Home Music Al Riggs: I Got a Big Electric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep

Al Riggs: I Got a Big Electric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep

When you’re part of the exalted group of individuals known as “rock critics,” one of the most glamorous (read: mind-numbing) parts of the role is — you guessed it — reading press releases. Sometimes, they offer great insight into the creative process the artist went through when making their album. Other times, they come off as vacuous and uninspired, full of florid language that bashes you over the head with the overall message of “BUY THIS RECORD!” You, too, can read the press release that accompanies Al Riggs’ latest gem of a record, I Got a Big Electric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep, one of the more specific (and oddly relatable, though the one that adorns the corner of my room is purely for white noise) album names you’ll come across this year, and it’s worth more than most you’ll come across. It’s written by Riggs’ husband, vouching for the record and its wonders from the perspective of someone who’s spent a vast amount of time existing within the record during its creation. This is important, because this means the glowing words within it aren’t coming from an adoring spouse — as Dustin K. Britt puts it, “Quarantined with the sounds for more than ten months, I know every individual note on every isolated track. When a change is made, I damn well know about it. And I’ve never been afraid to throw a flag on the field if something hits the ear wrong.” Britt should be sick of these songs by now — one shouldn’t know how laws and sausages get made, after all — but instead, is content to write about the album’s birth in an incredibly loving way.

This love-letter-turned-press-release is comforting for a lot of reasons — and it’s not just because it’s positive, and because it’s yet another instance of the creative world of Riggs opening up. They’ve long made albums almost-entirely by themself; you’ll hear occasional guest vocals or instrumentals on spare tracks from, say, Hell House or We’re Safe But For How Long, and they often augment their sound with an excellent backing band. Last year’s relentlessly-great Bile and Bone made remarkable strides to turn that tide, seeing them sharing creative billing with backing guitarist Lauren Frances. Big Electric Fan isn’t too far removed from the one-and-done-guest-star credits of the aforementioned records, but every square inch of it feels even more inviting than the ones that came before it.

It’s a neat trick, because the record isn’t that much more densely-populated than before — a gaggle of guest vocalists join in, like North Carolina-based singer A.C. Niver, who lends her voice to the croony chorus of “Wishes and Clapping,” or Spirit Night’s Dylan Balliett doing the same for the outstanding “Emo Revival.” The most surprising appearance comes on their rendition of the timeless “Ragged But Right,” which has the crunchy twang of Field Rexx-era Blitzen Trapper. On the track, Patrick Haggerty and James “Paisley Fields” Wilson of the trailblazing queer country band Lavender Country turn up to inexplicably make Big Electric Fan even more queer than it was before. None of these cameos ever come close to being overbearing; each one arrives and vanishes exactly when they should, showcasing each person’s individual talents in a way that’s just so precise.

It feels like Riggs has always been as good as they are on Big Electric Fan, but its sonic complexity — much like with Bile and Bone — also feels like yet another step in a journey for the vision and the end result. You’ll find yourself running back to the liner notes, trying to find some hidden cache of musicians filling out these worlds that you may have missed — that a song like the achingly beautiful “End Up Found” is the product of just one musician is totally remarkable in the same way that the massive opener “The Most” is remarkable. When Riggs sings “You don’t have to hand it to ‘em/ He’s just another boy in a band” in “Young and Encouraged,” the song lifts off in a way that a singular person just doesn’t naturally achieve. They don’t need a bigger cast of characters alongside them. It would probably make things easier, but how much brilliance would be lost if they didn’t have total creative control?

And this is all without getting into how impeccable the songwriting is! The strength of Riggs as a songwriter is consistently great, to the point where it’s the most predictable part of each album. There’s an impressive economy of language within their songs, and Big Electric Fan is no different — each song is filled with vivid imagery and implacable yearning, each a true hallmark of queer songwriting. Scenes are immaculately set, but any inner turmoil is painted in ways that feel like you’re hearing them after a years-long relationship together; like Lambchop kingpin Kurt Wagner, their songs can feel like you’re being addressed in a language they assume you speak fluently. Lines like “You don’t exist as a padded wall/ For me to hurl all my worry” or the opening “Lighten up, longface/ You’re too hard for your heart/ Your guilt is only for you/ Let me come in” or — god — “Some people/ Don’t belong under shared skylights/ And some families are/ Just born to break away” hit with a level of intimacy that can almost feel uncomfortable, like you weren’t actually intended to hear them. It shouldn’t work, but every song contains at least a moment like this, even the funny ones, like “Collar Song,” where Riggs refers to the bride and groom at a wedding as “future divorcees” and hits us the all-too-real “I’m an adult now/ I buy my own clothes/ And nothing I own has a collar.”

Big Electric Fan excels because it contains multitudes while sidestepping potential messiness. Riggs dances through so many different atmospheres — look at the transition between the dreamy “Wishes and Clapping” to the cacophonous “America’s Pencil” — but it never feels incongruous. It’s an album made during a time where music of isolation is almost the norm, but because the environment they made the album in isn’t that different than any album before it, the “quarantine album” label staunchly refuses to stick. At the ever-increasing and near-certain risk of coming off as a sycophantic fangirl: if you’re continuing to sleep on Al Riggs, it’s really about time you fixed that mistake.

Big Electric Fan excels because it contains multitudes while sidestepping potential messiness. If you’re continuing to sleep on Al Riggs, it’s really about time you fixed that mistake.
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Beautiful Queer Greatness
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