In an interview preceding the release of his 2014 album, Fear, TJ Cowgill‘s work drew comparisons to HBO’s serial True Detective, and the emergence of southern gothic stylization in recent art. While the merits of that record could be debated, his follow-up, Songs of Flesh & Blood – In the Key of Light, certainly nailed the southern gothic unease and odd charm of the bayou, and functioned well as a strange companion to the television show. And in many ways, 2016’s Sex picks up where Songs of Flesh & Blood left off and perfectly functions as the analog to that television show’s second season, capturing all the sunny debauchery and decay beneath the glitz of southern California (and no, that does not mean the record was as poor as the second season of the show was perceived to be).
Outside of King Dude’s collaborations with Chelsea Wolfe, I have found his music somewhat difficult to enjoy. Cowgill cut his teeth with Seattle death metal project Book of Black Earth, and while that project still exists, since 2010 much of his output has been focused on the dark folk / alt-country solo project. Cowgill has offered his own brand of grim Americana filtered through a gothic lens and dusty Southwest charm across six full releases and more collaborations, EPs, and singles than I could count. I have always found Cowgill’s take on southern gothic folk and rock fascinating, but I have also found that the execution tends to falter. For better or worse, Sex deviates little from his chosen style. You know what to expect, but that also means I had the same qualms with this record that I have had with his previous efforts.
“Holy Christos” starts things out strongly, with an excellent bass thrum and female vocals that lead to Cowgill’s signature crooning. It also starts an interesting pattern that continues through the next two tracks, “Who Taught You How to Love” and “I wanna Die at 69.” Cowgill does a damn fine job of channeling Peter Steele and some October Rust-era Type O Negative. It’s a welcome surprise, and while certainly a far cry from the genuine article (don’t crucify me), it demonstrated an interesting expansion to the scope of Cowgill’s songwriting, and was extremely effective for the themes he was trying to convey. These first three tracks are great stand-outs, but it doesn’t last. “Our Love Will Carry On” starts with a grating opener—monotone singing and rolling drums that lead to a great, atmospheric guitar interlude—but it isn’t enough to salvage the song. “Sex Dungeon USA” detours, a raucous and fun punk anthem alone in a sea of sinister folk. It was a strange choice and seemed to clash with the rest of the album, and the song is weaker for it.
The rest of the album threatens to blend together and fold in on itself. There are standout segments in each: more atmospheric guitar work over a funky beat in “The Leather Ones”, fast singing and near rapping on “Prisoners” that stands in stark contrast to more melodic female vocals, and more. Really, the flaw here is a consistent one throughout the album and throughout most of King Dude’s work: his songs are short, and they don’t benefit from brevity. I liked what I listened to but no single idea ever seemed to have time to take hold and gestate. Five of the eleven tracks on the record are under three minutes, and even looking back at my own notes, the standout tracks (with the exception of “Holy Christos”) were all over three minutes. “Sex Dungeon USA” embodies this as a seemingly misplaced punk rock song clocking in at just under two minutes that really could have gone somewhere if it were fully explored.
Sonically, this album picks up where Songs of Flesh & Blood left off, and it shows some maturity to his songwriting, but it feels like whiplash cruising from one piece of music to the next. The album never takes hold and never fully develops from the perspective of listenability. It seemed over before it begins. Nothing took up residence in my psyche—and I was disappointed by that, because thematically, the album never misses a beat. The undercurrent of toxic Hollywood glamour runs throughout; the lyrics and music carry the listener through the Faustian ideals and the loss of innocence populating the sun-soaked hills of Los Angeles. I wanted it to stick around for awhile longer, and for this reason alone, it’s a fascinating ride, albeit it a short one.
01) Holy Christos
02) Who Taught You How to Love
03) I Wanna Die at 69
04) Our Love Will Carry On
05) Sex Dungeon (USA)
06) Conflict & Climax
07) The Leather One
08) Swedish Boys
10) The Girls
11) Shine Your Light