With three fine albums and a recent seven-song EP, available respectively from Dutch East India, Bomp, and now Germany’s Red River, Thomas Anderson is clearly the greatest unknown songwriter on the planet— clearly I say, pounding my sneaker on Formica. And yet much of what he is about can be gleaned from one sharp 1996 single. “Hippie Literature” was a tight bolus of conspiracy inspired by the Illuminatus trilogy; the flip, “Song for Up With People,” is a shot of sympathy dedicated to Up With People, folk minstrels of the ’60s who caravanned their vanilla-wafer optimism to the parts of the country terrified by loud guitars. Neither side exploits— the paranoia is matter-of-fact, no reason to break out the radiation detectors yet, and the song for Up With People is neutral, even admiring in its way. These are the two halves of Anderson: anxiety animates a low-frequency grid buried beneath the ground, while above it, a lot of people other songwriters would mock, or ignore, get treated with a strange dignity, a distant respect.
Raised in smalltown Oklahoma, English degree at Norman, Oklahoma, “that thin white Oakie with the paisley do-rag” (as the liner notes to his third album call him) is certifiably a product of the Southwest. “No one sleeps their way to the top in Oklahoma,” Anderson told me on the phone recently. “So the people that come out of there and survive more than a few years, like Jimmy Webb, Woody Guthrie, are people who are extremely good at what they do. There’s nothing for you there, nothing to encourage you or anything— so if you only halfway believe in what you’re doing in Okalhoma, you’re gonna throw in the towel eventually.”
He is obsessed with vast, empty spaces that he needs to fill up with cultural references, a fluty, quavering voice, and flying saucer talk. This year’s Bolide (“A very large, bright shooting star,” Anderson says) is acoustic, mostly just Anderson on guitar, sitting on some big rock beneath a bunch of stars, his car a burning wreck about five miles down the road. The title song is an impossibly cinematic vignette about a killer driving through the southern night. He hides the body of the woman he’s murdered and then is transfixed as Merilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning” plays on the radio. Desert-drifting Howard Hughes makes an appearance in “Jarvik 7,” and in “White Sands” a polio victim in an iron lung hears about the hydrogen bomb exploding above the New Mexico desert. Not for nothing is his publishing company named Angry Young Grad Student Music. He is wordy, out on a limb, a man who believes Jesus sometimes hits like an atom bomb, and sometimes like an AM radio.
There’s a promising little boomlet on for songwriters, but Anderson’s too irony-free, and at 40 a tad too old, to fit with the likes of Elliott Smith or Mary Lou Lord, and his songs too literary for fans of Robbie Fulks or Lucinda Williams. But his relationship to sincerity is complicated, and galaxies apart from most in the singer-songwriter field. He’s not into confession; Anderson takes his sense of emotional directness more from rock and roll noise than from any truth-strummer’s revelations. That so many of his songs are acoustic makes them both more interesting and more confusing. “One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Iggy Pop,” he told me with pride, and maybe that’s Anderson’s whole problem. “I think I’m a little bit too out there for the singer-songwriter crowd, but when I play solo acoustic with a bunch of bands— I’m not sure how many hear it.” Which may be why he has yet to play New York or L.A.
But hell, it’s pretty clear Anderson likes it fine out there beyond the police tape and city lights— this is a man who complains about the noise of Austin, Texas, which he now calls home. A man who writes songs sympathetic to Deadheads and murderers and other sleepless drifters. His second and best album, 1993’s Blues for the Flying Dutchman, featured a tribute to forgotten CBGB masked man Nash the Slash, and the amazing “Across the Borderline,” which linked Anne Frank, astronaut Eugene Cernan, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle in a web of longing. That’s before he revisited the folk ballad “Barbara Allen,” recasting her as an urban myth like alligators in the sewer.
Thomas Anderson is so good you want to give him a public-access TV show, a huge following in Europe, and the secret location of Art Bell’s transmission tower. At the very least, he deserves enough fans to bankroll a steady band, time to rehearse, and all the Nash the Slash bootlegs there are to be had.
To obtain recordings, contact Thomas Anderson at P.O. Box 5463, Austin, Texas 78763-5463