Robert Deeble – Thirteen Stories

Robert Deeble
Thirteen Stories

Great artists like Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake are instantly recognizable by the emotional grasp of their lyrics and tempered singing. Cohen was a poet long before he became a singer, and Drake was a young man whose sensitivity and creativity forged a stunning collection of successive albums. Robert Deeble mimics neither Cohen nor Drake, but his efforts to realize special combinations of voice and plot sound like early works by the aforementioned Canadian and Briton. Thirteen Stories, Deeble’s latest album, is an intricately played collection of generally gloomy narratives, some more mundane while others hover between obscurity and surrealism.
“The Boy with the California Sun” opens Thirteen Stories slowly, with gentle but prominent guitars that set the tension. Deeble’s verbal expression is a major strength throughout the album, with lyrics like: “He was the boy with the California sun / That walked to the pier / By the point of a gun / And the sea took him in / And swallowed him whole / As the sky rolled back like a scroll.” On one of the album’s more quickly paced tracks, “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson,” Deeble reveals an alternative biography of the reclusive poet, fused with contemporary urban images. Among Deeble’s notable attributes is the shifting balance between the emphasis of his singing and the focused nature of his words. While “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” benefits from explicit details and vocals recorded very close to the microphone, “Peter and the Lion” is sung in a dreamy tone, and Deeble’s lyrics sound like they were written in a stream of consciousness. “Blue” is in a similar vein to “Peter and the Lion,” and the instrumental “Chinese Fighter Girl” would raise many independent film soundtracks to new emotional plateaus.
“Jack’s Diary” is a detailed, mostly discouraging account of life on the road as a musician, and there is a clear sense the song is primarily autobiographical in experience, if not through specific names of cities and people. Two of the great lines of this impressive song are: “Busted and broke stuck drinking Coca Cola for stout / These are the days Jack never warned about.” Deeble’s high regard for Leonard Cohen is evident on “A Formal Apology,” a clever song that alludes to the poet from Montreal and William Carlos Williams, with an actual apology to both in the lyrical notes. Deeble’s expressive acuteness is emphasized with lines like: “I was the house troubled by fire / You were the priceless thing / In the attic of desire.”
Some of the instrumentals on Thirteen Stories are especially effective mood setters, and “911 to Orson Welles” is one such track. The guitars shift across different paces, and the drum playing of a fellow Deeble, Pete, raises and expands the intensity of the song. Indiscernible words sporadically enter and exit the troubling instrumental, giving it even more appeal. The longest song on the album, “Eclipse,” also ranks among the slowest of Thirteen Stories‘ 12 tracks. It’s a pretty love song, performed with patient earnestness. Again, Pete’s drums are particularly significant in complementing Robert’s lyrics.
The cover of Lou Reed’s classic, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” succeeds because Deeble somewhat follows Reed’s singing style with his own voice, and Lili de la Mora’s background vocals are soothing and gorgeous. “Joe and the Space Program” reveals Deeble’s sharp sense of humor like no other song on the album. His brief and vivid history of the American space program is so laid back and nonchalant that you have to smile. Tackling everything from competition with the Soviets to the Hubble Telescope and the Mars Lunar Lander, “Joe and the Space Program” ends with Deeble quoting from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” The album closer, “A Russian Murder Ballad,” is an intimate, brooding, reflective song inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s a fitting ending to a literary album that succeeds because its creator’s lyrics consistently interest and draw the listener more deeply into Deeble’s mind and experiences. Deeble’s imagination is gutsy, and he name- and sound-checks references over whom you’d be hard-pressed to argue. Thirteen Stories is slow and meditative but never dull; it’s a quiet success.