Pondering his turbulent recent history over a beer one rainy September evening, Brooklyn singer/songwriter Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson decides it’s time for a change. “I’ve gotten bored with my life,” he muses. “I’ve lived in bars for the past two and a half years, until close every night. What kind of life is this?”
To those who can’t get enough of the Oregon native’s literate, cathartic, rock-bottom Americana, this may sound like great news. After all, a guy who isn’t hell-bent on destroying himself might actually stick around for a few more albums. But does he mean it? Since tumbling into the spotlight with the release of his slyly devastating 2008 self-titled debut album, Robinson has dragged along the kind of hard-living mythology that ravenous fans and curious press snap right up. There’s his well-publicized history of drug addiction and semi-homelessness, his I-was-there cultural prescience (he jokingly calls himself “the first Strokes fan”), and, of course, his reputation for whiskey-ravaged live train wrecks. In fact, at the release show for Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson at Union Pool last year, the overwhelmed singer drank so much that he blacked out halfway through the second song, spilled beer on his keyboard, had a guitar thrown at him by a bandmate, and bleated out at least one song while sprawled flat on his back.
Robinson’s stunning, sprawling two-disc follow-up, Summer of Fear, deals in predictably downtrodden autobiographical riffs on collapsed love, existential turmoil, and disillusionment, but he hopes that its release this month, rather than pegging him as a perennial navel-gazer, will help close the door on that past. Thematically, the record examines the aftermath of the breakup of Robinson’s engagement in early 2007, when his fiancée (who forced him to get clean and settle down five years earlier) decided things weren’t working out and asked him to leave the apartment they shared. With no girl, no place to stay, and no reason to keep it together, Robinson found himself latching on to old habits: haunting the same bar every night, revisiting the drugs he’d sworn off, willfully failing to find a new apartment, testing the limits of how relentlessly sloppy his band’s weekly live performances around Brooklyn could be, and behaving generally like he had nothing to lose.
All the while, between stints crashing in the apartment of whichever friend was away on tour (mostly members of Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio) or, failing that, on a bench in McCarren Park, Robinson was writing songs. “It was my only way to deal with anything,” he says. “I had nowhere to live—it was the only thing I had. I was like, ‘Damn you! I’m going to get something out of this!’ ” He began conflating his life’s upheaval with the aftermath of 9/11 (he was living eight blocks from the Twin Towers when they fell), and soon, fragmented allusions to that experience (“Knock, knock/Who’s there?/You said you’d never forget”) wound themselves into his lyrics’ acrid accusations and jaded capitulations.
Eventually, summer eased into fall, and Robinson went into the studio with pal Kyp Malone of TVOTR to record what he envisioned as his “classic-rock album.” Malone’s expansive production fills the singer’s at once vitriolic and browbeaten ruminations (“Don’t know anybody/Who wouldn’t let me down” goes the chorus of “The 100th of March”) with sweeping crescendos of horns, strings, and organ. While “The Sound” drapes fatalism and self-reproach over a Supertramp-style Wurlitzer riff, and album closer “Boat” finds bitter resignation amid swirls of electric guitar, it’s the stomping invectives of “Summer of Fear, Part II” that most memorably doomsay for the rest of us: “It’s your Summer of Fear/Might last a month, day, a week, or a whole damn year/Can you feel it drawing near?”
It’s a hugely ambitious, grandiose, and astonishing work—an attempt to resolve a decade of frustration, angst, and disappointment while defining something universal in the process. Now, Robinson’s ready to put it all away. “I’d like to write about other things, y’know?” he insists, echoing the paradoxical manifesto (“This is my last song about myself”) with which he began last year’s “Buriedfed,” the first song of his many that people heard. “It’s the end of the decade,” he continues. “This album is the last thing I have to say about that period of my life. Something has to change.”
A few weeks later, Robinson and his band open for Bob Mould at Irving Plaza. He is alert and engaged, the songs are tight and energetic, and the audience loves it. The day after, he sends me an imposing, unbroken stream-of-consciousness e-mail from his BlackBerry, clearly thrilled about how it went. “I felt that that show was definitive proof that it was a good idea to stop getting high and drunk before shows,” he writes, before confessing to some extra motivation: “I have to stop drinking anyways because my doctor told me I am getting very near kidney and/or liver failure, and I think 26 is a little young for that.” Agreed.
Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson plays the Knitting Factory October 22 and (le) poisson rouge October 23 as part of CMJ