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An Exuberance of Subtlety – Wreckless Eric’s “Leisureland”

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Does any artist in the pop context represent the peculiar commingling of the quixotic with the straightforward and accessible as Wreckless Eric? The short answer is no, they do not. The longer answer is found in both the album at hand and our response to it.

As ever – and speaking of conundrums and contrasts – the work here on Leisureland, released late August on the by-now-venerable Tapete label, is both a gentle whirlwind of intimate eccentricity and as approachable as an ice cream truck. Not entirely surprising, we reckon, when one maps out the journey this pop lark has taken the irascible spirit born Eric Goulden on, one that leaves one with the perplexing impression of said trek being, yes, peripatetic but also ever-grounded. It’s a dichotomy that helps explain why, for one, that original ‘Wreckless’ moniker has stuck despite the artist’s numerous attempts at dumping it via such endeavors as The Len Bright Combo, the Donovan of Trash and a choice handful of other candidates (and, really, c’mon; while we empathize, the fact is when you offer into the ether one of the most endearing pop gems ever committed to tape, thereby defining the word ‘timeless’ for, umm, the whole wide world, you best expect the name behind it might prove impossible to ditch) and why, for two, the guy’s work continues, unabashedly, to not merely engage us but leave us forever enamored of it as well. Hence do we come to Leisureland, our hands stamped, a bit of cotton candy stuck to our sleeve, the combined brilliance and tattered poignancy drawing us further in step by irresistible step. Certainly it can be garish in its charming way but for that very reason endearing and not a little mesmerizing, the sweet and sour of our surroundings, a bit lurid here, immutably human there. Let’s step inside, shall we?

Before elaborating on this or that track, however, some background particular to this release, best elaborated by the artist himself: “Covid hit me hard, damaged my lungs, gave me a heart attack – I almost died in the emergency room. I began to feel extremely…mortal [and] began to look at where I’ve been and where I came from. Maybe to get my mind off the ultimate destination.” Thus did he arrive at Leisureland with an unavoidably reshaped perspective, one that, to our great fortune, he’s long had in his possession the lyrical skills to convey. This is, in fact, an album where the concept of ‘vignette as masterpiece’ is fully, if in an odd way modestly, on display.

And that’s the thing. Everywhere, from top to bottom on this latest, in both word and compositional deed, this guy’s gift for what one may reasonably call ‘an exuberance of subtlety’ isn’t simply present but hovers up there in top-of-his-game territory. Combine that with his usual level of unflinching honesty and, well, you’ve a very fine and satisfying record in your possession. From first track “Southern Rock” with its beguiling Wild World-ish structure and wide-eyed – if perhaps a wee bit more jaded – slant where the author’s seventeen, listening to those titular sounds and daydreaming of the faraway USA or anywhere for that matter not knowing “where anything was in this God almighty fucked up world” to “Drag Time”‘s boisterous, shambolic, soulful shuffle that closes proceedings on an almost impossibly poignant note, Mr. Eric leaving little doubt as to how the future will inevitably spin (“Get yourself a one-way ticket for the merry-go-round“), there’s nowhere to, well, turn here and not be, to one degree or another, wowed.

Take “Standing Water,” an epic at under three-and-a-half minutes that sounds as big as the fictional town called forth in its title is small, the thing positively ringing with a coarse dialectic of electric guitar, benighted hope and despair, the lyrics among the artist’s best in memory (and that’s saying something, that) and, in fact, the track, scorching yet ever-hopeful, could well stand in as the definitive epitome of those sure-handed Wreckless tendencies we’ve held so dearly for the majority of our lives.

Or, take that track’s thematic successor, “Standing Sunday Morning,” crashing through the fog that’s all that remains from the previous evening’s too-typical gadabout in a fetching, delicate slurry of psychedelic washes and reverbed effects including a clave ticking away like an indolent timebomb and a phat synth presence that pretty much exemplifies the sad liminal consciousness of another Sunday morning coming down when all you hope to do is just wake up and, basically, make it to Monday, your senses relatively intact. Or, take the next-up follower to that called “The Old Versailles” that tromps along with a plucky Peter Gunnery rhythm and just a generally agile suss all around, or the entrancing wooze and pathos of “High Seas (Won + Lost),” glazed by a tender touch of empathy for those lost to the cost of human expendability that, unless I miss my guess (always more or less possible), rests on the brink of political indictment, especially in the first two stanzas, the second of which runs “Then with strange inhuman haste/he outlines the position//how the half become the whole and the/whole becomes the case for extradition” which, in typical Wreckless lack-of-abandon, fits as precisely into the track’s overarching narrative as if edited in with an X-acto knife and there, in a nut graf nutshell, we’ve arrived at the source of the guy’s perpetual staying power.

Self-produced at Eric’s Catskill home/studio with every sound and twitch attributable to the artist himself  save the live drumming – an essential addition to the album’s presence of sound that comes courtesy one Sam Shephard met at the coffee shop around the corner – it’s crucially worth mentioning the five instrumentals that dot the midway here (a record for a WE record), moody but vital intermissions that don’t merely merit equal attention but bring their own complement of sighs and shivers, their stand-on-their-ownness no better repped than by the aptly-titled “Inside the Majestic” that speaks with a wordless grace to the Wreckless Eric aesthetic. Like the other four it serves as a sort of invitation to dream your own coordinates on to the emotional map that is the artist’s mindset which, we feel, is as cool as it is generous.

In the end, then, another must-have full-length from an artist that has once more proven that, for all his perceived status in some quarters as the perennial underdog, there are precious few musicians capable of producing records this off-handedly good. The sly joy one takes from a Wreckless Eric album isn’t simply once again on display on Leisureland but tends to settle over the listener with a kind of quietly unrivaled satisfaction, as in ‘By god if hasn’t he done it again!‘ and, indeed, he has. Long may that carousel spin.

[visit Leisureland and pick up its entire premises in whatever preferred format here]