Dent May is content to construct an identity from idiosyncratic musical aping.
On “Hello Cruel World,” the opening track of wayward pop-savant Dent May’s fourth studio album, Across the Multiverse, May sings of abandoning the terrestrial boundaries of this world in the hopes of finding, “some meaning like the pretty folks on TV.” “So long my love/ I’ve got to do this on my own/ Submit myself to the unknown/ I’m just a freak without a home” he wails with Elton John swagger over a sultry, piano-driven track. Both a greeting and a declaration of departure into unexplored territory, the song is a bold opening statement for May, whose output has been defined by savvy musicianship hampered by a dearth of anything interesting to say.
An L.A. transplant hailing from the deep south, May has seen his fair share of transformations since debuting a decade ago. He’s played the part of ukulele one-man-bandmaster, smarmy lounge singer, disco gentrifier and Brian Wilson acolyte—more often than not taking on all these roles at once. But despite this excessive stylistic posturing, May’s songs are heavy on platitudes and light on concrete detail. Common subjects include tepid infatuation and the sundry annoyances of daily life. On occasion, his sunny arrangements and wistful admiration for decades past can be reminiscent of the ‘70s pop patriarchs of his adopted California home. Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks were all eccentric, corporate songsmiths as well as deft ironists capable of flitting between wry meditations on Americana and chart-topping hits as simple as they were infectious. May, too, is a pop-song workhorse and his willfully doofy presentation certainly has an air of coy knowingness to it. But any irony that surrounds him and his music feels vague and circumstantial, the consequence of too many competing foibles he’s thus far been unable to overcome.
Across the Multiverse, however, despite its many frustrating inconsistencies and missed opportunities, contains flashes of brilliance that show what May can do when he isn’t burdened by hollow quirks and middling lyrics. Take “Picture on the Screen,” the album’s second single and the best track here. The song opens with a duet between a crackling modem and a twangy guitar line before breaking into a lush, string-laden ode to a computer-generated image with whom he pleads, “I’m on the floor and I’m kneeling/ Render yourself to me.” It’s a simple premise, but strange and evocative enough that it’s easy to picture May serenading an old Compaq PC as they cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible Coup de Ville. On the bright and bubbling title-track, May is joined by Frankie Cosmos, who dispenses with her usual gnomic wisdom to warble with May about an extraterrestrial love that spans the multiverse. With titles like “Across the Multiverse,” “Take me to Heaven” and “Distance to the Moon,” we can see May trying to widen the scope of his typically banal romances by making them feel larger than life and genuinely worth celebrating. And on Across the Multiverse’s best songs, we can hear May restricting the number of musical ideas to great effect. Instead of trying to stuff a Brian Wilson pocket symphony into every nook and cranny, he uses just a handful of elements in tight counterpoint—a bright, syncopated upright piano part here, a short call-and-response between the strings and horns there, a simple synth ostinato to tie it all together—so that the arrangements feel active but not busy.
Unfortunately it seems as though May exhausted his creative nerve with these stellar tracks. “Dream 4 Me” taps into some of the glam-rock stylings hinted at on “Hello Cruel World” but DOA lyrics like “I went out to a party again/ To rock out with my closest friends/ Who like me so much and I like them too” keep the song from being more than pleasant filler. Even at just 11 tracks, the album feels too long. BPMs drop with each consecutive song and by the time we reach the baffling, self-deprecating centerpiece “90201,” May has transformed into a corny doo-wop crooner at some mid-century prom—a style very much at odds with the strutting glam confidence of the album’s better songs. “Face Down in the Gutter of Your Love,” a serviceable imitation of an ELO B-side and the funky if hookless “I’m Gonna Live Forever Until I’m Dead” keep the album afloat, but are drowned in so many needless studio treatments that by album’s end, the enervated waltz “Distance to the Moon,” it’s hard to remember the album’s fresh, jubilant beginnings.
Clearly, Dent May is content to construct an identity from idiosyncratic musical aping and when he deploys his borrowed eccentricities in concert it can make for a potent stylistic concoction. But too often he simply stumbles over his own quirks, and his albums have generally lacked the thematic grounding to compensate for all his half-hearted fumbling. So while Across the Multiverse contains some of his most ambitious and well-realized songs to date, May has yet to deliver an album that celebrates the strange, nimble songwriting he’s capable of.