Mike Watt has finally found his way back home. 25 years ago his friend and band mate D. Boon died, and ever since this punk rock Odysseus has been on a quest, venturing out away from the familiar environs of The Minutemen and their 2-minute bursts of punk rock anthems. While he’s produced some pretty unique and interesting albums along the way (both solo and with his band fIREHOSE), nothing ever came close to the shores of The Minutemen’s distinct sound. To clear his mind and heart of those experiences, he’s said in interviews that he couldn’t bring himself to even listen to Minutemen albums for over 20 years. It seems Watt needed some time away with his thoughts, years and years to find out who he really was without his skipper by his side.
In 2005 when The Minutemen documentary “We Jam Econo” came out, Watt finally had to face his past. In what he describes as a therapeutic experience, Watt returned to those albums that made him who he is today (“Double Nickels On the Dime”, “Post-Mersh”, etc). This experience must have brought him ease. Not only is his latest album “Hyphenated-Man” jam-packed with 30 two-minute songs in the vein of classic Minutemen, but Watt made the conscious decision to write the entire album on Boon’s old guitar. As a result, you can’t help but feel the spirit of Boon hiding within the ether of reverb on tracks like “Wheel-Bound-Man” and “Antlered-Man.”
But “Hyphenated-Man” isn’t simply a “return to form” album. Watt used the songwriting process as a way of analyzing himself, not only about who he was as a young man with the Minutemen, but also personal demons he’s faced over the past two decades, whether it be marital issues or his life threatening infection in early 2000. In the same way Sufjan Steven’s used the art of Royal Robertson to analyze his own life on “The Age of ADZ,” Watt found his muse in the paintings of Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch. Exploring the grotesque depictions of heaven and hell in Bosch’s paintings, Watt pinpointed characters he found within the imagery and wrote songs about 30 of them, each representing another fragment of Watt himself.
The New York Times did a great slide show looking at some of the images that inspired Watt:
As a result of this exploration of Bosch’s artwork, the track listing for the album resembles a roster of end bosses to a Mega Man game: Bird-In-The-Helmet-Man, Hollowed-Out-Man, Finger-Pointing-Man, Frying-Pan-Man, Shields-Shouldered-Man, Cherry-Head-Lover-Man. I could go on and on with this list of men to bring my point home, and you would think my 1980s video game quip would end there, but it doesn’t. On the first listen, before I’d even looked at the song titles or researched background on the album, I found myself thinking that the songs sounded video-gamey. Yes, I just used the adjective “video-gamey”. Not “epic”, not “catchy”, not “brash”. Video gamey. This is album is so video-gamey I couldn’t help but wonder if a member of The Advantage had joined forces with Watt. Just take a listen to the following few tracks and try telling me you don’t get the itch to play some “Contra”:
As a result of this video-gamey quality to the songs, I’m a little up in the air with some tracks. By the time you get around to “Man-Shitting-Man”, track 29, you might feel the same burnt out reaction to playing 5-straight hours of “Castlevania.” While the short bursts of energy don’t feature the same pop-sensibility that Minutemen pulled off so well (probably what D. Boon brought to the table), there is still enough fun surprises here to keep you listening. Without the comparison to his work with The Minutemen, I have to respect Watt’s effort here. “Wheel-Bound-Man” brings it all home, creating a final image of a painter, holding all the characters in his hand. Watt is the artist, looking back at all his creations, found within himself, and he is finally setting them free after all these years.
My favorite moment on the album, “Wheel-Bound-Man”:
(Final Note: How great would it be if someone created a 30-level game set to Watt’s music on “Hyphenated-Man” a la Mega Man? It could be called “Mega-Watt” and it could have a little Watt running around shooting lasers from his bass while his music blares in the background. This is probably the best idea I’ve ever had. Who wouldn’t want to see a face-off between Mega-Watt and Man-Shitting-Man?! I’m thinking along the lines of what Sabzi did for Das Racist’s “Who’s That? Brooown!” . Unfortunately I don’t have the skills to make this happen. If you’re interested in pursuing my idea, let me know and I’d be glad to post your creations on BDWPS.com)