So it goes…
Death may not be one of the central characters on Franz Nicolay’s heavily-thematic new album, Luck & Courage, but nonetheless the New Jersian (?) has drawn considerable inspiration from one of my favourite writer’s best books and its shifting moral. The overarching story is that of a boy and a girl falling into that sense of cohesion and insularity characterized by Vonnegut in Mother Night as “a nation of two,” that complete integration of two people into their very own universe where nothing else seems to exist. Needless to say, it doesn’t last long; the record carries the metaphor to its furthest possible conclusion, outlining the disintegration of the infrastructure of that metaphorical society.
In writing about Nicolay’s past releases I’ve mused on his apparent ability to write in any style he so chooses. That holds true here: the frenzied rock riffing of “Have Mercy” is added extra bombast thanks to operatic backing vocals. The curiously obtuse story-song of a plague pronouncing its love for its victims on “Z is For Zachariah” is backed by spare alternating banjo and plucked strings. “My Criminal Uncle” is carried by horn flourishes that at times sound like a fanfare taken right from the floor of a 16th century English king’s courtyard. Cooing female backing vocals, handclaps, and ghostly synths make “Anchorage (New Moon Baby)” a kind of ghastly doo-wop number. Accordion, strings, piano, pedal steel, saxaphone, and more create a rock and roll tapestry that is as familiar as it is unusual.
The stand-out track is the open wound, back-handed confessional that is, “This Is Not A Pipe.” Each line is a direct contradiction to the hard-line statement quoted at the top of this article. “It is not raining, my shoe is not untied, I have not been unhappy my whole life. This is not a wall, that is not a ceiling, this is not a scrape, I don’t know that feeling. Not a spoon, not dirty dishes, not a knife…and I have not been unhappy my whole life.” Another key line from Vonnegut’s story resonates here (even though this song was also inspired by another literary work, Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love): “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The slowly-unraveling denial of everything around the song’s narrator is an obvious attempt to convince himself that he isn’t alone, that his entire world isn’t threatening to float away from him in pieces. But in the end what’s dead is dead.
Of course, Vonnegut riffs on the idea of that moral throughout Mother Night. At one point he also encourages the reader, “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.” In the downright jaunty closing track Nicolay re-introduces the main characters, Felix and Adelita, and outlines their final undoing. While their nation of two may have collapsed in upon itself Nicolay assures the listener that they’ll still be making love whenever they can; that a country’s leadership may fall but those that dwell within it can persevere.