While self-effacing humor is a running theme in Dillard’s work, in the case of both albums, the titles are misleading. “Worst Debut” was anything but, with a healthy balance of humor, sentiment and some truly great sing-along-worthy hooks. While “First Album” may lack some of the punch of the first album, it’s a more mature musical work with rewards all its own.
The album opens with “Miserably Privileged,” a laid-back indictment of self-absorption and materialism in the first world. While I think Dillard really does have a distaste for people who have no appreciation for their cushy circumstances, I can’t help but think he’s taking the piss out of both extremes. Rejecting all the trappings of modern society in favor of a hunter/gatherer existence may have sounded great in “Fight Club,” but it hardly seems like a realistic solution to society’s problems. The song itself features a strong hook and builds to a nice, multi-layered climax.
“Stung” has a haunted storybook quality that starts out as a first-person narrative about a man that was framed by crooked cops and transforms into a more surreal sideshow tale. While I’m not totally sure about the meaning of the song, it’s easily one of the album’s more beautiful tracks.
One of my personal favorites is the hilariously earnest and tender ode, “Alice, the Waitress.” The basic riff is beautifully punctuated by sliding chords and diminished harmonics that eventually give way to an explosive drum solo that goes on just a little long, causing the song to lose a little cohesion. The track includes some wonderfully silly lyrics that take on a sweetness, thanks to Dillard’s perfectly sincere delivery.
“French Horn” is another low-key, but charming number about a man whose girlfriend plays a French horn, much to the chagrin of their landlord. The song is utterly delightful with a whimsical, handmade quality as exemplified by Dillard subbing mouth sounds for the horn.
“The Baylor Squirrels” comes in just in time to pick the energy up. This fast-paced ,acoustic-metal number tells the absurd and wonderful tale of students battling a hostile population of militant squirrels on the Baylor campus in Waco, Texas. The end result is pure, unrestrained fun. I must admit to having a soft spot for this track, as my as my own alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, also played host to its own aggressive squirrels.
“Booty” features one of the catchiest choruses on the album and some great additional instrumentation. The song feels a little schizophrenic in terms of subject matter, however. While the verses focus on the public response to Dillard’s music and his dating problems in school, the chorus is all about co-opting the hip-hop obsession with the booty for other genres of music. Regardless, it’s still one of the albums most memorable tracks.
“Ambien” may not be the most musically original song, but strong lyrics and heartbreakingly perfect execution make it a haunting tale of emotional and physical exhaustion that provide a surprising glimpse of a world-weary young man. It’s sad without being self-pitying, and moves me every time I hear it. It also has the side effect of making one want to go to a Without a Face concert just to give Dillard a hug.
A more upbeat entry, the nerd-friendly “Flux Capacitor,” is another shot of much-needed energy, but suffers from disconnected lyrical concepts, including numerous “Back to the Future” references that I’m not really sure pay off. If read less literally, the song works fine without the sci-fi trappings as a compelling testament about moving on after a failed relationship. The song has some fun musical changes between the slightly jazz verses to the driving rock choruses and the melancholy breakdowns.
Much more somber, but continuing some of the themes of “Flux” in a more successful, fairy-tale lyrical framing, “Poison Apples” tells of a failed relationship between two broken people. It’s another heavy, heartbreaking number and features some of the album’s best lyrics.
Dillard rewards the listener for going on a ride that can be a little dark at times by closing out the album with the uplifting and frankly brilliant soul tribute to his home state of Texas, “Lone Star Anthem.” Beyond just providing an relief in tone, the cut represents a musical departure for Dillard, featuring a full band and backup singers.
In many ways, “First Album” feels like the documenting of an artist in transition. Thanks to the more subtle humor and overriding somber tone, it might not be as good an introduction to Without a Face as “Debut Album,” but features some great music. Sure, some of it might demand more out of a listener, but the payoff is in Dillard’s musical experimentation and willingness to open up, resulting in more personal songs. One thing that hasn’t changed between discs is his unique voice, capable of great sweetness and rocking sharpness.
“The First Album Was Better” marks a turning point for Without a Face that is nearly as exciting for what it hints at is to come, as it is for what’s actually on the record. While the one-man acoustic outfit has been a selling point for Dillard, it’s nice to see him creating more fleshed out songs. While I love the stripped-down approach, I think he has enough talent to fill out an entire band and that his best work is still ahead of him. —Eric Webb