Two years after the release of the glorious Forbidden Songs of the Dying West -- a record that was fraught with such grace, danger, and mytho-poetic swirling beauty that its darkness was barely noticed by critics -- here is the album that was only hinted at in its songs "The Wanderer," "Men in Prison," and "Working Alone." Fairy Tales for Hard Men is not a metaphorical title. This is perhaps Jackie Leven's most defining moment to date, a tome in which he takes on the male myth and the ignorance surrounding the loss of true masculinity and brings it home poetically, excessively, and without apology. If this reeks of men's-movement didacticism on the part of Robert Bly and James Hillman, so be it. Neither one of them has been able to offer such forceful, poetic, experiential renderings of what they so stridently preach. Perhaps this is true because they don't use the visceral power of rock & roll to achieve their aims, but maybe that's because they don't have Leven's fierce, burning heart. Fairy Tales for Hard Men was conceived of as an album, an extended meditation on loss, grief, rage, shame, hatred, pain, and finally, acceptance and transcendence. The disc opens with the sound of breaking glass and a woman yelling at a man to, "F*ck off and get out." This is "Boy Trapped in a Man," a seemingly mid-tempo rocker until the break. The band is actually Doll by Doll, the reunited original members of Leven's underappreciated late-'70s outfit. Leven lays out the harsh truth in his gorgeous, mellifluous baritone: "Outside in Sunlight/I pretend there's nothing wrong/But I am heading/For the bar and something strong/I am a boy trapped in a man's life/I hurt my kids/And I hurt my wife/Where the hell do we go from here/If I don't know where here is/How can I get to there/One sullen evening/I am weeping through the scheme/One memory comes back inside me/Like a dream/My standing mother/Strokes my sitting father's hair/Then looks into his eyes/And sees there's no one there." The guitars crank and wail, and Leven tears into a solo, screaming as he does so while the listening room shakes.
On "Desolation Blues," with only an acoustic guitar and a sad uilleann pipe, Leven sings slowly, tiredly, of his life being destroyed in a blizzard of lies. So deep is his desolation that, while meditating on the funeral of his best friend, he claims, "If he were alive/He couldn't help me today/Because when your heart is dead/You get the desolation blues." This is poetry of a terrifying kind, one that is honest and seeks no pity. It merely speaks the truth as it is, in all its horrible beauty and forsaken grace. This is only underscored in the very next track, "Extremely Violent Man," in which the protagonist speaks of his history and the loneliness and fear he feels in a world he has purposely tried to destroy with his bare hands. Frippertronic guitars and a bodhran bring the suffocating lyrics some air, but even this is too much. And Leven is unrelenting. His gentleness is unnerving, his standup willingness to sing of the darkest things in men's lives with his Celtic, Scottish rock & roll possesses as much poetry as a Percy Bysshe Shelley ballad, and as much fire as the rage of Pete Townshend. Dig it: this is Quadrophenia for grownups. Leven uses James Wright here in setting his "Saint Judas" to dense, Doll by Doll-brand rock & roll music. It opens with the legendary line, "When I went out to kill myself." Here is a redemption story so unlikely yet so warranted that listeners end up cheering the betrayer, no matter the weight of his burden. The record begins to reach its apotheosis on "Pourtoun," another acoustic ballad with one of Leven's most heartbreaking melodies, drafted from early country & western and Scottish folk music. His singing is what wrenches emotion from the listener. He effortlessly and plainly coasts through a first-person lyric so devastating, so utterly devoid of any emotion other than acceptance and the foreshadowing knowledge that what has already happened will happen again. (Even the most cynical rock critic in the business breaks down when listening to this one).
Finally, with "Fear of Women/Unchained Melody" the breaking point is reached. Leven confesses his shortcomings to his beloved; his inability to commit, and his dawning realization that his woman's loneliness -- because of these things -- has precipitated a break, not from a lack of love, but from too much of it on her part. As church bells ring in the background and the acoustic guitars underscore his vocals, Leven offers the truth at last of his spiritual and emotional condition, and the lengthening shadows in it. But just as suddenly, a woman's voice begins to sing "Unbroken Chain," speaking of her undying love and of her need for his. As she sings, sheet after sheet of glass shatters and crashes in the background, and no male voice answers. Is it a memory? A wish? Is the singer unable to hear the song for the madness crashing in his head?
The last seven tracks open the field a bit, bringing air and possibility into the darkness, though its shadows never truly fade. A mix places sound effects next to widely varied orchestrations and roots music rooted in Leven's trademark croon -- forget that you've ever heard a white male rock singer, as there is no one who can sing like this, and there never has been. The album closes with three songs, all of them signatures of "Listening to Crows Pray." Winding, bent, 12-string guitars rummage through a ballad in 4/4 time: "In time/I may never live again/I walk/From my life and from my friends/To you/A young and wounded queen/So rare/The beauty I have seen/I see it in your face/So I come to your place/We'll lie in bed all day/Listening to crows pray/And now I kiss your heart/At the cross where secret chambers part." In the soul and swing of the lyric, the guitars and organic percussion enter into a meditation on the words previously sung as if to inscribe them, to burn them even, onto his own heart so that he might never forget what it took for the singer to get to this place. Rock & roll and social commentary are not strangers to each other any more than rock & roll and love songs are. But when everything is assembled in a place and presented so intimately and honestly, without the advantage of a net or a back door, then rock & roll truly becomes a force as powerful and vital -- and as dangerous -- as life itself. Fairy Tales for Hard Men is proof that this is inarguably true.