Am I Free? / I am Free
s frontman for now-defunct art-rock duo Fire Show, Michael Lenzi, a.k.a. M. Resplendent, polarized critics and fans with unstructured songwriting and aggressively indulgent lyrics. That band’s art-for-art’s-sake schtick seems less likely to impress in today’s music landscape, which embraces the “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad”-mainstream than ever before. Those who were able to look past the band’s itchy post-punk discovered something that a lot of critics missed: the Fire Show was really fucking good.
It wasn’t, however, the Wire-cum-Beefheart abstraction that the Fire Show truly excelled at; it was the otherworldly torch songs that integrated atmosphere and electronics into Lenzi’s meandering anger/art. Looking back, this shouldn’t be such a surprise: Both in his stage name and strangely affecting mantras like “Give me good directions to the bottom of the ocean,” Lenzi has shown a romantic streak that he further develops on his first post-FS full-length, Am I Free? / I am Free.
Following three well-received EPs released under the Resplendent name, Am I Free? / I am Free is a beautifully packaged album that contains two discs of EP length. Free mostly abandons the intentional difficulty of Resplendent’s past work in favor of imaginative pop. Should Resplendent not have such a divisive past, we might be able to tag much of this album “freak-folk” or “electro-folk” or whatever and get on with our lives. But Lenzi is too nuanced an arranger to deserve a genre peg like that, and his past lends Free a weight that a rookie artist might not muster.
“I don’t care anymore in a good way,” Resplendent sings in the sincere “I am Free,” a surprisingly transparent statement from an artist who once beat “You are my Sunshine” into a funeral dirge. Indeed, the most refreshing aspect of Free is its emotional accessibility. “I’ll sing in my quiet car.” “By design I’m picking fights / But I’m not like Tyson, Mike.” “I’ll get fucked up / I’ll start a fight / I’ll fall in love tonight.” “This culture is bullshit.” All this from the guy who once penned “The Rabbit of my Soul is the King of his Ghost?” “In my Quiet Car” is connect-the-dots escapism through automobile, but it bridges Resplendent’s nascent sentimentality with his long-standing disquietude, and is perhaps the best example of Resplendent’s newfound worldview. Imagine a Fire Show track containing both the line, “Satellites and northern lights captivate me like a child” and, “The revolutions we engaged in were as fake as all the magazines.”
Lenzi still rages against the machine, but instead of playing that out in unfeeling art-punk, he irons out his problems in simple guitar songs. “Dust of Luck” is easily the brightest, cleanest piece of music Lenzi has ever recorded. He beds rusty acoustic chords under piercing pedal-steel, double-tracking his vocals to stunning effect. “Drink Deep,” a Rites of Spring cover, rides a school-bus slow breakbeat and backward-looped keyboards, as a chorus of Resplendents chant, “Drink deep / And it’s just a taste.” The most important thing Lenzi learned from all that experimentation was the ability to integrate electronics into his pop music. Forget the lyrics: Free is full of wide-eyed pop nostalgia dusted with laptop sugar. Even the missteps— “Summer Breeze” and “Stately and Graceful” traffic too close to the Fire Show’s humorless art/attack—sound less cluttered and atonal than most FS pieces.
Lenzi answers the question his album title poses before critics and fans have a chance to, but he proves it throughout the album. On “Bitterness = Enemy” he states plainly, “I won’t waste another day with bitterness and sorrow,” before capping the album with a major-key instrumental, “Hope,” that explodes with optimism. If it sounds more like a beginning than an end, forgive Lenzi: He has already vowed to retire the Resplendent handle, the last in a long line of things purged by Free.