There should be a myth around David Thomas Broughton. There should be mystique. Something sinister. Darkness that spirals around his heart and mind. There could be a man with serious troubles, the kind of man who asks the same questions and makes the same statements over and over, to no one in particular; a man who “struggles with the nightshade in [his] blood.”
Perhaps that there is no such darkness or myth surrounding David Thomas Broughton is paradoxically confounding and relieving. In fact, he seems downright boringly normal. He’s not losing his mind, he’s not a hermit, he’s not some mystic who released one record and disappeared from the historical record – he’s a singer/songwriter from Leeds. Even the truly strangest part of his story (that he has lived, on-and-off, in North Korea for a few years) is calmly explained (NGO work). But what unfolds over the forty minutes of The Complete Guide To Insufficiency, his 2004 debut LP, is no less than a bizarre masterpiece of… what? Folk? Hymns? Humor? Depression? Cult?
The constant, driving force behind the record is Broughton throwing his guitar and his voice into a loop pedal machine. The feeling therein is like being tugged forward slightly harder and faster than you are comfortable with. With his voice, Broughton is capable of an odd depth and a kind of jolting sweetness; I can only describe it as a baritone falsetto. Particular words, especially r’s, roll in a hauntingly formal tone. His acoustic guitar folds over itself with layer upon layer of never-perfect strums. The loop machine makes it perfect by simply repeating it, what’s done once by accident is by plan when done again.
The album’s middle track, “Unmarked Grave,” is led into by two minutes of droning and an ever increasing echo of space that is the end of “Execution.” When at last its calming first strums emerge, we’ve seemingly escaped the dark, dark places that Broughton would NOT take his love, listed in the preceding track (an execution for one, and also, “a live sex show”). But “Unmarked Grave” is not calming. It is the eternal lament of a soldier cut down young in life and then frozen in time. Over delightful pickings that sit somewhere between wedding-appropriate and “I’m getting good at my lessons,” the deceased is blunt, hurt as much in death as by death. “My body rots while she is weeping/and I remain forever sleeping/resting my bones from the daily chores/rest my bones forever more.” Five minutes in, his voice becomes a distorted chorus, the soldier telling himself the same things repeatedly; his last thoughts are the ones that must remain with him forever. A church bell rings in the background and is swept up in the loop machine – time is literally repeating itself. It’s a love song in a ghostly Shakespearian way.
Broughton has only a small kit of tools at his disposal, but the range of styles he pseudo-plays – from drone to Spaghetti-Western to classical – is immense. It’s hard to pin just what this sounds like. It’s Mayo Thompson or Bonnie Prince Billy. It’s freak-folk or Neo-folk. It’s terribly sad and terribly sly. It’s mundane and emotionless. It all ends with a 5-minute mantra-like chant of “the ever rotating sky” while his strums fall over themselves, his hand having gone limp on a single one, to be captured eternally in the loop machine. The last minute sounds like a recording error without context and the perfect capstone within.
I’ve seen Broughton twice – once in New York and once in Austin, far away from the church in Leeds where Guide was recorded. But in any setting, he commands a room. Songs seem to be played in spite of themselves: distracted by an odd inflection in his own voice or an accidentally sexy pose, Broughton will repeat it. Or mock it. A candle on the far side of the room is, to his eye, out of position – suddenly, all the candles are wrong. I watched in odd horror as Broughton sang increasingly pained yet beautiful words and moans, with his loop machine maybe a few notches too loud for comfort, while rearranging every candle in an entire club. And then he simply hit “Stop” on his loop machine and started a new song. Not once was there a knowing glance, a wink or “thank you.” Broughton doesn’t so much perform “songs” as he touches on that topic again, or plays that riff again, to see how they sound this time. It’s equally satisfying to know that he could never play a song the same way twice and that he’d probably never try anyway.
It has been ten years since The Complete Guide to Insufficiency first appeared. In that time “folk” music has dipped itself into the mainstream, first as the kind of rockin’ revival of many popular indie bands of the mid-00’s and reaching critical mass with artists like Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons. Guide is and was too strange and too sad-sounding to reach that kind of critical success. But its joy is that it is not tied to a period or particular movement. Those loops make it technically modern, its topics make it feel anything but. It dances along the edge of timelessness, looks down along the cliff below, turns around and marches back over the expanse. There’s so much else to explore. words / b kramer