Stephin Merritt’s frustration with Ferdinand de Saussure has roots in the 1980s, when the anti-career of Jandek doubled as a pop music course in general linguistics. With his no interviews/photos/live shows policy, the Houston (dark night of the) soul man enameled the signifiers that create any musician’s biography. For instance, a cute, corn-fed blond boy kept showing up on the record covers. But there was never any guarantee that he was the one moaning the songs inside. Or maybe the boy was real but the music was found.
Everything about Jandek took on this sample-like quality. The covers alone were an aesthetic experience on par with Michael Jackson’s glove or a bar of ABBA soap. Thus, in terms of what made him unique, his spiritual brethren weren’t Skip Spence and Roy Harper; they were Rob and Fab. Both Jandek and Milli Vanilli taught semiotics as expertly as Umberto Eco, who defined it as “the discipline studying everything that can be used in order to lie.” And both were quintessential products of the 1980s. What better way to respond to supply-side Reaganomics than with a music that places all the action on the consumer demand side of the equation.
But last October, Jandek shocked one little corner of the world with a live appearance at the Instal festival in Glasgow. The photos from the set showed a man who looks like an older version of the cute corn-fed boy. And now there’s A Kingdom He Likes, Jandek’s 39th and latest album, and the first with a clear cover photo of what the fiftysomething man probably looks like today. So barring any unforeseen postmodern high jinks, it seems as if the covers matched the voice all along. But as the man starts coming out of the closet more and more, his music must now distinguish him from any other sad-sack singer-songwriter out there. And the stream-of-consciousness DIY folk-blues in this kingdom cannot retain interest much longer.
Still, his fans keep secrets better than he does nowadays. How else to explain the lack of info about the etymology of “Jandek” (finally revealed in the Jandek on Corwood documentary) on the almost-as-mysterious Seth Tisue’s studiously updated A Guide to Jandek website? And the deconstruction has irretrievably outed us all as products of technology, whether that be a record press or language itself. We are nothing whoa whoa.