“Two characters in search of a country song/Just make believe, but so in love.” Stephin Merrit sang those words almost 20 years ago on the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm Of The Highway Strip, the quintessential electro-pop country goof-off album, and they remain as piercing as ever. Merrit’s winking masterpiece was undoubtably a product of the ’90s—ironic in its approach, earnest in its sentiments—but that hasn’t stopped the record from taking on its own warped legacy. Daughn Gibson’s Me Moan, the follow-up to 2012′s comparatively restrained All Hell, is cut from the same hobo-chic cloth as Merritt’s record but it’s more confident in its appropriations, more brazen in its affectations. With a larger budget and an expanded musical palette, the baritone-voiced Gibson has crafted an album that pokes and prods at the icons of country music, rearranging the building blocks of rebel aesthetics with no regard for authenticity or history. He’s Merle Haggard in a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt. He’s Buck Owens on a Segway. He’s Johnny Cash smoking an e-cigarette.
If you’re looking for reasons to dismiss or mock Gibson, they aren’t hard to find: He looks like the villain character in an indie rock video game; he has a habit of inserting new syllables into words like “graduation” and “campfire”; he’s never met a wayward drifter cliche that he didn’t wanna bum a smoke from; he isn’t really named Daughn Gibson. At times he seems like a James Franco-style art prank, but he’s not. (Though there is a song called “Franco” here.) Despite these distracting elements, Me Moan is an ambitious and beguiling record that courts a bigger audience than its scrapier predecessor while at the same time burrowing deeper into the idiosyncratic tics and mannerisms that first made Gibson, the Pennsylvania trucker turned divisive heartthrob, such a compelling figure. It’s a record that pleases and alienates in equal measure—often in the span of a single song.
Let’s start with the voice. To be a character in a Daughn Gibson song is to be suspend in the sticky golden amber of his voice. It’s a rich, mutating force that can growl (“The Sound Of Law”), seethe (“Won’t You Climb”) and croon (“All My Days Off”). His singing rarely sounds “natural” and the music surrounding his warblings is equally obtuse, drawing from the looping death rattle of Portishead, the melancholy sigh of Chris Issak and the smirking mysticism of Beck. His lyrics often alternate between the dusty landscapes of a western and the pitch-black alleys of noir, but they rarely contain the type of narratives one expects from either of those genres. Instead, Gibson prefers to sketch out a few broad stokes and let you fill in the details. The record’s most visceral lyrical moment comes early when he snarls, “He laid a kiss on my little hair/And blew that fucker back to hell.”
Gibson’s world is a casually violent one, filled with people inflicting physical and emotional damage on each other without much handwringing. Certain songs have an almost militaristic quality to them, like the bagpipe-sampling “Mad Ocean” which has Gibson “shaking like a battle light” and sounding a bit like Nick Cave with a mouthful of chewing tobacco. It can be hard to take Gibson seriously at times, but that’s assuming he wants to be taken seriously. The album’s best songs (“The Pigsee Nest” and “Kissin On The Blacktop”) gleefully teeter on the edge of absurdity. Gibson occasionally overreaches, like on the clicking non-starter “The Right Signs” or the piano-and-harmonica-packed closing ballad “Into The Sea,” but even the album’s missteps have a certain gonzo charm to them.
That sense of adventure keeps the album humming along even when it’s grasping at ideas that aren’t quite fully-formed. It’s exciting to listen to an artist just go for it, and that’s obviously what Me Moan is: an attempt to synthesize genres of music that don’t quite belong together. Is Gibson serious? Is it all an act? Was his daddy really a beast? Those questions feel increasingly irrelevant the more time you spend with the album. Gibson’s gift is not that he makes you believe—he’s too mannered for that—but that he makes you love him anyway.