If You Miss Leonard Cohen, Then You Need to Meet Mark Eitzel

The former frontman for American Music Club is just reaching his own middle-aged bardic stride.

Mark Eitzel.

Mark Eitzel.

Bjørn Giesenbauer/Flickr

In these days of emergency, both real and manufactured, I keep ruminating, as I knew I would, on the late songwriting giant Leonard Cohen singing “The Future” a quarter-century ago. The lyrics now sound like reportage more than prophecy: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/ Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore.” Much more than political diagnosis, though, I miss the unanswerable yearning that Cohen brought to his music. His faith that there must be some greater meaning was checked by a constant, droll acknowledgment that, like most of us, he was nowhere near up to finding it.

If you, too, have been feeling abandoned since Cohen’s death in November, allow me to introduce you to a singer-songwriter who can step into a part of that void, though his style is a couple of leaps and staggers removed. Mark Eitzel is younger, but decidedly no longer young, and outside of a tiny following he’s never received anything like Cohen’s recognition.

An Army brat, Eitzel grew up in England, Japan, and Columbus, Ohio, before, pivotally, relocating to San Francisco, where he formed the mid-1980s–to–early-1990s cult band American Music Club, or AMC. Like the middle- and later-era Cohen, Eitzel today might be described as purgatory’s lounge singer: He is a touch louche, an unreliable narrator, but one striving to expiate both his own sins and those of his listeners, with nothing but the meager (if not exactly humble) tools of his verbal facility and his immersion in the sacred rites of song.

Like Cohen, too, Eitzel has a sharp social conscience balanced by a poet’s intuition that it’s a shill any time another human starts promising you redemption. But Eitzel is a more thoroughgoing unbeliever, from a more skeptical age, especially as an AIDS-era gay artist who spent a fair slice of his career half in and half out of the closet. He turns 58 this week (Jan. 30), the same age Cohen was when The Future came out. And the album he released this weekend, Hey Mr. Ferryman (on the venerable North Carolina label Merge), is the fullest realization yet of the mature power Eitzel has been accumulating for more than a decade.

Perhaps you are one of the few who have been following Eitzel since AMC was making mild ripples in the alternative-rock world. More likely not, because the group’s much-predicted breakthrough never happened. Labels came, and labels went. Eitzel’s mordant tone was improbable stuff for big halls and arenas. Then there was his chronic bent for self-sabotage, which turned with quick, hypersensitive bitterness against band members, business partners, and live audiences alike.

Moreover, save for a few peaks (such as AMC’s 1991 and 1993 albums, Everclear and Mercury), the material wasn’t always solid. Eitzel’s rich lyric baritone and his gifts for unforgiving observation and insight were undeniable. But they were too often compromised by his lazier verses, by performances as anxious as his characters were, and by tentative musical choices. Everything about his songs now is less claustrophobic, resounding and reverberating across a wider vista.

In the first moments of Hey Mr. Ferryman, it’s a surprise to hear the smooth, big-guitar reverb and choral backing vocals—almost yacht-rock, perhaps in line with Eitzel’s recent relocation from San Francisco to Los Angeles—that U.K. producer-arranger Bernard Butler has brought to “The Last Ten Years.” Butler is best known as the guitarist from Suede, and he’s collaborated with Eitzel here for the first time, from a London studio. Eitzel reportedly came in expecting to do a mostly acoustic album like his last release, 2012’s excellent Don’t Be a Stranger, until Butler argued, “Why don’t we do a record with music on it?” With uncharacteristic relaxation, Eitzel turned over the demos and let Butler have at it.

Gladly, Eitzel’s vocal verve proves more than up to Butler’s settings, even as he ironizes them with his trademark whiskey-sour urbanity. The scenario of “The Last Ten Years” is Cohenesque in its secular-spiritual mix, in the vein of The Future’s “Closing Time”: It’s addressed to a “Mr. Ferryman” who is at once Charon, conveying souls between the living realm and the underworld, and a cabbie driving a dead-drunk narrator home after last, last, last call. (Bars and their surrounds have been Eitzel’s favorite song locations ever since “Room Above the Club,” the first track on the first AMC album, 1985’s The Restless Stranger, not to mention perhaps his first really terrific song, “Outside This Bar,” on 1987’s follow-up, Engine.)

The first verse, going into the chorus, outright deserves quoting, though putting the lines into print misses the way that Eitzel extends, contours, and punctuates them vocally, like some contemporary Sinatra of post-imperial masculinity, in the very, very, wee small hours:

The ferryman who takes me to my rest,
He don’t give a damn who’s cursed or blessed.
Anyway, I give him all my cash—I’m like some tragic hero:
A lightning flash, followed by a million zeros.

I spent the last 10 years
(yeah …)
Trying to waste half an hour.

The punchline of that chorus, not just about how time becomes distended on a binge but about the effects of that kind of dead end–seeking on the passing of a lifetime, brings us back to Eitzel’s particular, red-light antechamber of purgatory.

Speaking of lost time, I will confess I mostly zoned out on American Music Club’s initial run, which ended with the weak San Francisco album in 1994, and on Eitzel’s early solo career. AMC’s name (and the knowledge that the band included a pedal-steel player) made me expect a more heartland-rock kind of outfit. In fact it was a shambling, jazzy ensemble, with some superb musicians. However, out of ambition and uncertainty, the band also made a lot of detours and feints at overproduced alt-rockitude. I heard some songs in passing, but likely the wrong ones. I never zeroed in, despite the urging of some friends whose tastes I must have thought too West Coast or somehow too precious for me. (Considering that I was into bands like the Silver Jews, I’m not sure how I was making this distinction.)

Two things, in this century, finally got my attention. First, there was AMC’s 2004 reunion album, Love Songs for Patriots, and especially its core track, “Patriot’s Heart,” which remains one of the most unforgettable political songs of the Bush era. It’s queer, bold, and venomous, portraying a male stripper in star-spangled undies, selling himself to all, well, comers. The stripper is at once the U.S. government and all its victims—it ends on a compassionate note for the sex worker, who “does it for the money, but he gives more than he’s given,” but much less so for the buyers who “all want a patriot’s heart” (among whom Eitzel includes both himself and the listener). Listening back to it now, the figures of the chaotically whoring, performing leader and of his hungry spectators feel even more dead-on and devastating than they did in the early years of the Iraq war. But there was still something about Eitzel I didn’t quite trust yet.

My next encounter was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at Merge Records’ 20th-anniversary festival in 2009, where I saw Eitzel perform for the first time. He was on stage in a dress shirt and a trucker hat, with an accompanying pianist, and gave a recital in full torch-singer mode, making clownish, self-deprecating cracks in between unrestrained, passionate, down-on-one-knee renditions of many of his best songs. My mistaken impression of him as an overly arch stylist was exploded. The idea of sarcastic slacker distance was—well, not gone, but not adequate: He was at once a distanced sarcastic slacker, from that hinge generation between boomers and Gen X (who got arguably the worst shake of anyone, at least until the next hinge, between Gen X and millennials) and a man who loved music unconditionally. He’s covered songs by the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, and Phil Ochs. He has a post-liberation sense of camp that never leaves irony behind but is also never in full drag—he wants to tell the truth, in whatever shade of rouge he needs to wear to get it.

For years, Eitzel’s most frequent descriptor for his characters was “lost.” Later, he came to rely on an image out of post-Holocaust writer Primo Levi, of the gulf between “the drowned” and “the saved”—though it was never obvious in which group he counted himself. Often, though, he wrote from the viewpoint of a would-be lifesaver—most potently, perhaps, in 1996’s almost unbearable “Mission Rock Resort.” It’s about having a margarita with a friend who has become a heroin addict (likely “Kathleen,” who Eitzel has called the only woman he ever loved and who died in 1998). The song concludes:

All I can do is follow stupidly behind
And watch you walk to the ocean in your mind,
And there’s always more, more ties you could sever,
And nothing changes, nothing changes, while nothing changes …
Not ever.

Eitzel’s outlook today seems very different. The tone on Hey Mr. Ferryman is more set by the lilting “An Answer,” about dancing with a friend or lover, “right here in your merciful kitchen … You make me want to stick around and find if there’s an answer.” There are a couple of disturbing songs about domestic abuse, in “Nothing and Everything” and “La Llorona” (based, pointedly given the political moment, on a Mexican ghost story), but there is also the salvation-bestowing tune for a widowed gambling addict, “An Angel’s Wing Brushed the Penny Slots.”

If this album has a centerpiece, it is “In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham,” its title a much less bitter callback to Eitzel’s early-’90s song, “In My Role as the Most Hated Singer (in the Local Underground Music Scene).” Over a very Cohenesque acoustic-picking pattern that’s gradually engulfed in Butler’s rising guitars and horns, Eitzel addresses a conservative relative at Thanksgiving dinner, with “a mouthful of gravy and turkey and truth,” who “only hears you when you say ‘Amen’/ Can’t hear a thing from under his burden of proof.” It quickly becomes apparent that this vexing cousin or uncle is a microcosm of Trump Nation, playing out scenes with a soundtrack “played by those hacks from the Titanic.” Eitzel proclaims that he stands “with the deaf and the dumb” and counsels, “Look away, look away.”

Yet the very next track is a sweet, waltz-time tribute to a fellow old man of showbiz—improbably enough, Mr. Humphries from the British sitcom Are You Being Served? It begins, “Try and be kind to Mr. Humphries in Room 5/ Because he gets grumpy trying to keep hope alive.” Mr. Eitzel, it’s clear, knows exactly how the tired thespian feels, but he circles back again and again to that last virtue-vice from Pandora’s box: “Just keep hoping, hoping.”

None of this, obviously, is firebrand, rebel music. These are middle-class, middle-aged, caucasian mediations in an emergency. But within the limits of Eitzel’s solipsistic aesthetics, Hey Mr. Ferryman is as thoughtfully engaged as it gets. The third song, “The Road,” finds him making a kind of peace at last with his own vocation. It’s about playing a show to a nearly empty room, on “that kind of night/ when no one’s buying,” an experience Eitzel has endured more often than most artists who can claim his critical plaudits and industry dalliances. Nonetheless, stepping to the mic for the thousandth time, Eitzel summons every ounce of his crooning potency and nudges into the territory of Cohen’s “Tower of Song”:

In the song, everything’s clear.
The heart of the world is drawing near.
And for the song, there’s always more
Than you have, there’s always more,
And you know there’s no end,
There’s no end to the road.

It makes me think of something Eitzel said recently about a Cohen concert he attended years ago: “I saw him and thought, ‘Man … he just rides these songs like they’re luxury liners.’ I want to do that.” On this album, more than any other, Eitzel (with Butler’s help) has worked his musical crafts until the songs are that sturdy, that broadly inhabitable. They are able to convey the singer from one bank of mortality to another and to offer listeners in need a promise that we will be carried along. He knows his vessels are bound to sink and fail, like every human thing. But as Eitzel assures Mr. Ferryman in that very first song, he always makes it home when the party’s over.

A Mark Eitzel Primer

The Mark Eitzel/American Music Club discography covers more than three decades now, and given their vexed history, it includes multiple albums that are out of print and not on the main streaming services. With the help of some longer-standing Eitzel-fan friends, I’ve compiled this top 40 from what’s available on Spotify, which required drawing on the 1991 Eitzel solo live album Songs of Love for versions of many 1980s AMC classics, such as “Outside This Bar,” which also gives you a taste of his early, riled-up, Springsteenish style. It begins with two songs I suspect might make quick converts, “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” from 1993’s Mercury and “Patriot’s Heart” from the 2004 AMC reunion album Love Songs for Patriots, then runs roughly chronologically to Hey Mr. Ferryman. Where available, I’ve also put them in this YouTube playlist—check out the horribly dated music video for “Can You Help Me?” from AMC’s 1994 swan song San Francisco, a good illustration of why Eitzel was always an unlikely alt-rock star: He sits awkwardly on a brambly hill in a cowboy hat, singing to a vamping model, “My old friend rigor mortis starts to breathe in my face.”