Twenty-one-year-old Jon Crosby, the creator of VAST, is just too damn good at what he does. Once upon a time, when there was rock ‘n’ roll, bad notes happened all the time; they actually enhanced the music. Crosby makes no “bad” notes. Every part of his complex songcraft—filled with the sounds of his favorite groups of old—hits exactly the right nerve. Back in the age of rock ‘n’ roll, there were very few moving parts. Voice, piano, bass and drums, gee-tar: four gadgets and one throat. And one mike, shrewdly placed (if the singer was lucky). Not so today. The music of VAST’s two CDs brandishes an almost uncountable number of moving bits. It’s the sound of an IC, if you will: many components, finely crafted to transport gigabits and terabits of sonorous info over the fiber-optic Net.
That said, the 24 songs on Visual Audio Sensory Theater, VAST’s debut, and Music for People, their new one, look back—in search of a directness that thrives on bad notes, perhaps?—toward the age of rock ‘n’ roll. But not all the way; the Chuck Berry 1950s remain beyond Crosby’s use. Too macho, too blunt, too joyously mean. Instead you hear music of indirection, of things implied rather than stated. You hear the face. Given that Crosby masks his publicity photo behind a gorgeous London-boy coif, it’s not surprising that he likes early-1980s glam: some Tears for Fears, a lot of Billy Idol, the difficulty of Bono. Other songs sprout Gothic wings: in “Touched,” some Dead Can Dance and Mylene Farmer; in “Blue,” strong echoes of New Order‘s “Blue Monday”; the insecurity one hears in the Cure’s Robert Smith; even the brashness of Dead or Alive (nice timely move, that, given POD‘s recent metal remake of DOA’s “You Spin Me Around”). Nor is it a shock to encounter the velvet moodiness of Bryan Ferry, David Bowie’s eau de cologne baritone, and, most frequent of all (listen to “The Gates ‘n’ Rock & Roll,” “Song With No Name,” and “A Better Place”), Jim Morrison’s sexy salacious gloom; Crosby definitely knows a dandy when he hears one. (Well, a Caucasian dandy, anyway: There isn‘t even a whisper of Prince in Crosby’s oeuvre.)
Yet Crosby’s music doesn’t merely repeat the mating calls of defrocked dandies. For one thing, he isn’t a particularly dexterous poet. Nor does he overstate his case. The ornateness of his songs rests in orchestration, not voice; where the true dandy perfumes himself, Crosby scents only his staging. His voice feels peaked and thin, quite tuneless and even dry. There’s reason, then, for his loneliness, the disillusionment that infects his stickiest songs, and his fierceness, even his violence.
Can it be that he knows he’s unattractive? That he cannot state his case except in the language of others? “Just who is Jon Crosby, really?” one would like to hear him asking. Instead, one has to deduce. Crosby’s dark side stains nearly every musical source he borrows. In “The Gates of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” his orchestrations make a lot of fuss, but the accompanying rhythm tracks move more sweetly and slickly than U2’s. His shouts, in the hit single “Free,” recall the melodics of Tears for Fears, but his vocals sound less British, and far more rebellious, than his source band’s flutterpuff. Dead Can Dance might well import the kind of eerie chants of French monks one finds in “What Else Do I Need,” and definitely DCD’s Brendan Perry sounds as mournfully David Bowie-like as Crosby singing “A Better Place” (both from Music for People), but Crosby says unpleasant things like “No one likes to die, no one at all . . . I guess I‘ve got something to look forward to”; Dead Can Dance, at the rare times that they did have something to say, said it in Latin.
Crosby wears his influences on his sleeve. Hearing them in his songs is part of their living in the good life: their fur coat, their glitter and suckle. But if you stop to lick Crosby’s dozen lollipops you miss the deeper joys (often blackened, but joyful nonetheless) ablaze within. His most blistering songs—”My TV and You,” “Three Doors,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and “Temptation” (all but the first come from his debut CD)—accuse and moan, without hope for reformation, locked in place and deadly as they strike. His voice feels stupefied, and distant, as if he had already killed someone (maybe himself?), and what you’re hearing is a taped death note playing back after the fact.
Crosby certainly sings as if it’s already over. Trent Reznor, in “Head Like a Hole,” attacked the Big Wallet Guy he called “Got Money” with all the ferocity he had in him— called him empty and selfish, a, well, hole. Crosby’s persona may be a head like a hole, but he’s resigned to it. Resigned to thinking like a jerk and feeling like a killer. Even more so than in Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot” (not the sound, but the setting), Crosby gets inside the soul of a Kid With Money—the blank boredom, the nasty feelings, the passive anger of it. As you listen to “My TV and You,” in which Crosby goes “I was born to stare at who stares back at me. . . . It’s all I need, it’s all I ever needed, my love for life is gone,” you long for a Trent Reznor to come along and kick some sense into him. It doesn’t happen. One would even settle for an attempt to break out, the kind of rhythmic uplift and gospel message one hears in Days of the New’s songs. But Crosby’s Lonely Rich Kid cannot relax enough to dance a house-music beat or ride a country-music guitar riff—much less do both in the same move, as Days of the New’s Travis Meeks does.
Unlike Meeks, Crosby has no room in his gloomy glam for love, or its rhythms, which is why he is right not to borrow from such danceable dandies as the Pet Shop Boys, who, though lonely, never give up reaching out. There is, however, a pop precedent for his “all dressed up and nowhere to go” music: 30 years ago the sweet, falsetto-crying ballads of the Moments, Delfonics, and Stylistics sang honeyed dreams from a moneyed lonely boy to an equally moneyed lonely girl, sad because the possibility of realizing those dreams was made to sound so hopeless. Crosby’s music has the same measure of honey, money, and loneliness. Too bad, though, about those falsetto dreams.