Back in 2006 I gave high praise to Gregg Swann’s Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere album, but never heard much from him after that. Later I learned he’d been battling cancer, and he died in 2011 at age 44. I regret that I never met him, though we had mutual musical friends.
What I didn’t know until now is that before he died he recorded home demos of a batch of new songs. His brother John gathered a group of musicians who’d worked with Gregg to record backing tracks and put them together with Gregg’s vocals from the home demos. The result is a new, posthumous Gregg Swann album, something I thought I’d never see or hear.
Swann’s last work continues his way of finely fashioned melodies sung in warm understated tones, opening with the sturdy, anthemic “Rain Dance” and the shimmering “Stereo Down.” Both evince a penchant for minimalist, even cryptic lyrics which holds throughout the disc. “LA, CA” makes explicit this feeling for abbreviation, while in the gentle “Honeymoon” he leaves his meaning something of a mystery even while making the sense of the emotions clear: “I will give her purple sky with honeymoon or else / I refuse, I deny I believe I see / It’s so sweet that somethin’ burnin’ me.”
The sense that life is fleeting – and for many of us, abbreviated – is most achingly apparent in the disc’s two-minute, minimalist centerpiece. If the lyrics of the almost unbearably touching “Jonesin’ for a Cry” have been left off the package accidentally, it was a fitting accident; its mere handful of lines include: “Even high is low, I don’t know why / ‘Bye ‘Bye / Am I really wasting precious time?”
But the song’s acoustic sadness flows without a pause into the intense, Beatle-esque “For Real,” where the lively energy returns even if the theme is of lost or threatened love. Here as elsewhere on the disc Swann’s voice isn’t up to full strength – indeed it’s quite hoarse on “A Work Song” – but producer Jerry Pilato mixes the tracks so that it pipes through clearly.
“How do I return, how do I give you more” Swann asks in “Idlewild,” hope springing eternal. The pretty melody of “A Work Song” belies the sadness of the lyric “I’m punching death in the nose, what else can I do…?” The next line, “This is not one of those blues,” and the triumphant sound of the closing track, “Today,” with its lyric “there’s nothing more than now,” convey a sense of a joy of life that can persist even in the face of dying.
Gregg Swann’s music has always beckoned to those interested in thoughtful pop. Though this posthumous disc wears a consciousness of mortality on its cardboard sleeve, it doesn’t break that mold. It’s a worthy and welcome addition to Swann’s too-small oeuvre as well as a fitting tribute to a pop artist with a unique voice who left us too early. Available at CD Baby, Amazon.com, and iTunes.