“Is it just that no one’s listening / In this bleeding sea of humanity that screams like hell.” With these words—the very first dispatch on the opening track of this, his debut album—Eric Miller introduces himself to his listening audience. As you’re holding this now in hand, you may count yourself in that select and lucky number, though surely that number will multiply as word spreads about the young yet already mature talent showcased on this recording. Just as surely, that growing audience will counter the resignation voiced in the songwriter’s opening question by dint of continued engagement with the work; many of us will indeed be listening to this emerging artist, and that attention shall find rich reward in the 12 tracks assembled here. Despite the wry deflection in the album’s title, there is certainly something for us here, and it is something grand.
There is something of what the critic Greil Marcus called the “Old, Weird America”—that musical terrain of country, blues, and folk music connecting Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music to Bob Dylan and his circle—lurking in the basement of There Is Nothing For You Here. It informs not only the minor 12-bar blues of the title track, with its eerie, existential wasteland inhabited by “a prophet lying facedown in the street” and men who “broke their backs and beat their wives,” but also animates the two songs that follow, which together form something of a mini song suite: The country-tinged lover’s lament of “Dear Darling,” which seems cut from the same cloth as Hank Williams at his most lonesome, and “Hungover,” which updates that sound with the ragged twang and more vigorous backbeat of contemporary Americana. Miller later tips one of his musical hats in the direction of Dylan with “Save the Saviors,” which somehow manages, masterfully, to be not only an homage to the Bard from Hibbing’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but to also allude to Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”—just compare this album’s “Aw mama, they don’t care what you say unless you got a pistol pointed their way / No one ever sees the need to change until they’re staring death straight in the face” to the southern writer’s “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The “Aw mama” is, of course, pure Bob, circa ’65-’66.
There is something markedly literary about Miller the musician. In that, he resembles Nick Drake, the autumnal melancholy of whose work is recalled in “Old Oak Tree.” And while we’re in the neighborhood of literary songwriting, another practitioner, Randy Newman, might be granted retroactive citizenship in the “Invisible Republic” once mapped by Marcus. Newman’s star burns bright and casts formidable influence in Miller’s musical firmament; the stamp of his cynical wit and tunefulness is evident in “Frank O’Hara,” named after the late poet who served as charismatic host of the extended cocktail party that was New York’s literary and artistic milieu in the 1950s and 1960s. To this already rich palette, Miller adds a generous dollop of sunshine pop sensibility that channels The Turtles or The Beach Boys on a perfect day without a cloud in the sky.
Then there is “Take Care of Yourself,” an affectionate favorite of this writer, who, like most of us, could use just such a persuasive—and catchy—reminder every now and then (Thanks, Eric). The breezy artlessness of a lyric like “Do what you will, and do what you do well,” delivered in an aural setting reminiscent of an old-time radio broadcast, underscores the understated and vernacular poetry of which Miller is so consummately capable. Newman’s sway, too, is palpable in the singer’s phrasing and in the New Orleans-infused melody. This track also has the distinction of being part of a rarely attempted genre—the prescriptive song for good health. As such, it joins the rather thin but impressive ranks that include Brian Wilson’s “Vega-Tables” and “Take a Load Off Your Feet” (I know, again with The Beach Boys!)
There’s so much more that could be written about There Is Nothing For You Here, and other, equally deserving, highlights compete for mention in these notes. There is the wistful “For Fear of the Fourth Season,” with its knowing nod to the craft of Jim Croce, and “Where Does the Water Run Clean,” which perhaps stores richness lovingly gleaned from Neil Young’s Harvest. There is “I Want to Stay,” a bluesy shuffle with East European roots, à la Tom Waits at his creative peak on Island Records. And there’s the rollicking “Good Strong Coffee,” which closes the album with the playfulness of a hootenanny, or a hayride with Woody Guthrie at the reigns. This writer must therefore content himself with having blazed a roughhewn and, it is hoped, passable trail across the great, wide-open territory of this work. Now it’s time to just listen. Come and sit for a spell. Breathe in and begin.
Daniel Comiskey November 2009