High Endurance Records / 2015
Nate Allen's new solo album is a starkly honest and darkly amusing snapshot of a very specific point in his life - an alternate title might have been Portrait of the Artist as a Married, Unemployed, Not-So-Young Man Living in His Parents' Spare Bedroom. Take Out the Trash is both the journal and product of that period, when Allen oddly awoke to institutional racism in his neighborhood and his country while grappling with woes of his own. The perspective he brings on the record is simultaneously brash and realistic, criticizing his blind privilege, but never selling his own pain short.
That balance is perfectly struck on the LP's first song, "Open To Everything", where Allen optimistically declares "I want to be open to everything!" with the honest caveat, "...but I don't want to be broken". But even if Allen is afraid to be broken, he's definitely broke. "More Money" is downright comedic as he runs down the list of stuff he can't afford - satellite TV, a VCR, an ice-cream sandwich - and keeps bouncing checks: "Tried to pay the bills/Guess I went to too many Goodwills". It's not that he's lazy, though - Nate and his wife Tessa have kept a grueling tour schedule over their last eight years as the frenetic folk-punk duo Destroy Nate Allen (this album is indeed solo, and "The Pac-Away Dots" are his occasional backup band. Yes, that's a Ms. Pac-Man reference). With almost a thousand shows on the odometer, a dozen-plus albums recorded, and a job as a web designer on top of that, he's run raw.
It's not just the relentless performance he's tired of. On the loping "Hunger Pains" where the kazoos are like deflating balloons, he sounds exhausted by the constant self-promotion a music career requires: "You always better have your business card/Cause if you're not ready you won't be a star". And he's deeply weary of the the world's mercenary motives. Elsewhere on the album he muses that the most pleasant interactions he has in a day are with people trying to bilk him of cash, all the way up to the kids selling lemonade for a quarter. What's more, he's conscious that his own path to moderate success has meant digging his elbows into a few ribs - on "We Don't Even Know", he sings, "If climbing the ladder defines success, I know I have stepped on someone".
When work and worry take over, "expendable" things like affection are always the first out the window. On "Photograph", with just a murmur of acoustic guitar as accompaniment, Nate's singing recalls anti-folker Jeffrey Lewis as he describes a night with his wife when they've planned to take a walk together. They end up sitting at home tapping on their devices til bedtime rolls around, and Nate whispers, as if into his sleeping wife's ear, "Lover, won't you please not let me go/I've been meaning to show you, but the time has passed us by." It's a heartbreaking little lament for love deferred and moments missed, and one of Take Out the Trash's most striking tracks.
The third track, "West Side Blues", with its rock tumbler electric guitars, details the opening of his eyes to racial injustice in America. Raised in a white, working-class town and residing in very-white Portland for the last several years, Black Lives Matter is the smelling salt that jerks Allen from his "colorblind" worldview and puts systemic racism where he can't ignore it. Not only that, but it exposes the unconscious privilege he's carried his whole life. On the next song, "Social Equality", he reflects on the benefits conferred by his skin color that he took for granted in his younger years, "Blinded by innocence, not fearing anyone, walking with great confidence."
On the ominous closing track, "Goodbye Letter", Allen rattles off a memoriam for those who've passed through the punk circles he runs in, and the gang vocals echo him, chanting, "I have friends, some are gone/Some have died, some just moved on". But the focus of the song is on the formal farewell an old friend once penned to his local rock-n-roll scene, and Allen ends the album admitting that "as time's moving on, it's starting to look like me".
The satirical online paper The Hard Times ran a story headlined "'This Is An All-Inclusive Space' Says All-White, All-Male Audience" a few months ago, and the article's picture - wall-to-wall caucasian men - was taken at a Nate Allen show back in 2010. That's ironic, because the piece's aim is so close to Take Out the Trash's - namely, as Allen yells on the album, "How can there be equality when everyone I know is just like me?" The Allens recently relocated to Kansas City, so the goodbye letter he's mulling at the end of Take Out the Trash could refer to departing Portland, or maybe a farewell to the general punk scene with its homogeneity. But what it really sounds like is a goodbye to himself, or to the more naive vision of the world he used to hold. That vision's been replaced by another, darker one - but also more hopeful than ever before.