Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay has a dry voice and an even drier wit. Barzelay was born in Israel, raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, and did time studying jazz at Berklee before dropping out to start a noise-rock band named for the talking asshole in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. When he settled in Brooklyn, the noise stopped, but the name stayed.
He’s long been one of New York’s most underappreciated songwriters: a lanky fellow in a thrift store suit and horn-rim glasses sending hesitant melodies skyward from a Gibson hollow-body, melodies that deploy the open spaces of 1950s country, rock & roll, and cha-cha-cha for their own modern and often devious ends. Think of Lou Reed singing Buddy Holly songs, though that may just be the combination of the voice and the glasses. Barzelay’s songs return again and again to love and hostility and the paper-thin walls between the two, and his lyrics are graced by an ambiguity too complex to be called irony. He once built an entire song out of four minutes of gradually cresting acoustic and electric guitar, cello, glockenspiel, horns, banjo, and drums that culminated in the single unrhymed couplet “You’re so evil and I’m so good. I’ll make it up to you some day.” That was around the time he got married.
To be fair to the man, the album that followed his marriage and the birth of his son was full of love songs and called Soft Spot. And just the same, one of the prettiest things on it, about sipping iced tea and listening to Al Green, begins, “I buried our love in the backyard.” Weird, even if it is about letting love grow and blossom. Point is, the man knows how complicated, rewarding, and full of contradictions romance is. And his songs are just the same: I’ve listened to them for months before a lyric gave up a joke that was never meant to be entirely private.
Anyway, last year he moved with his wife and son down to Nashville, so we can no longer claim him as one of our own. He leaves us a parting gift: End of Love, recorded in Brooklyn and Nashville. It’s more guitar-focused, closer to rock than Clem Snide has come before, with feedback-filled solos mixed off in the distance. But it remains delicate and strange, city music with a big backyard. And when it’s hushed, it’s nearly weightless, the floating sound shoring up the dream logic of the lyrics: “A hundred thousand naked women running on the beach/In such a state of wild abandon they ignore my speech/About the ebb and flow/A dangerous undertow/And how there is a hole so deep it swallows up the sun.” About that hole: Both Eef and his wife lost their moms last year, and I suspect the endings—sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes quiet—that frequently turn up on End of Love reflect just this.
I want to tell you that the center of the album isn’t those endings, it’s the love. But it’s both. This is a dark record, with bad dreams and domestic disputes and nights spent on the couch watching a made-for-TV movie. The movie, by the way, is about how Ricky beat Lucy, or at least that’s what Barzelay imagines, since “they would never make a movie if everything was great/Because happiness is boring/It’s always black and white/ And the good times never last/And the chocolates move too fast for us all.” Reminds me of a Frank O’Hara poem about not going to his aunt’s funeral where he says, “There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy/but you can’t miss even a day of it, because it doesn’t last.” That’s the sound of End of Love: trying to hold on to what you have, knowing you won’t always be able to. It’s sweet and sad and frequently hilarious. Let’s hope he’s happy down in Nashville.
Clem Snide will perform at the Bowery Ballroom March 5.