Band: Nick Lutsko
Best song: “Software” is my favorite song on the album.
Worst song:I’m least hot on “Streets.”

Because I’m a white man, I watched all of the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary miniseries (my one-line review: It’s compelling, albeit hagiography) this week and it reminded me of the wonder of the Beatles’ work, including their post-band solo stuff.

John Lennon is a bit of a conundrum, as a musician and a thinker. Like his other bandmates, I’m overwhelmed by his best work’s hooks and the catchiness of its grooves, while marveling at how ridiculously stupid – though sometimes poetic – the lyrics often are. “How Do You Sleep?” is a diss track over a ridiculously good groove and the lyrics – perhaps being a dick was Lennon’s state of nature? ”Sexy Sadie,” after all, is another great diss track – are the best conversational ones the man ever wrote. But, “Instant Karma!” is a combo jock jam/inspirational song and the acrid “Imagine” is one of my least-favorite songs ever recorded, but it is hard to deny its catchiness.

Political art is exceedingly difficult to get right. The obvious hurdle is the alienation of the portion of any audience that is politically misaligned, but I’m more of the idea that most people who make political art tend to be politically simple-minded. American politics, especially at this stage in U.S. history, is girded by years of tangled bad realities that make the solutions exceedingly difficult to articulate, no less achieve. “Imagine” is some version of this, in that its message is fine enough and not one with which I disagree, but it’s treacly to the highest degree. It’s facile, at best.

The best of politics-based artifacts or works tend to be satire, allegorical or more broad. Lennon’s work tries this and achieves it more than, say, Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” (which references specific politicians of the time), though “Pigs” is a different, less accessible genre. My generation’s great political group, Rage Against the Machine, was as facile as Lennon and more powerful by dint of the genre they inhabit. I’ve written about Metallica’s early political songs in this space before and remain in awe of the majesty of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Blackened” and “One.” In contrast, Megadeth’s political records are fun and often catchy, but stupid as hell. I still love them, but they’re dumb.

Nick Lutsko is a commercial artist in all of the best ways. His music is layered and catchy, with xylophones and brassy lines occupying spaces that don’t normally work within the genres he works. He also does a lot of work for commercial entities (Netflix, Spirit Halloween, etc) in addition to the music he puts out on YouTube/Twitter/etc.

He is also decidedly a creature of his times. The basic story of his success is not a secret: gimmicky songwriter/performer toils in Tennessee for a few years, starts working on parody songs, gets noticed by Tim & Eric on the strength of his internet songs, he grows a social media presence, lockdown happens and he creates a character/storyline that’s increasingly absurd (though fitting of the times), storyline/character grows.

I, like a lot of his fans, first learned of Lutsko via his early Songs on the Computer work (I don’t think it was even called that then). I don’t remember which song it was (Probably “I Wanna Be at the RNC”), though the whole thing is stunningly good. I poked around online and found his pre-lockdown work and found Swords.

Before he was ever playing a sweaty character in his grandma’s basement, Lutsko played and composed carnival-style pop. Swords, he has said in interviews, was a way to figure out the absurdity of the moment. Written during the presidency of Donald Trump, the record obliquely hits various aspects of our moment and does so in a way that’s more agile than the heavy-handedness of nearly any other political art of the moment. Because, ultimately, it doesn’t feel political.

(It doesn’t hurt that Lutsko is, by nature, cartoonish. His puppet thing, his showmanship and his sense of humor are easier to handle – or write off, I guess, if you want to call him a lightweight – if you aren’t as on his side about the state of things. Even the album title is a pun/joke, as each song title starts with the letter S. Swords. S Words. You get it.)

The aesthetics of the carnival, swirling arrangements is what brings the songs’ absurdity into focus. “Sideshow,” the album opener, has some cringey moments – I could do without the bit about Ritalin – but overall is a wonderful statement of purpose regarding our moment and the record. There are ways to criticize the state of things, but “You go knocking on the devil’s door, he’s gonna let you in” is both of the moment and universal. There will always be a devil’s door and there will always be those trying to let you in.

The rest of the record follows in this way. “Sick” has a lead guitar line and a sharp target on complacence, while “Sometimes” is a chaotic romp led by an organ riff, a xylophone and a sax solo. “Stairwell” could be a sea shanty.

“It’s a prayer for our community.”

So Lutsko says in a Facebook Live video that was a way to raise money for local artists in Chattanooga (Lutsko’s hometown), as an introduction to a stripped down version of “Software.” The song is the record’s best and one of the best songs of despair of recent vintage. The video imbues video on the song that perhaps was not there for many listeners before, though it hits exceedingly hard. Lutsko, after all, is adept at visuals and the video seems to be part of the song in my mind. But, even without the video, the song sets imagery into motion, particularly when Lutsko seemingly references Fellini (or just R.E.M.) with the line “I left my car on the freeway/And I’m never going back again.” It’s easy to see and it’s easy to feel helpless.

Mostly, though, it’s an elegantly-written song about despair. Not an easy task. The poetic yet quotidian language of “Light my night light/Please let me pretend/This is gonna end well” as a refrain can describe the video’s base message about school shootings (or gun violence, more generally), but it also describes the moment as a feeling. There’s something wired in us to create tragedy, how can we fight against it?

Lutsko’s Songs on the Computer saga is the entrance for many of us, but Swords is a wonderful record in and of itself. There’s no sweaty nutjob in his grandma’s basement, no Gremlins and no Bezos, but it’s great nonetheless.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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