May 9, 2010
Souls on Lockdown
2010 | Self-released
Even though most music performers are referred to as “artists,” M. Lamar really earns the title. Lamar seems interested less in conventional songcraft and more with creating, for lack of a better word, “pieces.” His work engages the audience in a way that is unlike the standard consumption of pop entertainment. This is not to say that Lamar’s new full-length album, Souls on Lockdown, is no fun. In fact, though Lamar repeatedly explores the issues of race and sexuality in an intensely analytical way throughout the album, it’s not like an undergrad lecture. Souls is stuffed to the gills with potent melodrama.
Lamar’s work is often confrontational. Before this full-length, he released a 7-inch EP that included songs called “White Pussy” and “Dirty Dirty Nigga.” They’re actually great songs, but they have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Similarly, Lamar’s mode of performance is often very direct. He sings in a soaring countertenor which, when listened to blindly, could be easily mistaken for the voice of a female opera diva. He accompanies himself with simple, pounding chords on a keyboard. I’ve seen a few live performances by M. Lamar, and the uncomfortable squirms of the uninitiated and unappreciative were quite obvious.
Well, screw those people. M. Lamar is not only an incredibly interesting musical performer – following ably in the footsteps of the likes of Klaus Nomi and Diamanda Galas – but he’s a hell of a writer too.
The opener, “The Conquest,” is a new (and improved) version of the third track from his previously released 7-inch record. This new version alters Lamar’s keyboard sound so that it more closely resembles a heavily-reverbed electric guitar. It’s a wonderful contribution to the ominous atmosphere of the piece, which depicts seduction and sexual domination in an era of imperialist warfare. As Lamar put its, “Defeat is not an option / My weapon is yours to fear.”
Lamar returns again and again to the imagery of slavery. The CD cover features an illustration of an 1863 lynching of a black man, hanged from a tree. It’s an image which Lamar states in the liner notes that he hopes can stand as “a symbol of hope, possibility, and faith for blacks, queers, trans persons, and all who turn away from white supremacy and identification with domination and power,” in the way that Christians use the crucifix as such a symbol. This theme is key to the song, “The Tree,” which sounds distinctly like a Negro Spiritual and features the lyrics, “Renew my soul / With your violent hand… hang me from the tree.” It also pops up in slightly mutated form in the provocative “Get Down,” where the narrator (presumably a white john looking for a black hustler) orders, “Get down from that tree / And give me that nigga dick.” Lamar interjects with a description from a sex ad (“I’m a top / Outcalls only”) and talks to the potential john, who is looking for a black man to dominate and humiliate him. “You say I’m the superior race,” Lamar comments. The lyrics, as with most of the songs, are very sparse, but Lamar knows how to pick the right words to create a vivid picture – and not always one the listener is prepared to understand.
While “Get Down” is cut from a similar cloth as the tracks I mentioned above from Lamar’s 7-inch record, it is actually in the minority on the album, as far as in-your-face provocations go. It comes late in the album, at a point at which Souls on Lockdown has established a mood of both ecstasy and melancholy. While Lamar never abandons his directness, the first two-thirds of the album have a surprising tastefulness. Lamar’s voice throughout the album shows a vulnerability that makes the work accessible, allowing the listener to get swept up in the songs no matter how elliptical or fragmented the lyrics. Lamar’s performance fills in all the details we might be missing from the text.
Souls on Lockdown is an album that, despite its lack of lush arrangements, is fairly dense. It reveals more with each additional listen. Certain technical concerns (sometimes it sounds like Lamar sings an “off-key” note) melt away over time (now I’m convinced that at least some of those notes are not merely out of tune but are intentionally dissonant), and the power of the album grows stronger. It would be easy to spew a “not suited to all tastes” disclaimer when discussing Souls on Lockdown, but that’s a cop out. Really, your potential enjoyment comes down to this: Are you man (or woman or trans) enough to handle this album?
by Justin Remer