A fully-formed, fully-realized statement that covers a broad emotional spectrum and simply doesn’t leave anything else to say.
Aside from this album and an EP released on Catbird Records that contained four of the songs found on Brutal, there exists little trace of Clear Tigers’ existence. Their band page no longer exists, their MySpace page rather ominously indicates “Clear Tigers does not have any concerts.” And yet there are photographs of Nathan Akin and company ostensibly performing live. Brutal can be found—albeit used—on Amazon and iTunes. The ominously named Deathmaze Records, which released the album in 2007, seems to have existed solely for the release of this one album.
Why does any of this matter? Well, for starters, Clear Tigers’ Brutal is perhaps one of the best examples of the lyrical and emotional processing of the often emotionally and spiritually crushing transition from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. The title refers more to this tenuous stage of life than anything inherent in the music itself. Akin’s voice is a throaty quaver, sounding constantly on the verge of tears, pitched somewhere between that of Travis’ Fran Healey and Jeff Mangum. It’s a wholly unique instrument that manages to fully embody the often slippery emotions inherent in works dealing with coming of age.
Having spent time studying with minimalist composer La Monte Young prior to founding Clear Tigers (one of the few biographical details to be found), Akin’s approach to composition is that of an avant-gardist operating within a more mainstream medium. Opening track “Vacation” features a repetitive, ascending acoustic guitar figure matched with a complementarily descending piano line. It’s a subtly affecting approach that helps underscore the song’s unique melodicism and the sentiment behind Akin’s lyrics. “Things are hard enough just coasting through…/ With everybody hollering at you/ You don’t know what you’re supposed to do/ But it doesn’t matter in the end/ You just won’t believe the shape you’re in/ Nobody deserves this/ You don’t have to take it,” he sings/pleads, summing up the overriding theme of the album within the song’s first minute.
While certainly melancholic in nature, there exists a silver thread of hope that wends its way through the whole of the album, offering a chance to see that, while things might be difficult in this particular stage of life, there very well could be a light at the end of the tunnel for those able to persevere (“Don’t you see me smiling back at you/ Or is it hard because you’re hurting, too?”). The opener’s triumphant outro offers the promise of better days as Akin pleads, “Come on, come on, come.” It’s a satisfyingly cathartic bit of emotional release that, like several other prominent moments on the album, make it the perfect, seemingly undiscovered soundtrack to those experiencing that melodramatic quarter-life crisis.
Yet Brutal is never self-indulgent or cloyingly navel-gazing. Instead, Akin manages to deftly navigate the fine balance between the two, landing squarely in the emotionally resonant territory of only the most affecting exercises in nostalgia. Nowhere is this better executed than on “Igloo,” a track that would, were there any justice in the world, find itself in a prominent slot on a list of the best songs of the 21st century. It’s a densely structured short story built around a simple, repetitive, highly rhythmic melodic figure. Here Akin’s time spent with Young comes to the fore, sounding at times like fellow Young protégés and Fluxus members Tony Conrad and John Cale. “Most of the time you don’t know what to do/ You just walk in a straight line,” he sings in the most heartbreakingly straightforward analysis of the transition out of the world of childhood fantasy and carefree bliss described in the song’s preceding verses.
Similarly, “Spookhouse” traffics exclusively in nostalgia, chronicling a Halloween experience known only to those who came of age in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, a time during which kids could still conceivably venture out on their own without the overarching fear that now permeates much of modern society. This idea is further expounded upon during “Boredom,” Akin singing of simpler times when the oppressive reality of adulthood and its myriad responsibilities crept in. Delivered as a mini suite, the driving electric guitars of the song’s first half give way to a gorgeous piano-led section during which Akin shows the upper reaches of his vocal range, sounding more than a little like Thom Yorke in the process.
Brutal’s best, most immediate moments exist on the album’s front half. As it progresses, the level of melancholy becomes almost oppressive, the music echoing this as Akin begins to rely on a heavier sound, his voice a resigned sigh. It must have been an emotionally draining process putting these songs and feelings out into the world, let alone recording them. Because of this, it makes sense that there has not been, to date, a follow-up to Brutal: it’s such a fully-formed, fully-realized statement that covers a broad emotional spectrum and simply doesn’t leave anything else to say. It’s not an album that will necessarily resonate with everyone, but those who need it most, whether they know it or not, will find comfort in Akin’s efforts to capture the ephemeral.