July 20, 2012
Imperfiction (Drag City 2011)
Imperfiction is one of those obscure footnotes in musical history that deserves much greater than the backhanded compliment of a “lost classic” or whatever else people use to describe to describe albums that fall through the cracks. To be honest, most of the albums that fall under this umbrella kind of deserve an eternity regaled by a smattering of applause because their exquisite parts never quite add up to a sumptuous whole. That is the lot of the lovable losers in our musical pantheon. To be honest, Ed Askew is a lovable loser of sorts too, but Imperfiction possesses a fragility that kind of beckons the listener to embrace each song in a mutual empathy where he kind of knows where you’ve been lately and you knowingly nod your head because you’ve gone that road a few times too many yourself. This is a deeply intimate album that relies on the interplay of Askew’s voice and instrumental backing of guitar and harpsichord and all three paint the most bleak landscape with golden hues framing its edges as Askew plumbs the depths, but never lets himself of the listener lose sight of the fact that hope, optimism and ecstasy are still parts of our daily existence even if they do not happen everyday.
The lonesome streak runs a mile wide through Imperfiction. It’s kind of symbolic that Imperfiction stands in chronological isolation from the rest of his discography as his most well-known album, Ask the Unicorn, was released on ESP-Disk in 1968 and its follow-up, Little Eyes, came out in 1970. Little of note was released until Askew, a painter and teacher, decided to self-release a collection of tunes, recorded in a basement apartment, in 1984. Ask the Unicorn is a pretty amazing album in its own right, but Imperfiction has a weathered and wizened quality that suits his muse far more than the 60s imagery and outlook of his debut.
Imperfiction sets the weary, but wise tone in the opening strains of “Boy with a Hat” where Askew sings along to the accompaniment of a harpsichord, “The new man in my life is a child too, I’m drinking by myself watching the news, They’re setting fire to Beirut, and I’m sitting here waiting for you.” I absolutely am in love with how the album starts because it it perfectly combines nihilism, cynicism, hope and longing all in a few stanzas. It’s all about how the world can crumble down around you, but there are glimmers of light that yank us from the proverbial ledge, even if it may not be the best path to pursue.
“At Home in the Factory” is a symbolic tune that kind of represents his artistic and personal struggles. Again, the song gains its majesty from his harpsichord playing as the opening chords make the song seem far more orchestral and vast than a gentleman and a singular instrument. It begins succinctly as Askew sings, “The heart and head and head try to understand national insanity, but I can because everyone seems a little bit crazy, so I am sitting here at my harpsichord writing some words, playing some chords and outside of Congress Avenue, it’s raining on broken glass. What can you do in a crazy world, write another song, sing it well.” Then he breaks into a heartbreaking series of “la, la la’s” that somehow make this simple observation about oneself into something transcendent. It’s a perfect summation of what makes Askew tick and is consummated in the most humble, endearing manner in song.
I guess that I love Imperfiction so much because it somehow melds cynicism with romanticism, which is kind of a beautifully practical outlook to have. He freely acknowledges all of his flaws, yet dreams for a better place in which to rest his head at night. Isn’t that what we all should aspire toward in our own lives. Shouldn’t we all accept our faults and foibles, yet aim for the stars? Imperfiction encapsulates these common sentiments and sets them to song.