Privileged Intimacies: The Conformist by Doveman, featuring Thomas Bartlett

By Daniel Garrett

Doveman, The Conformist
Produced by Patrick Dillett
Strings and Flute Arrangements by Nico Muhly
Buggerall Music/Brassland, 2009

I can remember many years ago marveling at the diversity of American voices—but, then, I was thinking of singers and musicians recording for major recording companies.  Now, with the prevalence of more independent resources for new music, that previous plenitude has grown by millions.  (Every home with a computer is its own tower of babble, if not Babel.)  Yet, fewer musicians are able to gain and sustain a mass audience, a fact so known it has become cliché.  The good thing is that there are sparkling and strange gems to be discovered and shared; and the work of singer and pianist Thomas Bartlett is one of those.  His lyrics are about desire and its frustration and satisfaction, and his music is composed, intimate, a kind of chamber rock; and he sings in a hushed voice that arouses curiosity, speculation, and a protective sympathy.  “The curtain’s drawn, the lamp is burning low, but who can look you in the eyes and understand?  And who can keep the secrets that we know?” asks Thomas Bartlett in “Breathing Out,” a song focused on waiting for the return of a loved one, the first song from Doveman’s album The Conformist.  He is still waiting in “The Best Thing” but adds “If you can love me, you’ll be the very best thing I’ve found.”

“Memorize” could be about the failure of love, or grief, or both; and “Hurricane” is centered on  the storminess of relationships, the deception and destruction involved.  The songs share themes and even details, making the collection a musical meditation.  “What happens when the rain stops, ‘cause it’s been raining now for years?” and “I took a bath, I took a pill, I went to sleep.  I felt my promise disappear into the air,” Bartlett sings in “Aftermath.”

Thomas Bartlett as Doveman is joined by Aaron Dessner (guitarist), Oren Bloedow (bassist), Dougie Bowne (drummer), Bryan Devendorf (drummer), Sam Amidon (banjo), Alexandra Sopp (flute), Rob Moose (violin), Caleb Burhans (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), Kris Saebo (double-bass), as well as the singers Glen Hansard, Martha Wainwright, Norah Jones, and Beth Orton, among others.  Yet, there is no sense of there being too many sounds or voices, too much clutter.  If anything the album is nearly too fragile, too precious, in the atmosphere it creates.  The meaning of the title of the album—The Conformist—is not obvious: one doubts that it is sincere self-accusation, unless the artist means that he is part of a clique and is making the music his friends expect, or is making music in accord with an established tradition that he respects.  It is not the music a mass audience, or commercial radio, expects.  There are not very many people who do this kind of thing (Jeff Buckley and Andrew Bird come to mind).  The mood—delicate, earnest—is one that normally exists only between people who have known each other long and well.

“I write from silence spirited up from inside,” Thomas Bartlett sings in “Alibi,” a song of desire and tears and possibly betrayal.  “The Cat Awoke,” which mentions a broken mirror, rain, blood, crying, mud, breath, age and absolution, seems to be moving toward a personal mythology, as it describes someone who seems powerful but fallible.  It would be as rich to have Bartlett allude to some of the daily sights he must see—tall buildings, graffiti, foreign restaurants, busy streets, bright lights, the subway, large crowds, parks, and the blend and clash of classes and cultures, in a metropolitan city.  The material he has chosen works like a series of close-ups, like the photographs of a pair of probing lovers; and we are reminded that love and sex still hold revelations, especially for the young.

Boys can be as cruel when nonchalant as they are when intense.  “Of your body now I’ve had my fill,” Bartlett declares in “Angel’s Share,” a song that admits that paradise is accidental and does not last.  “If the story’s broken, well it’s easy to mend.  If you don’t love her, you can always pretend,” claims Bartlett, in a song (“The Burgundy Stain”) that acknowledges that evidence of the truth will linger despite denials.  Some girls move as swiftly, as selfishly, as certain boys.  “You turn to me, ask what I’m singing for, but don’t leave time to answer,” Bartlett complains, funny words, a somber tone, in “Tigers.”  The entanglements touch the skin, and move inside; and sometimes remain, as torment, once the relationship has ended, an old tale.  There is more love and distance and memory in “Castles,” which states, “We’re getting older, but when do you learn to say goodbye?”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.