Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby is the least artful album Mark Eitzel has made. Its songs, mostly acoustic sketches, are bone-dry. Its guitar riffs are basic, undistinctive folkish repetitions -- almost talking blues -- and Eitzel's gravel-choked voice does little to color them; gone are all the baroque, studied pop-rock structures and reaching choruses that he'd created in American Music Club, his former band. Some of the album's songs simply fade out at the end, with stories unresolved and characters left hanging. Excepting a handful of ensemble rockers, they sound like demos and work tapes. But it's precisely those tossed-off qualities that make the record strangely compelling. It's surprisingly un-Eitzel-like: His complete lack of concern with craftsmanship -- for once -- makes for a record as clumsy as its Elvis Presley-inspired title, but also one that's impressively direct.
Not that Eitzel's lyrical concerns have changed any. From the first song of the first American Music Club record, 1985's The Restless Stranger, the former San Franciscan (and current New Yorker) has played the ringleader in his own traveling circus of self-loathing, tragic love, alcoholic escape, and other forms of emotional self-flagellation. To listen to his music is to commit an act of voyeurism; the guilty thrill of each new disc was hearing him shred his soul to tatters. Which, when you think about it, is a hell of a thing to build a career on. Banking on deep self-hatred, at best, gets you as far as Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis, who actually followed through on all that misery they sang about. At worst, you wind up as one of those painfully cranky coffeehouse singer/songwriters, chirping tortured little tunelets about how the rent's two months late and the car broke down again, but it's so hard to stop making those 3 a.m. hang-up calls to the person who broke up with you three years ago.
Eitzel, however, found a middle ground. Miserable but never pathetic, his best songs have not only pop savvy but also a poet's skill at tempering anguish with the possibility of redemption. Even at today's inflated CD prices, it's more cost-effective than therapy sessions or Deepak Chopra seminars.
But Eitzel's problem has always been consistency. Even his finest moments -- AMC's 1988 album California and 1991's Everclear, along with his first proper solo album, 1996's 60 Watt Silver Lining -- are rife with clunkers, overly ambitious instants where he couldn't quite articulate whether he was concerned with the world's sadness or his own. As a songwriter, he's a student of folk and '60s pop, willing to combine everything from Woody Guthrie to Burt Bacharach to punk to MGM show-stoppers. Unfortunately, he's prone to mesh all those sensibilities within the same song, cluttering it with words and overproduction. He can be compelling when he's howling for escape on "Somewhere" or "Rise," but he's just as likely to prattle on about dreaming of Johnny Mathis, or pointlessly skewer ABBA fans.
Caught in a Trap is more consistent -- and more successful -- because it's the sound of Eitzel setting a different standard for himself. The change is most striking in its lyrical kiss-offs, which are fiercer and more straightforward. Before, Eitzel giving up on love meant singing twisted and forced lines like, "All I have to offer you is archaeology and Christmas," or "Get me back to the leper colony/ 'Cause that's where you left my heart." Now, it's as simple as the chorus of "Go Away," where Eitzel growls and snaps out those two words in a stunning crescendo, as if he'd only recently discovered their power, not to mention his capacity to say them. He achieves the same effect on "Goodbye," where after declaring in a disarmingly slow sigh that he's "tired to the bone" he simply bids farewell. Tying up his emotions in Gordian knots of wordplay and irony -- as he so often has -- was easy, as easy as donning a beret and calling yourself sophisticated. "Goodbye" is braver, which makes a world of difference in the usually calculated world of Eitzel's songwriting.
Those two songs and three others benefit from the musical addition of what's essentially an indie rock supergroup: drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), bassist James McNew (Yo La Tengo), and guitarist Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club, Bad Seeds). On "Queen of No One" -- the only song on the album that feels "written" -- their instruments punctuate but never intrude on Eitzel's cataloging of another barfly loser, this one a "gold mine in reverse" who's "brittle as Goodwill dishes," Shelley's snare snapping at each epithet. "Cold Light of Day" is a raw caterwaul, with Eitzel's panicked voice rushing to keep up with the noise, constantly chanting the question -- to himself? to another barfly? -- "What are you doing here alone?"
But for most of Caught in a Trap, Eitzel is completely defenseless. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, roughly picked at, for a shield, his voice is forced to do most of the musical work. The lyrics are impressionistic non-stories, a change from the revolving cast of bartenders, expatriates, AIDS casualties, and failures he's tried before to fully render out in song. Here, the words are mere lists: of people, like the woman carrying a rosary who can't escape "the trap that life turned out to be," or the fellow who's "always giving you free advice on ways you can avoid telling him no." But, just as often, Eitzel's listing uneasy questions, "the who's, the what's, and the why's" he can't get his head around. "What's worse," he asks in a plain-spoken voice on "Xmas Lights Spin," "the humiliations of a good time, or slipping into the routine?" The beautiful losers still populate the center of Eitzel's world, but this time around he's not compelled to give up the full story. "If I had a gun," he sings as Powers' guitar hums ethereal feedback around him, "I would seal my fate with you." We never find out which way the gun is pointed, though, or the reason the gun's there in the first place. All that the listener knows for sure is the tension. Instead of crafting songs, Eitzel's designing a general mood: dread, anxiety, emotional release, despair.
All of which places Caught in a Trap in a strange position in Eitzel's discography, even more out-of-place than his airy, mediocre collaborations with REM guitarist Peter Buck on last year's West. It's a one-off record for Matador as he works to satisfy his "real" contract obligation for Warner Bros. And Eitzel's songs, even the failed ones, have almost always betrayed a more conventional pop-star ambition that nothing on this album could hope to satisfy. Most likely, he'll return to his tradition of folk-rock craftsmanship, which his listeners will have to pray isn't too horribly overwrought. But one hopes he'll also consider returning again to the role he plays on Caught in a Trap: the compelling musician who arrives at his finest art through the risks he takes and the fears he confronts.