Mark Eitzel is almost pathologically disinclined to talk shit. Even in situations where it might be in his best interest to offer up some sort of self-serving statement, he seems practically honor-bound to push a pin into the balloon. For instance, in analyzing his upcoming release, Don’t Be a Stranger, the erstwhile American Music Club singer/songwriter admits his affection for the record but immediately follows up by observing that he usually hates his own albums. “It’s hard to be subjective about the things you make,” he explains. “Actually, if I was a real rock person I’d say ‘No, it’s fucking great, it fucking rules, it’s the best thing the world has ever fucking seen!’ That’s what I should be saying. ‘This turd I just took is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ I respect people like that; we need them. No, we don’t,” he recants, “they become Presidential candidates.”
So it’s no great surprise to venture into Don’t Be a Stranger and encounter songs like “Oh Mercy,” containing the wry lines “I’ve got party talk for all your party guests/my topics include facism and rising crime/and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well that’ll insure everyone’s good time.” Despite having earned enough critical plaudits for his songwriting to fill a grain silo, Eitzel is similarly unsparing of himself in looking back at 2009’s limited-edition Klamath. “I didn’t want it to be [a small pressing],” he says, “but I could only afford to make, like, 500 of them. The album’s genesis was me at a friend’s place in Happy Camp [Calif.], and it was so beautiful up there. The first piece I wrote was an electronic piece, to the absolute horror of my fans, but I really love electronic music, even though I’m no good at it. I wrote this electronic piece about a tree, and it started from there.” At the mention of his earlier electronic-oriented album, 2001′s The Invisible Man, Eitzel says, “That was another mistake. I’ve done a lot of electronic music but I stopped because the people who buy my records hate it with every fiber of their being. But I still make it for myself. I’m a songwriter, you know—I get booked at Americana festivals [laughs].”
Over the last few years, Eitzel has endured everything from a heart attack to the second dissolution of American Music Club, the ‘90s alt-rock underground heroes who split in ‘94 and reunited a decade later. But his persistent muse moved him to find an outlet for his latest batch of songs nonetheless. “I went to poor long-suffering Laura [Balance] and Mac [McCaughan, founders of Merge Records] with my horrible demos. I think Laura’s reply was [pityingly] ‘Oh, Mark. Really?’ Finally we got some money from a friend of my manager’s who won the lottery [he's not kidding]. He loaned us some money [to record]. And Merge liked it, God bless them, and they put it out.”
It’s fortunate for longtime Eitzel/AMC fans that the songs found a home. Between a subtly nuanced production—featuring contributions by top-shelf players like Elvis Costello & The Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and jazz pianist Larry Goldings—and the quietly incisive songwriting, Don’t Be a Stranger is Eitzel’s strongest solo outing in well over a decade. In place of American Music Club’s tendencies towards expressionist angst over art-garage guitar clamor, we get muted, meditative arrangements and carefully moderated vocal tones that have more in common with Scott Walker than anything from the ‘90s indie-rock realm.
“When I like stuff, I listen to it and I walk around,” says Eitzel. “I put on headphones and I just wander. That’s kind of how I’m writing music now—so people can put on headphones and listen. Is that weird?”