songwriting manifesto Bulk.
The best way to talk about Bulk, especially in 2015, is to say that it’s not an album. It’s something else, something I’ve never really experienced before. That something is certainly closer to being an album than it is to being, say, a wooden stool or a steering wheel, but there’s an otherness to the way it moves. Bulk is still, above all, just a collection of songs, and that collection of songs was definitely written and recorded by a single artist, but these qualifications go pretty far out the fucking window once Logan turns his guitar inside out and invents Arcade Fire on the spot on the fourth track.
That track is called, “Female Jesus”, and it essentially comes out of nowhere. This kind of hairpin turn is jarring just four songs in, but over time it becomes the collection’s default mode. Bulk is a formless work. This is mostly because the songs weren’t exactly meant to be shared. Logan wrote and recorded the 42 songs on Bulk over a 14-year period where no one outside of his family really knew he could play the guitar. He was better known as a comic book artist with a whole lot of weirdo rock cred, the kind of guy whose name would appear on sold-out guest lists but would never show. He wrote a series of comic books about Peter Buck, REM’s guitarist, and eventually the two became friends. It was Buck who first found out about Logan’s songwriting material, all 600 or so songs of it, and introduced him to Peter Jesperson, the same guy who’d “discovered” and then managed the Replacements.
From there, it was Buck who was tasked with trimming Logan’s creative deluge to something marketable, and either as a testament to his prolific friend or a sign of over attachment, Buck was only able to bring the track list down to 42 songs, which would be stretched across two discs. What Buck helped to create by doing this, though, is a piece of work that feels unstuck from time, where 1979 is 1993 is 1987 is 2015. It’s like Slaughter-House Five with no narrative, like Boyhood if the scenes were in no particular order and the actors were constantly being replaced. The songs don’t appear in chronological order, so the only real hint you get as to what year Logan recorded any given entry during is in the production. But even that can prove misleading. There’s a Delta Blues song on the album’s first disc that sounds like it could’ve been recorded in a Depression-era tin can.
What ends up happening is you forget about Jack Logan almost completely and start to take each song on its own terms, which is exactly what Logan would tell you he wants. Without a firm grasp on time, the two discs have the unmistakable aesthetic of an iTunes library left on shuffle, a texture which, when you consider that these songs were all recorded before 1993, even further removes the proceedings from comprehensible physics. So not long into it all, you find yourself floating through distinct realities. There’s the strand of country music that actually gets how a truck can be a metaphor (“New Used Car and a Plate of Bar-B-Que”), the loopy National precursor about hating Mondays (“Monday Night”), and the kind of ecstatically self-effacing song every heartland rock renaissance band has been trying to write since all the 90’s amp lights burned out (“Shit for Brains”). Logan rejects the opaque strangeness of similar recluses like Daniel Johnston for a kind of keen accessibility.
In much the same way that Ryan Adams wears genres as t-shirts like Bowie wore them as costumes, Jack Logan seems to pull his tropes on before every writing session like sweatpants. He doesn’t tear through genres as much as he wades into them. Blues seems to be his default, but he only really digs it as an excuse for playing with repetition. He also doesn’t seem to think about genre precedents, and manages to pull together an impressive amount of cultural appropriation on this record, be it religious, ethnic, or, at one point, punk. This might make Bulk the most American record ever made, but I’m still not sure if that’s a compliment or an allegation.
After a few solid spins through Bulk, I found myself reading a relatively recent interview Logan did with American songwriter where he was asked about his songwriting style and said this: “I’ve sort of realized that I have, over the years, developed my own little thing. It’s not the typical singer/songwriter approach… I refuse to do lyrics that are openly confessional, and I have never written anything meant to ‘move’ people emotionally… I’m also not much on overt social commentary. I tend to write about little snapshots of life, character studies of reprehensible characters, or little word puzzle constructions with veiled meanings. Not exactly a sure path to success.”
It made me realize that it doesn’t matter if he pulls off any of the shit I was worried about. He was never trying to make music that anyone would do anything with other than enjoy. He wanted whoever heard it to take each song for what it was, and to live in it, and only there, for the brief time that it ran. Jack Logan still hasn’t made an album. Jack Logan has only made songs.