“They say it’s morning in the nation, but it needs an intervention / It’s dangling off the edge of the flat earth, ready to jump / The whole thing’s busted, nobody trusts it/it’s time to put the old dog down.”
The opening lines of Tommy Siegel’s solo debut, Another Century Wasted seem jacked straight into the veins of the chaotic hellscape of 2020 in America. Hypnotic, colorful and darkly funny, it’s a dance record for the collapse of the American dream, stacked with cathartic, self-aware grooves for 21st century anxiety that tap into the uncertainty of the current moment.
Also a cartoonist, the album was forged in tandem with Siegel’s personal challenge to draw a comic every day for 500 days, the results of which gained an international following of hundreds of thousands across social media, including shout outs from cultural juggernauts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ringo Starr, as well as fans across the music continuum (Noname, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, Tre Cool of Green Day, Young the Giant, The New Pornographers). The project eventually garnered him a book deal with Andrews McMeel, with his debut collection of comics and essays “I Hope This Helps” arriving in stores, if they still exist, this October. Like his comics, his solo debut is poignant and laser-focused on this moment in history, often in ways that feel prophetic for the pandemic era, like the opening line of “20th Century:”
“The days ahead are already planned, ain’t it heaven sent/Don’t have to work no more but we still gotta pay for rent.”
Working under the theory that art flourishes best under structural limitations, Siegel gave himself rules for the project that gave the album a distinct flavor: Every song must have cowbell, congas, two guitars (panned right and left, in a dialogue of alternating polyrhythmic patterns), and bass that solely determines the chord movement underneath. In a way, it’s an anti-solo record, brimming with rich, playful arrangements and propulsive rhythms that beg to be extended in a live setting with a full band. Someday, anyway.
A producer in his own right, Siegel would often start the process with the rhythm section, jamming with self-created modal loops until a clear picture emerged. By focusing entirely on what rhythmic space remained for each instrument, polyrhythmic tapestries slowly formed, creating an unusual sense of depth with only a handful of limited instruments. Drummer and engineer John Thayer (Arp) and keyboardist Dave Cohen (Drunken Sufis) helped bring the record to the finish line at Thump Studio in Brooklyn. It wasn’t until after the record was done that he read that this process was similar to Brian Eno’s tape loop methodology for the Talking Heads’ classic Remain in Light.
Though the record’s propulsiveness can be reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s talk-y, groove-driven world, colorful moments of sugary power-pop burst in from the sidelines at times, calling to mind a more sarcastic version of Siegel’s decade-plus work with his band, Jukebox the Ghost (in which he is a co-lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist) — The bridges of “Dog Down,” “21st Century,” and “Days Counted” would be at home with late 70s/early-80s power-pop like XTC, Squeeze, and Elvis Costello.
Though the record is often dystopian-flavored with an eye on the present hellscape, it also imagines a life beyond the clutches of the machinations of the present day. The chaos of the moment, Siegel seems to say, presents an opportunity for creating a world previously unseen. As the opening track states, maybe it’s time to finally let go of the myths keeping a broken world running and make something new. Maybe it’s time to “put the old dog down.” “Starting Now,” though mid-record, seems to serve as a closing thesis statement, imagining a world of “no more floods or plagues or pestilence,” in a playful, surrealist narrative:
“We took all our phones and we made a great fire / And we shook off our bones and chanted around the pyre / And we danced til our feet couldn’t stand / Drunk on a world we’ll never understand / Let me end with the good news: Nothing to win, nothing to lose / Nowhere to be, nothing to do / Everything is starting now.”