I first encountered Matt Schickele’s April November, his masterpiece, in the sprawling south Williamsburg loft he shared with several of the album’s other contributors. There was Dave DeMallie, who crooned the iconic lead vocal to the album’s most likely pop hit, “Last Day Night,” and Matt Sutton, whose hallucinogenic, stuttering incursions on the pedal steel guitar so define April November’s sound, which is at times veritably its everything. There was the loft itself, christened “Timid,” for reasons I never sorted out. And there was this recording, playing suddenly on the stereo that was the glue of that otherwise ungrounded domicile. Schickele was in an explosively creative period; he had recorded an album, and had all the demos for the next one. “What’s this?” I asked. “The demos.” The demos would ultimately be released unaltered as the second part of this epic package, November: the dazzling, crushing coda that takes this document from the realm of the very good to the plane of the immortal. As the sound first hit my ears, and I can’t remember which song (I want to guess “Mood Thing”), I thought late-60s Beach Boys, uncontained, free and transcendent, almost reckless. Marvelous. I met the music with the exhilaration and dread one always feels when hearing the artistic triumphs of a friend. Was there any stopping Matt if these were just the demos? Was there any hope at all for the rest of us? Would we simply be left vaguely illuminated in the embers of his soaring comet?
What happened of course is wholly different than what I expected. The songs came out under the umbrella multi-month heading, and the world kept going. Nothing changed. Schickele became disillusioned, abandoned music for a time in favor of solar panels, and a select few of us had our canon altered in that oddly personal way, by an album that had no distribution, no machine, just its own unshakable masterfulness.
And now? It’s ten years later. April November, an album that means nothing to most people, has been released on Spotify, and its creator has abandoned singer-songwritery for art-film/sound collage hybrids. (*for the moment these seem to have been toggled to private on YouTube, I'll link when I can). And yet here is April and November, both demanding reckoning and redress, palpably beating, bleeding, and burning. This inexplicably sad album, obsessed with sound, with rooms and place, with the sumptuous and the mundane, insists upon consideration, waits to be discovered. I’ll attempt the former to prompt the latter.
If you’re the sort for whom an album’s words must speak fully on their own, communicate clear stories and ideas unaided by their settings, then April November is possibly not for you. But then, you are also quite probably a fool. This album’s stories are told in sounds, in impressionistic brush strokes, in phrases, both musical and textual, left open to interpretation. It never occurred to me until now to stare at the lyric sheet and decipher; my own imagination is given just enough fuel by the poetry – rock poetry in all its glorious vagueness.
never thought this would come, never thought you the kind
we live in this world unless you’re a satellite
float above us all and no one expects you to fall
no no no, on the wrong street
Thus begins the opening track, “On the Wrong Street,” and thus is the album’s principle theme of otherness and separation established. The singing persona is often cast as an outsider looking in, or an almost Twilight Zoned protagonist, uncertain how or why he arrived at where he is, on the wrong street, in the wrong skin. April begins, in some ways, innocuously. “On the Wrong Street” is a modest song, gradually unfolding its charms, the underpinning of acoustic guitar and acoustic bass that will support the whole affair, the sublimely soulful brush-drumming of Ruth Keating, and then Schickele’s soul-scratching, naked, unambitious vocal, first directly presented, and then in mad fission with his sister Karla’s backing track. The Schickele siblings once mesmerized the Lower East Side with their thunderous late 90s Indie band Beekeeper, and the whole of that vocal combination, considerable though each single instrument is, was always staggeringly greater than the sum of its parts. Four years after Beekeeper’s final show, Karla sings on only two tracks here, this and “One by One,” always to show-stopping effect. “Wrong Street,” is a lovely groover, snare and nylon string acoustic in lock step, a catchy title refrain, and at about 1’30” the introduction of electric guitar and psychedelic “Optigan” organ that establish the mode of the album’s always unpredictable textural developments. A mostly harmless song is revealed to have a roiling underbelly, an inner turmoil that the smooth dispassionate narrator will never betray. This foray down the wrong street is no casual misstep, we now understand, but a phantasmagoric escapade, a colossally weird adventure that may prove lethal. The electrified instruments seem to speak the truth here, to be the real storytellers, though they yield again to the more folk-like principle ensemble, only to reemerge with the last word in the song’s extended outro.
“Why not stay?” sings the next song’s narrator, almost to himself, amidst lilting folk guitar and ambient malleted cymbals and knocks on a woodblock. “Comet” highlights the album’s strange perspective on space, juxtaposing the immediacy and unreality of close miking techniques with the low-fi, shabby chic, location-specific sonorities of rooms, or rather lofts. It is possible to hear the whole of April as a kind of anthem to off-the-grid living in pre-gentrified South Williamsburg, a sort of La Boheme for disaffected Gen X loners, piecing together the world through the haze of late nights, thumping out strange chords and circular melodies in the expansive environs of a Timid existence. “There’s sure a lot of tunnels dug deep to keep from coming down; the snow is on a comet and the street is on the ground.” I have no idea what the hell that means, but grooved and twanged the way Schickele releases it, it is profound, and then here at about 1:10 is the first instance of Sutton’s disorienting pedal steel, played with such eccentricity and feeling, with a kind of cantankerous, distracted quality, as if the player were pulled from some other session, or a bottle of whiskey, or most probably both. Again, this is a song of perhaps limited ambition, but arranged with such care, and performed with such attitude, that it serves its role – as tip of the iceberg – well. Sleigh bells, blanketed in reverb, expand the territory still further in a dreamy instrumental interlude.
Sloshing into our ears comes the third song, the partial title track “April,” which is at once so gentle, and so unaccountably emotional it defies easy explanation.
april is a night
a don’t know what l will bring to light
isn’t it a being easy
just sit out the day
Wading in the daylight
Listening to sounds that never lie
Reason is a being easy
Just sit out the day
These words are sparsely set, with water sounds, upright bass, and beautifully recorded single piano lines in the upper register. Throughout this album the piano sounds special, warm, perhaps highly compressed, it sits magnificently in the mix always – a testament to Tony Lockwood’s expressly musical touch as producer. “April,” featuring Schickele’s hobgoblin falsetto (displayed to brilliant effect on his previous album, Cities Filled With Lights) baldly without artifice, seems loosely an ode to dropping out, at least temporarily, listening, wading, floating. There is resignation in the piano’s chords and repeated notes in between verses, and then an interlude that expands, at about 1:35, into a more thoroughly composed instrumental bridge – reminiscent almost of something on Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains. Why is the sloshing in this song so moving? For ten years I have thought about this, and I have no answer. Is it swimming, that yields to drowning? It certainly does, eventually, devour the song, its details coming into ever greater relief, finally smothering out the instruments. Is it a bucket? A river laundry? Is it just succumbing? The words are abstract, but the song’s message feels clear, even if it speaks in a way that is beyond language. “April” makes me cry; don’t need a reason.
“Everybody’s Kite” is a startlingly unique song – the album’s first true groundbreaker in terms of pure composition. It features lead vocals by Ida’s Dan Littleton and (the now very famous) Elizabeth Mitchell, with Schickele only subtly emerging as the third part of the harmony. The roomy bass drum, tom, tambourine part proceeds lazily, supporting a hyper-accelerated guitar ostinato mixed right in each ear, and then the childlike, super sweet voices enter, veering closer to the drums’ temperament. “He shined a thousand times; was everybody’s kite…” an impish, playful, ethereal figure is described in the verses, and the chorus – buffeted by a stark and surprising change in rhythm – intones repeatedly “but he’s alone” or “but he’s the one…” – it’s not entirely clear, and not listed on the lyric sheet. The song is fragile and bold at once, a sort of children’s song but then also, wholly not.
“She May Not Be” is as close to a straight ahead rocker as you’ll find on April, a song about a girl with a softly driving beat. “she may not be solid or bold; she may not be savvy or styled; she might be wandering; a little taste of it is maybe all you’ll get.” She is ephemeral, not solid and bold like the song. But even the song is not immune to the album’s underlying current of psychedelic unease. At about 1:20, the straight ahead yields to a sound like detuning timpani (though higher), and a quasi-honky tonk piano offers a forceful if whimsical line, accompanied by the Optigan. The two often work in cahoots on this album, a comedic duo whose mission seems to be to ruffle feathers and stave off the ordinary, to suggest that nothing is ever as it appears – a little hipster unease over a girl is, in fact, a pose, covering a more tangled psyche, one that laughs and cries with greater intensity than any mere drop-in will see.
April November, though explicitly two-parted, seems to me to divide rather naturally into three segments, perhaps an A side, a B side, and a bonus disk. “Allright” begins the B-side, the second stage in what can be understood as a giant crescendo of intensity and feeling that spans the whole project from first song to last. “Allright” lets its freak flag fly right from the start, Optigan and piano lead the rollicking 6/8 waltz in, and a Theremin-like whistler invokes the loop-o ward from on high. Hipster Schickele, at his most distant, intones in strict monotone “imagine a being without and not listening in,” but it isn’t long before his multi-tracked Bizarro-world clones, non-hipsters, spazzes even, shriek “are you all right?” repeatedly, sounding fixed in space, Timidly fixed. The song balances cold and hot, quirk and disdain, expertly, but the mad romp wins out in the end, setting the stage for April’s best song.
In “Don’t Need a Reason,” the conflicting musics of April, the prosaic and the profound, the workaday and the otherworldly, still play off of one another, but the stark divide begins to crack. A trippy bend on the pedal steel fells us right into another mid-tempo triple groove, where soft saloon piano and a voluptuous, wet texture set up Schickele’s conversational vocal; it seems we have a kind of normal plus, and also, surprise, a love song.
sun don’t matter much to all these lovers
don’t need light at all
only ruins it
So goes the first verse, and then Schickele the observer yields to Schickele the participant:
speak your wanna, any words you feed me
don’t need chat at all
just confuses it
Is this a casual fling? Schickele’s casual verse tone suggests maybe, and then…
stumble, run, and flutter, here and nowhere
got no map or torch
we’d only lose it
So maybe this is the early infatuation, the desperate groping, the world falling away? And then, the world does fall away. The tempo slows, and the song melts into a chorus that is a small miracle in its first iteration (and a larger one the second time around). With multi-tracked Schick-octave-vocals, and a haunting, engrossing tune, we hear:
and tonight we will shine in the shade of these illusions
don’t need a reason
and all thoughts align in the shade of these illusions
don’t need a reason
So it is some kind of passion, perhaps a willful obscuring of reality, an embrace of extreme tenderness, a frozen, beautiful moment. Here is the unrestrained sublime – perhaps the most explicit example until the album’s very final track. The chorus is short, and yields right back to the quicker verse. But this time proportions shift, and soon the music slams on breaks again, heads into a vastly expanded chorus, with additional high octave vocals by Ruth Keating, mad echoey piano or organ or guitar sounds sumptuously coating the exterior walls of the soundscape as the beautiful melody is repeated, transposed, slowly unfolding in rapturous inevitability. Gradually, a muted knocking sound, not quite a drum, crescendos first into audibility, and then into dominance – another strangely emotional abstract sonic incursion, perhaps the knocking tones of Beethoven’s fate, pounding on the door of these hidden, frozen lovers. It is in this final extended chorus that the flip is fully switched, that one realizes there is no turning back, that we must give of ourselves freely and thoroughly, submit whole hog to the intense spilling forward of this artwork, let ourselves be carried – and that is precisely what we do for all of the remaining tracks. “Don’t Need a Reason” is a magical, heartbreaking song.
“Last Day Night” is the album’s most perfect song, certainly. It is timeless, universal, and iconic. Dave DeMallie’s lead vocal recalls the angelic, boyish tones of Art Garfunkel, and the song reads as a kind of late Simon and Garfunkel number – filtered, of course, through early aught south Billyberg sensibilities. In this song the mad organ dashes, scalding pedal steel, and even the punch-drunk single-line piano yield to simple guitar and bass, and a steady tambourine on the 2nd compound beat of the 6/8 bar. Schickele and DeMallie harmonize like coffee and schlag, and the song is about a relationship that is ending, but whose embers still burn brightly, smoking holes in the fabric of routine:
what’s in your head that you’re hiding? (u v u x y)
fiddling with the arm of a chair, my god, you’re divine
The “uvuxy” carries forth a counting motif, the song’s ingenious hook, whose other incarnations are “efghi” and “7,8,9,10 jack” and finally “1,2,3,4,5” – all of which present a unique admixture of playfulness and boredom, and it is this song’s special purpose to hover in between, point to those moments of extreme love that linger on even past the moment of extreme disaster.
In “Weird Luck Charm,” a bizarre, yet inevitable Kurt Weil sendup, the piano is now the major player, double tracked, stereo-exploded, with an incessant funereal toll that is oddly catchy for something so thoroughly strange. The song opens with Schickele’s best couplet, possibly ever:
smooth as a rock, bolder than a shock jock
Plays like a puppy, and smarter than spock
“Weird Luck Charm” is obscure, and quite different than any other number here. The double-tracked piano lead line penetrates so thoroughly, rings and shines, and carries forth a melody of such irresistible strangeness and charm, that it is hard to know anything else is happening. At the line “Maybe it’s guts, and maybe it’s timing…” the music falls distractedly off its grid for a moment, before bounding back into life. Throughout, the acoustic bass thuds strongly, almost to (and at times beyond) the point of overdrive. As these musical events hurtle forth, captivating relentlessly, the song’s story happens too, “but isn’t it a puzzle, she’ll never let nobody see her weird luck charm.” What we have is a sorcerer’s incantation, particularly the closing segment, where the star piano’s production now comes into sharp focus, now thin in the right channel, now boldly double-tracked and in stereo, now forced dead center, mono, and always with a beguiling, haunting disposition. It feels as though this song should continue forever, so seductive are its ghastly harmonies and unending production play (with mere pianos!), but ultimately it just fades away, suggesting in fact a continuance beyond our earshot.
“One by One” begins April’s wind down. It starts with Sutton’s pedal steel, though now less fractured and more gentle and lyrical than before, and also dreamlike. Soon bass and strummed acoustic guitar enter, and then Schickele’s voice, his everyday voice, in a lovely, unassuming melody, singing a song about spirits. The words remain vast in their possible interpretation
who moves a chill over miles?
live in shade, grabbed by the waves
what makes a laugh more than a mask?
one by one everyone’s stunned
Then the song’s refrain, so reflective of the whole album’s persona, so ethereal and ephemeral, so ghostly, so quietly ecstatic:
don’t wanna speak; don’t wanna plan
These spirits are seen when you never land.
look at the air, notice you fly
with spirits that swim through your eyes to mine
Somehow the magical worldview of the album is encapsulated in these words, in the first of the full collection’s two distinctly religious-feeling songs. And the return of Karla Schickele’s voice, which clings to Matt’s so absolutely, with such familial warmth and embrace as to make the two well nigh indistinguishable, lifts this delicate ditty to strange heights. It is another in a chain of songs that confuses you while breaking your heart. The pedal steel returns for a songful solo, and its normalization, its adoption into the mainstream texture of the album, seems to have some significance – in fact the entirety of April has moved towards consolidation of the normal and the supernatural. Like “Last Day Night,” this is a simple and pretty song, though in this one there is something more – unquantifiable and unnamable. Perhaps it’s maturity, or resignation. This is, after all, just about the end of the record.
“August” - ironically April’s final track, and the sort of halfway point between April and November, is entirely static, entirely frozen in time, entirely about sound. Some of our old friends are here, the Optigan, but some of this sound world is new, and the 68 instrumental seconds serve as a kind of time tunnel, from the warmth of spring to the dank majesty of late autumn.
And then, just like that, November. The demo. The album Schickele to this day wishes he had “really recorded.” He listens and just hears an unfinished product, a stand-in for what might have been. I listen and hear the devastating, personal, exclamation point on this outsized songbook; here are all the signs of an artist at the precipice of some great chasm, as indeed proved to be the case. It was November that I first heard from this mad recording, in Timid, and I knew instantly that this was special music, music from the brink. Ironically, to my ears, the sound world is not so inconsistent with what has come before. The production ambition remains in place, if tilted just slightly more towards the lo-fi. But there are some palpable shifts. November is in spots less obscure, more direct and vulnerable. It is also bolder, takes chances, mad chances, and in the end is a flaming vortex of a coda.
With “Sweet Anonymity,” suddenly the words are entirely comprehensible. Schickele has written songs about observing throughout his career – a good example is “From the Air,” the title track of the second M Shanghai String Band album. [you can read my rather lengthy review of THAT album here.] On its surface, this is just a little ode to park-bench voyeurism:
how long till one? how long can I soak the sun?
no better place to see than on a bench in midtown
settle by the street in the path of go and come
Yet already, in the music, there is an undercurrent of dismay, of otherness, the separation that so defines the whole of April November. Schickele the persona is always worlds apart, on the wrong street, isolated. Here, he seems just to be good naturedly observing, but then utters the next plaintive line:
where are you? where are you?
And there is the sense, in the setting, and the singing of it, that this is a cry from deep within – a soft cry towards all humanity. The song feels light overall, another “ditty,” but it undoubtedly masks some deeper existential ache, a loneliness that extends well beyond the playful question of our observant host. After a second verse celebrating the “perfect show” and the invisible audience, Schickele offers a gentle groove-laced chorus, based on a slyly irresistible bass (piano) ostinato, and the repeated line (with copious doubling and octaving and sumptuousness) “I’m living in sweet anonymity.” Oddly, after ten years that could be the motto of the album itself, and certainly of its foregrounded persona. The next verse, when set, resounds with unfiltered sadness:
just look at us. every hand a different touch
not a step or feature’s covered by the rush
see it in the gaits and reaction to a brush
Sad because it gives evidence of the narrator’s hyper-sensitivity, observance of all subtle details, and painful realization of the extent to which we are all truly alone. Schickele punctuates the point with a modest yet lovely piano solo, then returns to his beckoning “where are you?”, this time allowing it to take him into an unexpected and inspired bridge,
where are you? have you crossed a line?
or is it just the misting of someone lost in all the life?
and when I pass another in this warm and dry
not a wink or nothing
watch the sidewalk from the shade and swimming in
And he falls right back into the chorus, with extra double-tracked vocal touches. Unlike April’s opening numbers, this song’s subject matter may be modest, but its full setting and realization reveals a burning soul, a tragic remove, and a profound unease with the isolationist state of humanity. It is hinted at in the words, but driven home forcefully in the music – in Schickele’s nonchalant delivery, and his willfully unconventional melodic, harmonic and formal schemes. This is a nothing song magnified into great philosophy, lovingly and perfectly executed.
November begins with an alternation between iconic, transparent songs that are accessible and even catchy, and interior, cerebral numbers that trace the poet burrowing deeper and deeper into the peculiar malaise that this coda documents. “What I’ve Done” begins with gentle, sporadic acoustic guitar jabs, tracing an oddly sparse groove in the Schickel-iest of manners, and equally gentle double-tracked wordplay:
no one gets caught up in getting caught up
I’m getting caught upside down, down but upright
no one gets set up for getting set up
I’m getting caught upside down tonight
These lines lead directly into an ethereal and raunchy chorus, a responsorial section with falsetto Schickeles almost taunting “you did say you had it all” (or something close) while a gravelly, soulful Schickele responds “I can’t drive and I can’t walk; I realize what I’ve done.” This is accompanied by the entrance of a full band of Schickeles, (each, the particular Schickele in question), and Matt turns out to be quite a capable drummer while pounding on the album’s worst, and thus best, sound – a tortured snare drum who could only have been loved hard by one thousand previous suitors in the expanse of Timid’s great room. The result is a precarious affair, butterflies and pile drivers, and a song that is melodically and lyrically riveting.
I can’t swim or fly
I just see dots and stripes
and I’m tired of waiting for
(I think it’s time to realize)
To what inner sanctuary is the singing persona confined? Some kind of paralysis, made palatable by daring structures and melodic extravagances, and possibly one of Schickele’s overall best vocal performances on the album. The gentle tones ultimately yield to a psychedelic interlude, after the Optigan is incorporated into the second verse. “What I’ve Done” grows extremely strange – at least in terms of texture. The interlude, in full hallucinogenic overdrive with pulsing, wrecked drums, dental drills on the guitar, and Optigan leading the carnival, maintains its sonic presence as the accompaniment for the last verse, and the impression is of a sensitive soul losing his faculties to drug or madness. Through it all, the tune is relentlessly pretty and engaging, but haunted and madly personal too. Hard to know where we are afterwards, outside of down the rabbit hole.
Then comes “Changeling,” a song that might have given its title to the whole of November, and possibly April too. Ostensibly about a changeling, a medieval offspring of a troll or a fairy, left in place of a human child (absconded for any number of ill purposes), the Changeling is in fact the lead character of so many of these songs, from the opening On the Wrong Street, on down through the mysteriously strait-jacketed protagonist of “What I’ve Done.” This song takes that thematic kernel – of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin, an observer in a strange place – to an extreme in terms of explicitness. The sad, tolling chords of the piano fade in at song’s start, and the lamenting singer intones:
there’s a voice and shape memory, it’s all near gone.
I behaved and thought differently, this all feels wrong.
The tone is tender and shattered, as realization sets in. There is yet a new plateau of loneliness, a melancholy in these verses that approaches unbearable, pathos, resignation, world weariness, all present, and then all soothed by the hobgoblin choir offering solace:
hush my changeling, it’s only blood, it’s always shut up
brush back your eyes and say goodnight.
don’t look for anyone calling your name, don’t believe anyone’s
Come out of your life, into our life,
they’ll never come back.
Unpredictable in every way – rhythmically, harmonically, vocally – this chorus stands out as one of the most significant compositional achievements of the album. It is like nothing else here or elsewhere, drawn out, simultaneously bizarre and enchanting, and – to risk overusing a primary color word – unendingly, crushingly sad. In the following verse, the singer’s plaintive query: “can’t you see this mortal mistake, this injury? can’t I crawl back and feel it again, this can’t be me” is hard not to conflate with the artist’s own lament, approaching nervous collapse, so thoroughly extended within himself, and yet so suddenly foreign a being to that very self. Posing as a mythological or even sci-fi excursion, what “Changeling” really offers is a harrowing glance at madness, dressed in pretty harmonies and satisfying chordal surprises.
Keeping with the pattern, (for “Changeling” is an oddly extroverted song), “Falling Down” is introspective in the extreme. The words are as darkly impenetrable as Schickele will get, but the imagery of nervous collapse remains dominant:
hold that thought, get it in a hole
hold that pill like it could matter
when it’s gone you’ll fall to the ground
let’s say it’s laughter
There is no chorus to speak of, just a litany of oddly constructed verses, but made lovely by warm piano – more a tolling bell than ever before, and a hush-toned stereo-tracked lead vocal, one that oozes with both soul and exhaustion. And then the Optigan is back, more ambitiously played than before (at least more notes simultaneously!), and joins in the growing sound storm that swirls around that aching vocal, which just pushes ever forward in this through-composed gem. “Falling Down” seems as close as any of these songs to throwing open the vault door and exposing all the short-circuitry of the aught-three Schickele brain – it is a thrilling and exasperating place to spend several minutes.
“Mood Thing” is the album’s most spastic free-for-all, an unhinged sequel to April’s “Allright.” It is dressed, from the outset, as a post-60s psychedelic thumper, with pounding drums and a low-fi bass piano foundation. Schickele scratches out a raw and careless lead vocal in responsorial fashion (again) with falsetto whoopers who are clearly having more fun with less responsibility than their counterparts in earlier numbers. Scalar lines, played in concert by the Optigan and piano, keep a pronounced “Mr. Kite” feeling aloft, and then the chorus is preceded by the very telling words, “April’s changed.” No shit. The chorus is a sly, descending-bass line explosion of unexpected warmth and depth, “might have been a mood thing…” Schickele bellows, covered with alternate octave hims. This is a throwaway garage rocker that refuses to be inconsequential; it scans as the party at the gates of the asylum, where all care has been tossed, but the burning mind still has a trace need to only connect.
So much pent up feeling is given a small buffer, in the shape of Schickele’s autumnal piano instrumental “The Moon’s On Fire.” The piece is quirky, reflective, at times nostalgic. This too sounds like something that might have found its way onto Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains, which though brilliant, is overall an inferior effort to the current album. A study in repeated notes, plangent harmonies, and playful, fleeting ostinatos, the short instrumental vacillates between being coolly dispassionate and thoroughly sentimental. It is perhaps a corollary to April’s shorter “August,” in that it serves as a staging area for the next big thing, just around the corner. For “August,” that thing was November. And for “The Moon’s on Fire,” that thing is the monumental final song of this whole package, “Guided.”
This last song instantly presents the two instrumental protagonists of the album, piano and guitar, in more intricate and skillful choreography than previously. The pair are arranged with such care throughout the song, often doubling one another at octaves creating a shimmering, gleaming sonic surface, that they always speak as a whole that is startlingly greater than the sum of its parts. It is curious that the song is initially presented in third-person, with reference to “tom”
tom says we’re guided by...then catches his tongue
what saviour is more than look to the core?
a man can fall apart, some days he gets stung
you’ll naturally turn to look for a cure
In some ways, the song recalls for me another great “Tom” song, Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” "Guided" carries a similarly epic gravitas, as well as presenting a kind of taking stock. "Only Living Boy" was Paul Simon’s essential farewell to Art Garfunkel; this is Schickele’s valedictory from beyond the brink, his Our Town moment, benevolently and posthumously delivered from the Grover’s Corners’ graveyard. And yet the song is, at first, so understated, that you cannot help but be lulled to calm, and caught unawares when it then proceeds to clobber you. The narrator seems initially skeptical, even cynical, about higher powers; he traces his life experiences, the dark alleys:
though I’ve done some things wrong, though I’ve held a gun
you look for a spark in the smile of a shark
and getting through cries and silences, through boredom and dumb
but then reveals, in a seeming about face,
you’re guided to shine, it can’t be denied
as long as the shade is turned out from the wall
we are guided, we’re guided to love it all
With a religious exuberance, “Guided” mounts in intensity, spreading an incongruous message of acceptance and love. I don’t know if this narrator is simply beyond catatonic, perhaps rendered so by electro-shock therapy, or has had a true late-stage conversion, but the inner torment is lifted for what morphs into a purely inspirational song. A wonderfully precise, shimmery, rhythmic interlude flows over into the final, ecstatic litany:
and life after life has rewritten this call
we are guided, we’re guided to love it all
and who needs to say what this teacher is called
we are guided, we’re guided to love it all
we’re guided to want what we already know
we are guided, we’re guided to love it all
And the vocal harmonies accrue, taking this album out on a note of euphoria that, to put it mildly, is unexpected. This ending is perhaps a relative to the crazy ending of Beethoven’s f minor quartet, opus 95. A furiously somber piece throughout, the quartet ends with an F major coda that is so exhilarating and ecstatic as to register as one of the surest signs to his contemporaries that the composer had lost his noodle. It is unclear whether “Guided” truly closes out April November on a note of hope, or whether instead its particular brand of fatalism comes to us completely from the dark side of the moon, the ship of the artist’s sanity having long since sailed. Whatever the case, it is a powerhouse of a song and performance, wholly up to the unenviable task of concluding this agonized opus.
Could or should November have been professionally recorded? These several songs could, with certainty, have benefited from the greater clarity that might have allowed; but there is also an absolute fittingness that these last songs, the end, really, of an era of Schickele’s creative life, come to us filtered exclusively through his own mind and capabilities (and Schickele's capabilities as producer and engineer are by no means slight). November really does give one the impression of eavesdropping on a nervous breakdown, a particularly demonstrative one. In some ways it is impossible to imagine a version of this recording where every sound, every vocal utterance, every idea isn’t Schickle’s and Schickele’s alone. This album could very easily have become his Smile – an unfinished and legendary effort filtered to the masses through scratchy, scummy bootlegs, and then perhaps ultimately completed in Schickele’s dotage, with the great man no longer able to sing and accompanied by a gang of scraggly, worshipful teenagers. I am glad our current history avoided that turn. I am glad too that Schickele did not, like Syd Barrett or Nick Drake, upon completion of this album, immediately take up rooms with his mother in some obscure corner of England, never to be heard from again.
The psychic unraveling chronicled on April November seems never to have fully boiled over into Schickele’s outward life, insomuch as he has continued to this day to be a functioning and contributing member of society, and what’s more, one still making work. He did, to be sure, cease musical activities for some time, only ultimately to come to his senses and resume giving. Since April November he has released two very strong solo disks, and contributed to four recordings by the post-bluegrass M Shanghai String Band. What’s more, he’s written an opera, and countless works of chamber music, and is digging himself always further into that spiky and necessary corner of the artistic universe he alone inhabits.
These many years later, I don’t really have a single negative critical word to say about April November. It exists in my collection alongside the most absolutely necessary musical documents, the ones I can’t even remember a life without. I am relieved to have gotten these many overdue and insignificant words off my chest. If they may serve as a belated love letter to this stunning compilation of sound and vision, and may drive one or two of you towards your headphones, I will be pleased.