On his third album, his major-label debut, Robbie Fulks is going after bigger game than even the disc’s title, Let’s Kill Saturday Night (Geffen), lets on. Fulks is nothing less than an alt-country Nietzsche, gleefully philosophizing with a six-string hammer. “Go tell the executioner of the power he can’t defy,” he sings in a lovely, high-lonesome wail. “Go tell his shackled victim of the mercy on high / Then go to your churches – go beg, pray, and kneel / But don’t ask me to follow, for God isn’t real.” That kind of response to, say, the Louvin Brothers’ “I Like the Christian Life” won’t win Fulks any friends in Nashville. And what better endorsement could there be than that?
While we’re on the subject of reincarnated nineteenth-century thinkers, let’s turn our attention to the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, as dead a ringer for Oscar Wilde as rock has ever produced: Too smart to ignore humanity’s hypocrisy, stupidity, and greed; too much of a hedonist not to celebrate these same vices in himself and everyone else; too much of a romantic not to be strangely moved by the whole wretched spectacle (in short, the secret of Hannon’s Wilde style is that he is just too much). The first track on the band’s new Fin de Siècle (Setanta) takes a social-political approach to such matters. “Generation sex,” Hannon sings jauntily, “Elects the type of guys / You wouldn’t leave your kids with / Shouts Off with their heads! if / They get laid.” Hannon’s Scott Walker-esque baritone is backed by some of the most ambitious music we’ve heard in the nineties. The melodies are complex and surprising, the chords dark, rich, and novel; and the arrangements – for 52-piece orchestra and full chorus – give the affair a sound that lies somewhere between Richard Wagner and Andrew Lloyd Webber (in the best possible sense, of course). Unfortunately, the London-based band lost its American label earlier this year, so you’ll probably have to search high and low for the new disc.
In its own modest way, Elliott Smith’s fourth solo album, XO (DreamWorks), is as ambitious as Fin de Siècle. As he did on his indie releases, Smith plays virtually all the instruments. With the new disc’s major-label budget, that means Smith is now augmenting his delicate fingerpicking with heretofore-unrevealed piano skills, full yet subtle arrangements, and the occasional George Harrison mystical moment. XO takes some getting used to (particularly for those whose fandom predated the Good Will Hunting hoopla), but the effort is worth it: Polished but not slick – and never pretentious – XO is a perfect album.