Despite, or perhaps in spite of, his plaintive delivery Chris Staples Golden Age is a triumph. Staples crafts simple self-searching songs, free of affectation, and lightly backed with interesting instrumental choices. Staples nearly whispers how secure he is with the insecurity of an accidentally, yet possibly “Relatively Permanent” engagement. "How lucky can two people get / hand in hand, side by side / a coincidence we even met / this could be an accident / or relatiely permenet" It's alluring, and pointed, a song about acceptance of where you've arrived.
On the title track Staples works farfisa organ, reverb electric, and jangling acoustic under a snare beat "yeah, look me in the eye with a straight face on / so what you saved a little money but your youth is gone / and you're dreamin bout your long lost babylon" reminiscing about the decision to just not try so hard anymore. Staples "Missionary" uses clave, and banjo to describe his journey to the realization that he's not changing any minds. "Cheap Shades" is an account of Staples own birth, baptism, and youth reminding us all that "nobody asked me" and "the morning sun is gonna wake me / herbs from the garden gonna bake me / no fast talker gonna take me anymore" with harmonium and a gamelan beat. Like the perfect spice in a recipe, American Folk, West African, and Indonesian sounds lightly adorn the first half of the album. Staples is on a pilgramage towards enlightenment here, treading so gently that you might not notice him, opening to the light at the speed of a flower blossom, slowly, quietly turning up, but growing noticeably.
On "Park Bench" which Staples recorded live for Visible Vocie, the resolution is simple. One man dies on a park bench, the other on a yacht, both (or all) desire the same thing "to live each day like it's my last" because "these moments that we share dissolve into the air / without warning or apology they pass". As on the album Staples is solo with guitar here (with some string backing). A stark departure from the other accompanied songs but a choice in backing nonetheless, a nod to the alone-ness of birth and death.
Staples is resolutely uncertain. A man comfortable with not knowing. "Am I Jekyl, Am I Hyde? / Will you ever be satisfied? / I change like any other man" he sings tongue in cheek on "Dog Blowing On A Clarinet". His wit shows on "Times Square" a song referencing everywhere, about not going anywhere at all, instead opting to stay home --but even then leaving the decision to the accompanying singer in the duet. It's a familiar existence. Avoiding responsiblity to the point of declining to make the simplest of decisions for fear of the consequences. Life has to beat you pretty hard to come to that conclusion, and Staples (or the characters in his songs) bear it with grace. On first listen Staples cover of Belle & Sebastian's "Chalet Lines" seems controversial. The original was written and sung by Stuart Murdoch, from a woman's point of view after being raped. Staples uses the song to show mastery of delicacy, as Murdoch did. When Chris sings the lines "She asks me why I don't call the law / Oh, what's the fucking point of it all?" you believe him/her, and better yet start to feel respobsible somehow.
I'd love to say Staples has grown into such a good songrwiter, but it seems he's always been so. As exhibited here on his song “Answers, Questions” from 2011. With the same gentle delivery, foreign folk fingerpicking, and devastating word choices “with his one good eye, the moon looked down at me” Staples lets us know “I don't have any of the answers / I don't even know the question anymore.”
Overall, Staples subtelty could work against him. Plainspoken, balanced people rarely attract attention. But whatever diet of desperation and hope he's on is forming him into a songwriter with the eloquence and chops. His is the tendency towards awkwardness that made Stephen Yerkey, T-Bone Burnett, or dare I say Leonard Cohen, cult heroes: musician's favorite musicians, songwriter's favorite songwriters.
Words by Sean Jewell
Video by Maurice Morales & Adam Richert
Video editing by Maurice Morales