Over the course of twenty eight tracks from his two previous albums Disaster (2007) and Every Man For Himself (2011), Chicago-based tenor and composer Daniel Knox bravely commented on nearly every taboo that exists. From blasphemy (“Yet Another One For You”) to capital punishment (“Red Handed”) to alcoholism (“Lovescene”) and to pornography (“…etc…”) amongst other controversial subjects.
So it was hardly surprising to listen to the sinister lyrics and view the claustrophobic and suspenseful music video that accompanies the first taste off his third self-titled album. On “Blue Car“, Knox suggests a hypothetical situation in which he takes the perspective of a stalker following a fearful pedestrian on their way home and as the predator’s sadistic dominance and evil lust heightens, so does the power in Knox’s pitch. “You can’t win. The Beast will appear. But only to to you. And no one believes you. No one“, he taunts like a horror villain over effective auto mobile sirens, airy synths and tense drums.
After collaborating with David Lynch on a live performance promoting the surreal film Inland Empire, it’s hard to not associate Knox with the influential filmmaker, specifically on topics of voyeurism and obscure messaging. His disillusioned social commentary on the morbid aspects of life and how he contrasted the depressive lyrics with light-hearted music: lively jazz, ragtime and cabaret, piano folk, baroque pop, operatic pop, cinematic soundtrack and most astonishingly even a children’s sing-along structure (“I Make Enemies”) were what made his previous albums spine-tingling and engaging as he reeled you into his hopeless stories aided by ruthless rhymes.
Evidence of his intriguing voyeuristic view on life are still on show but only in patches. On the angry “Don’t Touch Me” (which mirrors “Get Out from Everyman For Himself”) he confronts prostitution and compares humans to pigs, which is typically brash from Knox. However, more often than not, the lyrics are so incomprehensible due to over-mumbling delivery and orchestral overshadowing that makes it not only hard to decipher the album’s theme like the isolation and selfishness found on Everyman For Himself and the darker side of society demonstrated on Disaster, it’s also hard to hear any wise and effective statements that he may have.
The consequence of this isn’t entirely tragic though because it allows us to focus on two other aspects of his compositions that make him special: the effortless technical ability of his impassioned and strong crooning that has lead comparisons to his tour friend Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Samuel T. Herring (Future Islands), Scott Walker and Chris Isaak and the diverse layers of instrumentation.
In the past, Knox has added buzzing kazoos, tambourines and saxophones to his arsenal and although things are not as jazzy, wild and magically circus-like on this album, he still experiments with the güiro on “Don’t Touch Me”, electronic effects and marching drums on “Incident at White Hen” and a car engine sound on “David Charmichael“. All this compliments his favoured set of instrumental choices: cellos (“White Oaks Mail”), piano (“High Pointe Drive”) and harmonicas (“By The Venture”), whilst he shows his old odd spark by reversing the name of the lead single and including it’s partial and faintly audible sirens on track nine “Car Blue“.
Although it’s not completely as excitingly eccentric, bizarre or wildly impulsive as his earlier work, it’s worth appreciating any skilled talent that contributes to music on an epic scale and allow them to develop as an artist. The new found direct orchestral approach and simplicity maintains artistic credibility, but also makes it easier to envision Knox performing with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in the same vein as John Grant or Elbow exclusively for BBC Four and gaining a bigger status in the UK. He’s already become friends with Brits Damon Albarn and Imogen Heap, so who knows? As Knox boldly once said on his debut Disaster, “the old days are gone“.
Daniel Knox’s self-titled album is out now on Carrot Top Records, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs