That Stephin Merritt certainly is a slippery character. As if it weren’t enough to lead the 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes and come up with lilting pop masterpieces, such as the triple disc 69 Love Songs, under the name The Magnetic Fields, this time he’s gone and thrown us all another loop – by making, of all things, a nu-soul album, under the pseudonym Cody ChesnuTT.
Mind you, Merritt has worked very hard to disguise his presence on this Cody ChesnuTT album. After all, when you think of Merritt, you think scrawny white kid with a Kevin Spacey-Kaiser Soze air to him. So it’s a safe bet that the The Headphone Masterpiece cover art, a leering black man with a dark stare and a fair share of chin scruff, may throw you off the trail. And though it may be initially hard to imagine Merritt singing tunes like the 13-second rabble-rouser “Brother With An Ego,” featuring the solitary line, “Sexy bitches that I fuck with my big black penis think that I’m a motherfucking musical genius”, after careful deliberation, that’s the only conclusion.
Just like the hodgepodge of styles found in his masterpiece 69 Love Songs, Merritt (who will heretofore be referred to as Chesnutt, for no other reason than convenience), has come out of nowhere with a preposterously ambitious multi-disc recording – this time settling for a paltry two discs entitled The Headphone Masterpiece. Though Merritt’s voice may seem to be a far cry from ChesnuTT’s thin falsetto and his speak-and-say rap lyrics, the two have the same desire to reach a new plateau of songwriting. However, whereas Merritt can awe you with his subtlety and obtuse humorous slants on love and lust, ChesnuTT often veers toward the jocular trials of locker-room antics. There’s overt sexuality (“I push my seed in her bush for life”), straight-forward moronic-cum-humorous aggrandizing, (see “Brother With An Ego” above) and unsubtle matter-of-fact storytelling, as on “Boylife in America,” when he croons: “All I want is pussy, give me some religion, a brand-new Cadillac and a winning Lotto ticket/ I don’t want no pretty city boys in makeup showing me their goodies when I don’t want to see it.”
But one thing is for certain on this album – the influences are aplenty, from the numerous Lenny Kravitz-circa Let Love Rule acoustic guitar balladry, to the Ben Harper-esque ode to the herb on “Smoke and Love.” The unfotunate part is that, throughout the entire recording, there is nothing too special, too unique, or too interesting that stands out. There’s nothing that doesn’t feel like it hasn’t been done before. Though the attempt is there, and you have to admire a songwriter for putting it all on the line and trying so many different styles and playing with acoustic spaces, there is just several intangibles missing. Though there is something endearing about the track fuzz, an ancillary benefit of his decision to record the songs holed up in Sonic Promiseland, nothing more than make-shift studio he rigged in his bedroom, The Headphone Masterpiece often veers into definite outsider-music territory. When it does, the songs are nothing more than self-aggrandizing wankery, where it’s impossible to tell if ChestnuTT’s in on the joke or if it’s passing him by.
Possibly for those same reasons, the musicality often falls flat, relying too much on Chesnutt’s self-important lyrics. Simple acoustic guitar licks, basic bass lines, and the occasional electro swing all rely on the lyrics to give the melodies the jauntiness they are aiming for. But he keeps headed toward the same high-pitched swagger in his voice, telling different versions of similar self-fulfilling stories, with masogynist rhymes that have become all-too familiar, even if his lyrics are a step above many in the same camp. You get the feeling that he wishes he was a player in the game, but he knows that he just doesn’t cut it. Maybe this album will put him into that stratosphere.
You can feel that desire in his lyrics, but it often makes his thoughts seem poorly contrived and egotistical.
There is the occasional gem on the album, with the fun loving “Look Good In Leather” and “The Seed” both veering more into pop and rock territory while maintaining the soulful veneer that he’s looking to balance between. But between the laughable filler, the playa-love speak and the moments where there is a painful need for a voice of reason to say: “Cody, make one album that’ll be easier to digest and you won’t need to include the sub-par trackss,” it just doesn’t cut it.
This may or may not be another Stephin Merrit masterpiece. Whereas Merritt was able to play with tones and musicality to create something both new and timeless, Chesnutt chooses to recycle the past and force his own creativity. Like Merrit’s attempts at diversity and unique pop sounds, it is a bold attempt at greatness, but though it is occasionally a treat for the Headphones, a Masterpiece is something it could rarely be accused of being.