Writing about the avant-garde means writing about limits and at the limits of meaning. It’s about confronting something that makes words tremble. It’s writing driven by an uneasiness that occurs when language confronts something unfamiliar. It’s writing that, for this very reason, typically results in abstraction, hyperbole and retreat. I’ll be guilty of all of this as I attempt to review Oxbow’s Thin Black Duke – the seventh studio album by a band who, for the past 30 years, have slipped through any comfortable categorisation.
I came to Oxbow fairly late. It’s been just over six years since I first heard them. It was a difficult first listen. The guitar was big and jarring, when it wasn’t strumming dark serenades. The rhythms were angular but not without groove while the vocal lurched from incoherent mumbles to piercing clarity. The band sounded like a balancing act between a primordial desire and honed musicianship. The whole thing unnerved me. But whether summoned from an elemental depth, driven by a fascination/curiosity, a stubborn resilience or even terror, something made me listen again…and again. Since that first listen, I haven’t been able to stop. I now think of myself as a proud resident of Oxbow’s sonic underworld.
What’s so remarkable about Thin Black Duke is that Oxbow have done it again; even after all of this time, resident and all, they’ve managed to surprise and throw me. Waiting for Thin Black Duke (a wait a decade long for some) invited all kinds of speculation. I wondered if it would be Oxbow’s scariest ogre of all, after Eugene S. Robinson warned us that the album would reek of death. In many ways it is and it does. There are recurring themes of coldness and murder and Thin Black Duke is, without question, one of their most adventurous records to date. But this isn’t because of an escalation of that raw primordial energy. It’s because Thin Black Duke is a masterwork of refinement and exactness.
The balancing act between composition and the animal has never been so sharply executed. While Oxbow flirted with brass and strings in the past – even as far back as ‘Bomb’ on King of the Jews (1991) – here the orchestration plays a crucial role throughout the record. It doesn’t take long to hear this. The opening track, ‘Cold & Well Lit Place’, begins in an uncharacteristically playful way, with a light and breezy melody accompanied by whistling. Then, 20 seconds in, a brass and string crescendo elevates the track. This quickly drops out and Robinson, accompanied by guitar and rhythms, introduces us to the ‘brown-shirted and suited’ Duke. Things momentarily seem a little more familiar, with Robinson’s unnerving and eccentric delivery, the creeping rhythms and stripped-back guitar. But it’s not long before the orchestration returns, lifting Oxbow’s sound into new territories. The brass and strings continue to dip in and out, never overbearing and perfectly distributed.
While some bands think up ways to sell the same record again, over the past 10 years Oxbow have been quietly cultivating their very own baroque pop. This could’ve gone horribly wrong. When rock bands (if you can even call Oxbow that) start playing around with classical elements, it can easily feel bloated and desperate. Thin Black Duke is different. There’s an exactness about it all. You know each of those 10 years was spent deliberately. Track 2, ‘Ecce Homo’, is testament to this. It’s one of the stand out tracks on the record. A perfect example of how Oxbow have managed to blend their unique malevolence with a stirring orchestration, at once transcendent and mournful.
Robinson is outstanding on this track. Moving effortlessly from bassy murmurs to loud, desperate, blues-inflected pleas. To steal a phrase from Michael Holland, Robinson sings with a desperate clarity – something that makes him one of the most unique and distinctive voices of our time, alongside the likes of Diamanda Galas and Tom Waits. And what hasn’t been lost on this record is his hovering between obfuscation and clarity, with some lyrics crystal clear and others buried. It’s as if, with each piece of the story that’s given, another piece is withdrawn. ‘Other People’ is a perfect example of this – the video even showing these words emerging and disappearing in a haze.
With all its surprisingly tender moments and exactness, Thin Black Duke is still bursting with energy. ‘A Gentleman’s Gentlemen’ has a driving, rolling, riff with Robinson spitting and mumbling over the top until he describes the muscle-fingered Duke with characteristic intensity. ‘Host’ is another driving, high-energy, track with an infectious groove and Robinson’s relentless vocals, this time higher pitched and more tuneful. That is, until the track transitions and Robinson circles certain words like ‘lost’, ‘God’, ‘and’ (at least, I think these are the words; his delivery invites mishearing) with an almost deranged obsession.
During an interview at The Lab in San Francisco, Robinson talks about the importance of posterity and time. An artefact will always outlive an artist, so the artist better make sure it’s good. Oxbow clearly live by this. Robinson explains how over the span of their 30-year career, there’s only a 3 second vocal segment from ‘Hunger’ (a track stretching back to ‘89’s Fuckfest) that he isn’t happy with. This isn’t because he, and Oxbow, are self-congratulatory but because they’re precise. Guitarist and composer Niko seconds this, jokingly referring to it as ‘the record of no excuses’. There certainly is none needed here. Thin Black Duke is a masterwork that pays with repeated listens. It is deep; you’ll still be finding new things in this record before they release another one, even if that takes 10 years.