Madison Smartt Bell / Wyn Cooper

Forty Words for Fear

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In an unusual but not unprecedented collaboration, novelist Madison Smartt Bell and poet Wyn Cooper join with producer/musicians Mitch Easter and Don Dixon to produce an album that falls near the intersection of their worlds. The result is Forty Words for Fear, a collection of lyrics that feel more like short stories set to songs that function like illustrations in a book of dreams. The instrumental performance has a raggedy quality that plays up the rough edges of the words. Bell has the dominant vocal presence; his semi-tuneless, weary, and worn delivery feels so natural that he almost seems to be improvising in response to the music. In this sense Forty Words For Fear follows a formula pioneered by Tom Waits -- except for the absence of affectation in Bell's performance -- which more often brings Mark Knopfler to mind. With all these parts in place, the tracks that feature Bell (11 of the 13) are consistently powerful. The gloomy rumination of "What God Had Up His Sleeve" receives a perfect backdrop of organ, percussion, and, briefly, a chilly, haunted choir, while trombone, mandolin, and accordion add a bleary festivity to the sodden saga of "Blue Nun." Cooper's appearances feel more studied by comparison; his recitations don't fit into the song structures, a fact that forces the musicians into more abstract and less clearly interactive patterns. On "Gaposis," for example, handclaps, cymbal, and bells cycle without variation behind the poet's enigmatic declamation, while the robotic treatment of his voice amidst a field of static and electronic noise on "3 Wrongs" is borderline annoying. The lesson here is that of these two scribes, only Bell is likely to make an impact in music if he wants to.

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