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Greg Laswell - Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet (Vanguard Records)

23 February 2016

Ever since his debut LP, Good Movie, arrived in 2003, Californian Greg Laswell has continuously proven to be one of the best singer/songwriters of his generation. While his stint as the frontman of San Diego troupe Shillglen certainly showed promise (however short-lived), it’s his succession of solo efforts that marks him as a characteristic, consistent, and central voice within the scene. Always eloquent and refined yet full of impassioned sentiments and witty prose, his work has a timeless and universal quality that’s nearly impossible to disregard. Fortunately, his newest studio collection, Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet, stays true to that legacy. While it’s not quite as varied or enticing as its immediate predecessor, Landline (2012)*, it comes immensely close, resulting in another remarkable sequence that any fan of heartfelt and infectious folk/indie rock should adore.

Appropriately billed as “his most personal release [yet] . . . a soul-bearing experience that is cathartic, atmospheric, and haunting, and at times, channels Leonard Cohen, Elbow and Sigur Rós,” Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet was written, performed, and produced entirely by Laswell (well, aside from contributions from cellist Colette Alexander and the mastering of Grammy-winner Evren Göknar). In many ways, its relatively somber and simple arrangements complement its embittered tales of heartbreak and defiance perfectly, yielding a powerful listening experience whose beauty and longevity stem from its relatable fragility and antagonism.

The record opens with its title track, a moody waltz comprised of woeful guitar arpeggios, shuffling percussion, and recurring electric piano patterns. Naturally, Laswell sings with his trademark forlorn baritone, uttering lines like “I’m not gonna tell my new friends about you / No, I’m gonna let that slide / I’m gonna be lazy when I write about you / Even though it takes all my might” with defiant but tormented conviction. The chorus is quite catchy, too, with an intriguing metaphor (“And everyone thinks I dodged a bullet / But I think I shot the gun”) speaking volumes about the speaker’s headspace. It’s another great example of how Laswell turns the conventions of a break-up song on its head; rather than mourn the loss with weakness, his narrator owns the situation with power and acceptance.

Actually, this snarky classiness permeates many others songs, including the symphonically synthy “A Lifetime Ago,” whose directness and tender bellowing brings the emotion to the forefront. While all of the lyrics do a fine job of mocking the pretentiousness of his ex-lover, the final sentiment is perhaps the most biting: “What are you gonna do / When gravity gets to you?” There’s a similar vibe and sense of virtue in “Out of Line,” while “Watch You Burn” is an electrifying centerpiece bursting with restrained drumming, ghostly ambiance, ominous strings, and perhaps most surprisingly (but effectively), auto-tune on Laswell’s voice (which makes his character sound even more broken). There’s a brilliance to the incongruity between its melodies and words, as Laswell assurances lines like “I’ll start the oven / And get the house warm/ For you to land in / And watch you burn” as if they’re endearing promises to take care of his soul mate.

“Not the Same Man” goes for a more traditional singer/songwriter route, with anguished orchestration and piano accompaniment doing wonders for the silkily saddened foundation. Honestly, it’s one of Laswell’s most heavenly yet tragic pieces ever. In contrast, “Birthday Wish” and “Take It Easy” are grittier and more in-your-face, while “Play That One Again” permeates with the kind of bittersweet nostalgia and well wishes (however feigned) that inevitable follow every separation. Its poignancy mirrors that of Pearl Jam’s “Black” or the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is truly saying something.

Desolate cellos introduce album closure “Not Surprised.” Soon after, they’re joined by more scuffling percussion, repeated piano notes (which are quite hypnotic), and more crushing singing and lyricism. The simplicity of phrases like “I’m not surprised, you know / I never really said, ‘goodbye,’” matched with how Laswell hums alongside the swirling strings, is devastating. Because of this, “Not Surprised” is a troubling yet gorgeous way to end.

There’s nothing on Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet that matches the energy or catchiness of, say, “My Fight (For You)” (from Take a Bow) or “Another Life to Lose” (from Landline), but that’s because it doesn’t have the same purposes. This is a record about somberness and subtlety, not invigoration and intricacy. It’s an album to get lost in, to spark introspection and closure. In that way, it’s an exceptional journey that proves once again why Greg Laswell is such a masterful, distinctive, and vital artist.

*Of course, I Was Going to Be an Astronaut came out in 2014, but it consisted of reimagined takes on older tracks, not wholly new material.

Pre-order Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet here.