Artist: Liam Singer
Album: Finish Him
In Brief: Singer’s expressive, percussive, and incredibly intricate style of piano-based indie pop music, with occasional choral and electronic accents, is truly a magnificent thing to behold. Equal parts playful and confident, uncertain and exploratory, this hour-long album makes me feel a level of excitement over discovering a brilliant new artist that I experience maybe two or three times a decade. (And this is his fifth album, which means I’ve been missing out for quite some time now.)
As someone with reasonably eclectic tastes in music, who loves to write about the experience of truly falling in love with a new artist, it’s understandable that I get a fair amount of recommendations from friends who are hoping to get me into some of their underrated favorites. Some will just throw an artist name at me, maybe an album title if there’s a specific place they want me to start, but leave me to wonder why they think this would be up my alley. Others might mean well, thinking that if I like X, I might like Y, who has a similar sound. But that can backfire spectacularly if Y comes across as a pale reflection of X. Sometimes a genuinely good artist is being recommended, but the friend wants me to listen to a classic album of theirs, while I prefer to start with what an artist is doing in the here and now, and then work my way backwards once I get invested. (Which admittedly isn’t always the wisest approach when an artist is perceived to have jumped the shark in recent years – but let’s be honest, if I’m gonna get into someone enough to want to attend a concert, I’m gonna need to know their newest album.) Then there are the friends who can articulate so well why they think I’ll like something, that they pretty much immediately override my usual skepticism and I just have to hear it for myself. I’ll tell you what one such friend said, verbatim, to get me into the music of Liam Singer:
“Heya, David! Based on things you’ve written about (in particular) Wye Oak and My Brightest Diamond, and even Vienna Teng (musically), I think the new record by Liam Singer might be right up your alley. To my tastes it’s his fourth great album in a row, and part of me thinks ‘Start him back in 2006 with Our Secret Lies Beneath the Creek! Let David watch the progression of style like I did!’ But that assumes an unrealistic level of interest; so I’m pointing you to the new record, which seems closest to your known tastes. The older ones will still be there if it turns out you’re hooked.”
So yeah, Liam Singer was another one of those artists I’d never heard of, who I first listened to without much of any context for what sort of musical background he had, where he was from, or how much of an audience he’d managed to cultivate over the years. Oh, and he’s another one of those who is difficult to find verbose information on (despite his discography now being five albums deep) and who doesn’t seem to have any published lyrics online – at least not for his latest album, Finish Him, released in 2018. So this is another one of those “indier than indie” sorts of deep-dives that I’d be right to greet with at least a little skepticism, especially after this friend was so bold as to compare his style to that of Vienna Teng, my absolute, all-time favorite singer/songwriter. That was a risky move that could have easily backfired due to the lofty expectations it set me up to have – but on just one listen, I could totally hear a kinship between the two. Who knows if Singer, who originally hails from Portland, Oregon and now apparently makes his home in Catskill, New York, has ever crossed paths with or even heard of Teng, who has based her career out of San Francisco, New York City, and Detroit. Or whether she’s ever heard of him. Both have been putting out music for well over a decade now, and for sure I’d never confuse one with the other, but both have a uniquely fascinating songwriting style, a tendency to paint vivid pictures with their preferred style of piano playing, and a dogged determination to think outside of the box and never write the same song twice. In addition to the musical touchstones my friend mentioned, I’m also hearing a bit of Brooke Waggoner here, in the sense that there’s a sort of baroque and classical-leaning touch to Singer’s chosen style of indie pop music that occasionally includes choral accents, and that at times brings to mind the image of a mad scientist or puppeteer working feverishly in a lab to bring their latest creation to life. That’s honestly how I’ve come to view Singer after multiple listens to this album. He’s not just a singer/songwriter… he’s a tinkerer, an inventor, a meticulous universe-builder crafting tales of a creator at odds with its own creation.
And what an engrossing universe Singer has built for us to explore on Finish Him! Fourteen songs spread across nearly an hour’s runtime, most of them piano-based, but quite different in their scope and attitude from one track to the next, ranging from eerie synthpop anthems, to long, dreamlike suites, to short but lovely instrumental snippets, to oddball tone poems. A lot of these arrangements are up-tempo, and even some of the slower and more challenging moments are intriguing due to how well the lyrics set them up to feel like a glimpse into the headspace of a well-meaning but slightly deranged individual. (Singer’s earnest yet somewhat fragile voice, which is hard to describe, lends itself well to that sort of artistic persona.) While it’s the sort of album that might be hard for some to take in all at once, especially since it’s feels like it’s ramping up toward a big, emotionally charged finale two tracks before it’s actually over, it’s one where I never seem to mind indulging in a full album listen, because there’s so much to discover and rediscover every time I go back to it. It’s an album with both breadth and depth, the kind of project I find it easy to get lost in, and such an immersive listening experience led me to an almost immediate obsession with wanting to figure out just exactly what the hell is going on in each of these songs. It’s weird, but not off-puttingly so; catchy, but it never panders to the lowest common denominator. Truthfully, Finish Him would have been a contender for my #1 album of 2018 if I had discovered it back then. (It may still earn that title in retrospect.) It’s had that much of an impact on me, and my friend’s wishful thinking is definitely going to come through, as I’m definitely primed to go back and discover all of his older stuff that is there waiting for me as well.
1. Nest of Nerves
I’m tempted to describe the experience of listening to this opening track as “like a music box being set into motion”. I could say that about a lot of the tracks on this album – it’s the way that the live piano playing coincides with what could just as easily be a programmed series of sequencer notes or one of those old player pianos (or maybe a harpsichord?), something that has been set up to launch a series of rapid-fire yet melodic notes at the listener, making the song very action-oriented and yet very quaint and idiosyncratic at the same time. Singer’s lyrics in this song establish his affinity for creating strange new worlds, or at least to poke at the strange little collection of neurons and nerve endings that is his own mind in order to see what odd creatures come crawling out: “I’ve seen people glow like gods/I’ve watched them drown in fear/’Til most just disappear/Screw the soul and tame the brain/’Til nothing strange remains/And with no friction, there’s no flame.” Right away, he hits us with a commitment to do things differently, even if it’s risky, and it seems like a worthwhile goal, even if we’ll discover the limit to his god-like powers deeper in the album. The song closes on a rather interesting observation – perhaps even a boast: “The moment that I lose control/I feel the most alive/So I don’t fall, I dive.” Those are the words of a man who is determined to march to his own beat with glad abandon. Just one track, and I’m already hooked!
Hitting me with an absolutely glowing chord progression, bright keyboard notes coming fast and furious, in an unusual time signature, is definitely another way to get me hooked on a song immediately. That’s what this track manages to do with it relentless pounding in 5/8 time, seeming to hardly ever let up, which seems like something we might have heard from Lost in the Trees if they had continued to take their brand of baroque pop in more of an electronic direction instead of mysteriously disappearing a few years back. The lyrics are a bit hard to make out against this bedazzling sonic backdrop, but they seem to involve collecting a series of precious metals and other shiny objects in order to build a suit of armor, with the goal being “to protect from those like me”. Those words simultaneously paint him as both a benevolent force and a destructive one – he knows his own power and how others who covet it might try to hit him where he’s most vulnerable, so he has to protect his loved ones… even though they might be better off not being objects of his affection in the first place? We’ll come back to that idea later on. In the meantime, just sit and be thrilled by the enthralling dense rush of sound, and try not to be too alarmed by the presence of a wolf in god’s clothing, OK?
3. Test Tone
I’m guessing this would be the single from the album, insofar as these things matter this deep in the world of indie music… I mean, he shot a music video for it, and it has a wonderfully low-budget, retro-futuristic sort of vibe to it, befitting the eerie “zap and crackle” sound of the vintage synths and synthetic drums that reverberate throughout. (I can imagine a more introverted, less world-dominating Muse doing this sort of thing.) Liam’s voice sounds a bit depressed and jaded here, but also a bit wry, like his observation that a couple’s relationship has deteriorated to the point where they perceive each other as mere background noise strikes him as some sort of a darkly funny joke. When they’re together, there barely seems to be any real communication, yet when they’re apart, they can’t get the vaguely nagging sound of the other person’s voice out of their heads: “You’re in the background/You’re in the stereo/In the static hum/Coming from my radio.” There’s some weirdness about a “spider that crawls out of your mouth to mine” in the second verse, probably one of the most disturbing images on the album, just in case it wasn’t already clear that this song wasn’t coming from a very troubled place. I’ve heard some great songs about lovers (or ex-lovers) being haunted by each other, and this one’s definitely a unique, imaginative, and appropriately uncomfortable take on the subject.
4. Until I Fall
So, the album’s off to a fantastic start already… but now we get to this seven-minute behemoth of a song, and it’s an absolute jaw-dropper. Sure, the opening minute or so is rather slow, entirely consumed by the what sounds like a series of clocks or watches or children’s toys being wound up and set i motion. Then the piano kicks in, and OH MY GOD. “There’s no way that piano part isn’t on a loop”, I think to myself as the brisk, cascading series of notes takes off in triple meter, once again hardly ever seeming to pause for a breather over the entire course of the song. Some strings and choral vocals weave in and out, making it a true spectacle of speed and precision and whimsy and dramatic weight all at the same time. This could have been an instrumental and I’d find it fascinating enough, but the lyrics are some of the richest storytelling I’ve ever heard in the space of a single song, appearing to be from the perspective of a puppet or robot or Frankenstein’s monster that has achieved sentience, and slowly grows suspicious of the purpose assigned to it by its master, to the point where it questions the meaning of its own life: “Give me the truth or a live that seems right/And give me a name to defend/The name’s not what I am.” By the second verse, creator and creation are in direct contact with each other, as our protagonist begs to be unleashed upon the real world despite being deemed unready: “I am stubborn, you are proud/Say it out loud/Say I’ve changed, and you don’t like it/Been watching people through my lens/And I want to be with them/Casting coins to the great unknown.” The bridge finds him bitterly telling his master to “Go to hell”, now that he seems to be realizing he’s less of a beloved child and more of a slave, and this all culminates in a stunning final verse that finds him trying escape his final cage, Daedalus-style: “And so you’ll wake to find me gone/And you’ll go rushing to your shop/Where you’ll discover all the missing things/That I used to construct this pair of wings.” it’s like he managed to cram an entire ancient myth, retold as modern science fiction, into the space of a seven-minute song, and every twist and turn in this tale is a real gut-punch. I feel like I’m cheating on my longtime muse Vienna Teng for saying this… but I wanna write songs like Liam Singer when I grow up.
5. The Gambrels of the Sky
The serene, pastoral beauty of this two-minute instrumental track reminds me of another record that filled me with obsessive wonderment the first time I heard it: Sufjan Stevens‘s Michigan. This stately piano piece, accented with bells and light synths, feels like it serves a similar purpose, hitting the pause button in the midst of a dense and occasionally bleak song cycle, and giving us a moment to breathe and appreciate the beauty around us. It’s at once expansive and modest, and it’s to Singer’s credit as a composer that little asides such as this one don’t feel like filler. The found-footage video for this song, which seems to be a series of images from a decades-old road trip shot on a camcorder (combined with maybe a shampoo commercial?), feels like a bit of a homage to Sufjan’s overall aesthetic.
Hey, you know who else had a great track called “Apollo” last year? St. Paul & The Broken Bones, that’s who. It was even track six on their album! But the two songs couldn’t be more different – instead of being a soul/funk jam about a doomed space mission, Singer’s up-tempo and weirdly elastic piano pop song is about mythology… I think. Honestly, I’d have to do a deep dive into several Greek and Norse gods in order to understand all of the references here. But it seems pretty clear that this song acts as a sort of godlike boast from a man who perhaps hasn’t come to grips with his own limitations or mortality: “You can rule the universe/But you’ll have to destroy me first/My heart is an exploding sun/That swallows what it follows.” The best stab I can take at a reason for why this character identifies with Apollo, the god of fire and the sun (among many other things), is that he seems to rely on some sort of energy source to even be alive: “I’m hollow, restless and tired/Until you put my body to the wire/There are sparks and there is fire/There is heat and there’s desire.” This makes me wonder if we’re still listening to the tale of an artificially constructed life form, railing against the god(s) who created him, thinking he’s got a plan to conquer the very universe that gave birth to him. If so, then this song exhibits the pride that comes before the fall.
7. Love Me Today
The first half of the album winds down with an unsettlingly sparse tone poem, during which rhythm is completely absent, and the only instrumentation we get to even suggest a melody is a weird, hollow, harmonic resonance that sounds like the movement of air through some sort of tubing. It sounds like the last dying gasps of a futuristic organ, and I could actually envision The Flaming Lips basing one of their more abstract and despairing songs around such an arrangement. The lyrics read like the last musings of a man (or a machine masquerading as a man?) who has somehow survived on Earth long enough to finally see the planet itself start to perish: “In the shadow of the moon/As our planet spins away/No time to lose, no air to breathe/Love me today.” Who’s left to even love him at this point is a mystery, but his dying his request is so convincingly sad that I can’t help but want this ill-fated Wall-E to find his Eve. I truly didn’t like this song at first, since it seemed entirely devoid of rhythm and structure and it just seemed to wander about. But the verse melody does actually repeat a few times, so even though it’s an incredibly sparse and dissonant arrangement, it’s also a striking work of art made with a scant set of ingredients. I have to respect it for that, even if it’s a hell of a harsh contrast with the rest of the album so far.
8. The Devil
Now we’re leaning pretty heavily on mythology from the Bible, in a song whose premise is that “Loneliness is the devil”, and that borrows a bit of imagery from the book of Genesis in stating that the devil is a fallen angel, who uses forbidden fruit to tempt mankind. The structure of this song is interesting – it’s built around a single, relentless piano note that Singer keeps playing over and over, expanding out into a chord progression that repeats throughout most of the verses… and actually, aside from a slow, wordless refrain, there isn’t really much of a chorus to speak of here, just that same progression pounding into your head over and over, as our protagonist seems to dig himself deeper into some sort of a deal he’s made with the dark one in order to be free from the constraints his creator has imposed upon him. “For the sake of your freedom, you’re going to lose the thing you love”, he sings at one point, the price of this endeavor finally starting to weigh down on this creature who once boasted of having great power. Apparently with that great power came the realization that no human was like him, and no god would continue to give him favor.
9. Bending Away (Remove Your Mind)
The mythological language continues in this short song, which is almost an interlude, but which positively glistens with its rich, echoing piano/harpsichord sound that fits incredibly well with the lyrical analogy about light refracting from a prism. The story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, and the eternal punishment he was given for this, of having his liver eaten by an eagle and growing back every day, is referenced in what I guess is the album’s second ickiest lyric after the whole “mouth spider” thing. I find it kind of amusing to have that sort of imagery there, just to make sure we’re paying attention in a song that is otherwise very beautiful. The choral backing vocals here are especially Brooke Waggoner-esque (though by this point in a Waggoner album, we’d be deep into some super-sparse piano-ballads; Singer by comparison keeps things mostly up-tempo).
10. Down, Down, Down
The conflict between the god our protagonist wants to be, and the vulnerable mortal he doesn’t want anyone to see him as, seems to come to a head in this oddly jazz-influenced electropop song. Pacing-wise, it’s similar to “Test Tone”, but there’s a saxophone in the mix for some reason, and unlike the trend in recent years to just randomly throw a sax solo into a song for ironic cheesiness (I blame M83 for doing it so damn well), it seems entirely genuine here, so while the sound is deliberately dated, I don’t think Singer is deliberately going for kitsch. (Well, maybe aside from the outro, where I could swear that sax is riffing off of the melody from that “Scatman” novelty hit that was big in the 90s. “Be bop be ba da boo”… come on, tell me you’re not hearing that!) Some of the lyrics are hard to make out due to the vocal trade-off between him and a female backing vocalist who seems to repeat a lot of his words on a slight delay in the chorus. It’s a nice arrangement, but a little hard to follow. One lyrical snippet that really stands out to me, though: “This is the same mistake/That I will always make/I’ll only let you see the person that I want to be.” There have been a few hints in the narrative so far that despite whatever power he’s amassed, the one thing that he can’t do is make someone love him. He’s tried to impress this person, maybe even intimidate them with his sorcery, but true love eludes him, and the more he pretends to be something he’s not, the more he pushes them away.
11. Protection Poem
Another brief instrumental is up next. Like “The Gambrels of the Sky”, it’s piano based and in 3/4 time; unlike that track, this one has a certain air of sacredness and mysticism to it that is hard to describe. I feel like I just walked into one of those little touristy shops where they sell magic crystals or something. I might joke about the inherent new-agey-ness of it, but I actually really love the mood this one sets – after a number of increasingly neurotic songs about a man’s dreams and achievements slipping away from him, this one suddenly feels like a place of safety, like he’s casting a spell around the one he loves to protect them from harm. (Even if that means he’s walling them off from himself in the process. You’ll see why I’m saying that in a minute.)
12. Still Life
I’ve always regarded this seven-minute epic as an incredibly euphoric and cathartic song. The first time I heard it, I had been thoroughly enjoying the album up until that point (which is rare for me the first time I listen to anything, honestly), and I was certain this was going to be a great finale. I was only wrong about that because it isn’t, in fact the finale. But there’s definitely an air of finality to it… of finally letting go of something you can’t have, learning how to accept your loss and say goodbye, showing someone you love them even in that final act of sacrifice. I thought more deeply about that as I was doing my best to analyze the lyrics this morning, and it just hit me all at once what might really be going here, and I kid you not, I wept. As uplifting as those gentle piano chords and the gradually building rhythm of synths and drums might be, as sweet as the repeated sentiment “I’ll see you in my dreams” might sound, it actually turned out to be quite tragic once I realized that he has to settle for seeing the person he loves in his imagination because he’s absolutely screwed it up with them in real life. As alluded to several times earlier in the album, protecting them from harm means protecting them from himself. The female vocal that shows up at a counterpoint as the song really begins to build momentum seals the deal: “I remember you always, though I’m not with you ever.” About the best he can hope for is that his lover’s remembrance will be a fond one in the end, I suppose. Assuming the loose narrative I’ve concocted for parts of this album isn’t total B.S., this might be the song that finalizes the journey of the artificial life form we’ve been following this entire time: He’s learned of the existence of humans and wanted to be like them. He’s grown smart enough to out-think his creator. He’s trampled outside of the walled garden meant for him and made a mess of the world beyond, amassing power and wealth, even being revered as something like a god himself. But he has not truly loved until now. And he’s also experienced heartbreak, and that has made him more human. What’s left now but to go off and dream up his own world, with its own created beings, perhaps made in the image of the lover he wishes to see in his dreams? Uh-oh, looks like the cycle might start all over again.
13. I Want to See Sparks
The final six minutes of the album honestly feel like a bit of a post-script. This is the last track to have lyrics, and it pulls a bit of a dirty trick, making you think it’s just one brief verse and a long fadeout, even if the three-minute runtime clues you in that there has to be something more. Honestly, the first time through, after the song seemed to abruptly conclude on the line “Honestly, tell me what are waiting for if not the end?”, only to collapse into a long, sustained piano note gradually fading into static, I was a bit annoyed. But then I was amused when it came bouncing right back about a minute later, with Singer’s voice accompanying the somewhat manic piano melody as more and more words started to spill out about all the things he has left to experience in the world… just perhaps not in this world. Apollo’s fire is still there, and a stray spark has somehow brought our fallen hero back to life. The album leaves us to conclude that the whole experience has certainly made him more human, and OK with being in touch with the concept of pain: “I need something that hurts/’Cause losing your cool is bad/But phoning it in is worse.”
14. French Goth
This final instrumental is much more slow and somber than the two that appeared earlier. I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether this serves any role in the narrative, or whether it’s just a bonus track that Singer liked and figured he might as well attach to the album somewhere. It has a mournful, ghostly sort of feel to it, like you’re ambling through a graveyard under the full moon, wondering if you’re just imagining the supernatural wailing sounds off in the distance. Once again, it’s very reminiscent of something Brooke Waggoner might do, and it’s unusual that I’d make that comparison in some of this album’s brightest and darkest moments. I suppose if this album were a TV series, you could view “Still Life” as the climactic final episode, “I Want to See Sparks” as a final flash-forward tacked on to surprise viewers who thought they knew how everything was going to end, and this track as the end credits music that played in the background while you tried to process everything you had just seen.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Nest of Nerves $2
Test Tone $1.50
Until I Fall $2
The Gambrels of the Sky $1.25
Love Me Today $1
The Devil $1
Bending Away (Remove Your Mind) $1.25
Down, Down, Down $1.25
Protection Poem $1.25
Still Life $2
I Want to See Sparks $1
French Goth $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: