Album Review

TEENAGE SNUFF FILM – Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard’s debut album — at once hot and cold, distant and intimate.

“I’ve lost the power I had to distinguish
Between what to ignite and what to extinguish”

Is a darkness more bearable when there’s an honesty to it? I don’t think anybody knows the answer like Rowland S. Howard did.

Though often overshadowed by the many titans who collaborated with him, Rowland S. Howard has earned his position as one of post-punk and noise rock’s guitar legends. Much could be said and said better about The Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s first band wherein Howard played a massive role and was cited as a catalyst for the band’s change of sound and direction. Versatile yet easily identifiable, his was a sound that could go from slimy, spindly, wiry, and caked in scum (see: “Nick the Stripper”, “She’s Hit”, “Capers”) to pulverizing, feedback-laden skull-shakers (“Dead Joe”, “King Ink”, “Blast Off”). Many lump The Birthday Party in with the gothic crowd of post-punk along with Siouxsie Sioux and Bauhaus, but I barely see the similarity outside of fashion-sense and a shared fascination with the macabre. Where The Cure and The Damned saw fit to imitate the supernatural, like Byronic heroes lurking in shadow, The Birthday Party played the role of madmen, psychotics — lunatics with prayers on fire and sadomasochistic mania, propelled by the fevered antics of Cave and the jagged, unflinching guitar work of Howard.
As a massive Nick Cave fan growing up, it only made sense to check out the music of his many, many collaborators. And it always struck me as odd and a little sad that, among the Blixa Bargelds and PJ Harveys, Howard only put out two solo records to his name. Not to say that his time since the Birthday Party was unproductive – playing guitar in Crime and the City Solution, forming his own group These Immortal Souls with brother Harry, as well as partnering with the likes of Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, Henry Rollins, and Einsturzende Neubauten on various projects, the man had certainly set himself up as a unique and necessary figure for the alternative and the underground.
Yet beyond his guitar playing, Howard’s undeniable songwriting chops remain painfully underappreciated. And it isn’t like he started during the period of Teenage Snuff Film‘s inception. At age 16, he’d written “Shivers” for his early band The Young Charlatans, a classic indie-pop tune covered by the likes of The Divine Fits and Courtney Barnett. One of post-punk’s rare ballads, its gentle-yet-burning atmosphere paired with ironic lyrics about young love and melodrama concocted a perfect storm of a song: unsure whether there’s a joke you should be in on or if it’s a genuine, anguished declaration of love, at once romantic and aloof.
Yet even without a song like “Shivers” — a song Howard would later resent for being his most famous work — Teenage Snuff Film ought to be more than enough proof of the man’s strengths as a solo artist.

This album feels like your old black coat. Worn, exhausted, survived through hell and back, yet still intact, still warming you and comforting you through arctic winds and thunderstorms. It itches and scratches and its ripped and torn on the inside, though. This album is the dreary stink of cigarettes, the creak of strained leather, a dust-swarmed attic rife with memories you stored for sometime later. And amidst the claustrophobic stockpile of what you’ve been through and can’t bear to part with, Rowland S. Howard is the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It’s a barren, buzzing, dim light, refusing to shut off, keeping the blackness at bay.
The album’s world is dreary and sparsely decorated, yet not nihilistic. If this album were a black-and-white film, I imagine there being more shades of white than black.
It’s opener, “Dead Radio”, is a great example. A song about the broken communication between the narrator and his partner, recognizing a mutually toxic relationship that’s far from over. There’s a magnificent lyricism that, while not on par with the literary and detailed worlds of Cave, recalls an emotional and descriptive style similar to the likes of Britt Daniel or even Elvis Costello. “You’re bad for me like cigarettes/But I haven’t sucked enough of you yet” and “I’ve got a lot to say but I keep my own counsel/I’d like to spit it out but I won’t speak with my mouth full” are only two examples. In its wry, confident call-out of this lover, the song’s breakdown snaps into a tango-like piece, never losing its melancholy but refusing to sulk. Not for long, anyway.
A far cry from the snarling, biting anger of The Birthday Party, the mood and atmosphere of this album feel as if they’re atoning for the ugliness of those early records. It’s an ugliness that is far from gone — hints of it show up in the sneering “I Burnt Your Clothes” and even on “Exit Everything” where a wailing string section falls into the grisled, brooding arms of Howard’s guitar. Songs like “Silver Chain” and “Undone” could even be contenders for lost Bad Seeds tunes were it not for Rowland’s crooning nasal. Its final track, “Sleep Alone”, is certainly its most raucous, dramatic and noisy number, pumped full of misanthropic anger and revenge fantasies, closing on a growling drone of feedback.
But it seems less proud of its ugliness, less in-your-face. It’s an ugliness that’s heard that shit before and isn’t impressed anymore.
To Howard, misery and heartache might even be therapeutic. My favorite song of the bunch, “Breakdown (And Then…)”, follows these spacey, almost-shoegaze riffs, beautiful in their simplicity. The verses are given this odd calmness, a feeling of cool and peace while you know something’s not quite right. The lyrics describe the fevered, fractured thoughts of a man snapping, the titular breakdown rearranging events and feelings he can only half-remember. Then it’s chorus blasts in, not so much wailing as it is roaring, bright and shining like an explosion seen from the safety of a stained-glass window; as far as ‘walls of guitar’ noises go, this one feels like staring at an immaculate mural. As if the moment of Howard’s breakdown gives him some form of release.
The album’s bleak tone throughout is punctuated every so often by these moments of levity. Rowland doesn’t seem embarrassed to wear a smile. His wry, ironic sense of humor is still present on his cover of The Shangri-La’s hit “She Cried”, which sounds like he’s throwing a shit-eating grin into the face of a jilted lover — there’s something so awkward about the pairing of a 60’s pop number and gloomy guitar noise that it feels like a joke (And, honestly, one that I think only Rowland finds funny). His cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” doesn’t fare much better. Maybe these moments stick out more due to how sincere Rowland seems on the rest of the album.
Maybe the best song that shows this “hope-shining-through-darkness” mood is “Autoluminescent”, a song Howard wrote describing his feelings after quitting smoking (I think this is the case, though I could be wrong). A ballad lifted by its bright organ provided by former bandmate Mick Harvey, it’s a song about providing your own light, feeling released from the darkness that once bound you and the need to care for and watch over this new light. “I am blinding/Autoluminescent/I am white heat/I am heaven sent/I was a nightmare/But I’m not gonna go there again.” Even without the context of Rowland’s personal trials, this is a soft, moving piece about self-acceptance and the progress made to become a better person. Made all the more bitter when the album ends on “Sleep Alone” like it’s trying to stomp out the happy ending the album could’ve had.

Howard passed away in 2009 at the age of 50 from liver cancer with only two solo works to his name: this album and Pop Crimes, released the year of his death. The sorrow and shadow of this particular album comes less from vivid nightmare imagery, discordant and jagged melodies, but from a place that is much simpler and much more difficult to travel. The songs feel honest, personal. No caricature, all character. No horror, all humanity. It’s anti-social and shady as hell but powered by something heaven sent.

By fictionalkid

A dorky chatterbox from Indianapolis just looking to share his love for music, movies, and other stupid, useless beautiful things.

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