Donny Zuzula - Chemicals (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Donny Zuzula

Chemicals (2019)

Self Released

Donny Zuzula has been one of my favorite Michigan songwriters for the last decade. Scratch that. Donny Zuzula is one of my favorite songwriters. Period. For the last ten years he has fronted, or maybe more accurately co-fronted with his brother Zak, a trio called The Tosspints based out of Saginaw, MI. The Tosspints are usually lumped into the celt-punk category, but the truth is, they’re just a damn fine punk and roll band. I knew that Donny occasionally did solo acoustic shows, so when it came time for his first solo album, that’s what I anticipated. Little did I know that Chemicals would be another full blown, full band album in the tradition of The Tosspints. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining. It’s just not what I was expecting.

Zuzula writes songs that are painfully personal. The kind that expose his greatest hopes and fears. The kind that acknowledge the death of dreams. The kind that force the listener to take a personal inventory. He puts depression, anxiety and self doubt into words in a way that few others can. The irony is undeniable. He writes unbelievably confident sounding songs about his lack of confidence. The music and lyrics are the voice for the words he is unable to speak. It’s so emotionally raw that it might make a squeamish listener turn away.

I could never get into emo music. I’ve always found it whiny and mostly insufferable. Still, here I am inspired by Chemicals. It is undeniably emotional. It makes me feel things. Sorrow and joy, victory and defeat. Maybe this is emo for the 40 year old crowd. Obviously, musical preference is a matter of taste. It’s a matter of how we relate to certain songs and how they make us feel. I can’t guarantee that Zuzula will elicit the same response from you, but for me, lyrically, he consistently strikes all the right chords. Musically too. Here he takes the formula that he established with The Tosspints and adds bits as diverse as new wave and country.

Chemicals is not a concept album in the strictest sense, but it’s definitely a cycle of connected songs with recurring themes. “Alive” starts things off on what I might describe as a bitterly optimistic note. It’s a relatively upbeat song, with contrasting, melancholy guitar leads. While the mood of the record is fairly consistent, some songs are definitely darker than others. Like Many of us, Zuzula has a love/hate relationship with the bottle. “Another Shot” is next in a long line of excellent drinking songs. Two tracks later, “Empty and Gone” puts an outlaw country twist on his classic formula. There are a handful of songs about alcohol as a coping device. It’s not treated as something that’s bad or good, but rather just as something that is.

Zuzula deals with PTSD from his time in Afghanistan. Some of the references to it are subtle, but songs like “Any Other Day” deal with it directly. “Turn Away” is the most heartbreaking song on the record. It’s plainly worded song about trying to break negative cycles and be a better dad than the one you had. It’s about not being able to stop pushing away the only things that you really care about. The title track wraps things up on a note that is somehow both depressing and hopeful. That might be Zuzula in a nutshell. Each of the nine songs on Chemicals is excellent, and together they make something even more potent.

Tosspints records were able to break up the achingly personal songs by injecting tunes about pirates, cowboys and war history. On Chemicals, every song is a gut punch. Chemicals is one of those rare albums that present me with the great paradox of my “punk journalism career”. In some ways, I hate writing about records like this, because I feel my words can’t do them justice. In other ways, shining a light on little records like this is the thing that makes this gig most worthwhile. Chemicals was a leap of faith for Zuzula. It’s his first record without his brother/musical partner, and his first in many years without his longtime label. I don’t know that this is going to be a commercial success, but I can say, without a doubt, that it is an artistic triumph. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.