In many cases they’re still right here – they’ve traded their boxy, rectangular glasses for Buddy Holly wayfarers; their black t-shirts for plaid flannels; their HXC for PBR, and their skinny jeans for … well, actually, they kept those.
Most of the rest have turned off, tuned out, and signed up, thinking it’s a sign of maturity to make peace with the machine rather than to rage against it. I guess this is growing up. Some, however, didn’t put music aside when it was time for them to become part of “the real world.” For the love of the art form or a respect for their own talents, the effects of Peter Pan syndrome, or being, as Chris Brown would say, “too dumb to quit,” some kept practicing, polishing their technique, refining their taste, calibrating their ears, and bettering themselves as artists. A very small amount, those who managed to mature as people and avoid stagnation and fixation as musicians, have become craftsmen with souls, ecstatics with sense, artists with singular voices and messages. In short, some of the best among us.
In the first song on Anchor, Chris Brown wonders what his 16-year old self would think of the 33-year old version. I don’t think he has much to worry about. Why should an adult care about what some pimple-faced minor thinks anyway? Brown still sounds punk rock enough to satisfy any cranky, puritanical, self-appointed commissar who wastes his time worrying about the “authenticity and purity” of the genre. Brown strikes and strums his beautiful vintage acoustic six string with such force that you’re sometimes shocked it can still stand it. I don’t know if he’s ever taken vocal lessons, but you’d probably be able to convince me that he has, given that Brown, at his best, sings with such power, clarity, and, most importantly, range of emotion that even the most well schooled Asbury crooners try to mask their envy.
While the technique may be classic, the style and sensibility are decidedly modern. Brown’s diction and beach-comber articulation belongs t0 a definitively hardcore and emo foundation, as does his need to weave strained and shouted gang choruses into his compositions. This ability to blend homages to the old guard with the techniques of the new school is what makes an artist so alluring, and Anchor such an enticing collection that testifies to Brown’s instinctual sense of aesthetics.
To his credit, even though he is an impressive musician, you can tell that Brown is not actively trying to impress the listener, but rather connect with his audience. There is a charming honesty in the earnest poetry on Anchor and the directness of his delivery. In his live shows Brown works to get the audience to sing along, but, as the album proves, the songs are often capable of doing the job by themselves. For this reason, the tagging of choruses that ends several of the songs seems like a work of supererogation, and out of place on a studio recording. That said, this is the kind of album you’re likely to get caught belting out in your car. Or at least I was… Ultimately, Chris Brown’s charisma and his music’s ability to make you feel like you’re part of something greater are what transform many of his listeners into fans.
“Sailing with Jerry” evokes visions of a beachside rendezvous with its author and the other Allenhurst lifeguards, sipping rum as the sun sets behind them, while “Take Me Home” transports this listening party to a claustrophobia and tinnitus-inducing basement in New Brunswick.
Anchor is an album about two things: a past that made Brown the man he is today, and those people and locales which he “anchors” himself to today. Therefore, I can’t help but feel that “Take Me Home” is a perfect microcosm for the whole record, as it’s about the prime influence on his musical artistry, and the place where he makes his home and, hopefully, will make his career.
The Asbury Park scene can feel downright homely at times, made up largely by friends, friends of friends, and, at the absolute most, friends of friends of friends. Everyone seems to know everyone, and everyone plays on each other’s albums and goes to each other’s shows. On the surface it seems to be an ideal place for an artist to grow up, and maybe even start to achieve self-actualization. “When The Lights Went Out” discusses that idea of Asbury Park, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the je ne sais quoi that makes our musical hub by the sea so special is present on most of this record. However, if someone actually says something like “Asbury Park is a character on Anchor,” you are hereby required to sock that pretentious a-hole right in the jaw, regardless of gender, age, sobriety, or appearance of general wellness. Not because he or she would be wrong, but because it’s so obvious, and such an obviously obnoxious thing to say.
Anchor is the kind of album that can bring out the feelz in even your dudeliest dude-bro friend. I of course mean this as a compliment. Even when he’s vulnerable, Brown is decidedly hardcore, and therefore masculine, tough, and cool. The fact that the solidly built lifeguard and firefighter could probably beat up his average listener doesn’t hurt either. Several of the songs on Anchor, specifically the title track, as well as “This Here Guitar,” and “You Say” are so deeply personal that to discuss them in a detached and critical context seems almost uncouth and improper. Allow me to say this: Ludwig van Beethoven used to refuse to listen to musicians under the age of, say, 23 or so, no matter how prodigious or precocious they were. Not because they couldn’t play, but because he didn’t think they had anything meaningful to say about life, love, loss, and the other big, timeless issues. They simply hadn’t lived enough to know anything the rest of us don’t, and without this reservoir of feeling and experience to draw from, their music would be dry, flaky, and incapable of nourishing the soul. It’s clear that Brown has seen enough and lived enough to be able to say something worth hearing, and that he’s comfortable talking about his innermost emotions.
Brown keeps his own problems in the correct perspective. “You” may say goodbye better than he does, you may be better at interpersonal communication, and you may be more adept at explicating your emotions, but Brown knows that this is nothing compared to having lost your job, home, child, and spouse. “Bobby,” is downright heartbreaking. It is one of those rare songs that perfectly exemplifies one of the incredible and powerful paradoxes at the very heart of art: the mixture of beautiful music with a thought-provoking and tear-jerking story that makes it impossible to say that you either like or dislike the song without sacrificing some part of your humanity.
Admiration is also due for his producer, Pete Steinkopf (Bouncing Souls). When recording and producing a singer-songwriter doing the solo-acoustic thing, the producer’s judgment and discernment are immediately put to a crucial test. This kind of singer-songwriter is very much like an artist who does pencil sketches – the color pallet is limited basically to shades of a single color, maybe two at most, and when compared to full band or a painting done with oil or watercolors, can seem stark, bare, and dull. Or, to the more proactive, it can look like an outline to be painted over and brought to life by the application of color, and light. But to those with a sense for it, there can actually be a great deal of nuance, detail, and beauty of an idiosyncratic kind in pencil drawings, and sloshing paint over them would absolutely ruin them. To bring this back to music, the producer’s job is to figure out whether the singer-songwriter has made almost fully finished pictures which only need a bit more shading and a touch-up here and there, or if the singer-songwriter has only provided empty black-and-white figures like those in a coloring book, which the producer needs to color in. The producer’s ability to discriminate is essential, a matter of life or death for the project.
Steinkopf must be congratulated for recognizing that Brown’s songs belong definitely to the first category, and for treating the songs with respect. The production on this record works because Steinkopf chose to only add colors that were already present in or implied by Brown’s music, and are usually subtle enough to be only partly conspicuous: the slipping in of a second guitar track or hand percussion like shakers or a tambourine to add to the fullness of the texture, the addition of an organ to tastefully highlight the harmony and smooth out the voice-leading, or even the superimposition of an electric guitar to play an unobtrusive lead track all add detail and nuance without being distracting, and help make the songs feel even more complete and polished than they already are.
Stream the lead single from Anchor, “Take Me Home”, here.