A cross between a hysterical lunatic and a road-weary sage, Jim White really lets loose on the electrifying Misfit’s Jubilee, the latest installment in his ongoing quest to make sense of reality in all its dazzling weirdness. “This circle of life / Well, it’s a fucking joke! / Exacted on everyone by God Almighty,” he exclaims in the twitchy leadoff song, “Monkey in a Silo,” and things don’t go any smoother after that. Whether battling demons that never go away, obsessively pondering paths not taken, or desperately trying to make the best of grim circumstances, the haunted characters in these vivid vignettes are consumed by the raging fever of existence, with scant relief in sight.
A musical counterpart to novelist Flannery O’Connor or outsider artist Howard Finster, White been practicing his febrile version of Southern gothic since his 1997 debut The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted “Wrong-Eyed Jesus!” Along the way, he’s steadfastly resisted developing what he dismissively calls a “signature sound” in the Misfit’s Jubilee tune “Smart Ass Reply,” preferring a wide stylistic range that parallels Beck at his most eclectic. This crackerjack album mashes up blues, gospel, country, folk, early rock and roll, psychedelia, and jazz, often in a single uproarious song. The constants are his jumpy vocals, suggesting an impending panic attack, and a wicked wit.
Just as Robyn Hitchcock uses surrealism to cope with distressing subjects, White relies on piercing, relentless humor to make bad thoughts bearable, almost daring you to take him seriously. And Misfit’s Jubilee is stuffed with enough ideas for a dozen ordinary albums, making it nearly impossible to get bogged down in the implications of his soul-searching. The jaunty shuffle “Wonders Never Cease” rapidly pivots from a motel-room fire, to discovering a revelation — the word of God? — in a crossword while languishing in a Mississippi bus station, to the hopeful proclamation, “We’re holding a funeral for our fears / Tap dancing on the grave of dead religion … to run wild through the fields of redemption,” though it’s not clear such bravado can last.
On the thumping “Fighting My Ghosts Again,” which could be a mutant garage rocker, White wrestles with the “jingle-jangle in my brain” and “strange shapes floating in the air.” Amplifying the uncertainty, wild-eyed speculation permeates Misfit’s Jubilee. At one point, White muses, “Wonder where I’d be / If I was never born / My little bitty atoms / Just scattered everywhere.” Later, he asks, “Where would I be if I was not myself?” and “Where would I be if my parents never met?”, the kind of contemplation that could drive a person “completely crazy.”
White often distorts or muffles his singing, as if trying to make these unsettling tales seem more goofy than frightening. Occasionally, however, he plays it straight, allowing his surprisingly pleasant voice to come through clearly; like Robbie Fulks, our hero would make a fine traditional country crooner if so inclined. For proof, see “The Mystery of You,” a beautiful anthem with genuine commercial potential, or the six-minute closing track, “The Divided States of America,” an earnest epic wherein he glumly reflects on “our core of decency gone.” Too honest to offer bogus bromides, Jim White has created the perfect soundtrack for this absurd modern world.