Brendan Kelly (member and vocalist for bands like the Lawrence Arms, the Broadways and Slapstick) has never been one to mince words. He’s never used a “shoot” when he could use a “shit” or “fucking shit”…or “shitty fucking dildo.” Anyhow, you get the point. Kelly is known as much for his “drunken demeanor” (thanks Wikipedia) as he is for his uncompromising honesty, which may be milled through metaphors and literary references but is never diluted. With such a long history of uncomfortable frankness it seems like it would take quite a bit for Kelly to surprise a long time listener and yet, with the very first moments of the opener, “Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me,” from his debut solo album, I’d Rather Die than Live Forever, that’s exactly what he does.
With I’d Rather Die Kelly (and his band of Wandering Birds) introduces you to a narrator whose subtle nature and easygoing tone almost make you forgive (or even embrace) some of the most debauched acts imaginable. From sex to drug use to thievery and even murder, Kelly takes you on a ride that is as catchy as it is morally depraved. Though each song is a story unto itself, the album as a whole has a strong narrative voice, which seems to be rooted in Kelly’s own lyrical sense and fueled by his deranged imagination. We see the narrator careen through highs and lows, at times appearing intensely reflective but never fully remorseful or seeking forgiveness. The album’s closer bears a strong parallel to Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The narrator is reflective and distinctly aware of the consequences of his actions but he’s not about to ask for your forgiveness and is likely to spit in your face if you were to offer it.
Musically, Kelly seems to take great joy in highlighting that I’d Rather Die is not the tired “punk singer gone solo acoustic” route that so many people have come to expect. There are toned down folksy numbers for sure. “Ramblin’ Revisited” is probably the clearest example, which with its stories of hobos and days gone by, has a strong Tim Barry vibe. However, most of I’d Rather Die revels in the lack of boundaries and expectations. Many songs feature more musicians than any of Kelly’s bands since Slapstick and utilize everything from keyboards to a xylophone. All of this instrumentation adds a fullness to the album, taking songs that could otherwise just be mid-tempo rock songs (say “Covered in Flies”) and keeps them interesting and even allows them to build in layers as they play.
I’d Rather Die is definitely an album that is intended to be enjoyed as an album. Each track fits into its part of the puzzle crafting the larger picture. While this is great for people who want to sit down and listen to a record, it can be disjointing for casual fans. Tracks like “Doing Crime” are solid and upbeat (meshing right along with Kelly’s other works in the Lawrence Arms or the Falcon). But, when juxtaposed with tracks like the minimal and somber “The Thud and The Echo” one can feel a lack of coherence, or feel as if it’s more a collection of songs than a solid album. However, even if you take the tracks individually, there’s more than enough stand out gems to attract even the casual Kelly follower.
This album that has been some three years in the making and features Kelly treading his most uniquely new ground in over a decade. Kelly has left his comfort zone and in doing so has made a record that hopes to make the listener do the same. This album has the capacity for sheer shock and confusion, but if you stick with it there’s also the capacity for empathy, introspection and even a few laughs along the way. Of course, if you don’t like it I doubt Kelly could give two buckets of Santorum-covered butt plugs.