One of the best, most surprising releases of 2018 thus far.
R&B has long been filled with its share of colorfully eccentric characters – Little Richard, Esquerita, James Brown, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – but only a select few have managed to remain consistently out there and operating (successfully) in their own little world. Jerry Williams, Jr., better known as Swamp Dogg, is a rarity among rarities in this regard. Not only has he been at it since the genre’s raucous beginnings – his first single, “HTD Blues,” released under the name “Little Jerry,” came out in 1954 when he was 12 years old – but he has continued to create and be creative over the course of the last nearly 65 years.
At 76, Williams has been in the game longer than pretty much anyone else at this point and he shows no signs of slowing down. If the suitably bonkers Love, Loss and Auto-Tune is any indication, he may well be entering the next phase of an already eclectic, outlandish career. As the title implies, the album deals with both love and loss; both well-established themes within R&B. Yet it’s the tag end of the title that makes this set so impressive. Where Auto-Tune is often used as a gimmick or to help weak-voiced, tone deaf pop stars come off as pitch perfect prodigies, in Williams’ hands it becomes something else entirely, exploding into warped choruses of multi-tracked vocals that can only be described as ugly-beautiful.
Listeners should expect nothing less from the man behind titles like Total Destruction to Your Mind and Rat On! (complete with one of the best, most visually incongruous album covers of all time), of course. Under the Swamp Dogg moniker, Williams has made a point to remain wildly unpredictable and unpredictably wild in his approach to writing and recording. Love, Loss and Auto-Tune may well be his late-stage crowning achievement as he delivers a set that consistently defies expectations, comes off as something staggeringly new and different and is just a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Opening track “Answer Me, My Love” is a striking ballad that periodically explodes with elephantine brass stabs that cast the track in an unsettling aural world. As the song progresses, all manner of twists and turns skew the track into a mad psychedelic funhouse approximation of a classic soul ballad full of jarring bursts of noise and increasingly effected vocals that spread across the track like a slowly seeping egg yolk.
This through-the-looking-glass approach allows listeners to somewhat ease their way into the wonderland that is Love, Loss and Auto-Tune. By the second track – the aching, appropriately-titled “Lonely” – the Swamp Dogg ethos is firmly in place, expectations consistently being confounded as his voice is chopped and screwed, stretched like taffy to its technological extremes. Layer upon layer of vocals mutate, come to the fore, fade into nothingness and generally affect the senses in a manner most disorienting. “I’ll Pretend,” one of the album’s most explicitly love-and-loss themed tracks plays like something off of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak (a clear touchstone for Williams here), albeit far less self-indulgent and self-serious.
Throughout, Williams sing-speaks to an unnamed love (or series of lovers, given the premise of the funnier-than-it-should-be “Sex with Your Ex”), alternating between love and loss. The former reigns supreme on the righteous, bedroom plea that is “I’m Coming with Lovin’ on My Mind.” A massive, aural feast “I’m Coming” features not only some of the albums best arrangements, but also some of its choicest lines (“If missin’ you was a crime / I know I’d get life” and “Don’t tell nobody I’m back / ‘Cause I don’t wanna share the time / It’s gonna be just you and me and the lovin’ on my mind”). It’s a track ready-made for modern radio and a surefire hit were it recorded by someone a third his age.
But this seems to be the intent. Williams shows that he is still capable of putting out something that could potentially have mass appeal, but he gives fuck all as to its contextual accessibility. There’s simply too much weirdness and esotericism saturating the album to ever reach a wider audience and, for many, that has long been the appeal of the Swamp Dogg persona. His voice throughout is so effected and processed that when his unaffected singing voice comes through periodically it can be almost jarring, so seamlessly does he integrate Auto-Tune into the music.
“$$$ Huntin’” is a fine example of this, offering up a tightly-wound bit of stuttering funk atop which he laments his dire financial straits, fears of going (back) to jail and counting his money in “ounces, grams and sofas” before philosophizing just where all these other people in seemingly similar positions manage to get their money to shop at Wal-Mart, Target and a myriad other big box chains. It’s the only moment that deviates from the album’s stated theme, yet it still manages to feel of a piece as he offers a spot-on assessment of modern consumerist culture and the love of material goods and the pursuit of financial success at any and all cost.
Shockingly modern and impressively executed, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune is a fascinating work as unpredictable (his choice to close things with a completely unique take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” sic is a prime example of this) and endlessly entertaining as its creator. One of the best, most surprising releases of 2018 thus far in R&B or any other genre. Listen loud and listen often – the man is a genius.