Rocky Votolato
Suicide Medicine

Second Nature

uicide Medicine—is it a cure to bring the desperate and suicidal back from the brink, or is it a prescription for death as the only treatment for a bleak existence? Rocky Votolato has left us guessing the meaning of his second solo album’s title, but the oxymoron touches on the two main themes of the record: despair and restoration.

Originally from Texas, Votolato spent his early musical years in rock bands, most notably Waxwing, before going solo. Concerned that this is just another frontman’s quiet exploration of second-string songs? The disc distinguishes itself from the first line, "Are you gonna die with the music inside?" Rather than singing like Elliott Smith here, he could be singing to him. This is not your typical emo or singer-songwriter record, obsessing over failed relationships; it’s comprised of protest songs for the modern condition, sounding a little like Bright Eyes or Dashboard Confessional, with perhaps some of Springsteen’s working man ethos thrown in.

Musically the album treads in the territories of all the aforementioned artists. The economic production by Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla bolsters the songs, fleshing them out, but never overpowering them. Votolato’s heartfelt vocals and strumming acoustic guitars are the core of most tracks, with embellishments like a plinking Rhodes, tambourine shakes or a full drum kit making occasional appearances. The overall sound remains intimate. You can hear picks on strings and spit in the back of Votolato’s throat. At its heart, it’s a singer-songwriter record, where the song and the voice are the focus. Votolato risks slipping into a breathy, unremarkable vocal style during some verses, sounding like scores of other guys with guitars. It's when he imbues the lyrics with more passion and volume that his voice becomes distinctive. He sings with an earnestness that invites you to trust him, rather than admire or aspire to his vocal acrobatics.

Despite the sunny sounds of some of the music, the lyrics are mostly dark, addressing suicide, terrorism, depression, and desolation. Common themes include selling out your dream for a paycheck, keeping up appearances, and the overwhelming pressure to conform. “Integrity is too damn expensive, discount the price but still / Nobody's buying,” he sings in the song “Prison is Private Property (a life of your own).” But for as much pessimism as he ladles out, there are equal amounts of anthemic choruses encouraging the listener to hold on, look up, get out. It's the lyrical equivalent to the painter's chiaroscuro; putting the lightest and darkest subjects alongside each other to heighten the contrast. He's not denying that life is often bleak, depressing, hopeless; he's just using that darkness as an alarm call to head toward the light.

These can be deeply personal themes, but rather than being just another 50 minutes of artistic self-indulgence, the album seems to be a message about, and for, all of us. In the great folk tradition, Votolato strives to be the mouthpiece for what the multitude is thinking and feeling. In "Every Red Cent" he tries on the emptiness and rage of revenge, seeing it in himself as much as he sees it in others. The lyrics of the title song are sung from the point of view of someone who has chosen to take his own life, speaking to the ones he left behind. “Oh god I love you / I mean forever / I left my body behind to break the news.” He understands the irony and complexity of human existence, how someone can be so tortured inside that they can’t even stick around to be with their beloved. These words are complex, the ideas messy, but familiar.

Though his themes and lyrics are dismal, Votolato is secretly an optimist. In “The City is Calling” he echoes Joyce’s The Dubliners: “it’s much better to pass into that other world / In the full glory of the passions that you found here / Than to fade and wither with age / From watching the flickering light dim in the eyes of the living.” He’s urging anyone who’s listening to continue on toward their desires, no matter how Sisyphean the task may prove to be. Somehow he manages to find faith and believe that “there are still places where the magic can breathe.” This consolation is perhaps the highlight of the record, and a warning all the same. “We're really not that different,” he sings, “just a few steps from exploding.”

Reviewed by: Krissy Teegerstrom

Reviewed on: 2005-01-04

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