William Maxwell’s Calm A Painter and Subject is Worth Curling Up With

by Eryn Brothers

William Maxwell

I tend to take issue with album reviews referencing other musicians to explain an artist. I try to limit myself to one reference, and it’s usually to explain a tonality or structure of a piece. I believe referencing too much takes away from the effort of an artist, and feeds into the self aggrandizing idol culture that this industry loves. However, to explain Calm A Painter and Subject, William Maxwell of The Oysters’ solo album, I have to give you a cocktail recipe of sorts, references and all.

1 part Jackson Browne melodies

2 parts Hole in The Wall grit

¼ country jukebox, juiced

Zest of guitar from  “If Only You Were Lonely,” by The Replacements

Serve in the weirdest glass you have with an umbrella and a straw.

Is this an art album? (Its release is non-traditional, in an art book form.) Is this a breakup piece? Listen, I do not know what the hell this album is, all I know is that it’s been one of my favorites this year. At certain points like “Couch,” it’s vulnerable and simple, the thrush of cicadas and summer bugs guiding into the next song as Maxwell sings, “I wanna go to your house/Burn down your couch/Baby that’s where we fell in love.” Tracks later, (“Boomstick Boys”) it feels like Maxwell has told a joke about me while I was in the other room of the party, and I walked in at the end of it. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, it’s just a real one.

Calm A Painter and Subject opens with a scream, and if you are familiar with Maxwell’s work with The Oysters, this is not a surprise. What is surprising are the heart crumbling lyrics. “Lovers lay on their backs like turtles/And we can spin real fast in circles/I can sing you a song like a cardinal/I can make you laugh if you’re nervous,” basks in plummy pedal steel on “Turtles.” The intellectually messy arrangements (probably due in part to collaborating with the multitalented Spencer Garland) juxtaposed with soft lyrics add an eccentric suppleness to an otherwise pokey album.

The sweet, hopeful “Home,” (with it’s charming cartoony chants in the chorus) drops strangely and sadly off into “Riding into Freedom, Pt. 1,” (and “Riding into Freedom Pt. 2.”). “Riding into Freedom, Pt. 1,” provides ominous strings, suicidal lyrics, Maxwell’s voice gracefully splintering, whereas in “Riding into Freedom, pt.2,” we get exhaustion. “Sometimes you’re gonna have to light my fire-if I ever get tired,” sticks a punch. It’s unrefined, yet meticulous. What the fuck.

Calm A Painter all works in the most nonsensical way, making for a work that is exciting, different, refreshing. Between spoken word that sounds like your friend getting drunkenly poetic, to Maxwell literally breathing into your ear (“Downtown Apartment,”), Calm A Painter and Subject has a patchwork feel: nothing matches, the fabric blue jeans from your teen years, concert shirts, baby blankets. When it all comes together and the quilt is on your bed, it just makes sense. It’s worth curling up with.

Eryn Brothers is a poet, writer, musician, and all around jerk of all trades. A high school dropout who never graduated from Possum College, Eryn has published comics, essays, and poetry with Venison Mag, LIFE RAFT ZINE, RAWPAW, and the up and coming BIBLE BELT QUEERS. She also is currently working on her own sad bastard indie country that eventually will be public. Eryn can be found idolizing Nick Cave at your local bar and singing Robyn loudly from her bike. Follow heron Spotify for a dose of weird on her friday playlists. They’re a hoot and half a holler. (Which is, surprisingly, how tall she is.) Follow her at @regaldebbie on IG for righteous memes, musical opinions, and weak attempts at yodeling.