Rock bottom has never been so good in Pokey LaFarge’s 'Rock Bottom Rhapsody'

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 1:23pm

NOSELL

New West Records

“The man singing these songs isn’t exactly the same man who wrote them, this album is about the story of who I used to be.” 

This is the sole description of Pokey LaFarge’s latest album, Rock Bottom Rhapsody, listed on his official website. These words stand as a sober offering: LaFarge invites us to abandon our perceptions of who he is, what his music is and who we are as listeners. From the get-go, LaFarge presents Rock Bottom Rhapsody as a piece of a larger story. Perhaps, as the title indicates, he is preparing us for a tale of his “rock bottom.” 

Before the music even starts, I am teleported back to a chilly October night, when I last saw Pokey LaFarge in town. Between the music, the dancing and the hecklers, LaFarge gave us a tantalizing glimpse of vague “new material.” At the end of the night, he took open suggestions from the audience for song title suggestions. Scraps of paper gently gathered in his hat, and my own entry even combined in the mix.

Sadly, my title suggestion was not used in Rock Bottom Rhapsody. That’s OK, Pokey, I won’t hold it against you. 

I wonder about this past “man” that LaFarge speaks of: Did I meet him backstage on that October evening at The Ark? Is this the story of a man from a time even more distant? It is with these questions that I enter into the musical abyss. 

Rock Bottom Rhapsody opens with its title track, markedly different and strange. Classical style overtures, like a procession, gracefully usher the audience to LaFarge’s makeshift stage. Just over a minute long, “Rock Bottom Rhapsody” holds none of the familiar folk or country flair from LaFarge’s past albums. 

Sliding into “End Of My Rope,” LaFarge quickly retreats to more familiar ground, with an energetic beat. Singing “Yes I’m a long way from normal / And not much left to go,” LaFarge reminds us of his prior warning –– this album is different, and a long way from normal, both for LaFarge and for his fans. 

Make no mistake, Rock Bottom Rhapsody is an enjoyable romp through LaFarge’s musical mind. It doesn’t hurt to have a little midwestern street cred thrown in, either. With its heavy blues influence, “Fuck Me Up” continues the steady wind-up from LaFarge’s off-kilter opening. Each subsequent song feels a little faster, a little bolder, speeding down the highway.

Then, a slam on the breaks with “Rock Bottom Reprise.” A brief, 28-second interlude, then LaFarge whiplashes us back to slow and steady “Lucky Sometimes.” From here, LaFarge volleys between ambling, folky tunes and ragged, somber tracks, before ending with “Rock Bottom Finale.” The ending track is filled with ambient noise of busy streets, fading into soft and slow piano. 

The shifting dynamic between lyrical songs and orchestral interludes comes back to the idea of distinguishing between the past and present. As LaFarge remarked, Rock Bottom Rhapsody is a story of his past. The three “Rock Bottom” tracks (“Rock Bottom Rhapsody,” “Rock Bottom Reprise” and “Rock Bottom Finale”) act as a narrative structure to this walk down memory lane. They function as cinematic flashbacks that carry the audience between reality and memory. 

At the end of it all, Rock Bottom Rhapsody is enjoyable on the surface, but by no means groundbreaking or experimental. However, contextualized within the scope of LaFarge’s musical career thus far, the album makes for a unique exploration of LaFarge’s evolving talents and musical identity. The album will be engaging for a long-time LaFarge fan who just can’t get enough of Pokey’s blues (like me). But for the new listener, I would recommend jumping in with LaFarge’s older hits, like his 2015 album Something In The Water, which, while heavier on the folk twang and vintage blues, feels more unique. 

LaFarge leaves me underwhelmed, but eager to see where he will go next. Rock Bottom Rhapsody feels like a clean slate. The highlight of the album is not where LaFarge is now, but rather what new directions he will take us. After all, from rock bottom we can only climb upward and out.

Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Gannon can be reached at mvmg@umich.edu.

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