It’s always intriguing to watch an individual that has spent so much time in one artistic area trade it in for another. Even for someone as legendary as filmmaker David Lynch – a man who has more than paid his dues – pursing a new artistic path means essentially starting from the ground up all over again. And these days, with a culture that is quick to consume and even quicker to dismiss, it is often difficult for newcomers in any art form to gain traction. Given this, David Lynch’s announcement that he was releasing a debut album came off as quite the ballsy move. On the one hand, he’s a great artist – a man that has proven himself a creative force – but on the other hand, a great artist in one medium in no way guarantees success in another.
But labeling Lynch a debut musical artist is really only partially correct. He’s dipped into the field on occasion before – one could argue for quite awhile if you count the musical involvement – both in direction and composition – he’s had with his films throughout the years. In particular, the track he composed for 2006’s Inland Empire, “Ghost of Love,” was surprisingly great – effective in its sense of atmosphere and impressive in its uniqueness. This was followed by two equally strong musical contributions to Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse’s Dark Night of the Soul – a project Lynch was primarily involved in for its art direction. Long story short, Lynch’s initial forays into the music world featured many indications (a solid musical identity, urgency, and the aforementioned uniqueness) that his work was to be taken seriously.
But what separates those experiments from what Lynch is presenting to the world now is that Crazy Clown Time is Lynch’s first stab at music created without the backing of a film, photo, or television narrative. Left with only the music to judge, the question going into Crazy Clown Time is whether or not it is strong enough to stand on its own. The short answer is yes, but despite the undeniable strength of the work, the problems here are enough to hinder what could have otherwise been quite a substantial piece of work.
Crazy Clown Time affirms the first concern one would have going into it – that Lynch’s musical style, a sort of modern blues-from-hell with an emphasis on heavy darkness and atmosphere, doesn’t quite hold up when it’s spread across a full-length record. It’s overlong and repetitious enough in style that by the time we’re through with the work, what initially feels so thrillingly alien becomes fairly predictable. It’s evident Lynch has musical limitations that prevent him from straying too far from what works. In other hands, this may have bred creativity. Here, it doesn’t.
But when Crazy Clown Time does work, it works incredibly well. First cut “Pinky’s Dream” serves as a hell of an introduction to this musical world – a place that is at once surreal, sparse, aggressive, and unhinged. Guest Karen O works wonders on the track, often elevating decidedly flat lyrics by somehow figuring out a way to inject an emotional urgency into them. Nonsensical as they are, when Karen sings the lyrics, “Pinky, please watch the road,” she does it with a desperation that makes the words much more effective than they have any right to be.
But “Pinky’s Dream” also illuminates another problem with the record – that Lynch’s musical aesthetic may work best when in the hands, vocally, of someone other than himself. From that track forward, it’s all Lynch, deciding to utilize multiple vocal effects and singing styles throughout the work, to varying results. As often as his vocals fit in perfectly with his instrumental backing (such as on the simplistic but still wonderfully effective electro-pop track “Good Day Today”), they just as often detract from or even downright ruin other cuts (see the incredibly goofy title track “Crazy Clown Time” for the best evidence of this.)
What this results in is an album that is just as frequently successful as it is frustrating. Again, Lynch doesn’t change up his musical style enough to justify the 70-minute run time, nor does he make the right vocal decisions consistently enough to carry an entire album. Given this, Crazy Clown Time ends up being a record that could just as easily be a precursor to something truly great as it could be a decent, if not vital, detour. If Lynch does decide to continue on this path, he’d do well to learn from this album’s missteps. There’s enough good here to warrant another try.